The god of storms and his bride grow closer as he devotes himself to her healing, Veles’s surveillance is questioned, and Nadzia receives an unpleasant reminder that her sister Keslai will attend the wedding.
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Nadzia’s injury compelled the god of storms to stop visiting his temples, a choice that nagged at him until Adomas announced he’d found a villager who could send news of the wedding via messenger pigeons. Relieved of that burden, he devoted himself to his bride’s welfare, bringing her meals, bathing her with cool cloths, wrapping her ankle to minimize the swelling.
At her request, he kept their cottage door open at all hours so she wouldn’t feel confined. When she grew restless, he moved the rocking chair outside and—per Ludvika’s instructions—kept her supplied with fluids while she basked in the sun.
The days grew warmer, the meadows flourishing with a rainbow of blooms: yellow-flowered rues and yarrows, purple alliums, red and orange dahlias, white irises. Perun spent hours with Nadzia watching butterflies and bees dance around blossoms in search of nectar. She often entertained him by closing her eyes, listening to a bird’s song, and then repeating the notes perfectly. He looked forward to each new day, content to do nothing more than sit with her and enjoy the world around them.
Despite her injury, Nadzia continued her stories, nestled in his arms at night. Such tales she told! Forty thieves hiding a cave full of treasure, opened with a secret phrase. Magic lamps that granted wishes. Kings eaten by mice. Dragons and dwarves and all kinds of magical creatures.
“Your writers have lively imaginations,” he said one evening after she finished a story about a hedgehog who became a prince. “I wish I could be as clever.”
Nadzia stroked his arm, tickling the auburn hairs. “The gods have no legends they tell one another?”
“We have our duties and court.”
“That sounds dull. No songs?”
“The faeries visit from time to time and entertain us with music.”
“What about Jūratė? She had an exquisite voice, or so I’m told.”
A familiar ache began in Perun’s chest, triggered by an image of the mermaid goddess on the shores of Palanga, serenading him, transporting him to ecstasy. He squeezed his eyes, banished the vision. That time was best forgotten. Only this moment mattered. “She did,” he said, kissing the top of Nadzia’s head, “but not as lovely as yours.”
Nadzia shifted and gazed at him in surprise. “Truly?”
“Yes, my love, truly. Every word you speak is filled with delight.”
“So sweet,” she murmured, resting her head against his heart. “What about your parents? Did Rodzenica never sing you to sleep?”
Perun sputtered with laughter. “I was created fully grown. It would have been most awkward for my mother to treat me as a newborn. And you forget, the gods don’t slumber.”
“Lullabies can soothe anyone, young or old, divine or mortal. And you needn’t be on the verge of sleep.” Nadzia pushed herself into a sitting position, bolstered by pillows. “Let me teach you one.”
“I am ill-suited to the task. Besides, there are no infants here for us to silence.”
“Do you want children?”
“What?” Perun’s face flooded with heat. “I never thought I’d have a wife, let alone a family. Few gods have one.”
“What about your brother, Mėnuo, and his wife, Saulė? They begat the Žvaigždės. We studied them at the convent. The moon and the sun and their daughters, the stars.”
“A rare exception granted by my father. He prefers to be the sole creator.” Perun squinted. “I don’t recall the star goddesses as infants. If so, they matured swiftly.”
He shuddered, a slow ripple that crimped his flesh. “I’d prefer that. My ears ring for hours whenever squealing babes are brought before me at my temples.”
“They don’t cry all the time,” Nadzia said. “I’ve yet to bear my own, but every novice helps out in the convent’s nursery. It’s not so difficult a task if you know what to do. Keep them clean and warm and fed, croon a bit if they’re fussy. They just want to feel loved and safe.”
“A mermaid’s daughter has the voice for that, the patience. Mine would wear thin. No child wants to see its father aggrieved.” Perun stared into the distance. “It’s a memory that lasts forever, knowing you’re a disappointment to the one who sired you.”
“I think everyone feels pressure to live up to expectations, parental or otherwise. We’re quick to berate ourselves for what we perceive as failings.” Nadzia frowned, as if her words had triggered a personal quandary. “We can strive to be more. I’ve seen you master your emotions once and I’m confident you can do so again. For all time, if necessary. We’ll practice as often as you like until you’re certain.”
