Brittany, June 1789
“I dreamed of bread last night,” Francine murmured longingly, rubbing her pregnant belly. “Soft, yeasty bread with a crisp crust fresh from the oven.”
At these words, Mariel St. Just suffered a pain so deep that even the cramping of hunger paled in comparison. How could they—daughters of a former mayor—come to such dire straits that they couldn’t even feed her sister’s unborn child?
“You will have that bread, as soon as Eduard returns,” she said, hoping the lie might become truth, although after the drought and hail last summer, and the extreme cold this past winter, wheat was as costly as gold, and the money to buy it was even more scarce.
While her sister dreamed of bread, Mariel had envisioned savory hares and bubbling stews with rich gravy. She had attempted to net fish yesterday, but she’d walked home empty-handed and hungrier than ever from the exertion. Her stomach had clenched painfully when she’d passed the castle on the cliff. The air had been redolent with the aroma of roasting venison, because even if nobles didn’t have a sou, they owned the land on which the game roamed.
No one in the village had had meat to fill their pot since early this spring when the starving menfolk had defied the game laws and mowed down the vicomte’s fields, uncovering and clubbing the wild creatures hiding there. Since then, the vicomte had hired militia to protect his lands.
She helped ease her sister into a rocking chair in the sunny front window of the cottage and gave thanks that they had a solid roof over their heads, courtesy of her brother-in-law, Eduard Rousseau. She prayed for his safe return from Paris, where he met with the other elected officials of the Assembly, intending to ask the king for reforms to repair the country’s bankruptcy. If only he would return soon. Her sister desperately needed him.
“Tell me again about Maman’s promise,” Francine said wistfully, picking up her lace-making pillow. “I want to hear happy stories so the babe will be born sunny-natured.”
As the eldest by four years, Mariel had memories of their mother that Francine did not. She shared as generously as she could, but Francine did not possess their mother’s Second Sight and could never understand her as Mariel did. Perhaps it was better that way. The baby would no doubt be as contented as Francine, never knowing the anguish that Mariel experienced because she was special. Maman’s word for her eldest daughter’s differences didn’t ease the danger of her oddity, or the loneliness of not fitting in anywhere. Only her family knew and accepted what she was, and loved her anyway.
“Maman looked so beautiful that day.” Mariel began the story. “Her ebony hair never had a thread of gray, and it was long, oh so long, down to her waist and past. Her eyes were lovely and tranquil.”
“Was she sitting up?” Francine rocked gently, asking the questions she had as a nine-year-old child, after their mother’s death.
“No, this was one of her last days, when she lay
against the lace-trimmed pillow from her trousseau. She always worked the lace so beautifully. I could never learn lace-making as you have.”
Mariel couldn’t sit still as she told the tale. Restlessness drove her to dust the shelf of precious possessions from their former home, avoiding the tomes of the rebellious Diderot and Voltaire that Eduard perused so often. She watched out the window for any sign of change in this miserable life to which all of France had been reduced. She saw one of the vicomte’s soldiers idling in the narrow cobblestone street and felt a frisson of fear that the village had come to this state of neighbor armed against neighbor.
“You have Maman’s forceful character, and I have her talent. That is fair,” Francine said, as she always did. “Finish the story.”
“Forceful character,” Mariel said with a laugh. “You mean I am bossy and order people about.”
“You get things done. People listen to you.”
“I think I inherited our father’s character, not Maman’s,” she teased. “I must do everything myself, while Maman promised us a golden god who would save us. A god, not a goddess, you’ll notice. Like you, she awaited a man.”
“Eduard cannot help it if the Assembly argues lengthily. He will return as quickly as he is able.”
“Eduard is a good man,” Mariel agreed, “but I cannot believe the Assembly can help if the king’s ministers tell them that we must eat grass.”
“The story, please,” Francine murmured, rubbing her belly. “The babe is restless today, and I would calm him rather than raise a rebel.”
Nine months pregnant, Francine sought comfort and reassurance for her child’s future—a future that grew grimmer with each passing day. These were uncertain times. On days like this, it seemed only a god could save them.
Mariel patted Francine’s arm reassuringly, and she spoke the story in the sing-song voice of their childhood. “You’ll remember Maman’s eyes, how they went all dreamy when she prophesied, as if she were seeing heaven?” At Francine’s eager nod, she continued. “Well, that day, she smiled as if seeing angels, and she sounded proud and strong, and oh, so certain. Just ask Agnes and Belle. They will tell you.”
As the maids had told the entire village. The prophesy had become legend, and these days, the villagers surreptitiously scoured the harbor, waiting for it to come true.
“Maman looked straight at me,” Mariel continued, “and said, ‘You have the eyes of the sea, Mariel.’” She rubbed away a tear, knowing Maman had been the last person to understand her daughter’s odd proclivities. “Then she squeezed my hand and said, ‘Watch for the golden god who will sail in on a ship from the past, lured by the Song of the Siren. He will bear a sword of justice to save all in our village in a time of great famine and danger. He will be stronger than Hercules, faster than an Arabian steed, and more beautiful than a sun-blessed day.’”
