Dia and her companion arrived at the Temple to be greeted by a woman who appeared to be of middle years, garbed in the purple-trimmed white of an archpriestess of the Phoenix. She stood in the precise center of the shallow steps leading to the door of the Temple and hailed them as soon as they were within hearing.
“Be welcome to the house of Ancient Phoenix,” she proclaimed in ritual greeting.
“May your Time be rich in the bounty of His peace,” Phoebus responded, closing the distance between them.
“And may the blessings of Order mark your days,” the priestess said.
Then, in a gesture that apparently completed the ritual, they faced each other squarely and each held up a hand, palm to palm, an inch apart. Once the ritual greeting was over, the inhuman calm seemed to slide from her face as she turned to survey her other guest. “Be welcome, my lady,” she said, a warm smile lighting her eyes.
“Thank you,” Dia said absently. Something seemed wrong here. “Do you have any grooms here, ma’am? If not, I can see to Coer once we have removed his sad burden, if you will direct me to the stables … ”
“Indeed, my lady, and I shall do no such thing!” The priestess seemed shocked at the suggestion. “Phoebus and I will tend to Lord Caelon; you will come inside to the rooms that have been prepared for you. I have not the least doubt that a warm bath and a mattress will be most welcome.”
Somehow, the thought of being treated so royally by the TimeKeepers made her feel disconcertingly blasphemous. Why were they being so deferential toward her? she wondered, mentally squirming as she recalled how Phoebus had knelt to greet her. How long ago that seemed! “Oh, no! Truly, it will be only the work of a moment … ”
“I am sorry, my lady, but I cannot permit you to risk your child with such exertion. I do assure you that my old friend and I are quite equal to the task, which,” she added, eyeing Dia’s protruding stomach, “if you will forgive me for saying so, you do not appear to be.”
Dia could not help laughing. Phoebus, smiling his sly smile, said, “This is Phoenedra, my lady. I believe I spoke of her when we were journeying here.”
“Why, so you did, good Phoebus,” Dia replied with a wholly feigned look of innocent astonishment. She then looked around a little uncomfortably, still unable to quite pinpoint the vague discomfort she felt — almost as if she were being watched. Until she saw that she was.
He appeared to be a peasant, dressed in a tunic of rough burlap and linen breeches, and he was watering a donkey at a silent, unmoving stream at the edge of the clearing. He seemed to be staring at her with the blank gaze of one who looked but did not see. Neither he nor his beast moved or uttered the slightest sound.
Of course! The Temple and its occupants stood outside time, just as she and Phoebus did. “How do you come to be here?” she asked in an awed whisper.
“We were placed here,” Phoenedra said gently, “by the last Phoenix just before his final death. Have you never wondered what had become of the Temple of the Fires, such that no man or beast has been able to find it these two years? We have been here, outside time, waiting.”
“Because, my lady, this is the instant that marks the beginning of the Gaerud,” the priestess explained. “There are certain things — and people — which must be in place at that instant. We will see to that here, in this now.” She opened the Temple doors and gestured her inside. “Come, let us get you settled.”
Dia automatically followed as her mind reeled. “But … then, how do we come to be here, in this instant?”
“You were brought here, my lady.”
“By whom? Phoebus?”
Phoenedra smiled her warm smile. “Ah, no, dear Lady Dia. Neither Phoebus nor I have that kind of power.”
“Then … ?”
“I could not really say, my lady,” she confessed placidly. “It may be that the Phoenix, in His wisdom, placed some sort of portal in a particular place at this particular instant, knowing that circumstance would bring you to pass through it at just that moment. It may even be that the new Phoenix is responsible for your presence in this unmoving instant.”
Dia was silent for a moment, digesting that possibility. “But, if that is so,” she mused, “then He is already here.”
“Well,” Phoenedra temporized, “He is here — in spirit, if not in the flesh. He is always here, you know; the spirit of the Phoenix never really leaves us, even during an Interval as lengthy as this one has been.” Again, she smiled her gentle smile, adding, “I know some of what is to come, my lady, but certainly not all, and I make no claim to even begin to understand the powers wielded by the Master. I do not even know exactly when your own child shall arrive.”
Dia, who had long since arrived at that point in her pregnancy at which she felt she’d never be either comfortable or energetic again, hoped she would not have too long to wait.
She was to be granted her wish. She had retired to a wonderfully soft bed, after a private endmeal served to her in her quarters by an attentive Phoenedra, feeling very much at ease and more peaceful than at any other time since she had left her home. Perhaps something of the spirit of the late Phoenix remained in the atmosphere of the Temple. As she drifted off to sleep, Dia decided that, if she was to be deprived of her mother’s support during the birth of her first child, she was thankful to be so protected by the hand of the Phoenix.
She slowly swam back to consciousness some indeterminable time later, for no reason that she could immediately perceive. She lay there, sorting through her senses and trying to decide what had awakened her. Something had, she knew, yet she could find nothing to account for it. She drifted back to sleep.
She was to repeat this pattern of sleep disruption three more times before she finally realized that what was troubling her repose was pain. Pain? She sat up suddenly, remembering Phoebus’ prediction and trying to quell the nervous fluttering of her stomach. Oh, stop being so silly, she admonished herself sternly. Ladies have babies all the time. She lay back down and, breathing deeply, tried to relax.
