"It is. Ours was more like the Maya. Glyph based."
Kateri’s mind reeled at that. "Wait … the stone that was sent to me." The one that was fourteen thousand years old. "It had strange writing on it with something that appeared to be Greek."
"Not Greek. And not Mayan. Keetoowah. But you’re getting ahead of the story."
"Sorry. Back to the Greek confusion. I take it our … Ope woman rallied her troops to help the Keetoowah fight off their attackers."
He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his arm. "Not until after she made a bargain with the chief’s son."
Ooo, this was getting good. "Which was?"
"She would save his people if he would agree to spend a week with her once the battle was won."
"Horny little booger, wasn’t she?"
Ren cast her a glare so malevolent that she actually took a step back from it. "She loved him."
Okay, she’d struck a nerve there. She’d ask him more about Sterope, but decided it might not be the wisest course of action. Better to get the scary immortal man off his sensitive topic, especially while he held a war club that still had the blood of demons on it.
Kateri cleared her throat. "So she made her bargain and he agreed to it?"
Ren returned to his hacking, which made her feel a whole lot better.
Yeah, kill the bushes. They didn’t care about living.
"After the agreement was made," he said, "she convinced her sisters to help her save his people. Because they were family and they loved her, they agreed. The seven goddesses came down together and chose the seven strongest warrior-priests among the Keetoowah to fight with them. They were the ones who drove the seventy tribes back and then divided them up so that they couldn’t attack the Keetoowah ever again. When the fighting was finished, Sterope claimed her fee, not knowing that the chief’s son was already married to a woman he loved dearly."
Kateri gaped. "Are you serious?"
"Very much so."
"That dog. How could he do that?"
Ren shrugged. "In his mind, he was making a sacrifice for his people. One week of servitude seemed like a small price to pay for everyone’s life."
Okay, so when put in those terms, it made sense. Still …
What a two-timing bastard.
"For the record, I’d absolutely kill my husband if he did that to me."
"Believe me, his wife wasn’t happy about it. Especially since her husband impregnated Sterope during that same week."
Ouch! Kateri cringed with dread. Something told her this wouldn’t have a happy ending. "I imagine it wasn’t exactly the highlight of Sterope’s life, either."
"Actually, they say she was thrilled to be pregnant with his baby. But because the father was a mortal man and she was a goddess, the other gods shunned her for it. Zeus, driven by jealousy since she was the mother of two of his children, ordered the mutant baby killed. The last thing he wanted was to suffer the humiliation of having the mother of his children prefer the touch of a mortal man over his."
Kateri cringed for the poor woman and the baby. "That is so harsh. So did she kill it?"
"No." Ren led her deeper into the forest. "Instead, Sterope went to the goddess Artemis."
"At one time, she’d been Artemis’s most trusted handmaiden and had kept the goddess’s secrets. To repay her, Artemis saved the baby and lied to Zeus. They both swore it was stillborn. Zeus wasn’t happy, but he didn’t hurt Artemis over it. Off the hook, Artemis then took the infant to his father, who was furious over it. The last thing he wanted was to have a permanent reminder of his infidelity around the wife he loved-a wife who was, at that precise moment, in labor with her own child. Not to mention, he didn’t want a half-breed mutant son that wasn’t good enough to be kept by its own mother."
Kateri flinched in sympathy. Poor baby boy, but it made sense. If the Keetoowahs were matriarchal like her people and the mother didn’t keep the child, it would be viewed as seriously defective and lacking. Unworthy.
To this day, all babies born to her tribe were presented to the grandmother, if she was still living, to be inspected and named. If the grandmother wasn’t alive, then it fell to the mother.
For that child to be rejected …
"I’m surprised they didn’t kill it."
Ren snorted. "I’m told he tried and couldn’t."
Well, that made her feel better. "He loved the baby too much to hurt it?"
"Hardly." Ren returned to hacking a path for them. His strokes were more brutal and sharp. "The first time he left it to die, an old woman found the babe and brought it back to town not knowing it had been intentionally abandoned. When Artemis learned about it, she struck down his beloved wife in retaliation."
Kateri winced at that. How awful for all of them. But even worse … "’First time’ implies he tried again."
Ren nodded. "The second time, a crow-demon found and nursed the baby. When he was a year old, she returned him to his father and warned him that if he didn’t raise it to manhood, she would return to kill his cherished son for his neglect, and then make him live with the pain of knowing he killed both his beloved wife and treasured child."
In a sick way, that was almost touching. "Why did the demon care?"
He sighed heavily. "Honestly? She couldn’t have cared less. But she didn’t have a choice."
"Why not? And where was the baby’s mother during all of this? Why didn’t Sterope bitch-slap him for his cruelty?"
Ren fell silent as bitterness swelled inside him. "For her sin against Zeus, Sterope had been banished back to the stars. To make sure that she never shamed him again with her human lover, Zeus turned her into a comet that would only pass over the earth every seventy-five years-his way of guaranteeing that she would never see her son. That the boy would most likely die prior to her return. But before she was punished, Sterope had made Artemis promise her that the goddess would ensure no one killed her son before he had a chance to become a man. Artemis promised, however she was too afraid of Zeus to see to the baby herself. So she sent a demon in to protect the boy and make sure that his father didn’t kill him."
"Poor kid. So did the demon stay with him after that?"
"No. She kept him only until he was weaned and didn’t need a mother’s milk anymore. Then, after threatening the father, who had no more love for the boy than she did, she left the child and walked away. The boy cried himself sick for the only mother he’d ever known, but the demon never returned and he never saw her again."
