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The jewel at Nadzia’s throat gleamed brighter and pulsed faster than before, a sign her affection had grown. She kept Perun to a slow pace as they descended the path from the temple’s entry, pausing to marvel at the birds that serenaded them, the color of the sky—such an intense blue! Her face shone as bright as a newly opened blossom.
He squeezed her arm, reveling in her happiness, grateful she was whole and well. He’d thought all was lost when she gagged and turned crimson after just one sip of the gods’ nectar. But a vaporous cloud had issued from her flesh, draping her in a mist that smelled of the sea. It must have been an immortal gift from the mermaid goddess, a form of protection that lingered in her daughters’ veins, awakening only when needed. Nadzia had emerged wondrously changed. How long would it last?
They followed a fork in the trail and walked up a small rise that led to a fenced area with a large coop for chickens and a garden divided into neat beds of fruits, vegetables and herbs. At their approach, a tall, lank man weeding a patch of glistening strawberries clambered to his feet. He removed his straw hat and rushed to open the gate. “Good afternoon, sir, madam,” he said with a hasty bow. “How may I assist you?”
Perun beamed with pride. “This is my chosen one, Nadzia.”
The man’s face, leathered and browned by years of working in the sun, crinkled with pleasure. “Congratulations! I wish you both every happiness.”
“The Fates have been kind.” Perun nodded at his bride. “This is our gardener, Adomas. He comes from the south.”
“A pleasure.” Nadzia reached down and plucked a strawberry from the patch near her feet. She popped the fruit into her mouth, sighing with pleasure as she chewed and swallowed. “Adomas—that means ‘man of the earth,’ doesn’t it?”
“Indeed it does, my lady,” he answered, blushing at the recognition as he smoothed thinning strands of salt-and-pepper hair “I come from a long line of farmers.”
“I’d say your parents named you well. These berries are the best I’ve ever tasted. How do you grow them so sweet?”
Adomas pointed to a mound in the corner of the yard. “There’s the secret. There’s nothing better for strawberries than old oak leaves dug into the soil.”
“We’ll have to send a few bags to my convent. Sister Bronis could use them.” Nadzia left Perun’s side to walk among the rows of plants. “This reminds me of her garden: carrots, potatoes, peas, onions, beets, rosemary, thyme, oregano, berries.” She wrinkled her nose at the hens strutting nearby. “We don’t eat the flesh of land animals at the convent. Might I have fish instead?”
“There’s pike, perch and bream in the river,” Adomas replied, “as much as you please. Everything else we eat is transported to our dock from the coast or midlands. Dairy, flour, meat, wine and the like. The boat stops by weekly.”
“If it’s spirits you enjoy,” Nadzia said with an impish grin, “then you’ll have to try the convent’s mead. Sister Bronis makes it with honey she gathers from our beehives. Could your boatman pass along a request for a few bottles?”
Adomas returned her smile. “That can be arranged. He’ll be here tomorrow morning. Bring me a note before then and I’ll be sure he gets it.”
“I’ve always been an early riser. Maybe I’ll hand it to him myself.”
Adomas laughed. “I’m sure he’d prefer a message from a beautiful woman, not a grizzled old man like me.”
Perun leaned against the gate post and watched them with a tinge of envy. If only he could talk as freely with Nadzia, as if they were old friends. But caution kept him from opening up. He couldn’t let down his guard while she wore the amber. Every action he took, every word he spoke had one aim: to win her affection. He couldn’t possibly tell her the truth, that he was doomed to perish without her love.
“And books,” she continued, swiveling to wink at him. “Lots and lots of books. For those long winter nights when we need something extra to occupy our time.” She smiled at the heat that flushed Perun’s cheeks and returned her attention to the gardener. “I’d like to meet the merchants as well. Gabrielle says they’re full of news.”
“Merchants?” Perun jaw tightened. Was her interest in the traders casual or based on new information? He smothered a curse. His mother’s enchantments had prevented him from observing while Nadzia bathed. A simple girl like Gabi could have easily been mesmerized into divulging what she’d heard at the docks about the Order of Bursztyn, with nary a soul the wiser. He had little leverage if Nadzia knew about the rumors. Even less if she suspected the handmaiden was spying on his behalf.
A vein at the side of his forehead began to throb. He stormed up to Nadzia and spun her around to face him. “What did that blasted girl tell you?”
Her shocked gasp brought him back to his senses. She backed away, her arm streaked with angry red marks, her face pinched with pain and fear.