“I might strike out in anger.” Perun’s voice grew hoarse. “I’ve done so before.”
Nadzia reached up and pushed a stray lock of his hair back behind his ear. “Jealousy and grief have shadowed your loving nature. Give it time to grow.”
“Then you would have no objections to bearing my seed?”
“None at all, if the Fates—your father, I should say—so bless us. But that’s yet to come.” Nadzia caressed his cheek. “Indulge me. You should know at least one song.”
She put a finger on Perun’s lips when he began to protest. “Don’t tell me you’re not capable. I refuse to believe that. You can achieve whatever you want with the proper guidance and the will to succeed. We’ll start with an easy one. Listen.”
She lowered her voice and infused it with tenderness as she sang:
“Hush-a-bye, my little one,
How many times during the day
Have I already picked you up?
I’ve already picked you up and carried you,
Put you down in your cradle.
Hush-a-bye, my little one,
She guided him through the melody. Although he fumbled at first, embarrassed by the scratchy noises that issued from his throat, she urged him to continue, praising each line he mastered. By the time night relinquished its claim to the sky, he was singing with a tenderness that filled his eyes with tears. How did she know him better than he knew himself?
“I told you,” she said, kissing him gently. “You can do anything.”
Sighing, she smiled and fell asleep.
He kissed her brow, tucked the quilt around her, and eased out of bed, moving to the doorway to witness another miracle: his sister, Aušra, goddess of the dawn, painting the heavens with swirls of lavender and pink as she prepared the world for the sun’s emergence. The fields slowly brightened and came alive with chirps and rustling. From the garden, a rooster heralded the day with strident crows. A grizzled yellow-brown hare bounded out of the grasses and sat up on its hind legs, nose twitching as it surveyed the area.
Perun kept still, careful not to startle the animal into fleeing, curious as to what the furry creature might do next. He’d never realized so many small pleasures existed around his home, never bothered to acquaint himself with terrestrial wonders. What could match the glory of his beloved skies? Now he was discovering a new world, one waiting to enchant him.
The hare trembled, shed its fur and grew, morphing into his sister, Mokosh, attired in a moss-green robe embroidered with daisies over a plain beige gown. Perun checked to make sure his loincloth was in place, left the cottage, and greeted her with a warm hug. “Have you come to judge how well I’ve been tending Nadzia?”
“I’m sure she’s in good hands.”
“It’s been almost a week. I thought she’d be up and about by now.” Perun shook his head. “Humans are such frail creatures.”
“More so when they’ve been uprooted from their homes.” A birch mouse scurried out of Mokosh’s pocket and settled on her shoulder, wrapping its tail around one of her waist-long braids. “I wouldn’t worry overmuch. Remember, she’s half-divine. She’ll regain her stamina soon enough. I can look in on her if you like.”
“I’d rather you didn’t. She needs her rest and only just now fell asleep.” Perun studied the ground, for some reason hesitant to mention his concerns. “Her slumber is erratic and fitful, never more than a few hours at a time. And she talks.”
“While she sleeps.”
Had Perun not been standing so close to his sister, he might have missed the emotions that swept across her face—shock, followed by fear, both replaced almost immediately by a deliberate calm. “Indeed,” she said, tilting her head. “When did this begin?”
“The night of her fall, when I returned to the cottage with Ludvika, I heard voices. When I opened the cottage door, Nadzia was alone, dozing. She looked at me strangely when I roused her and asked if she’d had a visitor. But every night since, she’s thrashed in bed and muttered.”
Mokosh leaned forward, her breath hitched. “What does she say?”
“He’s here, he watches.”
“He . . . yet she’s seen no one but you and Ludvika?”
Perun scratched his chin. He couldn’t shake the idea that Nadzia had been talking with someone, most likely a god or goddess. No human disappeared at will. But why would anyone come to her in secret? And why had his sister suddenly gone pale? “As far as I know.”
“But you’re not certain.” Mokosh turned her gaze to the meadow, her face inscrutable, her shoulders stiff with tension. “Has she been feverish?”