Kateri shook her head at the horror. "How could even a demon leave a little baby with a father who hated him?"
Ren shrugged with a nonchalance that defied her comprehension. "After a while, the boy didn’t mind his father’s hatred. The feeling was quite mutual. In fact, most days, he hated his father more."
"Oh, but it had to be horrible for the little guy. Growing up like that … can you imagine?" Tears welled in her eyes as she felt so bad for the innocent baby who had no part in any of it. Her emotions overwhelmed her. Anger, pity, grief.
Most of all was a tsunami of indignation on the boy’s behalf. She wanted to hurt all of them for treating him that way.
How could people be so selfish and cruel?
Ren turned to stare at her with a puzzled scowl. "Why do you cry?"
She wiped at her eyes, then waved her hand over her face in an attempt to stop any more tears from falling. "I’m sorry. I can’t help it. I’m being a girl. I know. I just can’t stand the thought of a little boy going through something so terrible. Alone. It’s just not right. Please tell me that he grew up to be a ruler or happy or something really good."
When he didn’t speak, a bad feeling went through her.
"His father didn’t kill him, did he?"
"No. He lived."
She waited for him to say something more.
When he didn’t, she reached out to touch his arm. "C’mon, Ren. Finish the story. You can’t leave me hanging like this. What happened to the baby? Did he grow old? Did he father a boatload of kids and shower them with all the things he didn’t have? Please, tell me after all of that evil misery he found someone who loved him and treated him right." She knew she was babbling, but she couldn’t help it. Something inside her was desperate to know the baby’s fate. "Well? Did he?"
His gaze searched hers with a probing stare she couldn’t fathom. When he spoke, his tone was low and incredulous. "No. While he was in the fullest bloom of his manhood, his brother tricked a spirit into killing him. Then the boy sold his soul to come back and make right a wrong against the only real friend he ever knew."
It took a full minute for her to grasp the meaning of his words. For her mind to put all the pieces together into the only conclusion she could make.
"You’re the baby."
A thousand tangled emotions ripped through Kateri as she stared up at Ren with an understanding that burned her raw. He had been the baby that no one wanted. The baby banned from seeing the only person who’d ever wanted him.
She knew from her own experience how much it hurt not to have a mother. How many times in her life she’d ached over the loss. Every time she’d seen a mother with her child, regardless of age, and they embraced, or just laughed together …
When she’d moved in or out of her college dorms and she’d seen her classmates with their families, their moms with tears in their eyes as they said good-bye and wished them luck with their classes. Graduations, birthdays, proms …
All family occasions.
And those damn sappy family commercials …
It always cut her to the bone because it rammed home with brutal clarity what she was missing. What she lacked most in her life. When there was a true mother-child relationship, there was no stronger bond. No greater love or sacrifice. That was what Ren had meant when he spoke of Apollymi destroying everything over the death of her son and why he couldn’t comprehend that kind of love. That was how much a child meant to a real mother.
Their child was their world.
And when you didn’t have that bond, there was no greater misery. It left a hole in your heart and a never-ending longing that was indescribable because you knew it was out there for others. You saw it constantly. Everywhere. And you wondered why you were exempt from having someone love you like that.
Why were they so lucky and you so cursed?
In her case, she’d at least known her mother for a brief time. She had memories of her mother holding her in her arms and rocking her whenever she felt bad, of her mother wiping away her tears and singing lullabies while her mother placed warm cloths of Vick’s VapoRub on her chest whenever she was sick. Of kisses and hugs that came for no reason whatsoever, and with no strings attached. Of placing her own hand inside her mother’s and feeling safe and secure in a world that was seldom kind to the innocent.
Most of all, she’d felt loved beyond measure every time her mother had looked at her.
It was also why she hated Mother’s Day with a passion that burned like the fire of a thousand suns. Everywhere she looked, for weeks on end, was a vicious reminder that she no longer had a mother to buy a present for. No one to call. A woman to say "thanks for being there, Mom" to. While it was a great thought for those blessed with a mother who loved them and who was still with them, it was a brutal assault on those who’d lost theirs. She could only imagine how much worse it would be for someone like Ren who had no concept of what a real mother could be. Of what it felt like to know there was someone on this earth who would kill or die for you without reservation or hesitation.
And she knew exactly how lucky she was. She’d had two mothers who had loved her and cared for her. Two women who made her feel like she was everything to them.
Her mom and her grammy. Even though they were gone, their love lived inside her and gave her strength and character to this day. And she still wasn’t alone. Not really. She had her aunt Starla, who would call and check on her. Make her laugh no matter how bad her day had been. Starla might only be related by marriage, but she’d always treated Kateri like another daughter.
Ren had never had anyone.
She sniffed back the tears that threatened to become an all-out crying jag for the real tragedy of his life. "I’m so sorry."
And still he appeared puzzled as he watched her. It was as if compassion and sympathy from someone else were so alien an experience that he couldn’t fathom anyone caring about him. "Why?"
"Why?" she repeated incredulously. "Because no child should grow up like you did. No one should ever be abandoned by the people who shouldn’t have to be threatened to do right by their own blood. For the fact that you’ve never met your mother and that stupid demon-bitch abandoned you to a total ass**le. I’m sorry for all of that. Most of all, I’m sorry that you think I’m nuts for caring about you. And for your being shocked and baffled that someone else could actually care about and be indignant over what was done to you as a child." She reached up to touch him, but he moved away.
Who could blame him? He didn’t know how to bond with anyone. His own brother had killed him.