Avi sat down abruptly on the pew where Father Toliver had been sitting. Her brow was furrowed in confusion and there was a strange breathless sensation in her chest. “Wait,” she said, her voice strangled with the weight of the priest's words. “What are you saying? What do you mean you have me to thank for bringing my people here? I don't even know where here is!”
“Please, Lady,” Toliver said, holding his hands out in a soothing way. “Do not upset yourself. It must come as quite a shock to find yourself here after all this time, and in a new body as well. Would you and Prince Armel come into the rectory for some tea? I will explain everything there.”
Avi glanced up at Armel, wanting him to make the decision for them. Her head was spinning; she could possibly be expected to function after such an outlandish and patently ridiculous statement. Her? A reincarnated goddess? Ha!
Armel must have read her face like a book for he nodded. “Yes, I think that's a splendid idea. An explanation would be greatly appreciated.” He reached down and took Avi's hand in his and helped her to her feet. Taking her wrist gently, he tucked her hand through his arm and together they followed the priest to a hidden door beneath the massive coloured windows.
It opened into a long, narrow hallway, at the end of which was another anonymous door. Toliver produced a large ring of musical iron keys and slotted one into the lock. He pushed the door open and stepped into a homey kitchen, complete with a wooden butcher-block table, a large hearth, and copper pots and pans hanging from a rack above a central island. The air was filled with the scent of cinnamon and baking apples.
A middle-aged woman in a plain brown dress, over which she wore a white apron, stood at the island, kneading some dough of some sort. She glanced up when Toliver, Armel, and Avi stepped inside. Avi saw her eyes grow wide when she spotted Armel. She gasped and her hands flew to her face in astonishment, leaving little smudges of flour on her plump cheeks. Armel, too, gasped and hurried forward to sweep the woman up in an embrace.
“Hollinen!” he said once he'd set the woman back down on her feet and after kissing her cheeks. “What are you doing here?”
“His Majesty... King Conri... your brother—” Armel chuckled and Hollinen turned pink. “Well, yes. Of course you know who the king is.” She waved her hand in the air, dismissing the subject. “His Majesty has loaned me out two nights a week to the Temple. Seems the good Father has a taste for my apple bread.” She gave the old priest an indulgent smile and went back to kneading the dough. “And who's the lass, Armel? Gone from court for less than five years and already forgotten your manners. Shame.”
“This is Aveline,” Armel said, going back to stand next to Avi. “I found her in the Turtle Woods.”
Hollinen stopped kneading and gave Armel a confused look. “You found her? What, under some sweethearts?”
“Actually, being chased by a poisonling.” Toliver cleared his throat and gave Armel a pointed look. “You'll have to excuse me, Hollinen,” Armel said, his tone both amused and contrite. “Toliver might very well expire if he doesn't talk Avi's ear off. It's wonderful to see you again. I've missed you.”
“And I you, Bear Cub,” the woman said with a fond smile. “Pleased to meet you, Aveline. Don't let Toliver talk your ear off, now. There will be apple bread in an hour. I expect to see all three of you at table.”
Toliver promised they would be present when the bread came out of the oven, and led them out of the kitchen and down another hall, into an airy study dominated by huge floor-to-ceiling bookcases and a heavy, dark-wood desk. There was a fire burning in the hearth, a pair of wing chairs across from the desk, and a table with a glass decanter filled with an amber liquid.
Avi sat down bonelessly in one of the chairs and accepted a glass of whatever was in the decanter with alacrity. She took a tentative sip and cough at the harsh bite of something that tasted nearly identical to a good Islay single-malt. The alcohol cut through the fog around her brain and she leaned forward, pinning the priest to his chair behind the desk with a hard stare. “How can you know any of what you said out there is true?” she asked, her voice rough with emotion.
“It's in your face,” Toliver said. “I have seen your face in my Dreams for nearly seventy years. I have been waiting for your return, Your Lady.”
“I still don't understand. Who am I supposed to be?” Avi asked.
“Why, the goddess, of course. Unelma Anheyma herself. The Dreamer.”
Armel blinked in shock and then fixed Avi with a frank, appraising stare. He shook his head after a moment, as though he didn't believe what the priest was claiming. “How is that possible?” he asked. “She's not even from this world, Father.”
“You are not recalling your studies, Your Highness—”
“Armel, please. I'm no longer a prince.”
“You'll always be a prince,” the priest said gently. “Even if you've denied your birthright. But no matter. Armel, if you insist. Your studies of the Book of Dreaming, if you'll recall, taught you that the Dreamer split her soul into three parts. One, she gave to the Taker. One, of which you are well aware, she used to create the Sigh. The final one, she sent into Aveline.”
