THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 29, 30

Perun, god of storms

Nadzia reveals her change of heart to the abbess, tours the guest camp with Perun, and finally tells him the truth about the convent’s plans.


For previous chapters, click here.



The waning moon, a crescent of amber light, hovered above Perun’s temple. Below the open roof, flickering candles at the mermaid goddess’s altar cast eerie shadows across Mother Gintare, head bowed in prayer. Kneeling beside her, Nadzia echoed the words of supplication and gratitude she knew by heart. She cringed when the abbess included special thanks for the brave and dedicated novice here to avenge them, knowing such praise might sour when the Chosen One revealed her hopes for a different end.

The Order of Bursztyn cautioned all against forming emotional attachments. Their hearts and devotion belonged to Jūratė. Nonetheless, some women maintained relationships for decades, liaisons tacitly sanctioned as long as they didn’t interfere with convent duties. Was the abbess one of them? Her office bordered the back gate; a midnight lover could slip in and out undetected.

Nadzia glanced at the old woman, in her nineties and still darkly beautiful. Had she ever given her heart to a man? Craved a bond that transcended the flesh? Something, anything, that would ease the task of asking her to spare the god of storms.

The abbess finished her benediction, touched her fingers to forehead, lips, heart. She rose with ageless grace and took Nadzia’s arm. “Let us see what your fiery god calls a temple.”

She covered her nose with a sleeve at the sight of bear and bull testicles in Perun’s shrine. “Bless the Fates you moved into that cottage. This is too vile for words.”

“Lower your voice.” Nadzia pulled the two of them back into the central aisle and waved at two husky young men stumbling into the temple. “You mustn’t reveal how you despise him.”

“We despise him, child. All of us.”

“Come, let me show you where I will sit with my husband.” Nadzia spoke loud enough to earn lopsided grins from the visitors. She steered the abbess past the central fire, directed her attention to the carvings on both thrones just beyond. “Fire and water in happy communion.”

“All praise to Perun and his bride,” the men shouted, their voices thick and slurred.

The abbess stroked her throat and grimaced. “I believe I’ve seen enough.” She started down the other side of the aisle and stopped abruptly at Nadzia’s former room. Her mouth opened and closed in a strangled gasp. “Tell me you didn’t bed that beast in full view of the Blessed One’s sanctum.”

“I would never dishonor her so. You trained me better than that.” Nadzia urged the abbess forward, conscious of stares from Perun’s followers. “Let’s go outside and sit on the steps. You look as if you could use some fresh air.”

“I’d prefer a more private spot.”

“There’s a bench on the hill by the clearing where I’m to be wed. We can talk there.” Nadzia leaned close and whispered. “Clear your mind of any harsh thoughts before we pass the granite eagles. Their eyes glow red in the presence of ill intent.”

“They did nothing when we entered.”

“You weren’t upset then. Please, we’re being watched.”

Mother Gintare drew back her shoulders, nodded at the men with a strained smile. They passed the stone guardians without event, walking quickly, Nadzia anxious to put the temple far behind them before the old woman spewed more venom. Night owls hooted from old pines. Nadzia took a deep breath of sweet evening primrose and led the way to the seat looking down upon river and meadow. “Better, yes?”

“You’re looking well,” the abbess said, ignoring the question. “Shall I attribute that to a successful seduction?”

“My time here has been most rewarding.”

Mother Gintare surveyed the land below. “A pretty place, but I miss the sea. Thank the goddess we’ll return home soon. You’re probably eager to go back, too,” she added, patting Nadzia’s knee. “Living with a monster can’t be easy or pleasant.”

“It hasn’t been so terrible. The river is nearby and Perun . . . .” Nadzia wet her lips, her mouth dry as dust. “He’s not what I imagined.”

“Indeed?” The warmth in Mother’s voice vanished. “Pray tell.”

Nadzia took a calming breath, met the abbess’s frosty gaze. “He isn’t a beast. He’s kind and considerate and full of love.”

The old woman sputtered in disbelief, her skin mottling with shock and rage. She studied Nadzia with narrowed, blazing eyes. “What has that villain done? You are the Blessed One’s champion, honed to a fine steel of vengeance. Have servants and fine silks turned you soft?”

Heat burned Nadzia’s cheeks. “My voice revealed a kindheartedness in him that took me by surprise. When you met, did you notice how he strove to make you feel welcome, asked after your comfort?”

“After a night that left us more exhausted than when we arrived.”

“A regrettable incident, but his remorse was genuine, I assure you. He truly wants for us all to be happy together. I’d like to give him that chance.”

“You would forgive him and abandon your vows?” Mother Gintare stared at Nadzia as if she were a toad. “Do I speak with a traitor?”

Nadzia hunched forward. “Dievas and the Fates accepted his atonement. Who are we to claim elsewise and seek vengeance?”

“Dievas? Ha! He’s a doting father who indulges his son’s foul deeds.”

“You haven’t met him, Mother, I have. He mourns Jūratė, so does Perun, but they understand that we must move forward, that we can’t spend our lives mired in grief or regret.” Nadzia clasped the abbess’s hands. “Don’t you see? This is a chance for everyone to heal, to unite with open hearts, to show that love can truly conquer all. We can rise above old grudges and create a world of harmony. I’m content with Perun, as I should be. This is what the Fates intended.”

Mother’s lips curled into a sneer. “Had I known how weak you were, I would have cut out your tongue rather than let you summon Jūratė’s jewels. The god of storms is beyond contempt, he will say and do anything to make you desire him and you . . . you cannot see the wickedness of his ways. He is using your innocence for his own, despicable means. The Blessed One spurned him, he will stop at nothing to ensure you do not reject him as well.”

“It’s different this time. He’s different.”

“Do you think you have changed a killer, made him honorable, worth loving? Stupid, stupid girl!”


“I warned you, child. Pride makes you blind.”

Nadzia flinched at the accusation, hating the abbess for sparking doubts. In her short time with the gods, she’d seen ample evidence of intrigue and treachery. Could Perun have purposely misled her so she’d trust him? What if his behavior amounted to nothing more than cunning tricks meant to gain what he wanted at any cost? He’d kept the truth of his jewel secret, perhaps he had more hidden intrigues.

She pictured him laughing in his chariot as they shared the glory of the heavens, the moments when he gazed at her as if she were the most captivating creature alive, his lingering touches that promised more, the anguish on his face when he spoke of Jūratė’s death. How was she to know if any of it was real?

The abbess put a hand to her mouth, eyes studded with horror. “Dear gods, tell me you have not renounced your oath. That you will support us on your wedding day. We must give Veles a chance to hide the evil one’s heart.”

“Veles?” Nadzia choked on the name. “Look no further if you want proof of betrayal.”

“Impossible. He is our dear friend and colleague.”

“Then why has he changed the outcome of our plan?”

The abbess frowned. “He’s said nothing to me.”

“Why would he?” Nadzia shuddered, remembering the scaly god’s leer. “You’re not the one he intends to make his queen.”

Mother Gintare sat back, her gaze turned inward. She tapped a finger against her chin, lost in thought, finally turning to Nadzia with a curious smile. “Is that not a fitting reward for his aid? I should think you’d feel honored.”

“To spend eternity with a liar?”

“You are well-matched in that regard.” The abbess held up a hand, forestalling argument. “We will proceed as planned, my child, with or without your help. You cannot stop us unless you tell Perun the truth, and I doubt he will be quite so amiable when he learns how you’ve deceived him. Are you so sure of his affection that you will risk his wrath when he discovers his beloved bride meant to destroy him?”

Nadzia shrank into herself, gnawed her lips to keep from shouting in frustration. She should have realized convincing the abbess was futile. Admitting how she felt had only strengthened the woman’s resolve, driven a wedge between them. “Will you tell the others?”

“I can hide my disappointment better than most, I won’t endanger our mission by speaking recklessly. There is still time for you to see the error of your ways.”

She stood and shook out her robes. “I urge you to pray for clarity. We have waited centuries for justice and now a devious god has manipulated your feelings for his own ends. I am no stranger to love, surprising as that may be, but I have lived long enough to know desire can rob a woman of her senses. Look beyond your selfishness, your lust, and consider what is best for all.”


A shout from above, Perun charging back to earth, drowned out Nadzia’s reply. She pulled up the hem of her dress and hurried down the hill behind the abbess, storming toward the grasses outside the barn where the carriage landed.

Keslai stepped down gingerly, clutching her stomach and moaning.

The abbess rushed to her side. “What happened? Did he hurt you?”

“He was a perfect gentleman. The heights made me nauseous, that’s all. I’d like to rest if you don’t mind. I feel a headache coming on.” Keslai latched onto the abbess, pulled her down the path toward their tents, craning her neck as they descended to call out, “Well done, sister. He’s quite smitten with you.”

Perun drew Nadzia into his arms, kissed her passionately. “She’s persistent, that one, but I think she finally understands. You’re the only one I want or need.”

Nadzia returned his kiss with a desperate fervor. “And you’ll love me always, no matter what happens?”

“Nothing you say or do could ever change how I feel, my love.”


“Never doubt it. You are a jewel beyond compare.” He nuzzled the top of her head and released his hold. “Bernardo!”

The groom staggered out of the barn, yawning. “Sorry, sir. I fell asleep in the loft.”

Perun rumpled the boy’s hair, dislodging pieces of clover and alfalfa. “You’ve been helping the other servants prepare for our guests. I don’t begrudge you a nap now and again.”

“Will you be flying again tomorrow night?”

“Yes, to gather my priests. We’ve only a few days until the wedding. I want everyone in place and comfortably settled by then.”

“Don’t forget, Sister Saule wants to see the stars,” Nadzia reminded him. “She’ll be far more appreciative than your last passenger. And I’d like one last trip before we marry.”