“Yes, from time to time.”
Mokosh whooshed out a breath. “Fire in the blood often causes mortals to hallucinate. Pay her ramblings no mind. The visions will cease once she’s well again.”
It was a credible explanation, although Perun wondered if his sister’s relief was tied to something more. Yet he had no reason to mistrust her. She’d supported him after Jūratė’s death, ensured the mermaid goddess’s daughters thrived over the centuries while he atoned. Why would she lie? “Your words are a comfort, sister. I feared Nadzia might have sustained more damage than anyone realized.”
“I confess that was my thought as well when you first mentioned the matter. Thank the Fates that it is nothing more than a febrile disease.” Mokosh smiled and tweaked Perun’s ear, laughing as he swatted her hand away. “You’ve changed, brother. I would never have believed you capable of showing concern for another.”
“It must look strange,” he agreed. “The mighty god of thunder reduced to a nursemaid. Truth be told, I enjoy attending to Nadzia. Not that I want her helpless forever. I prefer a strong mate. But caring for her gives me a renewed sense of purpose.”
“What about your followers and their needs? Is that not purpose enough?”
Perun crossed his arms. “They shower me with praise for the rains that keep their crops flourishing.”
“And you tire of their exaltation?” Mokosh’s brows rose. “We wouldn’t exist if they stopped believing in us.”
Perun scratched his chin. “Yes, I know that, and I even consider some of them friends. But I’m simply discharging my divine obligations. Mortals had no need of me elsewise. With Nadzia, it’s different. I want her to thrive. Seeing to her welfare is a pleasure, not a chore or a duty.”
His eyes misted. “She arouses emotions I thought buried long ago, the urge to meld with another soul.
“Shall we attribute that to love?”
Perun fell silent. The warmth Nadzia kindled in him went beyond simple lust, beyond words. She touched him to the very core of his being, allowing him to believe that they did belong together, just as the Fates intended, that things might work out for the best after all. “If you wish,” he said, reluctant to speak openly of his feelings lest he unwittingly jeopardize this newfound happiness. “She’s a most endearing woman.”
“And you are a most charming god.” Nadzia blew a kiss from the doorway. “Mokosh, what a lovely surprise. I’m healing well if that’s why you’ve come. Watch.”
She pulled up her nightgown and lifted her leg, rotating the ankle effortlessly. “The swelling and pain are gone. I feel wonderful and I owe it all to your brother’s tender, loving care. Will you join us for a walk?”
“You’ll want to change out of those bedclothes,” Mokosh said. “Let me assist you.”
“No need,” Perun objected. “I can do that.”
Nadzia winked as the goddess approached and took her by the hand. “It won’t take long.” She nodded at Perun and pointed eastward, her nose twitching. “You’ve neglected the summer storms that keep you cleansed. Why not refresh yourself in the river while I dress? We’ll meet you at the dock.”
Perun stood slack-jawed, his anger rising as the door closed and locked inches away from his face. This was his reward for dedicating his days and nights to a helpless mortal—insults? He raised his arm, ready to shatter the wood into splinters to gain entry and caught a whiff of musk so potent his eyes watered.
Coughing, he stepped back and made for the path that led to the pier. Perhaps a dip in the water wasn’t such a bad idea.
Inside the cottage, Mokosh crouched near the east-facing window and peeked over the sill as Perun departed. “Wait until he can’t hear us,” she whispered when Nadzia tried to speak. “Choose a dress for your walk. Rattle the drawers in case he’s listening.”
Lips clamped into a thin line, Nadzia rummaged through her wardrobe cabinet, pulled out an ivory chiton, and slammed the drawers shut when she’d finished. She noted with satisfaction how Mokosh cringed at the noise and hoped that Veles’s ears were ringing as well. A just reward for a devious spy.
She turned her back to the hearth where the god of the Underworld lurked and quickly exchanged her nightgown for the dress. It smelled of lavender, courtesy of sachets sprinkled throughout the drawers. The scent eased her irritation. She perched on the edge of the bed, hands clasped in her lap. Better to remain calm until the goddess was ready to talk.
