Prologue

The driving rain drenched the land, swelling rivers and saturating the earth creating a quagmire of the narrow roadway. Sheet lightening sporadically lit up the darkness and gave the scenery an eerie flickering luminescence. Few would brave the roads on a day as stormy as this; fewer would dare traverse it at night without a truly pressing need. This night, however, the need was indeed pressing, astride a horse sat a figure shrouded in folds and folds of fabric, so much so that she was almost entirely hidden; the only trait naming her female being the long slender fingers holding the reigns of her horse. Alongside her rode two larger individuals, both male and neither human, a trait that was all too obvious by their uniquely angular faces, sharply pointed ears and evident inborn grace and poise. Both men were elfin and neither looked at ease with their surroundings. Behind rode another figure, a woman that was human, round as she was tall, fidgeting about on the back of a stout draft horse and shouting in vain at the woman in front of her through the deafening beat of the rain.

Though wrapped thoroughly in the fabric of two heavy cloaks, Phinnia Tumaille was completely soaked, her skin was irritated by the constant wetness that surrounded her and while she had maintained a distance between herself and her own body, postponing the impending event of child birth and maintaining a shield around her own pain, she knew that the time was near and that soon she would be at the mercy of nature. Llewellyn and Palin were both uneasy about the forest and the request that she had made of them, she wanted to be in the Seven Circles before the birth, it was important that they make it before the baby arrived. Both of her cousins were apprehensive about the quest, superstition, as foolish as it truly was, tainting their logical nature. The Seven Circles was a place where the elves held rituals, special rituals heavy in magic and for elven kind exclusively. There lay the problem for her cousins, while Eugenia would be left behind at the edge of the forest with strict instructions to go no further, Phinnia would be carrying a half human unborn child into the circle.

Tension surrounded the group, they were deep in elfin lands yet they had not been stopped, greeted, detained or even seen another elf since they had entered the territory of those who protected the most sacred of all the Holy sites. Where superstition could be overcome by logic, the unease that was caused by the relative ease of their ingress, the elves in the party were worried. If they were being watched it was being done so expertly that they could not feel the eyes of others on them, if there were others hiding along the route that they were taking then they could not detect even a trace of them, they felt completely alone and that in itself was worrying. Why would the Seven Circles be left unguarded, why were they being allowed to proceed with no interference?

While these things tugged at Phinnia's concentration, she pooled all her strength into one specific task, doing all she could to delay the birth of her unborn daughter until she was safely within the center of the Seven Circles. Only then could she allow herself to relax and succumb to Nature. From the moment of conception Phinnia had been having dreams about the child she carried, she knew that she had to proceed just as she was, it was imperative that the child be born in the center of the Seven Circles. In many ways Phinnia had found herself alone in the world, the only people that she knew she could count on were those around her at that moment. All others down to even her husband had betrayed her; the man that she gave up her people for had done cruel things to her and left her humiliated and alone.

In the dawn of their marriage life had been great, he had farmed a small plot of land and she had used her magic to coax the land and plants to yield large harvests. In years to come her husband had grown wealthy and bought more land and she had worked alongside him day after day. Eventually his wealth had grown enough that he could hire men to do work for him and he had more time to pursue things he would enjoy. That was when her trouble started, or so she thought. Ten years into their marriage and they were childless; it was well known that few elfin women could bear children to human fathers. Her husband had decided, after about five years together, that she would not be able to bear him any sons. He began to frequent some of the young girls that worked for him and before she knew it there were several little girls running around the grounds who bore a striking resemblance to her husband. There were no boys among his bastard lot.

He quickly decided that the Gods wouldn't give him sons because he was fathering these children without being married to their mothers. So in the ultimate betrayal of their marriage vows he brought home a young woman that he purchased from a matchmaker, she was a Grass Wife. Her offspring were legitimate heirs to their fathers and she had certain rights within the household. Essentially, Phinnia's husband had started building his harem. In the ten years since he brought the first Grass Wife home he had purchased five more from different matchmakers and gone as far as to purchase them from other cities, all in hopes of having a son. Thus far he had sired only one son, that son had died of plague early in his short and tender life. All the rest, of which there were eleven, not counting those who were his illegitimate stock were female, much to their father's dismay.