Perun looked down in dismay. Crimson sparks arced from his fingertips to the ground. He steadied his breath and willed the fiery particles to fade. Damn his temper! A moment of pique and his morning’s work was ruined. The divine dazzle in Nadzia’s eyes flickered and died, the shine in her jewel dulled to a pale orange glimmer. She studied him with a mixture of alarm and dismay. “Nothing of consequence,” she said. “Truth be told, I wasn’t really paying attention. Surely you know how Gabi loves to chatter.”
Adomas was at her side in a flash with a handful of thyme leaves. “Chew these and then hold them against your skin, my lady,” he advised. “They’ll ease any pain or swelling.”
Nadzia raised the herbs to her mouth and gave Perun a long searching look. He waited until she applied the green poultice and then reached out, gritting his teeth when she shied from his touch. This wouldn’t do. He couldn’t let her think him a beast. He called upon his power, created a rainstorm in his palms and blew divine sheets of water across the space between them. Her flesh healed in moments.
“Forgive me,” he said. “Gabi is an impressionable young woman. The traders she flirts with often ply her with nonsense. She’ll pass along any tale, sensible or not. I don’t want her filling your head with far-fetched gossip.”
Nadzia silently massaged her arm. She dropped her gaze to the ground, closed her eyes, and shuddered. Perun forced back a wave of anxiety. His parents expected them to visit today. He couldn’t show up with a skittish woman at his side. “Are you feeling better?”
“Yes.” Nadzia peered at him intently. “I suggest we address your concerns regarding my handmaiden in private.”
She put a hand on her heart and addressed the gardener. “Thank you for the herbs, Adomas. They helped.”
“Is there anything else you wish of me, my lady?” The gardener cast an oblique glance at his master. “I’ve a day’s worth of chores to finish if not.”
“I’ll see to it that you receive the note,” Perun said. “Continue your work.” He motioned toward the barn, a short walk past the garden. “If my bride would be so kind?”
Nadzia’s chin jutted forward as she moved past him, her body stiff with displeasure. Something flashed across her face, an emotion gone too swiftly for him to name, although he guessed it was hardly pleasant. Fool of a god! Were there any choice in the matter, Perun would delay the meeting at the Hall of Thrones for as long as possible, until he was back in her good graces. But he didn’t dare make Dievas and Rodzenica wait.
Blood surged to his face. Would she tell them what had just happened, condemn him before he had a chance to make things better? He hadn’t intended any harm, but she couldn’t know that without an explanation. How much to tell her without revealing his motives, that was the problem. He cleared his throat and thrust his hands behind his back as he caught up with her. “I apologize for being so quick to anger. It flares when I think someone dear to me has been afflicted in some way.”
“Afflicted?” Nadzia stopped and squinted at him. “By a servant’s gossip? How weak-willed you must think me. I assure you, my only interest is in hearing about events on the coast. You can’t expect me to leave the only home I’ve ever known and not want to know how my family fares.”
Perun held out his hands and silently thanked the Fates when Nadzia didn’t blanch in response. Even so, he chose his words carefully. She’d seen him at his worst. Nothing would change that. He had to make her understand if wasn’t intentional. “I did not mean to offend or hurt you,” he began. “But I cannot change how I was made. My father filled me with fire and fury. I need them to create storms and fulfill my duties.”
“You blame Dievas?” Nadzia said with a sniff. “A sorry excuse.”
Perun tamped down the irritation her reply evoked. “That isn’t what I meant. This passion that roils within me, this is my nature. The slightest provocation ignites it.”
“So I must restrain my curiosity, never speak my mind lest I stoke your ire? If that’s what you want in a wife—someone meek and subdued—then ours will not be a happy marriage.” Nadzia looked at him with a hint of defiance. “I will be your equal as a goddess. Don’t expect me to curb my disposition because you can’t control your own.”
“Never!” Perun rubbed his brow and sighed as he searched for a way to fix a mess that grew muddier each time he opened his mouth. “I admire your composure, your grace, your geniality. Perhaps . . . perhaps you might teach me how to master my emotions? I cannot bear to think I have ruined things between us.”
He bit his tongue in agonizing silence as Nadzia surveyed him from bottom to top, as if she were seeing him for the first time. Her face lost some of its harshness. When she finally captured his gaze, she seemed to have decided in his favor. Perhaps not entirely, judging from the caution that lingered in her eyes, but enough for her to look at him without fear. “I suspect apologizing is foreign to a god,” she said. “Which makes your words all the more sweet. As for the task you’ve put before me . . .” She looked down the hill to the cottage built for them and smiled faintly. “I believe we can start tonight.”