She stooped down and picked a handful of wildflowers, giving herself a few moments to blink away tears. She could blame the Fates, she supposed, for thrusting her into such a difficult situation. But no divine spirits controlled her heart. She’d given her love freely, gladly. And she refused to believe Perun’s affection was false.

She had to tell him the truth, despite the peril. She couldn’t let him come to harm.

He lifted her with a sensual growl. “If I’m to be a ferryman of the sky, I should take advantage of what time we have together, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Every minute.”

Perun laughed and nodded at the groom. “Sleep while you can, Bernardo. Things are about to get very busy.”



Woodlarks heralded the dawn with a chorus of carefree trills as they circled the landscape, their flight a pleasing pattern visible through the cottage window. Perun gazed at his bride, asleep under the mermaid quilt, his heart bursting with gratitude and love. Before she came, he’d viewed her as a means to an end, a novice chosen without his consent yet necessary to help him regain immortal life. A relationship he would pretend to cherish and then abandon once Rodzenica made him whole again. Now he couldn’t imagine a world without her at his side.

He might have been wholly content, were it not for the frown marring her brow as she slept. What disturbed her rest? Did she harbor last-minute doubts? She clutched the quilt, mumbling. “I can’t . . . I must . . . gods save me.”

“Nadzia?” He shook her gently. “Nadzia!”

She startled awake, her face sallow and haggard, closed her eyes until her breath steadied, opened them with a hesitant smile. “Was I talking in my sleep again?”

“A bit.” Perun stroked her hair. “Is there something you wish to tell me? Have I displeased you?”

“Never.” She slipped out of bed, pulled on her robe, and moved to the window. The first blush of morning light filtered through the glass, illuminating her in a golden nimbus. “Such a beautiful place.”

Her shoulders rose and fell as she shook with muted sobs. Perun rushed to hold her, laid his head atop hers. “What troubles you, my love? Please tell me. I can’t bear to see you so unhappy.”

“I’m fine, really. Brides get quite emotional before they wed, or so I’ve been told. I suppose it’s hard for me to believe all this is real. That I deserve so much joy.” She smiled and traced his lips. “That I could ever love you so much.”

“You’re not keeping anything from me? I want us to be honest with one another.”

Nadzia lifted the pendant she wore every hour of the day and night. “You said nothing about the enchantment in your jewel.”

“That was not my secret to share. Please, my love, I don’t want to fight, not with our wedding in three days.”

Nadzia let the necklace fall. “Three days,” she whispered, her voice hollow. “Is that all the time I have?”

“Time for what? Do you want to marry or not?” Perun braced himself for the answer. He’d been so sure of her love. Why did she hesitate?

“More than you’ll ever know, my sweet god.”

“Then what—”

She reached up and pressed a finger against his mouth. “Don’t ask me to explain. I can’t. Not yet. Just remember I love you and always will.”

A voice cried outside the door, followed by rapid knocking. “Master! Are you there? We need you.”

Perun released Nadzia with a snarl and opened the cottage door. Adomas stood outside, his hair and clothes mussed. He blanched and then bowed. “Forgive the intrusion, but we’ve a crowd of newcomers and they’re arguing over space for their tents. I hate to disturb you, but they won’t listen to me, and I don’t want to get in the middle of any more fights.”

Perun looked back at Nadzia, already rifling through her cabinet for a gown. She turned, all traces of sadness gone, and motioned for him to leave. “Go, but please stop at the servants’ cottage on the way and ask Ludvika to bring me breakfast. I’ll join you later.”

He nodded his assent, unwilling for his gardener to glimpse any hint of discord. “As you wish, my love. I’ll have those ruffians under control by the time you arrive.”

“Yes, I expect you will. We owe you many thanks, Adomas, for braving an unruly mob, and hope it won’t be necessary again.”

“Not to worry, mistress,” he replied, standing taller. “I know how to defend myself.”

“But you shouldn’t have to. Our guests should be courteous and considerate of others.”

Perun gripped the old man’s shoulder. “You have proved your worth many times over. My disciples will recognize your authority or leave.”

He cast a final glance at Nadzia, put a hand to his heart, and left.

Wisps of smoke drifted from his fingers as he strode toward the meadow. He cleared the top of the hill and stared down at a field swarming with people. Loud, querulous voices rang out; men pushed and shoved and traded punches while their wives and children huddled. Perun ground his jaw, embarrassed and angry at their behavior. Sparks coursed through his veins. How dare his followers act like brutes? He let out a roar that flattened the grass.

The furor stilled. Mouths fell open as he stomped into their midst, his flesh smoldering with inner fire. “This is my home,” he bellowed. “I will suffer no insult or injury to its inhabitants or guests. If my groundskeeper,” he added, gesturing for Adomas to step forward, “advises me of even one transgression, I promise you, punishment will be swift. Do you understand?”

The hushed crowd murmured its assent. Perun stood rigid, allowing his rage to subside while bruise-cheeked men shook hands with grunts of apology. “You have come to celebrate my good fortune. Do not spoil it with trifling squabbles. Be glad in each other’s companionship, for the chance to witness a ceremony no mortal has ever seen. Relish your time here. It will end far too soon, and I want you to return home with fond memories.”

A hulking man at the edge of the group kneeled and put a fist to his chest. “All praise to the god of storms!”

Perun waited until all were stooped in obeisance. “See that your actions match your words. If you wish to honor me, conduct yourself with care.”

A young woman holding an infant rose to her feet. She stepped forward, her face bright with joy and wonder. “Will you bless my son? I want him to do well in life.”

Perun reached out, his heart skipping. He’d granted such favors before in his travels across the land, but today he gazed down with a new awareness of the love that had brought this child into being. He stroked the boy’s auburn hair and rosy flesh, smiled at the coos that followed his touch. “May you grow strong and your crops flourish.”

The woman placed a hand on his forearm and peered at him with shining eyes. “And may the Fates grant you healthy sons as well.”

His vision blurred as he returned the yawning babe to its mother. When he blinked his sight clear, a line of women and men with children had formed. He blessed them all, delighting in the pleasure it brought, the tranquility that settled over the camp as families returned to their tents with broad smiles.

“Look,” a voice cried. “It’s the thunder god’s bride!”

Faces filled with awe watched Nadzia descend the hill, draped in a green gown and haloed in golden morning light.

Perun swiveled, his pulse pounding. He greeted Nadzia with a chaste kiss. “Everyone here is going to love you. I trust I won’t have to compete with them for your affection.”

“My heart is yours. That will never change.”

A chestnut-haired girl, arms laden with ribbon-tied wildflowers, raced to the edge of the field. She thrust her gift at Nadzia, lowered her head and sank into a deep curtsey. “For the mermaid’s daughter. We bid you welcome.”

Nadzia waited for the girl to rise. “If everyone here is as sweet as you, then I will feel very welcome, indeed. What should I call you?”

“Mielas. I’m from Palanga, just like you.”

“A long journey. A few of my sisters from the convent are here as well.”

Mielas nodded, eyes gleaning with excitement. “I’ve seen their white tents.”

“Would you like to meet them?”

“Oh, yes, yes, please! Do you think . . .” Mielas gnawed on her lip. “Could they teach me to sing like a siren?”

“I’m afraid that isn’t possible, but our voice instructor might be willing to give you a few lessons. I’ll see what I can arrange.”

The girl curtsied again and ran off whooping as Perun’s followers began to form a new line. He waved them back. “Go about your business. We will come to you.”


Some seventy or so campsites dotted the vast meadow, some with simple cloth tents, others with canopied wagons. A few had bedrolls spread on the ground for stargazers. Perun escorted Nadzia about the area over the next two days, introducing her, pleased at how warmly she greeted everyone, how readily they received her. She hummed and sang as they strolled, lilting melodies that lingered in her wake, generating goodwill.

The air rang with joyful chatter and the clinking of mugs raised in honor of immortal love. Mothers swapped stories while they cooked flatcakes and soups and stews. Giggling children played among the grasses and flowers, wove garlands and wreaths. Those who’d fished in the River Nemunas marveled at the abundance it provided. “I’ve never had such luck,” a grizzled man told Nadzia as he wolfed down a fillet of golden-fried bream, fresh from the pan. “Truly, you are the goddess reborn.”

“She is a font of blessings.” Perun’s chest expanded, drawing in deep, satisfied breaths. A wonderful woman loved him, a community of supporters had gathered to witness his wedding. The young woman who’d tried to seduce him remained out of sight, as agreed. Peace and harmony prevailed.

They visited camp each morning. In the afternoons, while Nadzia rested in their cottage, Perun transported his high priests, one chariot full at a time. He lodged them in a black silk pavilion set up near the temple’s entrance. Once settled, they mingled with the common folk and joined in songs of tribute while sampling the convent’s mead. Much to Perun’s surprise, the abbess promised bottles of the amber wine to all who asked, after receiving assurances that each recipient would make a toast in honor of the mermaid goddess.

At night, the visits resumed. Hymns rang out clear and strong at the campfires. Eager to prove their allegiance to the god of fire, men staged competitions, stretching hands over candles or fireside flames. Whoever lasted the longest without flinching was hailed the winner and received a friendly clap on the shoulder from the one they worshipped.

Boys with no interest in scorching their flesh walked with rosy-cheeked girls along the river and stole kisses under the pines. Perun watched them, his eagle eyes piercing the dim light, ready to intervene should they lose control. He needn’t have worried, as Nadzia pointed out. Chaperones lingered behind the young couples, discreet, yet near enough to break up any improper fondling.

He enjoyed every moment of it, his pride swelling as he showed off Nadzia, yet he chafed inwardly, impatient to hear what bothered her to the point of weeping. How long would she keep him in suspense?


On the eve of their wedding, after they finished their nightly circuit of the camp, Nadzia reminded him of her earlier request. “One last trip to the stars above Palanga.”

“Why do you call it the last?” he asked, anxiety cramping his heart. “We’ll have many more in the years ahead.”

