The wedding day is finally here. Will Nadzia honor her vow of vengeance, take her place beside a god she was never meant to love, or …?
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When the sun crept over the horizon, Nadzia sent Perun to the cook’s cottage for her morning meal with special instructions for a bracing tea. She draped a shawl loosely around her nightdress and lingered in the doorway after he left, watching the day bloom in glorious colors of crimson and violet, copying birdcalls, all in a vain attempt to ease the worry roiling her stomach.
She’d gone over her plan with the god of storms until he could recite it without error. That gave her comfort. Yet she was keenly aware of elements beyond her control: Veles, the abbess, her sisters, the gods in attendance at the ceremony. Any one of them could frustrate her goal, intentionally or not.
At least she could count on her thunderous god. Nadzia brushed a finger across her lips, recalling his kisses, soft and then filled with passion, after they discussed what must be done. Strange, how learning of each other’s artifice should lead to a new intimacy, a new level of trust. She took it as a sign the Fates favored their quest and prayed their benevolence would hold through the day.
She pulled back from the doorsill in surprise at the sight of her servant bustling up the path with a tray until she remembered—Mokosh had promised the girl would recover in time to attend the wedding.
But Gabi looked far from well. Her eyes were glassy, and a drop of saliva slid down her chin. “I beg your pardon, mistress,” she mumbled. “I didn’t mean to be late with your breakfast. One of your sisters stopped me to ask about the wedding and . . . I don’t recall much after that.”
“Don’t concern yourself about me. You look exhausted. Please, come sit for a while.” Nadzia took the tray and placed it on the table, settled her handmaiden in a chair, and brought her a glass of cool water from the pitcher kept atop a stand near the wardrobe. “I wasn’t expecting you,” she said, pulling up a seat beside her. “Has Perun gone elsewhere?”
“Ludvika wanted to talk to him about the feast. They sent me instead.” Gabi drained the glass, her color returning as she finished. “I don’t know what came over me. I felt fine when I set out.”
Nadzia’s brows crimped. Though it wasn’t a far walk from the servants’ cottage, the day already shimmered with heat. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you’ve been out in the sun too long. I’ll ask Adomas to reserve a spot in the shade for you in the grove. I want you to be comfortable at the wedding. You’ve been a faithful servant.”
Gabi crossed and uncrossed her legs as she eyed the open door. “I should be going, there’s so much to do.”
“Hasn’t Ludvika hired people to help today?”
“Yes, but . . .” Gabi stared at the floor, hands clenched so tight her knuckles bulged. “The master told me you know I spied for him. I’m sorry.”
Nadzia gave the girl’s shoulder a friendly squeeze. “Believe me, I understand what it means to follow orders. You proved your loyalty. I won’t fault you for that.”
“May the Fates bless you today, mistress,” Gabi said, sighing with relief as she scrambled to her feet with a genuine smile. “A long and happy life to you.”
Perun strode in as she rushed out the door. “I’ve rarely seen that girl in such high spirits. Whatever did you say to her?”
“That she’s blameless for anything done on your behalf. I think she’ll be more at ease with us in the future.”
He nodded and uncovered the tray, filled with blini, salmon, sour cream, fresh strawberries, and a pot of black tea. “I suspect you’re anxious. Still, you need to be strong for what lies ahead. A good meal will sustain you. Let’s begin with the drink you requested.”
Nadzia took the stone mug he offered, sipped, and shuddered at the bitterness. “Ugh. I know I asked for a strong brew, but this is vile.”
“A bit of honey should fix that.” Perun reached for the small jar of golden syrup. His hand lingered above several pieces of beeswax piled on a plate next to it. “Ludvika was puzzled that you wanted both until I explained you intended this for Babilos, to thank him for the sustenance he provided when you visited the Tree of Life.”
Nadzia’s eyes flicked to the hearth and then back again. “I know he has his own hives, but I thought he’d enjoy something regional.”
“He has a robust appetite,” Perun agreed, moving to sit beside her. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate the gesture.”
Nadzia speared a forkful of pancake and paused. “You don’t eat much human food. Does it take on a different flavor when you’re divine?”
“A question only you can answer, as I’ve never possessed a human palate. I suspect, given how much Babilos enjoys his meals, that you will continue to find it delicious.” Perun stretched, deftly palmed a slice of beeswax, and moved to the dresser, rifling through the drawers. “Have you chosen today’s gown?”
“The convent brought one. It’s ivory silk, quite plain.”
“Hardly adequate for so wondrous a bride. You deserve better.”
Nadzia shrugged. “Unless you have a seamstress at your beck and call, it will have to suffice.”
“Nothing so pedestrian, my love. Ah, at last!”
Nadzia followed his gaze. A whirl of black, two giant ravens, flew near and hovered above the cottage door. Perun stepped outside and caught the two parcels they dropped—one wrapped in white linen and tied with red ribbons, the other a roll of parchment. He carried both packages to the bed, tore open the message, and cursed softly. “My parents insist you prepare for the wedding alone. I must wait with them until the ceremony begins.”
“It’s a common practice. The groom isn’t meant to see the bride until she joins him at the altar. Anticipation makes the heart grow fonder, or so I’ve heard.”
Perun’s eyes grew misty. “What a glorious sight you will be. Mother assured me the gown she commissioned from the Laumes is like no other.”
“She asked the fairies to make me a wedding dress? Oh, it’s bound to be lovely.” Nadzia pushed back her chair and sprang to her feet, eager to see what they’d devised. A surge of dizziness swept over her. She sat down heavily, panting, and waited for the room to stop spinning.
Perun was at her side in a flash, his face dark with concern. “What’s wrong? You’ve gone pale.”
“I’m fine,” she said with a tiny laugh. “Too much excitement, I think. You must thank Rodzenica for me. I never expected so wondrous a gift.”
“You can show your appreciation in a few hours. We will be waiting at the grove when the sun peaks.” Perun bent down and kissed her cheek. “If we fail,” he murmured, “I fear no one will survive my father’s rage.”
She rose and folded herself into his arms, speaking in a voice too soft for anyone else to hear. “Then we must hope the Fates grant us success.”
He held her until the ravens began to squawk, and then stepped outside. With a wink, he morphed into an eagle and took to the sky, the glossy, black birds flanking him.
Nadzia watched until he was a mere dot and then sat down again, staring blankly at her plate. No wonder she felt weak. She’d barely touched her food.
She ate slowly, washing down each mouthful with a swig of honey-laced tea. Finally unable to swallow another bite, she left the table, settled in the rocking chair, and listened as the camp came alive. She wished she had enough wax to stop up every mortal’s ear once the abbess and her sisters began keening. It didn’t matter that Veles had promised a remedy for them afterwards. They’d still suffer.
The rhythm of rocking lulled her into a light sleep. She woke suddenly, startled by movement in the cottage, and glimpsed Gabi leaving with her breakfast tray. By the angle of the sun, she judged it late morning. She rose slowly, her head buzzing. If this was nerves, she had time for one last remedy: a long swim. Swapping her nightgown for a simple linen shift, she headed for the river.
Perun’s followers called out from their campsites, wishing her all the best. She waved to them, her limbs as loose and wobbly as a marionette. The path lengthened and then shortened as she walked. Each step demanded her full attention, one false move certain to send her tumbling.
As she passed the garden, Adomas tossed an apple over the fence. She caught it and then cringed as the red skin split open and revealed a swarm of maggots. Fighting back nausea, she let the fruit fall and trudged on, willing herself forward in the heat.
Her spirits revived at the sight of the dock. The shorebirds scattered as she sloshed through the reeds and dived into the blessedly cool water. Every pore drank in the soothing moisture. She drifted along the river bottom, letting the water restore her senses, marveling at the way the sun sparkled underwater, delighting in the currents that carried her southward, when a huge black-and-gold snake shot into the river from a hole in the banks and flashed its fangs.
Gods be damned, would Veles never let her be?
He herded Nadzia like a sheepdog, forcing her back until they were at the dock. Words rippled through the water, echoing in her mind. “This isn’t the time for a random journey, dear girl. Once you are my queen, we will explore the river to your heart’s content. Go back to your cottage and make yourself pretty. It’s almost time for your next performance.”
Nadzia waded through reeds and climbed up the banks, awestruck by the brightness and clarity around her. The air glimmered with a colorful sheen. Vibrant auras encased Perun’s followers. Rainbows arced over the high priests’ tent. She opened her arms, embracing the world, certain that the wonders at hand were a sign she was attuned to the glory of life, her endeavor blessed.
Her newfound joy evaporated at the sight of a golden-haired figure clasping a bag outside the cottage. “Have you lost your mind?” Keslai snapped as she approached. “We have to get you ready.”
“I can take care of myself,” Nadzia groused, her tone as peevish as her sister’s.
“Mother Gintare insists. She isn’t completely sure of you. With good reason, I’d say. You should be here, praying for success, not disappearing without a word.”
“I needed to swim. It relaxes me.”
“You’ll have plenty of time for that later,” Keslai sniffed. “Come inside, it’s time to dress you and fix your hair. The ceremony begins in less than an hour.”
The fairy-crafted gown was everything Nadzia could have imagined and more: silk the color of a storm-tossed sea, a bodice embroidered with tiny pearls, a hem that shimmered like the stars when she twirled.
Keslai eyed her with open malice, lips drawn back in scorn. “Good thing they gave you such a fine dress. It’ll draw attention from how drab you are. I would have made a beautiful bride no matter what I wore.”
Though the words stung, Nadzia wished she could offer solace, knowing how desperately her sister had wanted to be the thunder god’s mate. Yet she knew too well that any sign of empathy would elicit even more venom. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat, careful to pull the gown around her so the train wouldn’t get trampled, and hummed while Keslai tended to her hair, braiding, coiling, and pinning stray curls in place with tiny white starfish.
“I suppose you’ll do,” Keslai said finally, putting down her comb with a huff. “Not that it matters. You’ll be a mess by the time we’re done.”
Nadzia’s skin prickled. She shook away the disquiet. She wouldn’t fail. She couldn’t.
The ravens returned, screeching. “That must mean it’s time to go. Shoo them away, would you, Keslai?”
“Afraid they’ll ruin your precious gown with droppings?”
“I don’t think they care whose clothes or hair they ruin. There’s a poker by the fireplace if you need it.”
While Keslai banished the birds, Nadzia rushed to her dresser. She grabbed the wax Perun had stashed there, rolled it into two balls, and hid them in her bodice.
“Let’s be on our way,” Keslai called impatiently. “Time to show these gods what the daughters of Jūratė can do.”
A relentless sun blazed in the white-hot sky. Overhead, eagles circled, whistling shrilly. Specks of colored light danced across the path. Nadzia snuck a glance at Keslai, walking alongside her with a curiously smug look, and steadied her breath, determined to overcome any lingering stress.
At top of the hill, a mossy aisle led to the clearing circled by Perun’s sacred oaks, each tree adorned with black ribbons. Dievas and Rodzenica, dazzling in golden raiment and wreathed in smiles, stood beneath a gigantic white arch. The thunder god’s fragrant purple roses rambled up its sides and across the top. Deities who had chosen to attend—the same thirty or so who’d shown up for Nadzia’s presentation at court—clustered behind them. Her groom paced on the right, gripping ebony robes.
Mokosh, stunning in a forest-green gown, greeted the sisters. She instructed Keslai to continue ahead and join the other novices to the left of the arch, then gave Nadzia a bouquet of orange blossoms, lilies, and white roses—a traditional Lithuanian bridal spray. “No veil or ornaments for the head. Not when there’s a crown waiting for you.”
She kissed Nadzia on both cheeks. “Bless you for helping us find vengeance at last.”
Nadzia’s face grew hot. She longed to speak freely, tell Mokosh that she’d chosen a different path, but the words lodged in her throat. There’d be time enough for explanations later. If she survived.
The flowers in her hands bloomed and faded and then bloomed again. Her spine was slick with sweat. Nadzia pinched her forearm to steady herself. Heat and nerves, that’s all this was, just like when she called out Perun’s stone. With luck, the wedding would be over quickly. She hadn’t thought to ask earlier. “Will the ceremony take all afternoon?”
Mokosh used the sleeve of her gown to dab at the beads of sweat peppering Nadzia’s forehead. “We gods aren’t particularly fond of overlong rituals. Not when there are festivities awaiting. The Great Hall is ablaze with jewels and candles and gold-threaded tapestries. The tables are set with the finest pitchers and goblets. It’s even rumored the Queen of the Fairies will come and dance in your honor.”
A rousing strain of music blared from the heavens. “I must join the others,” Mokosh said with a comforting smile. “Be strong and remember those who are with you.”
Nadzia gulped a mouthful of air and stepped onto the moss, imagining it as a flat field of cooling, soothing kelp. The exhilarating notes transformed into a melody sweeter than a dove’s coo. Heart in mouth, she proceeded up the deep green path, her slow, deliberate steps matching the music’s gentle cadence.
The servants, dressed in white, greeted her from the back rows. Nadzia quailed as they briefly transformed into long-beaked storks. Gods, what was wrong with her? She hastily returned her attention to the ground. Perun’s followers cheered as she continued toward the arch. They tossed grains of wheat, carpeting the path with tokens of prosperity. Nadzia choked in revulsion as the tiny specks wriggled to life and squished under her sandals.
Desperate for assurance she wasn’t losing her mind, Nadzia searched for the Elders. She spotted them, cloaked in gray and interspersed amongst the crowd, the abbess studying her with grim wariness. Wondering why they weren’t closer to their targets, she saw that Perun’s priests had appropriated the front rows. It didn’t matter, she decided. A siren’s voice would resound throughout the clearing.
She’d almost finished her promenade when Keslai leaned into the aisle. “You look terrified,” she said, a sly shine in her eyes. “It isn’t too late to admit this is all too much. Just say the word and I’ll take your place.”
Nadzia clenched her jaw and walked proud, her sister’s gall erasing every last bit of nervousness. She stopped under the arch and breathed in the fragrance of Perun’s flowers, relishing their sweet aroma. The god of storms moved to her side and tucked her arm under his elbow. “You are a vision, my love,” he said, bending down to graze her cheek. “Fates grant us victory.”
The pendant at her neck pulsed so fiercely she feared it might burst. She drew courage from that, knowing that his heart beat with equal fervor, that they were bound together in desperate hope. She sent a final prayer to the goddess he once loved. Watch over us, Blessed One. Help us triumph.
Perun bowed to his parents. “Dearest Mother and Father. I thank you for the precious gift of life, for your care and guidance. If I have been ungrateful, if I have caused you pain, I ask your forgiveness. Grant me your blessing.”
“I have nurtured you through times of toil and years of longing,” Rodzenica said, her violet eyes awash with tears, “certain you would find happiness one day. My wish for you is a love that grows ever stronger and sustains you through difficulties. Marriage is a daily tangle of wills. Do not fear compromise. It is a sign of strength, not weakness.”
Dievas clamped a hand on Perun’s shoulder. “My son, it gives me the greatest of pleasure to see you wedded at last, and to such a charming girl. May she bring you everlasting joy.”
His tone became solemn. “What is joined together today shall not be torn asunder by mortal or god. Do you pledge to hold this union sacred?”
“I do.” Perun’s assent boomed over the gathering.
Dievas turned to Nadzia, his gaze piercing. “Daughter of Jūratė, your presence here is a balm to our spirits. Do you give your assent on this hallowed occasion?”
Nadzia swallowed in a mouth gone dry as bone. “I do.”
Perun gathered her in an embrace, his kiss long and fervent. Cloaked by his robes, she reached into her bodice and then raised her arms, seeming to caress his ears as she plugged them with wax. “May the Fates watch over us and keep us safe.”
He swiveled and presented her to the crowd. They shouted huzzahs and whistled their approval, stomping the ground. As they cheered, a servant appeared with a thick scarlet cushion, a jeweled knife resting on its top.
Nadzia watched, heart banging against her ribs, as the goddess took the dagger and pulled aside her son’s robes. He stood unflinching while she slashed open his chest, exposing his massive heart. The assembly quieted, struck dumb by the divine force pulsing before them.
The giant red muscle swelled and ebbed, pumping in a hypnotic rhythm echoed by the jewel at Nadzia’s breast. She inched closer, breath hitching, unclasped her necklace and placed the amber in Rodzenica’s hand.
The goddess drew a slit into the pendant, gently drew out the fragment inside, and lifted it high, for all to see. “Now shall the god of thunder be made whole again.”
She lowered her hand and whispered. “Bless you, dear Nadzia, for loving my son.”
A harsh wailing, as keen as the blade in Rodzenica’s hand, ruptured the air. Perun’s disciples crumpled to the ground in agony. Dievas and his children clamped their hands to their heads and fell to their knees, howling. Rodzenica’s face twisted into a furious grimace. She lost her grip on the knife and sliver. Both fell to the moss as she lurched, shrieking, into the rows of high priests.
The Elders and novices pushed past writhing bodies. Their voices rose in increasing fervor as they strode toward the arch, arms linked. Perun scrabbled at his ears, floundering under their assault. He gave Nadzia one last, searching look, and then toppled, crashing to the ground with a dull thud.
She moved as if in a dream. The crimson lump of Perun’s heart, inches away, quivered as she reached for it with a trembling hand. Her fingers went numb, and she clutched without finding purchase. Blessed One, help me!
Haunting cries at her back cut through the stupor. She snapped to attention, her mental fog vanquished, and grabbed, blood squishing in her palm as she captured the divine essence that meant life or death.
The piercing wails ceased. Gods and mortals staggered about, moaning. This was the time to speak out, while everyone was still reeling from the attack. Nadzia called upon the power within, searched for the abbess, and addressed her in the boldest, most confident tone she could muster. “I will not let you hurt him. We are meant to be together, to rule the sea and sky.”
“Hold true to your vow,” Mother Gintare shouted, striding forward. “We must avenge the Blessed One.”
Veles whirled into place next to the abbess and slithered close, his words hushed and fearful. “Come along, my sweet. We must leave before my parents regain their senses and punish you. Once you’re mine, I’ll keep you safe.”
Nadzia recoiled from the scaly god’s rancid breath. “I don’t want you,” she said, all but spitting in Veles’s ashen face. “Go back to your foul realm. I’ll never be yours.”
The slits in his eyes widened in surprise. “Think carefully,” he warned. “Wait too long and you’ll suffer. The gods don’t take kindly to tricksters.”
“Perhaps not, but they’ll listen to me as long as I hold Perun’s heart. It’s time to end this. We have to live for the future, not fester over the past. I won’t relent until your father makes me a goddess and agrees to forgive everyone who has plotted against him.”
“Don’t be a fool,” Veles pleaded. “Jūratė’s children cannot sing forever, and my mother is looking particularly fierce. I expect she’ll have no problem convincing my brethren to pin down your sisters while she cuts out their tongues. Not a pretty sight for such tender eyes.”
“Oh, she will, my dear. In a heartbeat.” Veles grinned, black fangs flashing in the sunlight. “Then I expect she’ll want to torture them. I know you’re not ready for that.”
Mother Gintare stroked her throat. “Heed his words, child. Our voices are strong, but they will not withstand a continuous onslaught if Dievas fights back. Nor was that our intent. Go with him while you still can. What happens to us is not your concern. We are prepared for whatever the gods inflict as long as we know Perun will not live forever.”
“There’s no need for anyone to be harmed.” Nadzia turned her attention to Veles. “And you forget: if Rodzenica punishes the convent, your cabal will be next.”
Rasping laughter greeted her words. “Once the convent’s traitors are silenced, who will speak of our conspiracy? You can’t possibly believe my parents will give credence to anything you say.”
“They will. They must.”
Veles’s mocking smile vanished as he pointed to the crowd. “Look, do you see? Rodzenica is coming back to herself. If we aren’t gone by the time she reaches us, I’ll have to spin a tale, just as I promised when we sat together in the thunder god’s temple. You do remember, don’t you? A simple story about how you seduced me with your voice and then persuaded me to conceal Perun’s heart, all to avenge the Order of Bursztyn? It won’t take much to convince my mother, I assure you. I’ve never seen her so livid.”
“She won’t dare cross me. Not while her son’s life is in my hands.”
“I don’t know what led you to betray your sisters, but I assure you, the gods will prevail. They always have, they always will. Steal away with me before my mother smites you.”
Rodzenica towered above the fallen priests, her face cold and bleak as death. Dievas and his children roared with outrage as they stumbled upright behind the arch and formed a mass of seething divinity. Veles tugged at Nadzia’s arm. “You’re running out of time.”
Perun leapt to his feet, eyes red as coals, and pointed a smoldering arm at his brother. “You shall not have her.”
Before Nadzia realized what was happening, Veles was clasping her before him in a divine grip, impossible to break. “Oh, what a clever farce. You aren’t hurt at all, are you? However did the two of you manage that?:
“Uh, uh, uh,” he cautioned as Perun advanced, sparks coursing from his hands. “Careful now, brother. Mustn’t hurt the bride.”
Mother Gintare gaped at Veles, her face etched with revulsion as understanding dawned. “You would dare use my daughter as a shield? Leave her be!”
“Bend your head, my love,” Perun called out as balls of fire appeared in his palms. “I don’t want to harm you.”
Veles’s tail snaked around Nadzia, pinning her in place. His hands circled her neck and squeezed. “I can take your charming bride alive or claim her as a corpse. The choice is yours, brother.”
The god of storms took aim. Nadzia, gasping, shook her head, silently pleading with him to stop. But he was too consumed with fury, blinded to all else, and she had no way to tell him that as long as she drew breath she wouldn’t rest until she found a way back to him.
She choked as the abbess darted in front of her, arms spread wide in protection. “I said, leave my daughter be!”
“Gintare, no!” Veles’s tail loosened as he cried out in dismay. Taking advantage of his distraction, Nadzia slipped free and pushed the old woman out of harm’s way.
Perun saw her too late. He shouted in horror as his flaming missile pierced Nadzia’s chest. She peered down in disbelief at the blood seeping into the pearls of her bodice and collapsed.
“Gods save us, what have I done?” Perun pulled out the clumps of wax blocking his ears and raced to Nadzia’s side. He kneeled, gathered her in his arms, rocking her as he wept, grief-stricken. “Why did you move?”
Nadzia coughed and wiped her mouth. Her fingers came away streaked with red. “We promised not to hurt anyone.”
She traced the slit in Perun’s chest, her voice a wisp of sorrow and longing. “You must swear to protect the Order in my stead. Do you promise?”
“Always. Forever.” Perun closed his hand over hers and searched the crowd for Dievas, found him leaning against the arch, his face stippled with indignation. “Father, there must be something you can do. Help me!”
Dievas snorted and extended a hand to his wife, making her way to him among the groaning mortals. “I offer no assistance to anyone who betrays me, and neither will your mother.”
“This is a plight of your own design,” Rodzenica said, her posture rigid as she joined her husband. “Do not look to us for compassion. Nadzia violated our trust, fed us lies. I shall take enormous pleasure in watching her perish. She won’t survive much longer.”
“Stay with me, my love,” Perun sobbed, cradling her. “Don’t leave me alone.”
Veles sidled closer. “How unfortunate. I would have preferred her unmolested.”
“This is your fault!” Perun growled. “My bride and I would be celebrating our union had you not meddled. I swear you will not live to see the night.”
“Come now, brother, you haven’t the power to slay another Immortal. Haven’t our battles taught you as much?” Veles gave a derisive bow. “I never thought I’d be grateful to you, but thanks to your rage this little darling will soon be at my side forever. The dead can’t return to life, no matter how much you wish for it. What a delightful turn of events.”
“Silence!” Dievas flung a bolt of white light that sent the god of the Underworld sprawling. “You will explain your part in this treachery later. Return to your domain—unless you wish us to pass judgment on you while our heads still ache.”
“I’ve broken no laws,” Veles remarked casually as he rose, flicking off bits of moss stuck to his scales. “I simply gave the poor girl a better choice. I’m happy to go, as long as she comes with me.”
Dievas stomped his foot. The earth beneath him quaked and split open, releasing clouds of sizzling mist. “She is worse than Jūratė, for she hid her deceit behind the guise of innocence. I warn you, do not interfere. She will remain here until we decide her future. Depart now, of your own accord, or I will imprison you in one of my dungeons and forget I have the key.”
Veles hissed and fled through the crowd. Perun’s disciples clambered to their feet as he passed. “Give her to the god of the dead,” the priests shouted. “She’s a traitor, a liar, a cheat. She deceived the one who loved her. She deserves to die!”
“A murderous beast beguiled her,” Mother Gintare cried, storming toward Dievas. “He is the one who should perish. How many times will you let him kill without consequence?”
Mokosh stepped forward, green eyes sparking. “If Nadzia has been false, you need look no further than yourself and the Divine Council as the cause, Father. You forced her into a situation without ever considering what she wanted.”
“Mortals,” Dievas countered savagely, “are bound to obey the will of the gods.”
“What proof is there that Nadzia—not the convent—meant to harm you? You have none.” Mokosh turned to Perun. “Obviously, you did not plan for this. What was your intent?”
He hesitated, knowing his sister had supported the Order’s rebellion. He could accuse her of complicity, but he had no assurance anyone would corroborate his claim, which she was certain to deny. Perhaps this was a ruse meant to focus attention on him instead of the conspirators.
Whatever her objective, he had no choice but to answer. “We were going to demand she be made immortal before my heart was restored. We thought it would keep the convent safe and prevent Veles from claiming her.”
He appealed again to his father. “Do something, I beg you. I can’t bear to lose her.”
“Never. You cast your lot with a renegade. I owe you nothing.” Dievas addressed the crowd in his mightiest voice. “See now the fate of those who provoke the gods,” he roared. “Heed my words: I shall strike down any deity or human who dares intervene.”
Rodzenica, mouth twisted in a feral grin, placed a hand on his arm. “Perhaps we need do nothing. Recall, if you will, what the girl said: she doesn’t want to go to Veles’s ‘foul realm.’ What better reward for her treachery than to send her to a place she dreads, where every day will be a reminder of all she has lost?”
“So shall it be. Death and despair.”
Nadzia uttered a harrowing cry. She tugged Perun close and whispered in his ear. “I won’t give myself to Veles. You’re the only one I’ll ever love.”
She kissed his cheek, gave him one last look full of love, and then sagged, lifeless.
Rodzenica flung out her arms. “Heed what you have witnessed, mortals. The justice of the gods ever triumphs. Return to your homes and spread the tale of what has transpired. It is futile to defy us. All who try are doomed, as these vile creatures from Palanga will soon learn.”
Fresh wails arose from the daughters of Jūratė as they moved to surround their sister. The god of storms’ followers stumbled over each other in their haste to break away, keeping clear of the women from the convent. Perun entreated his father a final time. “Spare her, please. She is not to blame for the actions of her sisters. She wanted to join us.”
“Did that scheming siren drain your manhood?” Dievas sneered at his son. “Stop blubbering. You were bewitched. A clever ploy, but it failed.”
The abbess, hunched with grief, motioned to the Elders. “We must hasten to the river and find a boatman to transport my daughter home.”
Perun clung to the body in his arms. “You cannot have her!”
“She is a child of the sea and deserves a proper burial. Do not think to stop us. Our resolve is newly stirred. We will sing until your heads burst.”
Perun’s vision turned red. These harridans would not take his beloved, not while he still lived and breathed. He lowered Nadzia to the moss, sat back on his heels, and summoned more balls of fire. “And I will burn your tongues to ash. She will lie within my temple, with full honors, as befits the maiden I cherished.”
The air grew heavy with the promise of battle. Birds ceased their chirping and took flight. The abbess and her retinue began a low hum. Perun closed his eyes, wearily imagining the world Nadzia wanted. A world of peace, not strife. A world made better by their love. She’d been ready to risk her life for that. They both had.
His eyes flew open. Where was the missing piece of his heart? He searched frantically and found it, blessedly untouched, mere inches from Nadzia’s body, along with his mother’s knife. Rodzenica startled and pressed forward, seeming to guess his purpose, but he seized both, leaving her grasping at empty air. “This is my heart,” he said, meeting her gaze with steely determination, “my choice.”
He carefully positioned the dagger, opened the spot where his fiery bolt had penetrated Nadzia’s breast, and eased the red sliver inside. “Come back to me, my love. I don’t want to live without you.”
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Nadzia: https://www.polishtoledo.com/pagan/myths.htm
Image of Perun: kriegerman.deviantart.com – KAOSS-8