Perun gently grasped her wrist and kissed her palm, silently cheering when her flesh warmed. “I will be your most ardent pupil. Whatever you ask of me, you shall receive.”
They walked in silence along the outer edges of the garden, past a brood of hens pecking for worms and clucking at their chicks. Beyond the fence, Perun’s white ox grazed amidst bundles of fodder piled high against a giant red barn. Nadzia breathed deeply as they entered the building. “I always expect animal houses to smell rank, but you’ve got sweet grasses and herbs drying in the loft. It’s a nice scent.”
Perun’s heart fluttered with unexpected pleasure. Did she realize how beautiful she looked in the light filtering through the barn’s rafters? Even lovelier than Jūratė, something he hadn’t thought possible. He wanted to tell her so, but he wasn’t sure how she’d react. Did mortals take offense when their charms were compared to another? He’d have to ask Gabi.
He led Nadzia to a high stone wall, pushed open its central iron gate, and whistled sharply. A slender, dark-skinned boy clad in a black shirt and pants came running from the back and skidded to a stop before them. He bowed, gave Perun a clean white handkerchief, and returned to his station. Perun moved behind Nadzia and shook out the cloth. “This is a surprise,” he whispered. “I’d like to cover your eyes until the last moment. Will you allow me? I promise, you’re not in danger.”
He stifled his impatience while she considered the situation. If Nadzia rebuffed him, the gift could still be presented, just not with the flair he wanted. To his relief, she gave a curt nod. “I’ll hold you to that promise.”
“Straight ahead, my love,” he instructed, his grip light on her shoulders as he guided her forward. “We must venture beyond.”
With her vision blocked by the white cloth, Nadzia relied on other senses as she moved forward. The hay beneath her feet smelled of sunshine mixed with an underlying odor she couldn’t quite identify, an acrid tang. Small animals—barn mice, probably—skittered away at her approach. She curled her fingers around Perun’s. He’d made her vow of vengeance infinitely easier by asking for help with his temper. There was no reason to start small, as she had with the handmaiden. His request, unwitting but welcome, meant Nadzia could begin with her most persuasive voice.
She didn’t know how many nights it would take to pierce whatever shields the god of storms had erected to preserve his secrets. Even when mesmerized, mortals were surprisingly stubborn about revealing their weaknesses and hidden desires; she could expect no less from a deity. But Perun had given himself over to her care, and that gave her an advantage she hadn’t foreseen. A stroke of luck, perhaps. Or maybe the Fates had intended this all along.
He halted abruptly and embraced her from behind. His breath tickled her ear like a sultry breeze. “Listen,” he whispered. “Do you hear it?”
A musical nickering, high and sweet and strong. Clomping hoofbeats. More music, deeper this time, rougher, followed by soft snorts. Nadzia tore off the blindfold and let it fall to the straw as she gazed in wonder at a black mare led by the boy she’d seen earlier. “Dear gods,” she murmured. “Is this real?”
She leaned back into Perun’s warm bulk, her awe mixed with dismay. She’d encountered any number of wild animals in the forest—skittish deer, shy rabbits, timorous foxes, even a young brown cub and its mother—all tamed quickly with sweet whispers. But this was a divine beast, eyeing her with what looked like suspicion. Did it sense fear?
The horse reared up, unfurled a pair of lustrous ebony wings and settled into a majestic pose. “A gift from my father, created especially for you,” Perun explained. “Are you pleased? The boy, Bernardo, is her groom. He lives in the loft. Call for him whenever you wish to travel.”
Nadzia swallowed heavily, then pitched her voice low. This was a rare gift indeed. A superior beast. She should approach it with the proper respect. “Such a pretty girl,” she cooed. “Do you realize how wonderful you are? So dark and strong. What a joy it will be to ride you.”
The mare shook its mane and pawed the ground before sidling closer. “She is a proud one, as befits her maker,” Perun said, nodding in approval. “You do well to appeal to her vanity. Do not rush this first encounter. Let her come to you.”
He fished an apple from his robes. “Try this.”
Nadzia moved within an arm’s length of the horse and offered up the ruby-red fruit. “Come now, my lovely. Know me better.”
The horse was soon nibbling, its velvety nose tickling Nadzia’s palm. She laughed with sheer delight. “I’ve never had such a wonderful present. What’s her name?”
“We call her Vargas,” the boy answered. “She is here to serve you, ma’am, like me.”
Nadzia stroked the mare’s long neck. “No, absolutely not. Vargas is a slave’s name. I won’t allow it. From now on she will be known as Salomeya—the powerful one. How do you like that, my sweet?”