She laughed, a high-pitched giggle that died as quickly as it began. “I want to see them once more as a human.”

Her eyes darted from corner to corner, as if searching for a hidden observer. “And . . . we must talk someplace where no one can intrude.”

Every one of Perun’s apprehensions surfaced, leaving him breathless. This was the moment he’d feared, when he would finally learn his happiness was nothing more than an illusion, that even if Nadzia cared for him, her ardor would never match his.

He studied the stone at her breast as they walked to the barn. It blazed brightly as ever. Her affection, at least, remained strong. She took her place beside him in the chariot, impassive, mute as stone, until they reached his constellation.

“I’d almost forgotten how lovely they are,” she said, basking in their light and heat. “Such dazzling colors.”

“Soon you will be able to venture closer. There’s nothing quite like being surrounded by a pulsing star.”

Perun struggled for words to put them both at ease, found he had none. Chafing at the need to learn what troubled his bride, yet unwilling to provoke her, he twisted a thick armlet etched with images of his axe—given to him by an admirer that night—until his flesh was rubbed raw.

“Nadzia, please, tell me what’s wrong.”

She curled forward, arms crossed against her chest. “I came to you under false pretenses,” she said at last, anguish in her eyes. “I never wanted to be your bride.”

A wave of dizziness swept over Perun. He gripped the chariot’s railing, jaw clenched so tight his teeth ached, the memories of his maidservant warning him of duplicity battering his mind. Fool of a god, to be led astray by the yearnings of his heart! “Then Gabi didn’t lie. The Order of Bursztyn schemes against me.”

Nadzia hung her head. “I’m so sorry. But you must understand—”

“Understand?” The word exploded with such force Nadzia shrank into herself. “What is it you wish me to perceive? That every moment with you has been a lie? That I gave my heart to a charlatan?”

“We were trained to hate you, to pray for your downfall. How could I not consider you a beast?” Nadzia’s voice shook. “To discover all my assumptions were false, that changed everything, don’t you see? Once I spent time with you, once my heart opened . . . I may have come to Kaunas determined to honor my vow of vengeance, but I changed. I fell in love.”

“You dare speak to me of love?” Fury enveloped Perun in flames, yet for all his pain and misery, he could not lash out at Nadzia. He thrust his arms upward, unleashed his rage in bolts of lightning. And still he fumed. How could he have expected anything less from a daughter of the one who’d defied the gods and chosen a mortal? Damn the Fates and their twisted destinies!

“I tried to tell my father,” he said, his words clipped and biting. “Humans hold grudges. For 500 years I prayed to be forgiven, and all that time your convent conspired to ruin me.” 

Nadzia inched closer. “They don’t have to succeed. I begged the abbess to abandon her plans, but she refused, and I knew I had to tell you, come what may. Please believe me, I want you to survive.”

Lights flickered from the convent below. Perun blew into his palm and formed an orb of fire. “I could destroy your home, make you watch as the buildings turn to ash. We’ll fly lower first. I want you to hear the screams of your sisters as they burn to death.”

“I’ll throw myself off this chariot before you have a chance,” Nadzia said, her voice deadly calm. “What will you tell your mother then?”

“My . . . what?” The blaze in Perun’s hand sputtered.

“She said if you treated me ill she wouldn’t make you whole again. How do you think she’ll respond when she sees my broken body?”

Perun shouted and flung his fiery sphere into the sky, where it slowly dissipated. “You say you’ve changed, yet even now you seek to manipulate me.”

“I only want your attention. Listen to me, please.” Nadzia wiped her hands on her robes. “The Order knows you need the sliver I wear to regain your full godhood. They’re going to disrupt the ceremony so Veles can steal and hide it. You won’t die for eons, but when you do, Jūratė’s death will finally be avenged.”

Perun scowled and shook his head. “That’s madness. Even my brother would not be so bold. And the gods will strike you down.”

“They’ll be immobilized while the theft takes place.”

“By your abbess?” Perun snorted. “I’d like to see her try.”

“She’ll lead the keening. It will paralyze them long enough.”

“A rash assumption.”

“It worked on Veles. He crumpled when I screamed.”

Perun’s blood simmered with fresh indignation. “You plotted with my immortal enemy. You beguiled Dievas and Rodzenica. How can I trust anything you say?”

“Because of this.” Nadzia pulled off her pendant. “I have a mesmerizing voice, but I cannot overpower a goddess’s enchantment. This stone gleams because I love you, with all my heart and soul. Condemn me as a liar if you must. I deserve your disdain for my part in our conspiracy. But never doubt the emotion that stokes this jewel.”

The amber throbbed in her hand and his own heart matched it, beat for beat. He took the jewel, knew finally that it held not just his longing but hers as well, a bond of body and spirit. Even so, her betrayal stung. He closed his eyes, anger flaring again only to sputter out when he considered his own actions. He’d started off with ulterior motives. How could he denounce Nadzia for doing the same?

A tear slipped down his cheek. Soft fingers wiped it away. He opened his eyes and beheld not a traitor, but the woman he adored. A brave woman prepared to risk his wrath by telling him an unpleasant truth. He couldn’t let her continue thinking she was the only one at fault.

“My love.” He pulled her toward him with infinite care. “What a pair we make.”

Nadzia leaned into him, trembling. “Do you forgive me?”

“I’ve been absolved of actions far worse. It is not my place to criticize, not when I’ve withheld my own secrets.”

The quivers ceased as Nadzia drew back, her face wary. “Haven’t I learned them all?”

“You know about the magic in the amber, how I need a full heart to continue as an Immortal.”

Nadzia’s fingers dug into his arms, her nails scraping flesh. He accepted the pain, knowing he deserved every torment she inflicted. “There’s more,” she said, her voice sharp as a dagger. “What?”

He hesitated, then lowered his head. “I didn’t want a wife. Once my heart was restored, I was going to reject whomever the Fates sent me.”

Gods, the look she gave him! Shock, outrage, agony, a face pinched with grief. Her eyes welled. She blinked them dry, gave a weak laugh. “So we are evenly matched in guile.”

His fists closed and then opened. “I did not think you unworthy, Nadzia, I simply believed myself a monster. How could anyone care for me? But then we grew close, and I resolved to earn your affection, for I realized my life would be empty without you.”

Perun moved closer, placed his hand over Nadzia’s. “You are a vibrant, wondrous, magnificent woman. My heart is yours, now and forever. I cannot imagine a more delightful future than one with you at my side.”

She turned, face full of despair mixed with yearning. “Deceit is a pitiful foundation for marriage. How can we trust one another?”

“I suspect it will take time. But I would like to try.” Perun dropped to one knee. “Be my wife, dearest Nadzia, and I swear to do everything in my power to make you content.”

“I will hold you to that promise, and vow to do the same.” Nadzia sighed and motioned for him to stand. “We are a pair, aren’t we?”

“For better or worse.”

They came together in a quiet embrace. “I wish this moment would never end,” Perun said, caressing Nadzia’s hair, “but we have to find a way to avoid chaos at our wedding. If I tell my parents of the Order’s plans, you and your sisters will be brought before the Divine Council, as Jūratė was, and my father can be most exquisite with his punishments. He’ll devise something that fits the crime, centuries of torment, perhaps. If he doesn’t slay you all outright.”

“No, we can’t warn them. But I don’t want you to perish.” Nadzia paused, swallowed. “And I don’t want Veles to claim me.”

Perun squeezed Nadzia so tightly she whimpered. He loosened his hold and spoke through gritted teeth. “What did you say?”

“He wants me to be his queen.”

Ages-old rancor scalded Perun’s veins. “Not while I live and breathe.”

“It isn’t that easy. He’ll reveal the convent’s plot if I reject him. He expects us to be killed and then I’ll wind up in the Underworld. I’m his either way.”

Perun tilted his head back and cursed. “That slimy, stinking bastard. I’ll rip every scale from his body.”

“I’d join you gladly, for all the good it would do. No, we can’t let on that we’re privy to his designs. We have to outwit him.”

“It seems you’ve already begun,” Perun said with a nod of appreciation. “You brought me to the skies, the one place he can’t follow.”

He peered down at Nadzia. “I suppose you have an idea in mind?”

“Kiss me and I’ll tell you.”

Copyright © 2022 by Kathryn Jankowski

Image of Nadzia: 

Image of Perun: – KAOSS-8


THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 27, 28

Nadzia devises a plan to thwart Veles and introduces Perun to the Order of Brusztyn’s delegation. Keslai attempts to seduce the god of storms during a chariot ride.

For previous chapters, click here.




Sleep came in fits and starts that night, strewn with nightmares of sitting in a throne beside Veles, a blood-curdling prospect. Nadzia had sensed something peculiar behind his eagerness to help, suspected his motive went beyond love for Jūratė and hatred for his brother, but she never dreamed he’d try to blackmail a daughter of the mermaid goddess into becoming his dead queen.

She had a grudging respect for his guile. Rodzenica and Dievas had been told the rumors of a plot against them, their son’s claims of magical coercion would be met with unquestioning acceptance. They would act swiftly, Nadzia imagined, perhaps even put her on trial as they had Jūratė. She could expect no mercy once the Immortal Council learned the truth. And she carried scant hope the Order of Bursztyn would survive after the unveiling of its treacherous scheme.

The hours passed with excruciating slowness, true rest a vain fancy. Even after shutting the cottage windows, the noise from Perun and his followers, carousing in the meadow, seeped through the glass. Drinking songs, cheers, roars of laughter, impossible to ignore. Nadzia longed for a quiet place to try and sort out matters. The temple, with its thick walls, might provide a buffer against noise, but Veles had spoiled that refuge for her.

