The world froze.
My scream hung in the air.
All movement and sound had cutoff until all I could hear was my own harsh breathing as it raced through my parted lips. My heartbeat pounded erratically and the loud sound of blood pounding through my head had created the beginnings of a headache that was sure to knock me off my feet, if it got any worse.
Cas lay deathly still on the ground, blood soaking the back of his tunic, which was a startling contrast to the eerie paleness of his skin. The thump of my knees hitting the ground next to him echoed around the hall as time appeared to slow down and I was not aware of anything around me, my entire world narrowing down to my Shíoghra.
"It was ultimately your decisions that lead to this outcome, Ceana. Your choices and actions the catalyst to these events. What we have here is a pivotal moment, a chance to change a fate. What you decide to do next will change the course of your future and those of the lives around you. His death was foreseen many years ago and the cause always the same."
The all mother walked through the frozen world around her, yet did not cause any disturbance. Her voice was heavy with grief but still held the firm authority and sureness that I suspected only a deity could have. I did not acknowledge her presence, her words barely piercing through my shocked state. It was as if she, or her surroundings, were not real. Her
steps made no sound and he movements were ghostly as she passed through anything blocking her way to me. I still lacked the strength and will to acknowledge her presence, as she paused at my fallen Castiel and she studied the frozen scene.
"Castiel's death? I caused it?" My broken whisper was barely audible to my own ears, but the goddess seemed to have no problem hearing me as I knelt at the side of my Shíoghra. Her fingers skimmed along his face, along to the wound on his back before her white eyes gazed up at me. I wanted to snap at her for touching him, without the mind to grasp at whether it was jealousy that caused my irrational thoughts, or something else entirely.
I had caused so much pain here, in these past few days alone, too many deaths. The shame weighed me down and clawed at the small amount of self worth which remained, after
Castiel had tried to somewhat restored it, after the atrocities which we had suffered at Braen's hands. Castiel's death now the heaviest weight of all upon my conscience and I knew I could never forgive myself for this. The loss was far too great for me to bear. If Castiel was truly gone, then I would not let myself breathe another breath without him.
"A life for a life. That has always been the way, always the price paid," she said gravely. "Are you willing to give up one for his?"
Confusion and disbelief at her words made me frown as my mouth opened in unspoken question. Was she saying that this did not have to be the end? Could my mistake be rectified, by giving up myself to save him?
"You summoned me here, child. Your will brought me to this realm whether you are conscious of that or not. Now answer the question, are you willing to pay the price for the
return of your other half?"
"My life is the price?" I asked carefully, wanting to be sure that the consequences would cause no more suffering to those around me.
I did not have to think about it though, if my life was indeed what was needed. Yes. Of course, I would give up everything for him. She could take my life, I did not care. She could have whatever she asked for, as long as it brought him back. My desperation must have been clear as I grabbed for Castiel's hand.
I looked up as the silence continued after my question, only to see what looked like uncertainty on the face of the all mother, "The price is a life, yes."
"Then take it," I yelled out pleadingly, my face contorting in agony at the pain I felt heavy in my chest.
The amount of power I felt rush through the room as soon as the words left her lips, was enough to knock the breath from me. The world kickstarted and the shock of so much noise at once stopped me from remembering the situation that I was in. A loud inhale of shaky breath brought my attention back to Cas as he choked on air. His eyes were wide and movement around me once again stopped but without the unsettling stillness of frozen time.
"How..." my father stuttered as he watched the man he had just murdered, sit up from his
temporary resting place.
The shocked occupants of the hall watched with bated breath as Castiel pushed himself, unsteadily, up onto his feet. Everyone, including myself, too stunned to move or speak as Cas stood intimidatingly tall before us once more, with all the strength and grace that he possessed. Of course nobody but I, had seen the queen of gods grant life back to him; all they had seen was me falling to my knees in grief, only for the man that had previously laid dead, to wake up and fight for breath once more.
I remained in my kneeling position by Castiel's feet, looking up at him in awe, and that in itself confused me.