Mokosh finally turned, rubbing her brow. “He’s gone. I apologize for my rudeness.”
“I’m sure you had good cause,” Nadzia said with a forgiving nod. She shouldn’t have been so quick to judge an ally. “But I’m curious. Why are you upset?”
“Because Perun told me his bride talks in her sleep.”
Nadzia gripped the bedsheets, her heart thudding. She’d known a few sleep-talkers at the convent, girls who spilled secrets while they slumbered yet had no memory of doing so when awakened. The abbess, once informed, summoned them to her room. No one knew exactly what transpired within, only that, after a visit with Mother Gintare, the night-time jabbering ceased. “Did I tell him what we plan?”
“Bless the Fates, no.”
“Then what troubles you?”
“You claimed someone was watching. I can think of only one reason why you might cling to such a belief.” Mokosh glowered and crossed her arms. “I know you’re here, brother. Come out and explain yourself.”
Sibilant laughter filled the room as a tiny snake wriggled out from the corner and expanded into godly form. “Delighted to oblige,” Veles said with a sweeping bow. “Although I see no need to justify my actions. Can you imagine the chaos had this dear girl revealed our scheme? Centuries of work destroyed. Not to mention the repercussions from our father. Be thankful for my vigilance.”
“What could you have done?”
“Alerted you at once, of course. You’re so good at alleviating suspicion. As you did just now with Perun when he told you his concerns.” Veles switched his yellow-eyed gaze to Nadzia. “She dismissed your words as feverish ravings. A simple interpretation, easy to accept, hard to disprove.”
“Perhaps,” Mokosh sniffed. “However, as you note, I took care of things. No intervention on your part was necessary. Indeed, none would have been necessary but for your subterfuge. Which brings me to a more pressing concern: this surveillance has not been sanctioned by the other members of our group.”
Nadzia went numb with cold. She turned on Veles, her breath heavy and uneven. “You acted on your own?”
“I created our league of conspirators,” he answered, black-and-gold scales rippling with umbrage. “I don’t require permission to pursue its goals.”
“That isn’t true. Mokosh helped form that alliance. The least you could do is advise her of your intentions.” Nadzia slipped off the bed and stood tall before the goddess. “You need to call a meeting of the cabal. I’d have nothing to reveal if Veles hadn’t insinuated himself into my life. I don’t require constant scrutiny. I know what I’m doing. Leave me be.”
Mokosh peered at her brother. “A sensible request. She can proceed far better knowing we trust her to do what’s best.”
“We’ll let our brethren decide,” Veles said, the slits in his eyes narrowing. “I’m not convinced she won’t forget her purpose. You haven’t seen how she glows when they’re alone together, away from public scrutiny. My brother can ooze charm when it suits him.”
Mokosh snorted softly. “A trait you both share. Unfortunately, I’ve promised to walk with the two of them. I can’t leave without kindling Perun’s suspicions. Will you arrange the gathering?”
“Of course, although I’m certain to prevail.” Veles blew a kiss across the room. “Fare well, beautiful maiden. I look forward to our next encounter.”
Mokosh grumbled as he shrank and disappeared behind the hearth. “I’m afraid he’ll do his best to sway everyone against me.”
“Then we must get you back as soon as possible. I don’t want him around anymore.”
“Try not to fret. My brethren know his perspective is skewed by hatred. Besides, whatever he argues, I have a strong rebuttal—his presence here means he’s left the Underworld without an overseer. That should convince most of my brothers and sisters to take my side. We have little patience for those who neglect their duties.”
“I suppose that gives you more of a case against Perun,” Nadzia said, wishing it wasn’t so. “He hasn’t seen to his summer storms since I was injured.”
“Oh, I’ve taken care of that.”
“You can create tempests?”
Mokosh laughed and drew Nadzia into a brief hug. “Hardly. However, I can raise groundwaters. A temporary measure, to be sure, yet sufficient to keep the crops irrigated.”
She opened the door and motioned to the path. “My brother should be clean by now. Shall we join him?”
They linked arms and strolled down the hill to the pier. Nadzia listened with half an ear to Mokosh’s comments about the glorious flowers blooming in the meadow. She trusted the goddess to do her best. Whether Veles would abide by a vote to abandon his prying remained to be seen. She hoped the cabal would give extra credence to his animosity toward Perun when it deliberated and discount any charges that she was overly affectionate.
Because—scoundrel or not—Veles was a keen observer. She did feel more radiant around Perun. The tenderness she’d coaxed out of him had sparked a mutual warmth. But she didn’t dare speak of her feelings. Better to be thought pure in her resolve than someone beginning to consider a different future. One the Order of Bursztyn never intended. A destiny built on love, not hate.
They found Perun stretched out on the dock. He lay on the boards with hands atop his chest, eyes closed, his chest gently rising and falling. Nadzia studied him and then looked quizzically at Mokosh. “I thought the gods didn’t sleep.”
“We don’t. But we can enter into a form of what mortals might call regeneration. Our bodies slow while we replenish our powers from within. I suspect my brother is somewhat fatigued from caring for you.”
Nadzia bit her lip. “I didn’t mean to sap his strength. Is he vulnerable? Can a human sneak up and hurt him?”
“Only another deity can approach him unawares when he is in this state, and even then he would be quick to respond. I’ll show you, although I suggest you keep your distance. He might not appreciate being roused.”
Mokosh poked the resting god with the tip of her foot. He sprang upright at once, wild-eyed, fists clenched, steam pouring from his knuckles. “Who dares disturb me?”
“Gently now, brother,” Mokosh said, hands raised in supplication. “All is well. We’ve come to stroll with you, as promised. There is neither threat nor danger here.”
Perun shook out his arms until the vapor dissipated. He ran a hand through damp hair and turned to Nadzia, his gaze softening. “You are a sight to behold, my love. I hope I didn’t frighten you.”
“Not at all.” She moved forward to kiss him and linger in his embrace. “I was intrigued to learn how the Immortals renew themselves. We never learned that at the convent.”
“We wouldn’t be gods without a bit of mystery,” Perun said, wriggling his brows. “Where shall we go today? You’ve already seen much of the terrain that leads to Kaunas. Why not take the opposite direction?”
“An excellent idea,” Mokosh said. “There’s a lovely trail that follows the river, with birch and pine trees to keep us shaded.”
Despite assurances that she felt fine, Perun insisted Nadzia hold onto him while they walked. “I was lax once,” he said, tucking her hand into his elbow. “That will not happen again. No running or scampering. Besides, I’ve found that a measured pace allows better appreciation of your surroundings.”
“Who is this god beside me?” Mokosh teased, taking his free arm. “The Perun I know does nothing in moderation. He charges ahead, heedless of others. What can I expect of him next? Poetry?”
“I shall gratefully cede that task to our sister, Lada, who is far more eloquent.”
“Why not seek her counsel?” Mokosh asked “A poem dedicated to the one you love would be most sweet. You could recite it at the wedding reception.”
Perun grew so pale and stiff that both women burst into laughter. Nadzia leaned into him and smiled impishly. “It would be sweet. But I won’t insist, not if the mere thought turns you ashen and rigid with dread.”
“Do what you will, brother.” Mokosh appraised him with a hint of challenge in her eyes. “It may be too difficult a task, given you’ve little time to accomplish it. Perhaps Lada can compose a verse in your stead. She is always glad to write about affairs of the heart.”
Perun’s throat rumbled. “I prefer to express my devotion in private. There’s no need for a public spectacle.”
“If you insist.” Mokosh placed a hand against her heart and gave a long, exaggerated sigh. “I suppose I’ll have to settle for watching you kiss after your vows.”
She tilted forward, grinning at Nadzia. “Don’t disappoint me.”
The wide path accommodated the three of them side by side. Perun kept an even pace, checking often to make sure Nadzia hadn’t tired. She breathed deep, ecstatic to be outside and moving again, delighting in the egrets that dove into the pools in search of fish, the dragonflies darting through reeds. When they came upon a length of trail open to the sun, she stopped and insisted everyone join her for a quick swim. Dripping and laughing afterwards, they continued south, their clothes and skin drying quickly in the mid-day heat.
Perun called a halt when they rounded a bend and came upon a copse of oak trees circling a small patch of grass. “That’s far enough for today,” he said, settling Nadzia on the ground. “Rest a while, and then we’ll turn back.”
He scratched his head and frowned. “I should have thought to bring sustenance. You must be famished.”
“A problem easily solved,” Mokosh waded into the river and emerged with a wriggling pike and a half-dozen cattails. She handed them to Perun, along with a flask of water she pulled from her robes. “I’ll gather herbs and wood for a fire.”
Soon Nadzia was eating a hearty lunch of roasted fish and roots seasoned with rosemary. She held out a morsel for Perun. “I know the goddess of the earth doesn’t eat flesh, but would you like a taste? It’s quite good.”
He grimaced and drew back, swallowing audibly. “Fish are slimy creatures. Their scales stick in my throat.”
“All the more for me.” Nadzia took a bite and chewed with gusto.
They sat under the trees and watched the sun arc towards the horizon. Nadzia lazed in Perun’s arms, muscles relaxing as he massaged her scalp. She hummed a lazy tune. If only she could share the joy flooding her heart. Surely this was the life the Fates intended for the two of them.
Mokosh wandered off and returned with an armful of vibrant wildflowers. She wove them into fragrant garlands, lizards darting up and down her sleeves as she worked, looping each strand around her neck when finished.
“Why don’t we make more of those?” Nadzia suggested. “The meadows around Perun’s temple are bursting with blooms. We can pass them out to the women who attend the wedding.”
“That would be lovely,” the goddess said, nodding in agreement. “Your guests from the Order of Bursztyn will look especially nice with a touch of color livening up their robes.”
She put down a string of yellow rue mixed with lavender hepatica. “Have you chosen a site for their tents, Nadzia? I’m sure they’ll enjoy being as close to you as possible.”
“Not yet. I have time.”
“Don’t take too long to decide. Mother Gintare is most anxious to see how you’re faring. She says they should be here within the week, earlier if she decides to enchant the currents to move in her favor.”
Nadzia’s stomach curdled. She didn’t remember discussing exactly when the abbess and the others would arrive, but she’d expected—given their disgust for the god of storms—that they would spend as little time around him and his followers as possible, a day at the most. Her voice came out a croak. “So soon?”
Something in Perun shifted at the news. A catch in his breath, a hold that tightened and then released, flesh that tingled with new heat. “I’m sure they’ll want a spot by the river,” he said, a shade of apprehension in his tone, “but they are welcome anywhere save the field nearest the temple. That is reserved for my priests.”
Nadzia stretched and slipped out of his arms, studied him from under her lashes as she shook out crumbs from her gown. The scowl was back, his face pinched. Did he fear the abbess’s displeasure?
Mokosh rose, festooned with flowers. “I agree with my brother. Your family is accustomed to a cooler clime. I can help you mark out and prepare a space with plenty of trees, privacy, and easy access to the water. You want them as comfortable as possible, don’t you?”
“Will Keslai be there?” Nadzia asked, hoping the Fates would keep them apart, even though the abbess had already decided. She’d pushed the terror of that morning on the beach—the hate-filled curse—to the back of her mind. The memory spewed forth and taunted her now: Keslai’s face, twisted with spite, wishing her dead.
“She is most aggrieved by her harsh words,” Mokosh replied with a hint of impatience. “The abbess believes the two of you should reconcile. There is no malice in the poor girl’s heart, and her voice is exceptionally strong.”
“But . . .” Nadzia let her objections subside, not wanting to press the matter in front of Perun and spark his curiosity, even though she longed to argue. Why couldn’t Mother Gintare see that one singer alone wouldn’t determine victory or defeat? Any other novice would work as well. It didn’t have to be Keslai.
Did her sister truly wish her well? Nadzia doubted it yet hid her misgivings behind a bright smile. “You’re right,” she said, earning a satisfied nod from the goddess. “My guests’ well-being is most important.”
She rose and stretched and let Perun guide her back to the path. She might lack the power to stop Keslai from attending, but at least the convent’s camp would be well away from the cottage, a distance she hoped to use to her advantage.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Jurate and Kastysis: https://nammu.com/eng/legend-jurate-kastytis/