“How?” Armel asked again.
“Through a Dream.”
“Wait,” Avi said, holding up her hand. “Just hold on a moment. Are you saying that this is actually a completely different world? For real? And that I'm some reincarnation of a goddess who died fifteen hundred years ago?”
“Yes,” the priest said simply.
“I don't believe it. I can't believe it.” Avi stood up and moved away from the desk, deeper into the room where there was a large window. She stood in front of it, staring out it without actually seeing anything beyond the glass.
A new world. Avi could no longer cling to the idea that she was in some weird re-enactment in New Zealand. She could no longer believe that she'd somehow fallen through time to an England of the past. She was in a world other than Earth. A world where she was a goddess, or at least the reincarnation of a goddess, where there were strange creatures and magic. Magic, like out of one of the manuscripts she'd worked on. How would she get home? Would she ever see her family or her friends or even her dog again? Was she stuck here in this bizarre world? It was all too much, and Avi burst into tears.
Armel and Toliver both leapt to the feet and drew Avi back to her seat. Toliver went to the door and called for Hollinen to bring tea and apple bread. Armel knelt next to Avi's chair and took her hand, rubbing small circles on the back of it with his thumb. Avi felt ridiculous; she'd always hated crying, hated how it made her face blotchy, hated how it made her nose run, and most of all, hated how it made her feel weak and vulnerable.
By the time Hollinen arrived with tea, Avi had collected herself and her sobs had subsided into only slightly less embarrassing hiccoughs. Armel was still kneeling next to her chair and this earned him a scathing look from the housekeeper, as though she believed he was responsible for her tears.
“I'm fine,” she said to everyone and withdrew her hand from Armel's.
“Of course you are,” he said and gave her a gentle smile. “Tea?”
“Please.” It was such a British reaction to a crisis. Your wife's just left you for your brother? A cuppa will fix it. Your country's been invaded? Sip some Darjeeling and all will be well. Avi smothered a slightly hysterical giggle with her hand and struggled to pull herself back from the brink of utter madness.
As they were fixing cups of tea, Toliver asked Armel, “Where are you staying?”
“The Oakenwood. Well, at least we had a room there last night. Nurrah has probably given it away by now.”
Toliver and Hollinen exchanged a horrified look. “You can't stay at a place like that, Your Highness!” Hollinen exclaimed.
“Please, Hollinen. It's just Armel now,” he said as he brought Avi her tea and a small plate with a slice of apple bread. “The Oakenwood is fine. We're not staying in Litsey very long anyway.”
“Nonsense. I'll fix up the guest rooms. Won't be but a moment.” The woman bustled away, gently closing the door behind her as she left the room.
Toliver sat down behind the desk with his own tea cup cradled in his gnarled hand. “It's all a bit much, isn't it, dear?” he said to Avi. Avi nodded, not quite trusting herself to speak yet. “Well, I will all I can to make this a bit more palatable. I know you must have questions and I'll answer as much as I can.”
Avi nodded and took a restorative sip and a bite of the bread. Both were delicious and reminded her strongly of being in her grandparent's home in Paisley, sitting on a hard wooden chair at an ancient kitchen table, watching a black and white television and listening to her grandparents speaking in Broad Scots in the next room. When Avi had swallowed, she drew a deep breath and asked her first question. “How can you be certain that I'm... That I'm who you think I am?”
“As I said,” Toliver said, “I've been seeing your face in my Dreams since I took the cloth, sixty years ago. There has also been a confluence of events that were written of shortly after Unelma's passing. The Harvest moon was the Blood moon this year, and there was an eclipse. And as Armel can tell you, the town of Orumbury was destroyed by living shadows.” The priest's face took on a certain fanatical light and he leaned forward, his voice rising. “You are here at our time of need, my Lady. You are here to deliver your people from danger and save us from the Taker, who has returned to our shores after fifteen hundred years of exile.”
“What?” Avi blurted out. “No. That's just silly. Me? I'm not... I'm just a book editor, for Heaven's sake! I'm not a leader or a fighter.”
“You are our goddess made flesh, my Lady, returned to us at our most desperate time. You might not have the heart of a soldier or the brain of a leader, but those things can be taught to you. What you do have, however, is something no one else has, what no one else can ever have.”
Despite her fears and disbelief, Avi asked, “What's that?”
Toliver grinned, and in the illumination cast by the flickering fire, his smile became a death's head grimace. “You can reunite the magics.”
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