When Phinnia became pregnant, by her husband one night when he was drunk and rapacious when he forced her to perform her 'wifely' duties, she made a promise to leave. She knew from the moment of conception that she had conceived another daughter for the man that she had come to hate. She decided then that she would find a way to leave him, perhaps returning to her people, many of whom did not want her, or simply disappear and become someone else. Either way she refused to allow her daughter to be raised in her husband's household.

The twilight of dawn had started to brighten the horizon as the group dismounted their horses and prepared to continue on foot up the winding path that led to the outside of the Seven Circles. Phinnia's strength was failing and she was quickly losing her hold on her ability to shelter her mind from the pain her body was suffering. Phinnia had begun to moan softly with each of her contractions.

"Phinnia, you can't deliver that baby alone, please let me go with you!" Eugenia cried through the drone of the rain.

"I am breaking enough rules as it is Eugenia, I dare not anger the Gods or my people any more than I already intend to. I thank you for accompanying me on this journey, but I must go from here without you my friend. I will return and then you can care for me and my child." Phinnia said as she softly panted through another contraction, the remaining warmth of her bag of waters dribbling down her legs.

The climb was arduous, the woman in the final moments of pregnancy forced herself to do exactly what her body did not want to do, and she walked, quickly, up a steep winding trail. She puffed and panted and cried out in pain with her contractions, but would not be deterred, she wouldn't allow herself to stop. Finally the entrance to the Seven Circles loomed in the predawn gloom.

They had arrived at a gateway of stone, its soaring archway obscured by the rain and the dim light, the grassy plain that spread away from the edge of the cliff was still dim even though the light of dawn was already spreading across it. It wasn't much farther to her goal, a seven ringed circle of stones stood on end, each ring different than the previous.

Each ring required a prayer to the God or Goddess of the ring, each ring was a progression toward the center, a place so blessed by the Gods that the ground, the air and all living things within the clearing delicately trembled with the resonance of their power and magic. That was where she planned on delivering her baby daughter.

Phinnia peeled off her wet clothing at the entrance to the seventh circle as she recited the prayer to the Goddess Renteri, the elven goddess of motherhood and thus entered into the sacred womb of the Gods, the Seven Circles.

Even as the cold rain fell out of the dimly lit dawn sky, Phinnia walked through the fifth circle, two circles left and then she would be able to lay back and push the child she was fervently trying to hold inside her body just a while longer. She shivered terribly though she wasn't sure if she shivered due to the cold that slicked her wet and naked skin, or if it was the pains that constantly wracked her body. As she neared the exit to the next to last circle she quickly whispered the final words of her prayer, Phinnia collapsed into the arms of Palin, he was her closest cousin, her mother's nephew by her natural sister and her closest friend though he hadn't always been. He had been the first to betray her and had found that he had almost instantly regretted the decision. It was his decision that had estranged her from her mother and her people. Phinnia would have a difficult time if she tried to ever return home and Palin knew it was because of him and his choice to inform her mother of her marriage to a human man. He had made an oath to serve and protect her after she had been confronted by her mother, she had been angry at the very sight of him early in her marriage, but he became of greater and greater comfort as her marriage began to fail, and then she had put her complete trust in him when she had made her plans to leave her husband behind. Palin lifted her up and steadied her on her feet as she tried pitifully to murmur the final remaining prayer, she could feel the head of the baby crowning between her legs as he and Llewellyn practically dragged her through the final entry and into the center of the Seven Circles. Phinnia screamed in pain as she lay prone on the grass and pushed for the first time in the process of birth, the head of her baby slipped into the world, both Llewellyn and Palin were helpless, they stood and watched as she struggled and pushed, finally Phinnia gave one final pain filled push and the child slid out onto the grass and into the world. Phinnia's relief was evident as the child issued forth a shrill and angry cry, a daughter; the Gods had given her a daughter.