Even Mariel’s stomach quit complaining as she repeated their mother’s vow.
Francine smiled in satisfaction. “I like the part about the Siren. When we were little and lived in the big house by the sea, I used to imagine I heard the Siren sing from the legendary isle of Ys. Her song was my lullaby after Maman died.”
It had been Mariel’s song of loneliness and grief that Francine had heard, but she would not mar her sister’s sweet memory. Since their mother’s death, she had vowed to use her special abilities to protect her younger sister from all hurt.
In recent months she had been failing to keep that vow.
Outside, a shout drew her back to the window. Old Yanick was racing this way, his gray beard flying across his shoulder as his wooden sabots clumped the cobblestones. Yanick never ran anywhere. That he stirred himself in this manner foretold something momentous, and both hope and dread caught in Mariel’s throat.
“The god, Mari, the god is here!” she thought he cried.
Had their hunger and longing and the oft-repeated story conjured the golden god Maman had promised? Or, driven by her own desire, had she misheard what he was really saying?
Mariel caught the wistful gleam in Francine’s eyes, and without a second cynical thought, she rushed out to meet the old fisherman, praying that dreams really could come true.
More beautiful than a sun-blessed day…
As promised, the god stood on the deck of the ship, his broad shoulders and golden hair outlined against the setting sun, the light capturing the stark angle of his bronzed cheekbones.
Mariel gaped in awestruck shock and nearly stumbled to her knees in relief at first sight of Maman’s promise. The filling sails accentuated the god’s stance of power and command as the sleek ship rolled beneath his booted feet, and the sun glinted off the jeweled scabbard at his side. In billowing shirtsleeves and gold-embroidered vest, he stood head and shoulders above all the common sailors rushing about, knotting lines and raising sails. The strong brown column of his throat emerged from the open lacing of his shirt, and Mariel thrilled at the sight. He was golden all over.
If anyone was the god her mother had predicted, that giant of a man with his square jaw and air of confidence must be. Seeing him from the top of the bluff, Mariel almost wept in gratitude that once more, her mother’s prophesies had come true. They were saved! Francine would eat again. The babe would be born healthy. All would be well…
And then—as she waved a greeting and raced for the path leading down to the beach—he turned away to watch the ship’s sails unfurl in preparation for catching the outgoing tide.
Waves of despair an
d fury washed over her as cruelly as the ocean wore away the rock as she realized the ship had weighed anchor and was ready to sail away. He couldn’t leave! The golden god was supposed to save Francine.
Standing on the bluffs above the harbor, Mariel choked on a half sob and pressed her fist to her lips as the wind licked at the canvas. Hunger brought her emotions too close to the surface these days, and she wrestled with her failure now.
The cries of the gulls wailed her dismay.
Maman’s predictions were never wrong. She had promised a golden god would save the village from straits most dire. Mariel didn’t think a single person in the village would survive if their situation became any more desperate.
She was the only one who could act on Maman’s predictions. It was her task to do so, as her father had before her, but she’d arrived too late to prevent the ship from sailing.
No, she hadn’t. She’d been here on time. The wretched man simply refused to wait! More must be required of her.
With the force of fear behind her, she scrambled over the rocks, onto the boulders below.
On this, his last journey into the world outside his own, Trystan l’Enforcer admired the cliffs of Brittany without a trace of regret. He was looking forward to the responsibility awaiting him, the one for which he’d prepared all of his life.
Behind him, the sails of his pride and joy, the Sword of Destiny, unfurled in preparation for catching the tide that would, for once and all, carry him home. No more wandering the sea.
Oddly, at this moment of rejoicing, a poignant cry of defeat carried over the wail of the wind, a cry that reached deep down inside as if to draw him back to the shore. With the wind whipping his hair, he scanned the scene for the source of the sound, and was arrested by the sight of a Breton maiden atop the bluff, waving her farewells. Tall and slender, her cap a lacy crown against her ebony hair, she wore long black skirts and a pristine white apron, identifying her as a simple villager, unlike the richly dressed merchants with whom he often dealt. He had learned many things about modes of dress in countries other than his own, things he must pass on to his nephew, who would sail the Destiny once Trystan married and took his place on the Council.
“Now there’s a lass someone has made happy.” Nevan l’Nauta, his navigator and closest friend, watched the willowy girl shout and wave from the path. “Can you read lips in that language? What does she say?”
“She tells us to wait,” Trystan replied, his gaze not wavering from the comely wench. “She needs to speak with us.” He stood at the rail, boots spaced widely, adjusting to the swell and fall of the sea as the wind tugged his shirtsleeves and blew the maid’s words away.
The tide was on the way out. This was the moment he reveled in—when ship, man, and sea became one, and home became more tangible than a thought.
There was no chance of waiting, even for this comely miss.