Tired of tossing and turning, Nadzia slid out of bed and settled in the chair by the window, wrapped in her quilt against the pre-dawn chill. In the distance, the light from campfires dwindled as the sky paled, the horizon a swath of pink. She rocked back and forth, breathing steadily—three counts in, hold, three counts out—and waited for her mind to still. Five centuries of resistance couldn’t end with Veles triumphant.

The best way to outwit him required her sisters’ help. If the novices and Elders allowed the wedding to proceed normally—no keening, no crippling cries—the gods would retain their full powers. Veles would lose his chance to grab Perun’s heart.

She clutched the quilt tighter and brought her knees up to her chest. Securing the convent’s aid meant winning over the abbess, a daunting prospect given the old woman’s life-long antipathy toward the god of storms. But if Mother Gintare could be swayed, the others would certainly follow. Nadzia had to try.

When dawn broke, she slipped into a gown of blue silk, threw on the woolen shawl she’d brought back from Palanga, laced up her sandals, and made her way toward the convent’s area. The abbess followed a predictable schedule in Palanga, odds were she’d do the same in Kaunas. What better way to court the old woman’s favor than by joining her for morning prayers?

Nadzia walked up and over the hill, reveling in the flowers that painted the meadows in a riot of color. Wisps of clouds stretched across a bright blue sky. To her right, within a circle of brown tents, women cooked ashcakes in the coals of a central firepit. They nodded as she passed, some adding a hand to their heart. She acknowledged their welcome with a warm smile and made a mental note to meet with them after her time with the abbess.

Perun emerged from a tent close to the path, his eyes rimmed red, and hailed her. Nadzia tamped down the irritation that flared at his disheveled appearance. The sour tang of beer permeated his robes, as if he’d bathed in the brew during the night’s revelry. Nose wrinkling, she held him at arms’ length when he leaned in for an embrace. “I trust your followers are properly settled?”

He flinched at the rebuke in her voice. “Did we disturb you?”

“My guests,” she replied, after a long silence that left him shifting from foot to foot, “are entitled to peace and quiet. I expect you to show them more courtesy in the future.”

“I shall apologize at once.”

“Not until you’ve cleaned up,” Nadzia said, nudging him toward the river. “You reek of drink. Come join us in an hour or so, after we’ve finished our devotions.”

“As you wish, my love.” Perun kissed the top of her head and headed toward the dock.

The Elders and novices were setting out blankets on the dew-tipped ground when Nadzia arrived. Dark circles, puffy eyes, and bouts of yawning revealed they’d spent a night as sleepless as her own. Keslai waited at the edge of their circle and offered a tight-lipped smile, nodding at Perun as he strode toward the pier. “I hope you told him to keep his followers in line.”

“He was most apologetic. It will not happen again.”

Keslai’s laugh was full of scorn. “So you’ve tamed him? He must not have been as fierce as we thought, to be gentled so quickly.”

“Make no mistake, sister, he’s fiery and wild,” Nadzia said, nettled by the assumption that she lacked the ability to charm or seduce. “As tempestuous as the squalls he summons. If he appears less so, consider it a mark of my success. I’ve brought out warmth of a different kind, his softer side. You’ll see for yourself soon.”

“He’s joining us?” Keslai stood taller and wet her lips.

“When we’ve completed our prayers.” Nadzia chose a blanket, folded it into a cushion and kneeled, wondering if her sister’s enthusiasm might influence the abbess. Despite Keslai’s cruel words on the beach after Perun’s stone was summoned, Mother Gintare had granted her permission to attend the wedding. Did she have a sentimental attachment to the girl? Maybe convincing Keslai was the way to start. A difficult task, considering they weren’t friends. Risky as well. Could she trust a novice who’d wished her dead?

The abbess began her invocation. Keslai made the sign of respect—cupped hand to forehead, lips, heart—and whispered out of the side of her mouth. “Will you introduce me to him first?”

“That honor belongs to Mother Gintare, followed by the Elders, then the novices. Hush, please, we must show reverence as we pray.”

As the hour progressed, Keslai played with her braid, smoothed her plain white gown, twirled the amber bracelets dangling from her wrists. Nadzia half expected the girl to burst from impatience.

When the abbess delivered final blessings, Keslai jumped to her feet and squealed like a young girl with a new toy, waving at the path where Perun waited. “Over here! Over here!”

“Do not encourage him,” Mother chided. “He is our enemy.” She arranged the Elders in a line and placed Keslai behind her with four other novices who’d come with the group.

“I thought we agreed to be civil,” Keslai said, leaning forward. “He’ll know something is wrong if we stand here like statues. We want to put him at ease, isn’t that what you said? Bright smiles all around?”

Mother huffed but curved her mouth and crinkled her eyes. They widened in surprise as Perun approached and fell to one knee, his gaze fixed and earnest. “Please forgive last night’s clamor. I was so happy to be amongst my disciples I neglected to consider how our celebrations might disturb others. We shall not intrude on your rest again. If there is anything I can do to make you and yours comfortable, advise me or one of my servants. This is a joyous occasion. I am delighted and honored you have come.”

“We were pleased to receive an invitation,” the abbess replied, her cheeks tinged with splotches of red. “Our sister is a most fortunate young woman. Please stand so that she may proceed with formal introductions.”

“Of course.” Nadzia tucked her elbow into the god’s arm as he rose. “You are speaking with Mother Gintare, abbess of the Order of Bursztyn.”

Perun bowed and reached for the old woman’s hand, bestowing a kiss on her fingers before releasing them. “Thank you for raising such a magnificent young lady. Nadzia is all I could have hoped for and more.”

A muscle twitched in Mother’s jaw. Her smile faltered, and for a moment Nadzia feared her façade would crumble. But the abbess was nothing if not disciplined. She nodded and turned to the woman beside her. “I rely on the Elders to assist me in running the convent and training the girls. Sister Ramuna teaches history.”

“A pleasure to meet you.” Perun tilted his head at the tall, raven-haired woman. “I’m curious. Do your lessons include the gods?”

“Our champion must know everything she can about the Immortals.”

Perun raised his brow and peered down at Nadzia with a lopsided smile. “Champion? Are we at war?”

“I believe she means that the one chosen by the Fates should be well-versed in the world she will enter.” Nadzia pursed her lips and gave the Elder a piercing stare.

“Yes, yes, of course,” Sister Ramuna added hastily. “She is to be a goddess after all. I can’t wait to see her transformed.”

“Nor I.” Perun moved on. “And next we have…?”

“Our voice instructor, Sister Dain.”

“I salute your excellent work. Nadzia has charmed everyone she meets with her dulcet intonations. You must possess a fine talent, to inspire such sweet sounds.”

Sister Dain smoothed back an errant blonde hair. “We are the daughters of a mermaid. It is she who deserves the glory.”

The muscles in Perun’s arm tightened. Nadzia gave him a quick squeeze. “And we are forever grateful for the gift she gave us, Sister Dain, are we not?”

“Our success in life depends on it.”

Perun released a long breath. “I am happy you have thrived. And now…?”

“Sister Bronis runs the garden and oversees our meadery.”

“I suspect my gardener, Adomas, will be even more pleased to meet you than I am,” Perun said with a wink. “He has taken a liking to the bottles of honeyed wine you’ve sent. I believe he would enjoy discussing how your mead is brewed. May I send him to you?”

Sister Bronis’s sage-green eyes lit up. “I’ve no objection. He can sample the batch I brought for the wedding. I’m not sure if it aged long enough. Are you certain he won’t mind?  I don’t want to interrupt his work. You have a large crowd to feed.”

“Rest assured, dear sister, we have provisions for this many and more. I shall ask Adomas to visit this afternoon, although you are welcome to call upon him instead if you like. His garden is just over the ridge. And now, the last of the Elders?”

“You and Sister Saule have a lot in common,” Nadzia said, greeting her favorite teacher with a hug. “She studies the heavens and taught me to love the stars.”

“A fascinating realm,” Perun said. “One that continually astounds and delights.”

Sister Saule looked at him with undisguised envy. “You can visit whenever you like. It must be a wonderfully divine experience.”

“I have taken Nadzia to my constellation.” Perun stopped and considered the lean-boned woman gazing wistfully at the sky. “I can bring you there as well.”

“Would you?” Sister Saule stepped forward, hands pressed to her lips, and then ducked back, dropping her arms and head. “With the abbess’s permission, of course.”

Mother Gintare nodded crisply. “A generous offer, but the Elders and I have convent matters to discuss.”

“What about a novice?” Nadzia said, delighted that Perun had offered this boon without any urging on her part. She sent a silent plea to the Fates, asking that her sister become a true collaborator, open to seeing the god of storms with new eyes and passing along her impressions to the abbess. “As I recall, Keslai is fond of astrology. Might she go instead?”

“All are welcome to travel in my chariot.” Perun searched the second line of women. “Which of these lovely young ladies might she be?”

His jaw twitched as Keslai squeezed past the abbess and stopped inches away, trailing a finger down her neck to the top of a gown that emphasized her ample cleavage. “Shall we leave at sunset?” she said, her voice low and enticing. “I can’t wait to spend a night in heaven with a god.”

If Nadzia didn’t need Keslai as an ally, she might have laughed out loud at her sister’s brazen behavior. “You’ll be there an hour or so at the most,” she said. “Mortals must limit their exposure. And you’ll need a cloak for the journey. The air grows colder the higher you fly.”

“I’m sure the creator of fire and lightning knows how to keep me warm,” Keslai said, toying with the amber bracelets on her wrist as Perun’s ears flamed red. “Don’t worry about me, sister. I’ll be in very good hands.”



The sun melted into the horizon, flooding the sky with lemon-gold light, gilding faces turned upward in delight. Crickets began their nightly chorus, serenading Perun as he departed his temple. He checked his chariot and white ox, waiting outside for the coming journey, and retreated into the barn. Leaning against his beast’s stall, he hooked a thumb into the top of his loincloth and watched day bleed into night. The building smelled of dried grasses, clover, and over-ripe fruits, part of the forage stored within. He took comfort in its familiarity, the privacy it offered when he needed to think.