Phoenedra, she called, once she had schooled herself to some measure of calm.
Yes, my lady? the priestess answered almost immediately.
I think . . .
The time approaches?
Another spasm rippled across her belly, causing Dia to inhale sharply. Indeed, I fancy the time may arrive precipitously.
Very well, my lady, came the placid response and Dia, insensibly, was reassured.
It was not very long before relaxation was completely impossible for her. Just as her pregnancy itself had seemed to be peculiarly accelerated, so her confinement seemed likely to be rapid and intense. She completely lost track of time as the contortions of her womb racked her with pain. No one had ever told her that this process was so very uncomfortable!
Phoenedra had arrived promptly and lent her support but, as she pointed out to Dia at one point during the process, “Until the young gentleman is ready to make his appearance, I can do little except to offer my support.”
Dia had to bite back a sarcastic response. While she appreciated the justice of Phoenedra’s remark, she was in no mood for either logic or justice, her temper decidedly frayed as her body labored to produce her child.
She soon had little leisure for even temper, however, and coherent thought was beyond her. Her contractions continued, growing stronger and stronger still, and she surrendered, perforce, to that curious phenomenon when a woman’s body is no longer her own but merely an instrument of creation. Even when it seemed to her that this task was more than her body could perform, she continued to obey the demands of the process, pushing with as much strength as she could muster when it seemed she must, resting whenever she could. Finally, just as Dia decided that she could not do this and that her body would simply have to burst in order to free itself of this child, a warm weight seemed to flow away from her and the pressures and pains abruptly eased. A few minor twinges remained, just enough to assure her that she was not wholly numb, but the relief was tremendous. Tiredly, she sighed.
Phoenedra spent a few moments cleaning her up and helping her get comfortable before she brought her child to receive her greetings. Dia gently gathered the baby in her arms, thinking of Caelon and how proud he would be. The infant stared solemnly at her, his face puffy from his arduous journey, and Dia returned his regard gravely. “Welcome, little one,” she whispered to him.
Moving slowly, she offered her newborn a breast and he latched on readily, a look of peaceful contentment coming over his small face and a tiny fist wrapped around one of her fingers. Before long, as Dia watched him with a sort of tender fascination, he fell asleep. She might have stayed just as she was indefinitely — just at that moment, she felt she could have spent years patiently watching him and wondering at what she and Caelon had wrought — but Phoenedra suggested that she put the baby down and get some sleep.
Once she had put the baby in the cradle Phoenedra had provided, Dia realized how exhausted she was. She crawled into her bed and, within minutes, fell asleep.
Lord Septha was back. Dia knew that because she could hear him roaring and snarling. He seemed to be looking for something and Dia, cradling her infant son in her arms, trembled with fear as she hid. She wished she could see; it was so very dark that she did not even know where she was. How was she to escape and carry her son to safety? The need to escape gnawed at her urgently, until she felt she could wait no longer. She leaped to her feet and began to run. The blackness was everywhere. Before her, a plain of darkness spread from horizon to horizon under a black sky. Behind her, dread Septha gave chase, bellowing in triumph.
Dia whimpered in terror. Cheerfully, she would sacrifice her own life to protect her child. Yet, she could not let herself be killed; who would care for him if aught happened to her? Desperately, she pelted through the emptiness, hoping to find safety somewhere in terrain she could not see.
Suddenly, she realized that her cradling arms were empty and she stopped and looked around wildly. She wanted to call out to the baby but she could not — she realized that she had not yet given him a name. How very stupid! Everything was so dark; how was she to find him?
She saw her son and the monstrous Septha in the same instant. The awful beast reared over the horizon, moving with unbelievable speed, and her baby was running toward it as fast as his little legs could carry him. She started to run after him; he was only a baby, he should have have been able to even walk, much less run. Surely, she should overtake him in a few seconds. But she found she could not catch him, no matter how fast she ran.
Wait! she called out to him in anguish. Please, wait!
I cannot wait, came the piping voice of a very small child. I am sorry, Mother.
Still running, she watched in horror as the valiant infant cast himself right into the face of the beast. Dia stretched out an arm in a sort of protective reflex but there was nothing she could do.
And then he was gone.
Dia’s face was wet with tears when she struggled out of a fitful sleep with shudders wracking her body. The very first thing her eyes fell upon was the cradle beside her bed and she stared at it for several heartbeats before she realized that it was empty. With the awful dream vivid in her memory, and with panic in her soul, she looked around the room frantically.
Nothing had changed since she fell asleep except that ominously empty cradle and Dia leaped from her bed, only vaguely noticing that her body seemed to have almost completely healed from the delivery as she had slept, so that it was as if the pregnancy had never been. She ran through the bedroom, pausing to look here and there, and on into the sitting room, and there she found Phoenedra holding the little bundle in her arms.
Just as she uttered a profound sigh of relief, she heard an outraged roar of unspeakable loss and fury. Startled, she looked around but saw nothing. She turned back to the priestess and met her eyes. “What?” she demanded, quivering inside at the sorrowful glance bent upon her. “What has happened?”
Again, she heard that awful roar, just as Phoenedra, in a voice choked with tears, said, “The child has died.”