But for some inexplicable reason, he could scarcely tear his gaze from the words tumbling from her mouth, as if an invisible tether had bound his eyes to her lips. And to her nimble figure as she frantically scrambled down the rocks, calling…
Abruptly, the wind stilled, abandoning the sails with a single loud slap of the canvas, as if it, too, felt the tension of her call and dared not interfere.
“What is happening?” cried a crewman from the rigging, puzzled by the sudden calm.
With trepidation, Trystan wrenched his gaze from the vision on the cliff to search the sagging canvas and the clouds above. Nothing marred the perfection of blue sky and wave. What sorcery was this?
The cries from shore merged with that of the gulls above and the sea creatures below, calling him to turn back…
Nonsense, Trystan snarled in denial, setting his shoulders, resisting the call. His future lay ahead, on the beautiful isle he called his home. The wind did not stop and the gulls did not cry for him, but for a caprice of nature. The woman was a mere distraction.
Without warning, the canvas again filled with a stiff breeze, seeming as eager as he to be off. Or more like, her captain, Waylan Tempestium, had stirred the winds. Dismissing the maiden’s futile cries, Trystan crossed his arms, leaned his hip against the rail, and forced his thoughts back to the future. “Despite the charm of Brittany’s maidens, I’m eager to return to the black sand of Aelynn,” he said with firm assurance.
“Are you missing
the sand, or Lissandra?” Nevan responded with a laugh. “If absence makes the heart grow fonder, she should be on the beach, waving you home.”
Trystan tried to picture cool, enigmatic Lissandra waving joyfully—or even furiously—like the maid on the bluff, and could not. “If she makes room for me at the dinner table, I will be grateful. We are of like mind.”
“You both love our island home and wish to guide its future,” Nevan agreed.
Trystan caught another glimpse of the woman on shore. She had lifted her skirts to scramble down the path, revealing fine ankles. He wished he had been the lucky man who’d wooed her in their brief hours in this coastal village.
He shook his head sharply to dislodge his whimsy. As a man driven by his sense of duty, he’d resisted the ladies on this short journey. Given her gift as a Seer, Lissandra was bound to know if another woman held his thoughts, and her stubborn nature would require that he pay—with great pain, no doubt. He grinned, imagining the path of his intended’s revenge, even as he continued to watch the lass clamber expertly down the rocky path, shouting and gesturing.
The increasing wind blew the flaps of his vest, tugging his hair loose from its binding, and he swayed with the roll of the rising waves. “Maybe some other time, fair one,” he shouted, although he knew she could not hear over the roar of the breakers.
“You don’t think one of our men has made her promises?” Nevan asked with interest as the lithe dynamo recklessly grabbed boulders and slid on wooden sabots to the sandy shore, as if she would dive in after them.
Did he mistake, or had she just called him a rude name? Judging by the way she shook her fist, he assumed those weren’t pleasantries she was hurling.
“It wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last.” Trystan sighed his regret as the beautiful creature ran down the beach through the foam, her skirts up to her knees, exposing shapely calves. “We all know we must choose carefully, but she seems hale and hearty enough, if a bit thin. Ask around, see if her suitor left sufficient coin to last her until next time. From all reports, they’ve had drought this past year, and the harsh winter has driven the fish away.”
He watched as the lass caught the cap falling from her loosened hair, then flung it down and stomped it into the wet sand left by the receding tide. The wind captured long glossy curls and tossed them over her shoulder.
“Her hair is the black of Aelynn’s sands.” Trystan nodded at the furious female. Then fighting this odd longing for that which he could not have, he deliberately turned and walked away. He was going home. For him, that was freedom—freedom to finally begin his future as he would have it.
He had been groomed since birth for the privilege and power of a princedom that did not exist to the Outside World. For the good of all, it must remain that way. His home wasn’t called Aelynn, the Mystic Isle, for naught.
Mariel’s heart sank in despair as the ship joined the tide, riding it to open sea, despite her hasty scramble and cries for a halt.
She refused to accept another day of watching the village die. Her mother’s prophesy had to be true. If still more were required of her, then more she would do. She had never attempted such an impossible goal as the one before her, but if this was the last thing she ever did, she could not let the ship escape without her.
She seldom dared indulge her gift in daylight, but she would risk all for this.
She stepped into a cavity in an outcropping of rock, kicked off her shoes and ungartered her stockings. Coarse sand squeezed between her toes while she frantically untied her skirt and bodice ties. The breeze pressed the linen of her chemise against her breasts and caught tendrils of her unbound hair as she stashed her clothes into a hole she’d often used for this purpose.
On land, she must conform to the ways of civilization, but she was never as comfortable on land as she was in water, and unlike her neighbors, the fish did not mind what she wore.
In only her frail chemise, she raced into the pounding surf. Filling her lungs with fresh salt air, Mariel dived into the icy pool just beyond the shoals where the dolphins swam. With a powerful surge of joy, she glided beneath the waves and darted under the surface like a minnow. The strength of a lifetime’s practice took her out beyond the shoals in a few deft strokes.
Despite her rage at the retreating god, she shivered with delight to be at one with the sea again.