After centuries of worship, he’d encountered every kind of admirer, male and female. Some fell prostrate, needing encouragement to stand and meet his gaze. Others, priests mostly, coupled their veneration with an easy, open friendliness. Women might peer at him with stars in their eyes, but none had ever approached him as boldly as the flame-haired novice from Palanga.

Her behavior confounded him. He hoped for a good relationship with all of Jūratė’s daughters, but the gleam in Keslai’s eyes suggested she harbored intentions far beyond congeniality. How was he supposed to rebuff her and still remain in the abbess’s good graces?

Yards away, Salomeya nickered from behind a gate and shook her glossy, black mane in greeting. He brought her apples from a basket in the corner and watched idly as she chomped the glistening red fruit in his palm. Maybe this magic steed could help.

Designed for godly stature, his chariot could accommodate two people comfortably, as long as neither demanded room to stretch. If he brought Nadzia along, she could act as a buffer between him and her flirtatious sister, but three would crowd the space—although he suspected Keslai would welcome the occasion to attach herself to him like a leech.

He traced the ring in Salomeya’s ear, implanted by his father to restrict the horse’s travels to the Tree of Life and enchanted to send a signal if the rider attempted to fly elsewhere. What if he removed it, just this once? Would Dievas realize what he’d done?

Light footsteps behind him sent his pulse racing, subsiding when he detected the scent of his beloved, fresh and cool as an ocean breeze. Nadzia embraced him lightly, her fingers tickling the hairs on his chest. “Ready for your big night?”

“I’d rather you were joining me.”

Nadzia’s lips quirked into a mischievous smile. “Afraid to be alone with Keslai?”

“She is somewhat . . . audacious.” Perun laid a hand on the mare’s side. “I think I can extract that ring without my father’s knowledge. Then you could fly alongside us.”

“Don’t you dare try something so dangerous! You have no idea what might happen.”

Nadzia planted herself in front of the horse and crossed her arms. “Keslai has a sensual nature. Given your obvious charms, she’s going to respond in ways that might seem inappropriate. Nonetheless, I trust you to engage her so completely she’ll return singing your praises. Don’t let her overwhelm you. Dazzle her with your love of the stars, keep her attention on the glories of the heavens. When she’s properly distracted, she doesn’t consider anything else.”

“I’m not sure I share your confidence.” Perun looked past Nadzia and frowned. “I see two approaching. Why is the abbess with your sister?”

He pulled Nadzia forward, donned a scarlet robe hanging near the barn’s entrance, then paused and bowed to Mother Gintare. “Forgive my confusion, but I cannot bring more than one of you at a time. Have you decided to go in Keslai’s stead?”

“Another evening, perhaps,” Mother Gintare said with a soft smile. “I came along to see this one safely dispatched. Afterwards, I would like Nadzia to show me the goddess’s altar in your temple.”

Perun reluctantly switched his gaze to Keslai and almost sputtered with relief. She stood rigid as a statue, hands gripping a dark cloak, eyes fixed on the ground, her white gown high-necked and demure—a far cry from the sinuous flirt who’d practically thrown herself at him earlier.

The knots in his shoulders unraveled. He offered a hand to the novice and helped her into his chariot. “I promise to take the very best care of her. We’ll be back before long.”

He gave a friendly salute, climbed in and gathered the reins, steering the ox westward as he took to the skies, his worries gone.

Keslai stood beside him at the railing, mute and aloof as they soared through thick, bulbous clouds that eclipsed the moon. The temperature dropped, ice crystals clung to her hair like white diamonds in a nest of apricot curls. She shivered, shook out her cloak and rearranged the thin wool fabric across her shoulders. “I have trouble keeping the broach secure,” she said, pointing to a mermaid-shaped fastener. “Can you help?”

“It looks too delicate for me to try. I wouldn’t want to break such a pretty clasp. Besides, I must keep hold of the reins to guide my beast. He might veer off elsewise.”

Perun tightened his grip and tried to ignore the novice as she inched closer. Her scent reminded him of Nadzia, a fragrance that stirred longing and desire.

“You visit the stars often, don’t you?”

“As often as possible.”

“Then I’m sure your ox knows the way. Animals are easily trained, quick to learn patterns and routes.”

Keslai reached out and stroked his wrist, smiling when his flesh—much to his chagrin—pebbled at her touch. “You can hold the straps with one hand and assist me with the other. I’ll be ever so grateful.”

The blatant craving in her voice set Perun’s teeth on edge. “I don’t think it wise. I promised to keep you safe. If we should suddenly lurch—”

“You’re a god, you won’t let me fall.”

Keslai stared openly at him, her clear blue eyes glazed with lust. When he failed to move, she sighed and fidgeted with the broach. “It’s so tricky . . . I really must have it fixed when we return . . . almost there . . . ouch!”

Perun groaned as she held up a finger dotted with a bead of blood. The cloak slipped from her fingers and caught on the metal lattice surrounding the cart. Keslai made no effort to retrieve it. Her mouth twitched as the fabric ripped free and blew away, a dark spiral in the night. She turned, and before he could object, cool hands reached beneath his robe and circled his waist. “Bless the Fates I have you to keep me warm,” she purred, clinging to him. “I’d hate to have to turn back.”

He jerked at the reins, fuming at how cleverly she’d played him. Wisps of steam wafted from his brow. Bringing the chariot to a halt, he took off his robe, and hastily draped it over the girl. “This will do just as well. I warn you, take care. Toss it out and we’ll go no further.”

Keslai’s laugh held an undertone of menace. “You promised the stars. I expect no less. If you deny me, I’ll tell the abbess you tried to seduce me and tore off my cloak when I refused.”

“Be careful with your threats. My father has little patience for lies. He will gladly ferret them out if I ask him to do so.” His lips curled into a hard smile. “I have watched him interrogate humans. It is not a pretty sight.”

Keslai blanched and fell silent. She returned to the railing—eyes narrowed, lips clamped into a thin line, chin jutted forward—a living figurehead that rippled with indignation. Perun kept his face stern and slapped the reins, spurring his beast to greater speed. This trip couldn’t end soon enough. He’d give the girl a minute or two to admire his constellation and then hasten home. Fates willing, his next convent guest would possess a more gracious nature.

He savored the blissful quiet and let himself relax when they reached his stars, pulsing with crimson light. Bringing the chariot to a halt, he dropped the reins and stretched the tension out of his neck and torso as veils of hot air engulfed them.

Keslai turned, her breath quickening as she lowered his robe and then her gown until they pooled at her feet. “You don’t have to reject me. No one will ever know.”

A flush of anger sent sparks flying from Perun’s fingertips. Would this girl never learn? He glared at Keslai until beads of sweat dotted her upper lip, trickled down her neck. She looked away at last and tugged her dress back into place.

“I love Nadzia,” he said. “She is dearer to me than life itself. I will not betray her. Do you understand? Can you understand?”

Keslai bristled and drew herself up tall, eyes shining with defiance. “You believe she loves you?” she scoffed. “The one who killed Jūratė?”

The hairs on Perun’s arm tingled. Perhaps the rumors had mistakenly attributed scheming to the entire convent when a single novice was the dominant force. But this was all conjecture. A daughter of the slain goddess could harbor a grudge, even hatred, yet not stand in the way of what the Fate had ordained. “I have atoned for my sins. And, yes, I know she loves me.”

“We’re sirens,” Keslai said, preening. “We can bend anyone to our will with our voices.”

“I thought so, when Nadzia first came and beguiled me. But my stone revealed the truth.”

Keslai’s brow wrinkled. “Your jewel is nothing but a piece of glass from the sea.”

“The amber was enchanted by my mother to reveal the true emotions of the one who wears it. Nadzia loves me, of that I have no doubt.”

“But she isn’t supposed to . . .” Keslai blushed and cleared her throat. “How wonderful for you.”

Perun’s ears twitched at the deceit in her voice. He clenched his hands, unclenched them. She’s jealous. Don’t let her rouse old fears. “She has brought me joys more wondrous than you can imagine,” he said softly.

“I can imagine quite a bit.”

Keslai crossed her arms, fingers tapping on pale skin. Her face brightened suddenly. “Why don’t we test it? Let me wear your pendant, and you’ll see what real affection looks like.”

A dull throb began at the side of Perun’s head. He rubbed at the ache, his patience worn thin. “By the breath of Dievas, woman, leave it be! She is the one chosen by the Fates. Why can’t you accept that and wish your sister well?”

“You’re a god, what do you know of human wants and needs? You claim your jewel reveals true passion. Were you not so besotted, you’d realize that other desires can rival the strength of love.”

“Nadzia has everything she needs.”

“She might have persuaded you so, but there’s one thing she craves most of all, and you can’t give it to her.”

Perun’s eyes grew misty, blurring his vision. He picked up the straps, called out to his ox, and maneuvered the chariot so that it faced south. “Since you show no appreciation for the majesty of my stars, I’ll return you to the abbess.”

Keslai hooked one arm around the rail as they began their descent, the wind whipping her braid. “Don’t be a fool. Nadzia doesn’t want a life with you. She wants power, the kind only divinity will bring.”

“Stop your prattle,” Perun seethed. “I won’t let you turn me against her.”

“You’ll be sorry. I’m the one who deserves to be your queen.”

“Enough!” Blood-red light issued from Perun’s flesh, illuminating him from head to toe. He raised his arms, called to the heavens. Massive dark clouds crowded the sky, blanketing the stars as the wind surged into fierce gales. Keslai crouched on the chariot’s floor, face whiter than bleached bones.

Peals of thunder churned the air. A bolt of lightning appeared in Perun’s hand. He gripped the jagged edges, pulled back his lips in a feral grin, and hurled it to the ground.