How was it possible that I was still here, that I still drew breath? Had the all mother not agreed that my life was the price to be paid, for Castiel to return to the land of the living? Warm tears spilled from wide eyes as I watched colour return to my loves cheeks.
"Cas?" I whispered, my voice cracking with too many emotions trying to take hold of me all at once. Grief, joy, lingering heartache...
None of it mattered, as they were washed away the second that I was picked up and cocooned in Castiel's heated and strong embrace. After allowing me a few moments to catch
myself, to take comfort in his touch, Cas carefully released me and rounded on my father, his eye blazing. I was worried about what he would do. Would he retaliate? I hoped not, not whilst we were in a room filled with the tribe. Besides we did not have time for this and a
brawl would not be productive, considering why we had come here in the first place.
My father was pinned to the wall by his throat, all colour draining from his face in fear before going red as his body was deprived of oxygen. His hands clawed uselessly at Castiel's arm, trying to get Cas to loosen the grip that kept him in place, all to no avail. The tribe seemed lost, not sure as to whose side they stood on, looking amongst themselves to find some inclination as to how they should react to the scene playing out before them.
"Now," Castiel growled lowly, bringing his face threateningly close to my father's, "You will do
nothing but listen, until I have said all that I need to, understand?"
Torquil was quick to nod at his words and as he signalled for the few warriors that had drawn swords to stand down, Castiel released him, dropping him to the ground with practised ease. I fought the urge to go to my father's side, telling myself that he would probably sooner die, than accept the help of the Laoch that inhabited his daughter's body. Even if I had wanted to, I was quickly pulled to Castiel's side, a strong arm going around my waist and securing me there.
"We are not here to hurt anybody," he began, looking around the room of Picti that watched him warily.
I looked up as Cas rubbed his face, exhaustion clear in his features. How much had it tired him, to be pulled from darkness back to life? I did not have time to ponder on that as he addressed the growing crowd.
"And I am too short on time to convince you of this, so I am afraid you will just have to take my word on that. Yes, Ceana and I are Laoch. Yes, we were cast out of Tir Na Nog"
At this announcement, the tension in the room snapped and shouts were accompanied by the hiss of swords unsheathing. The clamour of voices drowned out any further explanation my Shíoghra tried to give and he sighed heavily, letting the people rant their fears.
"We do not have time for this," Cas urgently whispered to me. "Soldiers were spotted about two hours before I left to follow you here. If we do not want Donnchadh to end up fighting
them off, then we need approval for them to come here and we need it now."
I saw the worry on his face, it was in the lines of his frown and the sad glint in his eyes. Taking a deep breath, I turned to face my people and let out enough magic to silence the room. It worked... all eyes were on me. My hands were shaking by my sides as I gave them what I hoped to be a serious glare. I needed them to remember who I was, their next leader, someone they could trust and follow.
"I am Ceana, daughter of your chief and you will listen to me. We need to stick together in these dark times, or all that we hold so dear to us, will be lost forever, destroyed by the Romans. Is that what you want?" I asked, with a disappointed shake of my head. "Surely you
should want whatever help has been offered, to protect your families and here I stand offering you just that... help, warriors that even the gods thought good enough to keep. I
understand you worry about our past transgressions but ponder this, if the gods really did not favour us, then why bring one such unfavourable back to life?"
My words hung in the air as they digested this and I saw clearly the change in opinion as stances relaxed. I knew I had them and looked over at Uilleam, "Gather some warriors, we
bring the Laoch back here, now."
He nodded and barked at his warriors to prepare themselves. I went to follow them but my arm was caught and I was pulled into the chest of my Shíoghra. He placed a soft kiss on my
forehead and smiled down at me with a look in his eyes that I was not accustomed to.
"You did well," he praised. "A born leader."
I blushed under his gaze and shook my head, "Men listen to pretty words, just as much as women do. But no, I am not their leader."
Cas raised an eyebrow as he looked around the hall, "I disagree, you are their leader now. Your father is not in any state to make the decisions that need to be made in times like these. There is too much grief in his heart and it clouds his judgement. I think he, like you, is ruled too strongly by emotion."