A nicker of approval followed her words. Nadzia laughed again. Dievas was too kind. This was the stuff of legends, a magic beyond compare. Such generosity! She imagined herself soaring across Lithuania and beyond, exploring the country at her leisure, perhaps even visiting her neighbors across the Baltic Sea.
Even better, she could fly to the coast in the morning, enjoy a day with her sisters and the Elders, and be back in time for dinner. A perfect way to keep in touch. The Order of Bursztyn hadn’t made provisions for direct contact once Perun’s bride left for his temple. Messages, even in code, were too easily intercepted. Any new information was to be relayed through Mokosh, the goddess of earth whose long association with the convent put her above reproach. Now even that wasn’t necessary; Nadzia could relay news in person.
Perun stood silent, watching her with misty eyes. Surprised at such an open sign of tenderness, Nadzia impulsively thanked him with a quick kiss. He was a god of many moods—not all of them pleasant, as she’d just seen—but now, as his face softened with pleasure, he looked as if he truly enjoyed her happiness. “I never thought to see such a wonder, let alone ride one,” she said. “May I fly anywhere?”
Perun hesitated before he answered, his face tweaking with chagrin. “I’m afraid not. She has been trained to fly between my temple and the upper realms of the Tree of Life.”
Nadzia’s euphoria cratered. How could anyone give her such a glorious creature and then bind her with constraints? Did Dievas suspect the convent had ulterior motives or was this a means of emphasizing that her old life was dead and gone, that only the gods mattered? She struggled to keep her voice level. “Then she is under your father’s command, not mine.”
“Do you see this?” Perun grasped the mare’s left ear and traced a silver O embedded in its lobe. “My father ordered me to forge two circlets. The first is implanted here. Dievas wears the second on his left hand. Both glow when you are aloft.”
Nadzia buried her face in the horse’s neck. This was her world now, a place where Dievas was in control. Why she’d expected otherwise, she wasn’t quite sure. Hadn’t he decided the fate of Jūratė’s daughters centuries ago without any thought as to their wants or needs? She couldn’t decide whether to blame Perun as well—he’d only done his father’s bidding and he looked none too happy at having to explain the restrictions. But while she might risk rebuking the god of storms for his actions, she didn’t dare display anything but gratitude when it came to the highest-ranking deity of all.
She straightened and ran her fingers through Salomeya’s mane. “I’ve always dreamed of visiting the place where Jūratė was born,” she said with a false heartiness. “Now I can go there any time. What a thoughtful present. I’m sure we’ll have many happy journeys together.”
“I am glad to hear this. My parents are anxious to greet you.”
“Now?” Nadzia scrabbled around her brain for an excuse to delay the inevitable. The goddess had warned her to be careful and trust no one. How was she supposed to find her way in a world run by a god who exerted his dominance by curbing her freedom? A mere novice was hardly the equal of conniving deities. Perun might not see through her guise, but Dievas and Rodzenica were bound to scrutinize her like a bug under glass.
“I just ate,” she said finally, massaging her stomach. “Shouldn’t I take time to let breakfast settle? I’d hate to arrive with curd and eggs splattered all over my gown.”
Perun shrugged. “I wouldn’t worry. The nectar should protect you from any ill effects. Besides, if you feel sick, no one is better at healing than Mother.”
Nadzia hid her frustration with a smile. Damn the power of the gods! Would they frustrate her every move? She tried a different approach. “The ways of divinity are foreign to me. I’d hoped to learn more of them from you, follow your advice as to proper conduct. I don’t want your parents to think me dim-witted and unworthy of their son.”
“Nonsense!” Perun said with a disbelieving huff. “You are the goddess reborn. They will adore you.” He draped a shining silver blanket on the mare’s back and patted the fabric. “There’s no need for a saddle. This cloth will hold you in place. Come along, let’s get you settled.”
Lifting Nadzia as if she weighed hardly more than a feather, Perun hoisted her atop the mount, took hold of the reins, and led the horse outside into a day thick with heat. When they reached the clearing in front of the temple, he wrapped the leather straps around her hands. “Hold tight with your legs and tell Salomeya when you’re ready. I will fly alongside you.”
He moved back a few feet and raised an arm to the sky. “Sėkla žaibas!” A bolt of lightning descended, enveloping him in golden flames. Nadzia watched in fascination as the fire worked its magic and changed him into a giant eastern eagle. Brownish-black feathers covered his body, save for his neck and head, which turned a creamy golden buff. Bold white spots topped his shoulders and the end of his tail. Arms lengthened into wings with tips that looked as if they’d been dipped in black ink, feet shriveled into four sharp talons each. His mouth elongated into yellow-rimmed lips and a blue beak. Only his eyes remained the same, pools of green flecked with amber.
When the fire sputtered out he emerged from the ashes, spread his wings and took to the sky, whistling a series of high-pitched notes as he soared upward.
Salomeya pawed at the ground and unfolded her wings, turning her head and snuffling as if to remind this new rider they had places to go, people to see. “I know, I know,” Nadzia said with a reluctant sigh. “We have to follow him.”
She squeezed her thighs and gripped the reins. “Go on, then, my sweet. Take me to Dievas.”
The Tree of Life contained three levels. Its roots anchored the Underworld, the realm of Veles, a serpentine god. Humans dwelt in the middle section, their world so vast they never came close to its edges. The upper reaches belonged to the Immortals. They lived in a maze of rooms within the trunk, with separate areas for each deity, a grand hall of thrones, and courts for official hearings or ceremonies. Nadzia hoped for a private introduction with fewer eyes taking her measure while she decided how to present herself.
If Perun spoke truly and her return was gladly anticipated, she shouldn’t have to do much. Contrary to her earlier assertions, she was well-versed in courtly behavior, thanks to Mokosh, the earth goddess who’d been assigned to the convent since the first twins were born. The rules were simple with regard to Dievas and Rodzenica. They were due every respect. Always let them speak first and set the tone of the conversation. Follow their lead. Do not fear speaking openly but consider the impact of contentious words. The creators of all took enormous pride in their children, but their indulgence had limits. Best to stay in their favor.
There would be more freedom with the lesser gods. They weren’t always at home, as it were. Many preferred to reside in their domains or take long sojourns visiting acolytes at temples and shrines. Nonetheless, they occupied a social tier above a demi-god like Nadzia. She owed them subservience; a brief curtsy or a bow would suffice. How she navigated the rest was entirely in her hands.
According to Mokosh, some of her brethren looked forward to Nadzia’s arrival. Others—especially those who never forgave Perun and begrudged him any happiness—would view her with skepticism, if not outright hostility. Depending on the deity she chanced upon, she might be met with a hug or a haughty sniff. Whatever the reaction, it was up to Nadzia to maneuver her way amidst them.
She shook her head. Court sounded very much like the novices’ quarters. It shouldn’t be so terribly hard to establish herself. And there were only a few weeks before the wedding. Once she was fully divine, she’d be on equal standing with her fellow gods and goddesses.
Perun dropped down to glide alongside her. He stayed a few minutes, winked, and then shot straight up. Salomeya surged after him into the clouds, pumping her wings with new vigor. They left blue skies and climbed through a mist speckled with rainbow-hued ice crystals that clung to Nadzia’s hair and gown. Surprisingly, she felt neither chill nor damp. Perhaps the nectar truly was protecting her, as Perun had claimed.
They flew higher and higher. Nadzia’s thighs ached from pressing against her horse’s flanks. Finally, the mists parted. In the distance, massive branches with silvery leaves loomed, the ancient limbs reaching out like ghostly fingers. Salomeya coasted to a halt atop the largest branch, where the wood appeared to have been flattened to provide an easy landing for horse or chariot. An invisible choir welcomed them. Nadzia bent her head to listen, transported by the irresistibly sweet celestial voices. Goosebumps pebbled her arms. What marvels awaited?
Perun alighted at her side. The music grew louder, more strident. This time, his transformation required no fire. A brisk shake and his features swiftly returned to their normal state. Was it the magic of being so close to his origins that allowed so rapid a change, Nadzia wondered, or his haste to bring her to his parents? She slid into his open arms. He set her down gently and tucked her hand into his elbow. “Are you ready?”
She nodded and let him guide her past ferns and bubbling fountains, their destination a pair of mammoth golden doors engraved with panels, each one devoted to a member of Lithuania’s pantheon. The entrance opened as they neared, and a light more brilliant than the sun spilled out to greet them. “Daughter of Jūratė,” a deep voice intoned. “We bid you welcome.”
Nadzia’s skin prickled at the thought of what she would face inside, the intrigue she would encounter. She recalled the advice Sister Ramuna offered during rehearsals for the annual solstice play: “Deception is easy. Create a fiction in your mind, hold fast to it, and no one will glimpse the actor behind the mask.”
She could do this, pretend to be a humble mortal in awe of her new status, ask the gods to guide her. Let them show her what to do, what to say. Watch and learn. She breathed deep, pulled back her shoulders, and walked into the light.
©2022 by Kathryn Jankowski
Image of Baltic amber: www.natures-emporium.com