One bolt followed another, until the acrid stench of sulfur filled the air. Drained of his fury, Perun closed his eyes and murmured. The clouds dissipated, the air calmed. He blinked, tilted his head and squinted at Keslai, wide-eyed and trembling at his feet. “I am sorry for one thing alone—that the woman I love has a shrew for a sister. Your harsh words give me ample reason to send you home, but I cannot do so without good reason, and it would distress Nadzia. You may remain, on one condition.”

Dread speckled Keslai’s cheeks. Perun smiled in grim satisfaction. “For the remainder of your visit, you will keep your distance from the two of us, myself and my bride.”

“What if she comes to our camp?”

“You have no trouble with deception. Feign an illness. Something infectious, so she won’t be tempted to nurse you over the coming days.”

Keslai drew herself up slowly, her smoldering gaze fixed on Perun. “And the wedding?”

“Your health will improve only when the convent is packed and ready to leave.”

Perun gathered his reins and flicked them lightly. The ox reared and charged forward. “Think long and hard before you endeavor to oppose me. My father has great hopes for this marriage, but he is no one’s fool. His guards will be in force at the ceremony, with instructions to chain and imprison trespassers. Rest assured, they will have orders to look for you.”

Keslai’s chest heaved as she gnawed at her lip, worrying the flesh. “Then it appears I have no choice but to obey. You have nothing to fear from me.”

Perun snorted and urged his beast its greatest speed, one eye on the novice. She kept her back to him, stiff with resentment. He ground his teeth, sighed, and freed one hand to rub his aching jaw. This one would need watching, no matter how docile her words.

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski



THE THUNDER GOD’S BRIDE – Chapters 25, 26

Perun flies Nadzia to the stars and declares his love, but Nadzia’s visions of a peaceful life with him are threatened after Veles reveals a change to the convent’s scheme.

For previous chapters, click here.



After he left the cottage, Perun changed into an eagle and took shelter in an oak near his temple to watch Nadzia fly off on her magic steed. He toyed with the idea of following her, finding a place to roost while Rodzenica tested her, surprising her when she emerged victorious. They could go back to Kaunas together, jubilant in their mutual love.

But his mother had insisting on seeing Nadzia alone. If he wanted to know what transpired between them, he needed a legitimate reason to explain his presence at the Tree of Life. He ruffled his feathers, eyes locked on Nadzia until she became a speck in the sky, and wished he could express how important she’d become to him. He was no bard able to recite melodious tales of love. The prospect of a speech at their marriage ceremony set his stomach fluttering, his muscles twitching.

He took a breath, released it with a throaty warble. His sister, Lada, goddess of love and harmony, she could help. And she provided a plausible excuse should his mother discover him. Excellent. He gave a low kuk-kuk of satisfaction, spread his wings, and took flight.


Fragrant honeysuckle vines draped the entrance to Lada’s room. A large fountain burbled in the center, its gentle murmur augmented by the cooing of doves perched upon the branches of potted orange trees in one corner. The goddess echoed their calls while gathering roses from bushes massed on the opposite side of the room. Her corn-silk hair, circled with a band of crystal jewels, flowed to voluptuous hips moving sinuously under a white gown trimmed with gold.

She raised a hand in greeting when Perun appeared at her door and motioned for him to join her at a table near the birds, where she deposited her bouquet next to a moss-green vase. “This is a pleasant surprise, brother. I did not expect to see you until the wedding.”

Her tone, calm and peaceful, filled him with hope. “Nor I,” he said, his face growing hot. “Mokosh suggested I compose a poem to Nadzia to read at the ceremony, but I have no idea where to begin.”

“There are ways to express love other than poetry. Simple, heartfelt prose is equally strong. What do you find most endearing about your novice?”

“Her voice,” Perun answered without hesitation.

Lada nodded as she snipped off thorns and arranged the flowers in a striking display, the vibrance of their scarlet blossoms a perfect contrast to the muted hues of the vase. “I’m sure it’s gorgeous, but you must think beyond appearance or natural traits. There is more to Nadzia than how she speaks or sings.”

She paused, gave him a piercing stare. “What do you feel for her?”

“I’m grateful she’s given me the chance to love again.”

“Don’t play with me brother. If you wish my help, you must explore your deepest emotions. Why do you care for this daughter of Jūratė?”

Perun clenched his fists, remembered he’d come uninvited, and released them. He pictured Nadzia tousled in bed, walking beside him along the river and in the fields, teaching him to control his anger, reading and acting out stories, her ease with the gardener. “She is sensual, kind, lively, warm. My heart soars when I’m with her. I want to bring her as much happiness as she’s brought me.”

Lada’s eyes brimmed with tears as she clutched Perun’s hand. “Dearest brother. Long have I watched you grieve, mourned the jealousy that drove you to foul deeds. Now I see you understand the true nature of love: giving is as important as receiving.”

She released her hold and murmured. A stack of vellum sheets, a pot of ink, and a quill pen appeared on the table. “Write from you heart and you’ll do fine,” she said, pushing the items across to Perun. “Don’t rush the words. Take your time.”

Hours later, after dozens of false starts and crumpled pages, Perun stood at the door clutching a scroll wrapped with a purple ribbon. He reached for his sister, embraced her warmly. “Bless you, Lada. I couldn’t have done this alone.”

“Do not grant me too much acclaim,” she answered, her face blushing as red as the flowers in her room. “I only drew out what was waiting to be expressed.”

She walked him outside to the limb that served as a landing. After he morphed into eagle guise, she secured his parchment in one talon and stroked his tawny feathers, smiling as he carefully rubbed his golden beak against her hands. “Safe travels,” she said, then stepped back and faded, leaving behind the scent of sweet roses.

Perun spread his wings, ready to depart, when a blast of hot wind knocked him off balance. He shook himself upright, flustered, and cawed weakly as his mother appeared where Lada had just stood. His chest tightened. Did she bring good news or bad?

Her radiant face melted his apprehensions. “You were right, my son. Nadzia’s heart is true. She has returned to your home. Go to her now. Be the loving companion she deserves.”


Perun descended into a sky bright with late afternoon sun. He flew in loops, upside down, sideways, giddy with relief. Nadzia loved him and he was on the cusp of opening his heart to her. He couldn’t wait to sweep her into his arms, cover every inch of her luscious body with kisses. He glanced down at the parchment in his claws. Why wait until the wedding? He could declare himself now and let Nadzia choose if she wanted to keep his words private or share them at the ceremony.

Through a break in the clouds, he spotted their cottage, the roses surrounding its door a promise of the beauty within. It was a pleasant abode, yet he wanted a more majestic spot for this momentous occasion. Why not spend the rest of the day however she wished, then leave at dusk and ride to his stars above the convent? He’d planned to take her there anyway. Now their trip would hold added meaning.

He landed outside his temple, changed back into the god of storms, and strode to the entry. The two stone guardians glowed at his approach. He took a moment to stroke their heads, grateful to have such dependable sentries. Once inside, he stopped at the mermaid goddess’s shrine, knelt, and lit a candle. “I swear to love her faithfully,” he vowed. “Until the end of time.”

His eternal fire flared, acknowledging his oath. He stood and surveyed the space. If he wanted to surprise Nadzia, he had to hide his speech until evening. As far as he knew, she hadn’t been here since moving out, but he couldn’t take chances. He hurried to his throne and tucked the manuscript between two slats crossing beneath the seat. Perfect.

He wiped sweat from his brow, remembered Nadzia’s comments about his muskiness.  Most likely, she’d be ready for a swim, too, if for no other reason than to escape the heat. There were a number of places along the river where they could relax. He grinned and set off to find her.


Ludvika hailed him from the junction where the path from the temple cut across the trail to the cottages. She held a basket filled with glistening strawberries. “Good afternoon, master,” she said with a deep curtsey. “You’re looking well.”

“It’s a fine day, isn’t it? I hope Gabi is faring better. Are those for her? Here, allow me to help you.”

The cook’s brows shot up as she handed over the fruit and smoothed the front of her apron. “Yes to both your questions. I believe she’ll be fully healed by the time you wed.”

“Excellent. I look forward to seeing both of you in the grove.” Perun quickly assessed his servant’s garb. “If you need clothes for the occasion, I’m happy to provide whatever you wish. You and Gabi deserve a reward for all your hard work.”

Ludvika’s mouth quirked. “A silk gown and matching shoes?”

“You shall have them.” Perun entrusted the basket back to the cook’s care as they reached the porch of her house. “Good day to you, madam. And give my best to Gabi.”

He turned, ready to leave, halted at the pull of Ludvika’s hand on his arm. “If you’re seeking Nadzia, she’s at the pier. I believe her sisters have arrived.”

A day earlier, Perun would have faltered at this information. Now he could hardly wait to greet the novices and Elders. They would soon be family, after all. He continued on his way, a new lightness in his step, whistling as he walked.


Adomas worked at the dock unloading bags and boxes and bringing them to the area Nadzia had reserved for the convent, a shady spot with soft grasses, close to the river and pier. Three white tents—one for the abbess, another for the Elders, and a third for the novices—rippled in the breeze. A circle of six blue-robed women stood before them. They turned in unison at Perun’s approach, their faces bright with curiosity and a trace of weariness.

All save one. A girl with hair like burning coals and green eyes that devoured him from head to toe. She opened her mouth, wet her lips, smiled an invitation. Perun sputtered to a halt. Who was this vixen?

Nadzia slipped through the ring and rushed to his side. “Do you mind waiting a bit to meet my sisters?” she asked, nuzzling his cheek. “They’re rather fatigued.”

“Not at all.” He swiveled away from the novice silently daring him to respond. “We can use the time to freshen up in the river.”

“They intend to do the same. Let’s take the road south. We’ll have more privacy.”