I stilled at his words, anger flashing through me as I scowled up at him. I was not ruled by my emotions, ass! I was more than capable of thinking clearly without my anger, or anything else I felt, getting the best of me. Shoving at his chest, I whipped around only to meet the lost looks of my people. What did they want? Castiel's words replayed in my head, that I was in charge now and I decided to test that theory.
"Make room for the Laoch that will be arriving, ready food and drink. I want a meeting set up tonight, to discuss strategy. I need to meet with the leaders of other tribes, not just the Picti, the celts further south too if possible. Go."
I was dumbfounded as they immediately dispersed to do what I had asked, my father's derisive snort from behind me, broke me from me revelry. I was not sure what to do with him. He had already murdered Cas once and I would not put it past him to try again.
"You think they will follow you? They are not your people, you have seeded doubt and fear amongst them and they are scared," he hissed, anger flashing across his face.
"Yes, I have," I admitted, "and when fear takes over, the tribe will follow the strongest leader, one they trust. Dear father, who is following you?"
My words were cold and unfeeling towards him and I wasted no more time turning and walking out of the hut. Nothing, I would do nothing with him. Castiel was watching my father closely until I shook my head and motioned for him to come with me. We needed to find Donnchadh before it was too late. The sooner they were all behind the walls of the village, the sooner I might be able to relax.
Horses were ready and waiting for us, when we reached the gates. Uilleam was surrounded by five of our warriors and he nodded at me as he mounted his horse.
"We follow you," he stated, inclining his head.
I tried to hide my surprise as Castiel lifted me onto the horse and could not think of anything to say. Words were not needed apparently, Castiel gave the location of the Laoch and we were off before much more could be said.
Cas rode out in front, guiding the warriors to where the Laoch were hiding.
The darkness was eery, the few torches that were being carried contorted shadows into disturbing shapes, which seemed to make a grab for us, before slithering back. When we cantered past the stones, I did a double take, thinking that I had spotted a dark figure watching us but when I looked back, nothing was there but the shadows of the stones themselves. I shrugged it off
and slowed down as the treeline came into view. Tension was thick in the air, swords drawn, eyes flickering towards every sound: snapping
branches, the rustle of leaves and creatures that slunk across our path. On edge, was putting how I felt lightly.
We had long since passed where I had left the group to come to the village and worry for their safety was eating me alive. I felt guilty for not going to my father as soon as I climbed over the wall, I had lost precious time, which may have cost the lives of the very people I was trying to save. A flickering of what I guessed to be fire was spotted through the trees and I held up my hand to stop our advance. Slipping down to the ground, I unsheathed my dagger and motioned for Cas to join me as I crept silently towards where I had spotted the light.
My grip was tight on the dagger and my breathing was coming in short pants as nerves fluttered in my stomach. Cas crouched slightly in front of me and, as quietly and carefully as he could, moved a branch out of the way to reveal whoever was hiding in the dark. A dagger went flying past my head and my eyes widened, my body stiffening as it embedded itself in the tree just inches from my cheek.
"In the name of the gods, Donnchadh! It's us!" Cas yelled as he stood up with a glare aimed at the sheepish Laoch.
Síofra stepped forward with her hands up in surrender, guilt on her face, "My apologies. That was my fault, I told him I sensed something."
I stood up too and moved next to Castiel who was still glaring at Donnchadh. His attention however, was on me and his eyes were studying me with an intensity that had me shifting on my feet. It was like he was trying to decide the outcome of our mission just by staring at me and when he spotted the blood covering Castiel's tunic, he raised an eyebrow at me.
"It looks like you two had fun," he snorted. "Did you succeed or did you fail, like I suspected you would by going on your own?"
I gritted my teeth, even though I knew he was saying it just to get at me and probably expected a retort which I would not grant him the satisfaction of having.
"Some of my people are waiting a few feet behind the trees. Are you coming or would you rather stay here and risk being slaughtered in the dead of night?" I asked, folding my arms.
Castiel chuckled and looked over at the waiting Laoch, "You better come now before she changes her mind. The warriors are hers and I have no doubt that, at her command, they
would attack you. Do not tempt her to do just that."