They walked a short way to a bend secluded by a copse of trees, where they splashed and lingered until the water held more shadow than sun. Perun collapsed against a birch on the riverbank and patted for Nadzia to sit on his lap. He lifted her face to his, marveling at how deeply he’d come to care for her in so short a time. Everything he wanted was here.

Her fingers traveled up his arms to the nape of his neck. Sparks of pleasure radiated down his shoulders. He bent down and kissed her, gently, tenderly, breathing in her scent, fresh and clean with just a hint of a sea breeze.

“Nadzia,” he sighed. “How very dear you are to me.”

She pulled back and traced his lips, her eyes glistening, and then nestled in his arms, her limbs perfectly fitted to his. “Did you ever imagine such bliss?” she said. “I can scarcely believe my good fortune.”

He hesitated, debated silently whether to discuss the test she’d just endured. She loved him, everything else paled in comparison. Yet he had a burning desire to know the details. “I trust my mother wasn’t too harsh with you.”

“She mourns Jūratė, and she loves her son dearly. I don’t mind that she needed reassurance. I understand her concerns.”

“Even so, I shouldn’t have mentioned Gabi’s rumors. I should have known better.”

Nadzia tilted her face upright, a slight frown wrinkling her brow. “Rumors?”

“From the traders from Palanga who gossip with Gabi at the dock,” Perun said with a dismissive shake of his head. “Tellers of tall tales, trying to impress young girls too gullible to recognize truth from fiction. ”

Nadzia rested her head on his shoulder. “I love stories. What did these merchants say?”

 “You are aware, I’m sure, that some call the Order of Bursztyn a coven of witches.”

“I may have heard that accusation a time or two.” Nadzia ran her fingers lightly across Perun’s stomach. “What evil acts are we accused of now?”

“Plotting against the gods. Sending me a bride who wishes me ill. Ouch, that hurts!” He gaped at the indentation left by Nadzia’s nail. “Why are you angry? I’m merely answering your question.”

“You knew of these lies before I arrived in Kaunas?” She pressed away from him and crossed her arms.

Perun looked out across the river, jaw clenched. Fool of a god! Why couldn’t he have let things be? He swallowed heavily before answering. “Yes.”

“So that’s why Gabi was always sneaking around. You let her spy on me.” Nadzia slumped, her eyes wet and dull. “I opened my heart to you. I thought your endearments sincere. But you doubted me all along.”

“Not you, my love, never you.” Perun reached for the pendant hanging at Nadzia’s breast. “I’m sorry, so very sorry. I should have trusted the magic in my jewel.”

Nadzia jerked the amber from his hand. She gripped its edges and huffed out a rasping sound—part moan, part laughter. “Your jewel . . . . Forgive me, but in all the excitement, I can’t recall how Rodzenica said it worked.”

“A simple enchantment on my mother’s part to help her gauge the truth of your feelings. The greater your affection, the stronger it beats.” Perun lifted Nadzia’s chin. “The stone cannot lie. You love me.”

Nadzia kissed him with what felt like desperation and then broke away, her attention drawn to the pendant as if mesmerized by its pulse. Her lips pinched together, then relaxed. She looked up at him again, surprise, wonder, and sorrow flickering across her face. “I do love you,” she murmured. “Fates save me, I do.”

She untangled herself and stretched. “It’s nearly twilight. Shall we go home?”

“Not yet. I have a surprise for you.”

The twinkle in Nadzia’s eyes returned. “Something good, I hope.”

“That would be telling.” Perun stood and extended a hand. “We may be gone for hours. Have your supper and then join me in the barn.”


They journeyed west, the air growing colder as the chariot climbed through the clouds. Perun checked on Nadzia constantly to make sure she stayed comfortable. Wrapped in a wool cloak, she showed little distress until ice crystals dotted her sleeves. Perun opened his robe, draped it around her, and rubbed her shoulders until her flesh warmed. She sighed with pleasure and wrapped her arms around his waist.

The carriage halted north of his constellation, a vantage point that gave them a heady view of the throbbing lights. Veils of hot air engulfed them. Nadzia eased out of Perun’s hold and unclasped her cloak, her eyes reflecting the wonders in the sky. “They’re so beautiful. Can we move closer, please?”

“Not while you are still mortal. The core of a star radiates a heat too intense for any but the gods.”

Nadzia leaned forward against the rail, tilting her head from side to side. She narrowed her eyes, and then let out an astonished gasp. “If you squint, the light separates into lines of color. I can see a spectrum, starting with red and ending at purple, like a rainbow, only more bewitching. Oh, it’s lovelier than I ever dreamed. What a wonderful treat!”

The necklace at her breast brightened and vibrated wildly, mimicking Perun’s heart. He pulled out his scroll, the paper threatening to slip through his sweat-slick hands and cleared his throat to get Nadzia’s attention. She twisted to face him, her eyes soft and filled with an inner glow. “Yes?”

“You may recall that I was urged to write something for our marriage ceremony. I’d like to share those words now.”

“You don’t want to wait?”

“Let me convey them to you alone, and then you can determine whether they need be spoken to an audience.”

“As you wish.”

Perun rolled out a kink in his neck and coughed. “The Fates promised me a bride beyond compare. They were wrong, for you are as beautiful as a starlit sky, as sweet as the gods’ own nectar. Your smile is a beacon that brightens my days and nights, your laugh a song that puts birds to shame. You are a jewel more precious than rubies or pearls.

“I thought the fire that once burned in my heart quenched for all time. What right did I—lowest of the low—have to seek anyone’s affection? Love is for those who deserve joy, not those who spill blood.

“But you offered a way forward. I was dead to the world and all its glories. You brought me back to life, accepting me, challenging me, delighting me, loving me. As I . . . as I have grown to love you. Whatever you wish, I will try to provide, for your happiness means the world to me.”

He caressed her cheeks, let his gaze fill with the emotion he’d kept locked away out of fear and loneliness. “My heart is yours, Nadzia, now and forever.”



Nadzia burst into tears when Perun finished his speech. She’d wanted him infatuated, yes, dazzled, even, but his words revealed a true binding. And his jewel, enchanted to reveal her true emotions, confirmed she felt the same. She burrowed in his arms, let him whisper sweet nothings as she wept, her heart torn between joy and despair.

During her training at the convent, the Elders dwelled upon the righteousness of vengeance for Jūratė’s murder. Day in, day out, the message never varied. They were engaged in a holy mission. Whoever called out the god of storms’ jewel would learn his weakness and then cripple or destroy him. A simple, straight-forward task.

No one envisioned the possibility that his Fates-chosen bride might find him endearing. Or that his affection would mean so much.

Nadzia stayed in his embrace and tried to sort out her tangled emotions as her sobs subsided. She should be angry at the way he and Rodzenica had tricked her. She should remember her vow, her duty to the Order of Bursztyn. Yet the hate she’d carried for as long as she could remember no longer held sway. For the first time in her life, she felt complete, content. But dread muted her elation. How was she going to convince the abbess that Perun was worthy of a second chance?

He kissed the top of her head and wiped her cheeks. “I hope those were happy tears.”

The longing, the need in his voice nearly set her weeping again. She reached up and pressed her palms against his face. A face suffused with love. “Your words make my heart sing.”

“Yet I see sadness in your eyes.”

“You mistake weariness for sorrow.” Nadzia dropped her hands and yawned. “The day has taken its toll. A good night’s sleep will refresh me.”

“Hold fast, then,” Perun said, wrapping one arm around her and flicking the reins with the other. “We’ll be home soon.”

Nadzia dozed as they flew back to the temple grounds. She dreamed of a wedding replete with jubilant guests, her sisters converted to a new appreciation of a god they once despised, a festive ceremony and feast unmarred by interruptions or animus.

The ox’s snorts and stomps upon landing roused her. She looked across the meadow to the Order’s white tents fluttering in the breeze, a heaviness in her chest. Visions of fellowship and merrymaking were all well and good. Achieving them was another matter.

Perun helped her step down, then took hold of his beast’s halter and called for the stable boy. “I won’t be long. Wait for me?”

Before Nadzia could respond, Adomas rushed up from the path leading to the river. “Forgive the interruption,” he said, bending over to catch his breath, “but several groups of your followers arrived while you were gone. They’re clamoring to see you. If you can spare a few minutes to greet them, I’ll help stow your chariot and animal.”

Perun glanced at Nadzia, as if seeking permission. She realized, belatedly, that there were other tents, other lights glimmering opposite the convent’s section. “Go,” she said, secretly grateful for the chance to be alone. “I’ll be in the temple at Jūratė’s altar.”

He rubbed his forearms, hesitating, his face tweaked with regret. “This may take a while. I must see that they’re properly situated and so forth. You don’t mind?”

“I did the same with my sisters,” she answered, kissing him lightly. “I’m afraid we won’t have much time to ourselves in the days to come.”

“Perhaps. You forget, we have the stars. No one can follow us there.”

“Until then, we have an obligation to those who have traveled here on our behalf.” Nadzia turned Perun around, gave him a light push. “Come back when you can. If I’ve left the temple, you’ll find me in bed.”

“Now there’s a prospect I look forward to.” Perun waved and strode toward the river.

Nadzia tilted her head skyward, rocked back and forth, hands pressed to her stomach. Voices raised in exultation carried across the grasses. She listened for a moment, pictured the god of storms jubilant amid a sea of well-wishers, and then made her way into the temple.

The stone eagles brightened as she approached. She patted their heads and smiled as their ruby eyes gleamed in response. Sleep beckoned, but first she needed to pray. She kneeled at Jūratė’s altar and lit a candle, wishing she had a way to summon her—the way the Elders did in the cave below the convent. The goddess would surely applaud the change in Nadzia’s feelings.

The flame quivered. Nadzia stared at the twinkling amber light and allowed her mind to drift in search of answers. Less than a week remained until the wedding, a pathetically short time to change the hearts and minds of women whose lives were dedicated to Perun’s downfall. They needed to see him at his best, as she had, a difficult undertaking given that she knew him with an intimacy others couldn’t hope to achieve. How to bring them together without suspicion or unease, that was the problem. Would they respond to chats around campfires, Perun with his nectar, the others with mead? Walks along the river?

She glanced up at the open dome. The stars glimmered, as if issuing an invitation. Why not invite her sisters, one by one, to travel in Perun’s chariot? She’d come along to mitigate any fears. He’d share his love of the heavens, reveal his charms. And what a thrill for them to fly all the way to the coast and glimpse Palanga from the sky!

It was a place to star, at the very least. An opportunity to convince her sisters they needn’t conspire. They could choose a different path. Unite in a new purpose. Create a future for themselves that didn’t include schemes or secret cabals. A world free of artifice.

Nadzia pushed herself upright, ready at last for bed. She moved back, pleasantly exhausted, and then stopped, muscles tensing, at the sound of hissing. A sour taste flooded her mouth. No, please, not now.

A black-and-gold snake wriggled out from the gifts piled beneath Perun’s altar and whirled into the god of the Underworld. He wagged his black tongue in greeting. “A most eventful day, my dear. Come join me at the thrones. We should discuss how our plan will proceed.”

“I’m tired,” Nadzia said, inching away. “Let’s talk tomorrow.”

“You’ll want to hear this.” Veles glided to Perun’s chair, coiled himself within the giant seat, and beckoned. Nadzia followed, reluctant yet curious to hear what had brought the serpent to Kaunas so unexpectedly. She perched on the edge of the smaller throne and kept watch on the entrance.

“Don’t worry about my brother,” Veles said with a limp wave of his hand. “He’ll be up until dawn carousing with his disciples.”

Nadzia crossed her arms and legs. “Fine. I’m listening. Has the cabal decided on a new approach? I can’t imagine a need to talk otherwise.”

“This is a private conversation, sweetheart.” Veles leaned closer, his scales lustrous in the firelight, his voice an engaging whisper. “I’ve made a slight change to our plan, something far more satisfactory than the original.”

He stopped, obviously expecting Nadzia to pepper him with questions. She ground her teeth and complied. “Please go on.”

“Let’s review the basics: first the ceremony, followed by the ritual of making my brother whole, at which point the Elders will begin keening.”

Nadzia shifted in her chair, uneasy at the thought of the assault beginning before she gained the power to protect her sisters. “Won’t I be made a goddess before that?”

“Dievas wants my brother fully restored, first and foremost. I believe his wishes are paramount, although it’s never a good idea to discount my mother’s influence. She wants you immortal as soon as possible after the vows are exchanged.”

Veles squinted, a shrewd gleam in his eyes. “Whatever they decide doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things as long as you remember to do your part. Which is . . . ?”

“To meet you here in the temple with the sliver of Perun’s heart.”

Veles licked his lips. “Such an intelligent girl.”

“And then you’ll take it to the Underworld.”

“Not quite.”

Nadzia’s arms prickled. She stiffened, poised for flight. “Have your fellow conspirators decided on another hiding place?”

“Hardly. There’s nowhere better.”

“Then what’s changed?”

Yellow eyes glittering, Veles reached out to stroke Nadzia’s neck. “You’ll be coming with me.”

Blood rushed to Nadzia’s head. She clutched the arms of her throne, a world of darkness threatening to consume her. “You can’t take me against my will. The Fates won’t allow it.”

“Why not?” Veles pressed near, his breath like ice on Nadzia’s skin. “They decreed that Jūratė reborn will marry a god. Surely you don’t believe they’ll argue over which one?”

“I won’t go with a cold-blooded viper!”

Veles dabbed at his eyes. “Oh, she wounds me with harsh words. Was ever a chosen one so ungrateful?”

“Stop pretending. Snakes can’t cry.”

“You’d do well to look beyond these reptilian markings.” Veles smoothed both hands over his chest, ending at a point below the navel, where the flesh became scales. “I have feelings and desires like any mortal man, and the same means to pleasure you. I’ll love you like no other, hold you in the highest regard, seek your opinion in all matters. And you can be sure I’ll never threaten or harm the convent. I have a tender heart. Do give me a chance to prove it.”

“I don’t want to be your queen!” Nadzia cried. “This isn’t what you promised. My sisters will hate you for deceiving them.”

“You forget, I have been a stalwart friend to the Order of Brusztyn since Jūratė’s death. It won’t take much to convince the abbess this is my just reward, and her approval is all I require.”

“Your parents won’t allow it. I have a bond with them now, especially your mother. They’ll never let you get away with this.”

“Let me worry about that. I suspect their affection will diminish after the convent attacks.” Veles settled back into his chair with a smug smile. “Think of the prestige you’ll enjoy as my consort. Your sisters will be positively green with envy. And unlike my brother—who, I remind you, agreed to have your horse magically fettered—I’ll let you visit Palanga as often as you please.”

Nadzia’s rage flared like a candle spilled into a pool of oil. She hadn’t found joy only to be held hostage by a conniving snake. She bared her teeth in a defiant snarl. “No.”

“Think carefully before you decide,” Veles replied, his smirk fading. “If you refuse to come with me, I’ll have no choice but to bring Perun’s heart to my parents and tell them a tale about a wicked, wicked novice and her convent’s treacherous plan to foil the gods. How a conniving little minx played upon the enmity between two brothers. I’ll wail and curse the weakness that made me prey to her bewitching voice. And when that’s done, I’ll beg Dievas and Rodzenica to forgive me.”

His eyes shone with pitiless mirth. “Imagine how they’ll punish you and your cherished Order. I shudder at the very thought.”

Nadzia fell back against her throne with a whimper. “I can’t stay with you forever . . . unless I’m dead.”

“An unfortunate detail. I promise to make your demise as painless as possible. A quick bite should suffice.”

Nadzia pulled at her braid. Surely Veles’s strategy contained a flaw. She combed her mind, searching for a solution, and then bolted upright. “I won’t bring you his heart. I’ll run to the Nemunas, swim as fast as I can to Palanga, and hide it in the cove. And then I’ll tell the gods that was your plan all along, that you used me out of sheer hatred for your brother. They’ve seen the two of you battle. No one will doubt me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.” The black slits in Veles’s eyes narrowed. “Try to escape via the river and I’ll send water snakes after you. Have you ever seen someone attacked by an adder? It’s a dreadful way to die. Your tongue swells, your flesh cracks, your muscles cramp. You’ll drown in the very waters you hoped would offer refuge and then . . . why, you’ll end up in the Underworld with me. Either way, I get what I want.”

Nadzia tugged at her necklace. “I’ll take the sliver out now, throw it in Perun’s fire, and tell them you commanded me to destroy it.”

“Go on.” Veles flicked his hand at the blaze. “I doubt you’ll succeed.”

Try as she might, Nadzia couldn’t separate the jewel from its silver setting. There were no hidden springs or clasps, no way to dig out the amber with her nails. She slid to the floor and smashed the necklace against the stones until her arm cramped with fatigue. With a strained cry, she flung the pendant into the fire, chain and all. The flames surged and spewed the necklace out at her feet.

“Mortals,” Veles said with an exaggerated sniff. “Always thinking they can outsmart the gods.”

He slid off the throne and caressed Nadzia’s trembling shoulder. “I so love your spirit, my dear. We’re going to have such marvelous adventures together. The Underworld is a veritable labyrinth of delights.”

“Don’t do this.” Nadzia bit down on her lip, drawing blood. “You have Jūratė. You don’t need me.”

“Alas, my beloved mermaid is devoted to her husband. I wouldn’t dream of breaking up such a happy couple.”

Nadzia drew herself up slowly, shook off Veles’s touch, and curled her fingers into fists. “I’ll find a way to stop you.”

“You are most welcome to try. Oh, did I tell you? Now that you’ve sworn everlasting love for my brother—”

“You listened?”

Someone from the cabal had to bear witness while Rodzenica conducted her test, and I have spyholes everywhere.”

“But I saw Dievas chasing you.”

“My father is easily eluded,” Veles said with a dismissive nod. “And I have been given leave to resume my surveillance. Our group wants daily reports assuring them that, despite your infatuation, you intend to continue helping us. Be well, my dear. I can’t wait to make you mine.”

He pursed his lips in a parting kiss and spoke words Nadzia didn’t understand. In the wink of an eye, he became an ordinary garden snake again, slithering toward the base of the rocky wall behind the thrones. He turned, hissed, and crawled into a hole that emerged at his approach. Laughter echoed through the tunnel as the opening closed behind him.

Nadzia threw her pendant at the wall and paced behind the thrones, cursing. How could she change her fate when Veles was ready to expose the convent’s scheme? Would Perun understand if she confided in him or would learning of her lies stoke his fury? She retrieved the necklace, brought it to the throne, and fell back heavily into the seat. The steady pulse within mocked her. Trapped. Trapped. Trapped.

Or was she?

She still had the poisoned pearl from Sister Bronis, stowed inside the belt hidden in her cottage. A last resort if matters became unbearable. But death would thrust her into the Underworld and that played too neatly into what Veles wanted.

Her necklace blazed, spitting out tangerine sparks that arced and sizzled before landing on the granite floor. Nadzia steadied her breath—three beats in, a pause, three beats out—until the amber resumed its usual, even glow. She had to keep her emotions in check, or this jewel would betray her.

She returned to Jūratė’s altar. The candle she’d lit earlier sputtered and then burst into a stronger, brighter flame. Her heart flickered with hope. Things might be muddled now, but the Fates had chosen her to reign with Perun, not some scaly snake of a god. She had to trust in their wisdom, and her own.

Let Veles think he had her cornered. Let him watch her night and day. She’d play on his confidence, use his presumptions to her advantage.

“I’ll beat you,” she whispered. “Wait and see.”

©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski