Originally published by The Absent Willow Review in 2010
“Cassandra! Up, you lazy slut. Up, I say. Right now.”
She cringed away from the rough male voice, but the expected prod in her bruised ribs from his hob-nailed boot didn’t happen. He was bending closer to her, though, the cloyingly rancid odor from his unwashed body and rotting teeth almost unbearable. She buried her nose in the crook of one arm, trying to block it out.
“There’s people that’ll be here soon. Get up. You’re scarcely presentable.”
“I am up.” She rolled over, but came up short as her manacles and chain reached their limit. She scowled at her captor. “If you cared about me being presentable, you wouldn’t tether me .
He glared right back. “Shooting daggers out of those green eyes won’t help a bit. You’re my property. Means I can treat you however I want.”
“Are you going to unlock me?” she demanded, curling her mouth into a snarl. “Not much I can do chained up like a dog.”
Gretch rocked back on his heels and shot an appraising glance her way. “Will you promise to behave?”
“If you’re asking whether I’m going to run away again, the answer is no.”
The whipping he’d administered after catching her sneaking down to the riverbank, manacles and all, still bloomed bright in her mind. Iron dimmed her power. It was still there, just much harder to access. She muffled a snort. No one realized iron’s potential until a misogynistic cleric in the fifteen hundreds bound witches in chains as an experiment—and was delighted with the results.
Her life hadn’t been worth much since then. Not much at all. Inner laughter chimed bitterly. Witch trials! Hah! All they’d provided was a handy excuse to hang or burn mostly-innocent women, so their falsely-devout husbands could find someone younger or prettier.
Not that she was a witch, but she did hold magic within her, and the same principles applied.
She eyed Gretch. “Thought we were in a hurry. People coming and all that.”
Pulling a large key from a filthy pocket, Gretch reached for her wrist. He inserted the key and tugged on the iron bracelet. Rusty hinges groaned then popped open. She rubbed her wrist and mutely held the other out for him.
Gretch held onto her wrist for too long once she was free, but she knew better than to pull away. The man was a bully, and she didn’t want to give him an excuse to hurt her.
“Get behind the wagon and wash up,” he hissed. “You have straw in your hair, and your face is dirty. Don’t try anything. I have sharp ears. You’re mine, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Anger surfaced, but she reined it in. She wanted to scream at him. Rake her nails down his face and tell him his entire body was riddled with lice, and he smelled so bad he turned her stomach.
Bastard! How dare he complain about her being dirty? He reveled in filth. Rolled in it. Lived in it.
Cassandra stumbled to her feet still rubbing her wrists. They burned from the iron manacles. When she was chained it felt as if her skin were on fire wherever the unclean metal touched her. Gold now, or silver, or even bronze. Those metals were worthy of her. But iron? Laying eyes on the bucket of sour water behind the wagon, she recoiled. Why’d he have to use the same bucket he picked up horse shit with?
“Your highness?” Sarcasm drizzled through his tones.
He wouldn’t come around the wagon unbidden. He was afraid if he saw her unclothed, she’d ensorcel him, and he wasn’t far wrong. That was how she’d gotten away from the last two men who captured her. Once they spilled their seed in her, they were hers, and it became a simple enough matter to steal a few coins and fade away unnoticed.
Maybe, just maybe, that might work here too. She’d seen the bulge in his breeches as he gawked at her, lying helpless in her chains. Once she’d even caught him watering the ground with his semen. Though she waited for Aphrodite to strike him down for such sacrilege, it hadn’t happened.
Were the old gods still there? Their responses to things seemed desultory these days. Goddess knew they hadn’t answered any of her entreaties.
“I need clean water, Gretch. I can’t wash in horse shit. How about if you take me down to the river?” She held her breath. Given the choice between escorting her to the river or dumping, then refilling, the heavy bucket, she hoped he’d chose the river.
He might order her to wash in the fetid water and be done with it. Once when she’d complained, he’d upended the bucket over her head. That earned him censure from the gods in the form of a sudden lightning storm, but she was sure he didn’t connect the two events.
“Are you decent?”
“Yes, Gretch. All my clothes are still on,” she replied waspishly.
He poked his head around the corner of the garish wagon emblazoned with, Mr. Smythe’s Traveling Wonders. “I’ll take you to the river. If you run, I’ll have the law on you for a witch, and you’ll be hung. Do you understand me?” Watery blue eyes looked at her through stringy black hair that fell in greasy strands around his smallpox-scarred face. He was on the short side for a man, but surprisingly strong with a wiry, fireplug build.
“I understand. Let’s go.” Cassandra pushed her heavy red hair back over her shoulders and drew herself up to her full height of close to six feet, before setting off at a brisk pace for the creek. She longed for the feel of clean water soothing her skin, washing away iron residue that still tingled unpleasantly.
“Thanks.” She bit off the word. “I give you my word I won’t run.”
“Your word doesn’t mean much.”
“How could you possibly know that?”
“Witches always lie.”
She rounded on him, blocking the path. Anger raced along her nerves, hot enough to scorch silk. “I am not a witch. How many times must we go through this? You advertise me as an oracle. You’ve seen that at least some of the things I predict come true.”
And I’m destined to not have anyone believe a thing that I say, she finished silently.
“No more talk, witch. I’m right behind you.” He crooked two fingers in the sign against evil.
Shoulders sagging, she headed back down the worn path to the creek. As soon as she got to the water, she slipped out of her ill-fitting boots then slid a threadbare sweater off her shoulders.
Red splotched his face, and his breathing quickened. “Just wash your hands and face. Forget your body.”
Cassandra clutched the sides of her thin dress and turned to face him, noting his arousal with practiced eyes. “You don’t have to look,” she said and unbuttoned the garment slowly before slithering out of it and letting it pool on the ground at her feet.
Gretch was panting now, and she turned toward the life-sustaining clean water. Wading in, she crouched in the shallows but kept her back to him. That way if he wanted to violate Aphrodite’s precepts and spill himself on the ground, he could delude himself she didn’t know.
Cassandra cupped water in her hands and cleaned herself. The water was cool but not so cold as to create discomfort. How long since she’d had a proper bath? Not since she’d been with Gretch. That was certain. How long had that been, anyway? One month? No, probably closer to two, or even three.
She’d lived so long, she stopped keeping track of time eons ago. What wretched luck that Apollo’s curse included immortality. Or had that come along with her gift of prophecy? She’d never been quite certain. Not that it mattered.
Another problem was while she could see everyone else’s future, her own remained stubbornly dark.
She waded farther into the stream until she found a deep pool. Dropping her head back, she used sand to scrub the grease from her thick hair. It felt utterly decadent to shed the accumulated layers of grime. She sent a hasty prayer up to Demeter and heard a muffled gasp from the bank.
Gretch had apparently reached his climax.
She took her time rinsing the last of the sand out of her hair to give him a few minutes to get himself back together. Just to be mean, she flashed a tantalizing glimpse of one curved breast before backing out of the creek. If she could find a way to coax Aphrodite’s blessing from him, she’d be gone from here. And a hell of a lot more careful traveling the byways in witch-riddled New England from here on in.
She cast a sultry glance over one shoulder, but he wasn’t facing her anymore. Damn! Maybe next time she could plan better. If he ever let her bathe again. Cassandra wrung water out of her hair and pulled her dirty clothes back on. At least he didn’t chivvy her about hurrying. Nor did he turn around, waiting until she drew even with him to walk back to his wagon.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, come visit the Oracle. She never lies. Ask her what you will. She’s bound by the gods to tell you nothing but the truth. Come on up. Don’t be shy…”
Cassandra, her hair still damp, wore the buckskin dress with fringe and beads that Gretch forced her to don for these occasions. “But I’ll look like an Indian,” she’d protested the first time she saw it. “They know nothing of predicting the future. Besides, it doesn’t fit me. It’s too small.”
He told her he wasn’t about to spend money on material so she could make a new dress. He’d shut up after that, but she plucked the rest of the tale from his mind.
An exiled Pawnee squaw wandered through his camp a few months before. He had his way with her, starved and beat her, then buried her after she died. This was her dress, and Cassandra shuddered every time she put it on. The dead woman’s sorrow still clung to the well-chewed leather and made the dress feel like a shroud.
The crowd was smaller tonight. Maybe only twenty-five people. She glanced at them, scrying their secrets as plainly as if they’d been stenciled on their foreheads. A heavily pregnant woman waddled forward, swatting at a slender twit of a man grabbing for her arm.
“I want to know if I’m carrying a son this time,” she demanded. “Nothing but daughters so far…three of ’em. We’ve nobody to help in the fields.” She hesitated. “Oracle, if this,” she flicked at the bulge of her belly, “is another daughter. What must I do to have sons?”
“May I touch you?” Cassandra inquired.
The woman’s eyes widened, then her head jerked forward in hesitant acquiescence.
Laying a gentle hand on the woman’s swollen abdomen, Cassandra closed her eyes as she called to Athena, asking for her wisdom. Under her questing hand the infant rolled over in its watery home, kicking softly.
The corners of Cassandra’s mouth flickered upward. “’Tis a boy,” she said. “But it will be a difficult birth. He is turned within you. You’ll need a midwife. Your time will come upon you sooner than you expect. Within a fortnight. If a skilled woman isn’t nearby, you’ll need to travel to find one.”
“Thank you for the news.” The woman placed a coin in Cassandra’s hand. “There’s no need for a wise woman. You’re mistaken. All my other births were quick and easy.”
“You’d do well to heed me,” Cassandra implored. “If you don’t, your son will be stillborn.”
White showed around the woman’s pupils. Her nostrils flared, and she made the sign against evil as she faded back into the crowd.
Destined to speak the truth, except those who hear it won’t believe me…
A man stepped forward. He was well-dressed, and handsome in a rakish sort of way. Brown curls framed a strong-boned face, and clear, gray eyes twinkled above several days’ growth of stubble on his cheeks and chin.
“Louisa.” He looked right at her while he called her by a name not hers. “What on earth are you doing here, love. I’ve been looking for you for months now. Please come home. The children miss you.”
Gretch stepped out of the shadows. “You think this woman is your mistress, sir?” He sounded incredulous. “She didn’t tell me she had kin anywhere. And I did ask, yes I did.”
The other man swung around with his hand extended and glanced at the wagon. “Smythe, is it? Louisa isn’t my mistress. She’s my wife.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially. “She has a bit of trouble now and then. Forgets who she is and wanders off.”
“And you are?” Gretch asked disbelievingly, his rheumy blue eyes narrowed as he took in the expensive cut of the other man’s clothing and his hand-tooled leather boots.
“Cameron Tracy,” the stranger replied, his hand still extended.
Ignoring the proffered hand, Gretch turned toward Cassandra. “Do you recognize this man?”
She never seen him before in the entirety of her ridiculously long life. Cassandra tried to peer inside the stranger, but for once she couldn’t see a thing.
Where will I be better off? Ach, I know what I’ve got here, and it’s not very damn much.
“Cameron.” She beamed warmly and threw herself into his arms. “What a lovely surprise.”
Pretty close to the truth. After all, whoever he is, he’s quite the surprise.
Questing outward as she clasped the tall stranger, her gift ran hard against an iron wall, and she found nothing in the way of clues.
What in the goddess’s name? He must have power of his own, but what manner of being is he?
“There, there, Louisa. Come along now. Do you have anything here you’d like to bring with us?”
She shook her head. “This dress isn’t even mine. Wait while I get out of it and into my own clothes.”
Cassandra ran lightly up the steps and into the interior of the wagon, breathing shallowly because Gretch’s repulsive smell permeated everything he touched. She was glad for this Cameron person…if that was his real name. Working quickly, she dragged the squaw’s dress over her head and donned her dress, sweater, and jacket. Gretch had taken her boots, substituting the cheap leather clogs covering her feet. She considered leaving them, but didn’t want to go barefoot.
No matter what happened next, it could hardly be worse than Gretch, with his stink and the lasciviousness, which was bound to do her in sooner or later. He wanted her, and hated himself for what he saw as weakness. She felt his loathing, mixed with lust, whenever he looked at her. A volatile combination that had to explode sooner or later. She’d been in bad situations before, but Gretch was just about as disgusting a person as she’d ever had to put up with.
Maybe Demeter heard her prayers at the river today—
“You’re not going nowhere. You ain’t got no husband. That’s nothing but a damned lie.” Gretch’s voice, pitched low so the people outside wouldn’t hear him, raked across her nerves.
He’d crept silently up the steps while she was lost in thought and stood blocking the wagon’s only door as she tried to shoulder past him. “You put on a smile, get on out there, and tell some more fortunes. We need money.”
“If you don’t let me leave, I’ll scream. That ought to bring someone in here to see what’s going on.” Freedom was so close. Desperation swept through her, and she contemplated pushing Gretch over backward down the steps. Her power was recovered to some extent. It might be enough—
“Something amiss, Louisa?” The stranger had walked around to the stairs and stood just below Gretch, smiling up at her.
“No, nothing. I’m ready, dear.” She dropped the coin from the pregnant woman onto a small table bolted to the side of the wagon. “There you go,” she told Gretch. “The coin should be mine since I earned it with my prophecy, but I’ll leave it for you as a sign of good faith.”
Will he let me go? Will he?
What will Cameron do if Gretch wants to fight?
“You’ve not seen the last of me,” Gretch hissed, spraying her with tobacco-flecked saliva, before turning to stomp down the rickety steps. He pushed Cameron out of the way. Muttering imprecations, he melted into the crowd.
Disgusted, she wiped the spittle off her face.
“Come along,” Cameron repeated, holding out a hand to guide her down the stairs. “I only have one horse, but you can ride. I’ll lead him. There’s a town not too far up the way. We’ll stop at the inn for what’s left of tonight.”
She followed him to the other side of the rutted track where he’d left a bay gelding tied to a convenient branch. Vaulting smartly onto the animal’s back, she nodded to him as she handed down the reins. He grabbed them and led the animal along the dark lane.
Time slid past. When she was sure they were well away from Gretch and his wagon, she asked softly, “Who are you, really?”
“Why does that matter?”
Cassandra thought about it. “Perhaps a more pertinent question, sir, might be why you took it upon yourself to rescue me.”
He chuckled, a soft sound that caressed her in the darkness. “You needed rescuing.”
“Yes, but how could you tell?”
“Why does that matter?” He repeated his earlier question.
Ach, back to where we were five minutes ago.
“You do know I’m not your long lost wife,” she persisted.
“I don’t have a wife. Not yet, anyway.” Despite the darkness, and his face being turned away from her, she was nearly certain he was smiling.
“Is Cameron your real name?”
“What do you think?”
“Why do you answer all my questions with others of your own?” She felt frustrated. In spite of that, though, she was sure she wasn’t in any immediate danger.
How would I know?
My gifts are useless around him. They didn’t help much when I let Gretch get hold of me, either. Or the ones before him.
“The inn is just around this next bend. I plan to ask for a single room in case Smythe comes snooping after us. I heard him threaten you there on the stairs. Don’t worry, I’ll sleep on the floor.”
She hadn’t been worried…about that anyway. Cameron was undeniably appealing. He exuded an unconscious sensuality, the like of which she hadn’t seen since the Roman Empire fell.
Christianity tolled the death knell for sex. All their foolish rules about who could couple with whom were enough to make your head fall off. What earthly difference would it make if a maid fucked her second cousin? Yet that turned into a hanging offense—at least for the maid—as the Church became stronger and stronger. Clerics were practically the only ones who could read and write, which gave them an absurd advantage over everyone else. The goddess-forsaken black robes just wrote things down, presented their drivel as god’s word, and that was that.
She made a small clucking noise, lost in the distant reaches of the past.
Misunderstanding her, he spoke hesitantly. “If it bothers you that much, I suppose I could get two rooms. Until we’re out of this region, though, I believe it best if we at least look married since I announced it in front of so many people. Gretch won’t be the only one gossiping about the Oracle whose husband finally caught up with her.”
“The room is fine. I was thinking of…other things.”
They barely arrived at the public house in time. The innkeeper was in the process of locking his doors for the night as they rounded the corner and could see the place. Dashing ahead, Cameron did something—likely a silver piece or two—and the proprietor found them a room.
“Kitchen’s closed for the evening,” the plump man in the stained apron cautioned. I can get you a loaf and a couple tankards though, to take up to your lodgings.”
“That would be nice. Thank you.” Cassandra smiled at the innkeeper. “Thanks too for finding space for us for tonight.”
“You’re most welcome, ma’am.” The man looked sharply at her, and she wondered if word of the amnestic oracle preceded their arrival, though she didn’t see how it was possible since no one had passed them on the road.
“You’re in the last room on the right, up those stairs there.” The innkeeper gestured. “I’ll put beer and bread out presently.”
“Why don’t you go on up, love,” Cameron murmured. “I know how tired you must be. I’ll be along with our food and drink.” He sat at one of the long, trestle tables lining the common room. Crossing his long legs, he propped his head on a closed fist.
“Thanks, dear. I will.”
Cassandra mounted the stairs, the risers uneven enough to demand her attention. She located their room easily since there were only four—two on each side of a central hall—and pushed the door open. Spying a candle stub stuck into what was likely a nail on a wooden board, she looked for matches. There didn’t seem to be any.
Any magic—even something so small as bringing fire—wasn’t a very good idea. Witch-hunters were everywhere. Generally humans with a small amount of their own power, they were sensitive to the feel of expended magic—and driven by the generous bounty on witches.
Returning to the common room, she scooped a few matches off the top of the hearth, blew an airy kiss at Cameron, and returned to their quarters.
Candle lit, she took in the small, neat space tucked under the eaves of the two-story building. A bed, barely big enough for one, was shoved against one wall. From long habit, she sniffed the mattress pleased the straw was reasonably fresh. A small table with two cane-back chairs sat under the room’s one window.
She toed off her boots and stockings, wriggling her toes, and padded barefoot to the window where she unhooked the shutter. A refreshingly chill breeze wafted in, and a nearly-full moon was just cresting the horizon. She sent a prayer to Diana, wondering if Apollo’s twin still watched over the moon. After a bit, she heard a gentle tap at the door. Casandra opened it and moved aside so Cameron could enter.
“Not bad,” he murmured, looking around the small space as he set the beer and bread on the table. “The proprietor took pity on us and put some butter and cheese in with the bread.”
“Hungry.” She scrabbled in the basket for the buttered bread, folding a slice over a thick slab of cheese. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had enough to eat.”
Maybe she should wait for Cameron, but she was too starved for manners. Chewing and swallowing, she sighed with pleasure. After a few bites, she picked up a tankard and chased the food with a long swallow of beer. The mildly alcoholic beverage hadn’t aged long enough, but it tasted wonderful, and she swiped at her mouth to get rid of the foamy residue.
“Other than beating you and starving you, did that bastard do anything else?” Cameron’s words were quiet, but they held a deadly edge.
Cassandra stared at him, shocked. How could he have known?
She set her beer down. “I told you he didn’t feed me enough, but I never said anything else. Why would you think he hurt me?”
“Because he had the look of a man who’d do such things,” Cameron replied, sipping at his own beer. “Those bruises circling both wrists didn’t happen by themselves.” Raising a hand to forestall further questions, he added, “Finish your bread and drink your beer. It’s past time for sleep. We should be up and gone early.”
“They usually serve breakfast at places like this—” she began, hoping for more food.
“We’ll be gone long before then,” he broke in. “We’ll need another horse, though. I’m hoping there’ll be a stable near here where I can buy one.”
“If we wait for the stable to open, we can wait for breakfast. I’ve missed as many meals as I plan to.”
He laughed softly again and ate more of his dinner.
His laughter reminded her of springtime in warmer climes, redolent of newly sprung plants and delicate flowers. “Do I amuse you?” Her tone was sharper than she meant it to be. “I’m tired of being hungry. That’s all.”
“I understand better than you might think. I’ve been hungry myself. Would you like me to beg more bread from the kitchen?”
She shook her head. “No. No point in drawing attention to ourselves.”
Cassandra got to her feet and latched the window. She moved the candle to the table and said, “Blow it out when you’re done. Sleep was a good idea. I’m exhausted.” Kissing him lightly on one cheek, she whispered, “Thank you. You’ve done me a great kindness, sir.”
Cameron wrapped his cloak tighter around him to ward off the chill of the evening and watched Cassandra from his seat at the table. She’d fallen asleep almost immediately, which told him she didn’t view him as a threat.
Her classically sculpted face, with its high cheekbones and lush, red lips, held something both youthful and timeless. Abundant coppery hair, released from its pins, fanned over the thin pillow, a few strands falling onto the floor.
What got into me? She wasn’t part of the plan.
Stopping at that ludicrous medicine show hadn’t been part of the plan, either. He’d ridden right by it and then been drawn back by something. In truth, he was a good half mile beyond Smythe’s wagon before a voice inside his head hammered mercilessly, insisting he retrace his steps.
He couldn’t recall when a sending had been quite so pervasive, so he followed its command.
His gaze strayed to the rise and fall of unbound breasts, and his cock stirred. She really was lovely, this Cassandra. Was she really the Cassandra from Greek mythology? Could she possibly be after all this time? Most of the gods and goddesses had long since gone to ground. The modern world didn’t believe in them anymore, and their response was to leave mankind to rot in its own excesses.
Cameron narrowed his eyes, still replaying the night’s events. Once he returned to Smyth’s wagon, he’d watched from the shadows as the pregnant woman sought Cassandra’s counsel, then denied its accuracy. More than anything, that spurred him to step forward, claiming to be her husband.
Destined to tell the truth, yet never be believed. It was Cassandra’s gift. And her curse as well.
Cameron was a creature of spirit. Forged by Sidhe magic in the old country, he held magic, but nothing so powerful as hers. He risked a small flicker of enchantment, shielding it well. Displays of power were hazardous because witch-hunters were always about, drawn by rich bounties offered by the Church.
His magic foundered against a wall, and he shuttered it. Even in sleep, she protected herself, but he didn’t blame her. Her wards added to his suspicion that she had to be the original Cassandra.
It must be why he’d felt enormous pressure to rescue her. His sending hadn’t come from her, but from the gods. For a moment, he felt hopeful. Maybe they hadn’t totally deserted mankind after all. In his mind’s eye, he visualized empty altars all through the Scottish highlands and the Irish hills. Painfully deserted places, where people once brought offerings, grateful for what their gods could do.
Sadness displaced hope. Perhaps the gods wanted him to rescue Cassandra, but they’d washed their hands of mankind.
Cameron railed against the Christian god and swore softly. “Herne take the bloody Church.” Even as he said the words, he realized the futility of his despair. Over time Christianity insidiously and systematically replaced once-living gods with their dead one. The Middle Ages were such a wretched time that people—smallfolk and lords alike—grasped greedily at salvation promised by the new religion.
Never mind that deliverance from misery wasn’t supposed to come until the afterlife.
Rewards in this life for gullibility ran the gamut, from hangings and confiscated property, to maiden daughters fucked by priests before—and after—being tossed into nunneries. He shuddered, reliving his anguish as an image of Leda, his own sweet Leda burned at the stake, blasted him with misery.
He’d known for hundreds of years that the dead god was just that…dead. The black-robed nightmares who passed for priests created the rules—enforcing them with brutal efficiency. Priests touted their rules as the indisputable word of a god no one had ever seen, but who couldn’t be denied if you wanted to protect your immortal soul.
Anger turned his guts to a writhing, burning mass of pain. He had to calm down or he’d never sleep. Gazing at the woman helped. He focused on her beauty, wondered how her silken hair would feel twined tight in his hands, and his tight muscles relaxed.
Cassandra stirred, murmuring in her sleep. Perhaps she sensed his torment.
He blew out the candle and shut his eyes. He could doze sitting up. He’d done it lots of times. When they imprisoned him in The Clink in Southwark after Leda’s death in sixteen eighty-three, he’d been chained to a damp, moldy wall for months with only rats for company. He had to do everything sitting then, and he remembered rotting in his own filth. Even after he turned magic to the task, it took more time than he cared to think about for the festering sores on his skin to heal. If there hadn’t been a prison uprising, he would’ve swung along with all the other heretics…
Damn the sodding Church of England and the Catholics, too.
He didn’t recall falling asleep, but the gray light of dawn woke him. He glanced at Cassandra. She’d kicked off the covers. All of one leg was visible, lean, muscled, and appealing. The cockstand he always woke with stiffened further, and his breath hitched. Gods, she was so sensual, yet with a beauty that transcended anything he’d come across.
Without thought, he got to his feet and knelt by her bed. Laying a hand on her shoulder, he rocked her gently. “Time to get up.”
Her green eyes, clear as fine agates, flew open, and she looked at him, tracing fingertips along the top of his cheekbone.
“You have dark smudges beneath those fine, gray eyes.” She opened her arms in a silent invitation, and he was lost.
Cameron cradled her face in his hands before he closed his mouth over hers. She threaded her outstretched arms around him, splaying her hands across his back as she opened her mouth to his kiss.
She tasted of promise, of warmth and love—all the things he’d denied himself since Leda’s death. He’d taken the occasional woman when his balls ached so fiercely he had no choice, but he’d never offered his heart again. Fear drove a stake through lust so primal, it was all he could to so to hold himself back. He wanted to push her skirts up and plunge into her, filling her with everything he had. If he did, he’d never leave her side.
She thrust her tongue inside his mouth and moaned low in her throat, pulling him into the bed with her. He resisted, but slipped a hand between her legs beneath her skirts. Scorching heat met his fingers, and his cock twitched violently inside his breeks, on the edge of orgasm. He rubbed hard little circles around the seat of her pleasure, and she moved a hand to curve around his erect flesh.
He felt her push into his mind and didn’t block her. He wanted to feel her hunger, her desire. More, he wanted her to feel his. Her hips bucked, and he moved his fingers inside her in time to feel the rhythmic contractions of her climax. She didn’t even have to stroke him. The heat from her hands through his trousers was all it took for him to spend, jerking and spasming against her touch.
He broke their kiss and drank her in, enthralled by her beauty. Passion splotches covered her pale skin, and she glowed in the early morning light.
Cassandra grinned. “Excellent beginning. Take those clothes off, so we can do this properly.”
Smiling faintly, he shook his head. “I’d love to, but there’s no time—at least not right now. The sun’s up. We need to leave soon.”
“Breakfast?” Her voice sounded fuzzy. Swallowing, she tried again. “You don’t have that horse yet, do you?”
He shook his head. After brushing a kiss across her mouth, he got to his feet and unbuttoned his breeks. A corner of her sheets worked to clean himself before he set his trousers to rights.
“If you don’t have the horse, there’s likely time to eat. I think I smell bread.” She wrinkled her nose, sniffing.
“I smell it too.” He sat next to her and took her hand. His heart thudded against his chest, and his tongue stumbled over unfamiliar words. “I— What just happened was special for me.”
Her smile faded, replaced by a thoughtful look. “For me too. I could use sex to escape from you, but I don’t want to.”
He crushed her to him, breathing in the fresh, earthy scent of her, before scrambling back to his feet. “I’m on my way to find another mount for us. Meet you in the common room. If there’s something ready by the time I return, we can eat.”
“I’m sure I can talk the innkeeper out of something.”
Cameron didn’t doubt it for a moment. He couldn’t stop smiling. Joy was such an unfamiliar feeling, it surprised him, but he didn’t chase it away. He was halfway out the door when he turned and shut it, closing their room from prying ears.
“Remember your name, Louisa,” he spoke low. “Let’s get out of her without problems.”
She smiled, a slow, lazy affair that lit up her mossy eyes. “I can do that.”
He looked at her with an odd expression before letting himself out into the corridor. Delight and something indefinable that she didn’t have a name for struggled for ascendency on his finely wrought features.
What was in his mind?
She could’ve sent power auguring into his thoughts, but using magic was a risk, and if they were going to be lovers, it was better for him to tell her things, rather than her helping herself. She stretched her arms above her head and pushed herself to a sit. The memory of his cock coming against her hand made her hot all over again, but she smoothed her skirts down. There’d be lots of orgasms with Cameron. No need to bring herself off and risk Aphrodite’s wrath.
She didn’t think there’d been any other guests at the inn the previous night. If there had been, they’d been quiet as ghosts. In lieu of the comb she didn’t have, she ran her fingers through her tangled locks before standing. She placed her palms flat against the low ceiling, pushing kinks out of her muscles, before slipping into her worn boots. Nothing more to gather, so she left the room and made her way back down the uneven stairs.
The common room was empty, but someone had lit a fire in the stone hearth. Sitting as close to its warmth as she could get, Cassandra kept a close eye on the swinging door she presumed led to the kitchen. There was bread baking. The odor was much more pronounced down here. Her mouth watered, and she wiped at it, feeling mildly ashamed of the trail of saliva.
“Oracle?” A thready voice rose out of nowhere.
She searched the shadows, seeking its origin. “Yes? Come closer whoever you are. I won’t hurt you.”
A maid of perhaps thirteen crept barefoot from a darkened hall. “You be the lady who tells the future?” The child bent over as a deep, phlegmy cough shook her slight frame.
“Yes, child. How can I help you?”
“Me Da, he tol’ me not t’ bother you. He says I’ll get better, but, Oracle, I think I am a-dyin’ and I want to know so’s I might make my peace with the Christian god. Me Ma, she prays to the Old Ones see, and I used to be leavin’ ’em milk and corn, too, but I wants to get into heaven.” Another fit of coughing ripped through her, and she spat a glob of bloody mucus onto the ground, wiping at it with one foot.
Oh my, I don’t need my gift to answer you, child.
“You need to return to your bed,” Cassandra began, but the child interrupted her.
“Am I a-dying, Oracle?”
Cassandra met the child’s dark brown eyes, rimmed with the pain of the wasting sickness gradually sucking the life out of her. She opened her mouth to craft a soothing lie, but nothing came.
Bound to tell the truth…
“Would the missus like some coffee?” The innkeeper emerged from the kitchen carrying a mug and a pot. Noticing his daughter, he drew his brows together. “Bessie, you get on back to the kitchen. I’ll not have you bothering the guests. I told you that afore.”
“Yes, Papa,” the child mumbled before turning to leave.
“Sorry for that, missus. Child’s got the grippe. I’m sure she’ll be better soon. How about coffee? I made some up fresh for you.”
“Yes, please.” She struggled to expunge the specter of the dying child from her mind.
Should I tell him, so he can prepare for her loss? Ach, probably best to not interfere… Besides, he wouldn’t believe me anyway.
“My, uh,” she stumbled over the word husband, then tried again. “What I mean to say is that Cameron is out looking to find another horse. I’m sure he’ll want some coffee too, when he gets back here.”
“Yes, he certainly would.” Cameron had just let himself in through the main door. “Found you a nice little filly, love. She cost us dear, but she’s perfect for you. I took her around to the stables and told the boy to get her and my bay ready to go.”
“Might I interest you in breakfast to go with that coffee,” the proprietor interrupted, apparently concerned his only paying customers might leave before he’d had a chance to sell them something further.
“Sure, so long as it doesn’t take long to prepare,” Cameron replied. “We have a long way to go today.”
“Eggs, bread and cheese for six pence?”
“Perfect,” Cassandra said. “We can eat those as we ride.”
They’d been traveling for hours through thick timber, the vegetation so dense Cassandra doubted they’d be able to force their horses through the undergrowth if they left the track. She picked out pines, firs, poplars, aspens, oaks, and sycamores, plus fragrant ferns and other shrubbery intermingled with the tree boles along the well-beaten road. The summer sun was warm on her hair, and she was enjoying the feel of a horse between her legs again.
As they rode, she kept quiet to see what Cameron chose to tell her. After an entire morning of silence, though, she couldn’t stand it any longer. “Where are we going?”
“Wondered when you’d get around to asking about that.” He grinned. His worried mood from earlier seemed to have lifted.
“Are you going to tell me?”
“Sure. We’re headed across the state of New York, then into Canada. More precisely, we’re on our way to Caldwell. From there we’ll board a steamer traveling north on Lake George. Next, we’ll head to Fort Ticonderoga. Then it’s another steamer on up Lake Champlain. That will get us to Canada.”
“If anyone stops us and asks, our home is in Montreal.” He hesitated. “The real reason, though, is people are more tolerant of those like us in Canada. That’s where I was headed…before I found you. Plus, the United States is only a handful of steps away from an internal war. I’ve fought in lots of wars I didn’t believe in. Wasn’t much interested in being conscripted into another.”
He quirked an eyebrow. “How’s your French?”
“Passable.” She paused. “But then, so are my Latin, Greek, German, and Italian. Of course I know about the war. Even tried to tell a few people but no one believed me—”
“You really are Cassandra, aren’t you?” He reined in, bringing the bay gelding to a halt.
She looked at him strangely. “Of course. Who’d you think I was?”
He shrugged, not quite meeting her eyes. “I wasn’t exactly sure, but the clues pointed that way.”
She cocked her head to one side. “The bigger question for me is who are you?”
“There’s no short answer to that.”
“How about the long version, then?”
“Later,” he murmured, neatly sidestepping her attempt to divert the conversation. “Back to the question of where we live… Remember, Montreal is our home. I’m in lumber. We have two children, Apollo and Diana. That should be easy enough for you to remember.”
“Why not Betty and Joe?” she asked bitterly. I’ve spent three thousand years trying to forget Apollo.”
“Hush!” He rounded on her, his gray eyes sparking with anger. “How in the nine hells do you think I figured out I needed to stop for you last night? The gods forced me to alter my route. Whether you like it or no, they’re still watching out for you. Best say a prayer. Quick.”
“What do you mean forced you?”
He glanced away. “I have visions. It’s all you need to know at the moment. Come on. Lots of miles left to go today.” He kneed his horse into a trot, and she did the same.
Cassandra thought as she rode. She did offer up a quick prayer, biting off a few hairs and tossing them back over her right shoulder as she muttered her expiations.
It’s not possible. Apollo hasn’t thought about me even once since he ruined my life.
Startled by the sound of horses’ hooves, she turned in her saddle. “Cameron. Look there.” She pointed at the unmistakable sheriff’s posse bearing down on them. “Guess Gretch decided to put up a fight. Who else does he have to make money for him?”
“We’ll wait and speak with them.” Cameron sounded wary, as if he were expecting the worst and girding himself to fight. “We can’t run. It’d look bad. Besides, there’s no place to hide. Let me answer their questions. No one will believe you.”
Bitterness coated her throat like sour acid. “Truer words were never spoken.” She reined her horse to face the posse summoned power so she’d have it to hand. She’d never return to Gretch without putting up a hell of a fight.
“Mr. Tracy?” The man with the badge pulled up next to them. The rest of the posse, Gretch among them, hung back, waiting expectantly.
“Yes, that would be me. What can I do for you?”
“This man,” he pointed at Gretch, “lodged a complaint against you. Says you stole his wife.” The sheriff stared intently at Cassandra. Remembering what passed for manners in this age and country, she demurely dropped her gaze and dredged up a blush.
“Seems he’s got that backward.” Cameron spoke gently. “Louisa, here, is my wife. She gets confused sometimes and wanders off. You should see the bruises that monster inflicted on her. He kept her chained up like a dog. She told me all about it last night. Show them, love.”
She dutifully rolled up her sleeves, wondering how Cameron could have known about the iron chain. Discolored, broken skin circled both her wrists, ugly and blotchy in the bright sunlight.
“Guess you couldn’t very well have done that,” the sheriff said to Cameron, eying the greenish flesh of her half-healed injuries. “Those have been there for a while.” He glanced over his shoulder at Gretch. “Did you inflict those wounds on this woman?”
“I have no idea how she came by them,” Gretch snarled. “She always was a clumsy wench.”
Nodding to himself, the sheriff turned back to Cameron and Cassandra. “Where are the two of you headed?”
“Canada.” Cassandra spoke without thinking.
“Actually, we’re both from Massachusetts.” Cameron cut in quickly. “But we chose to settle in Montreal. I have a lumber business there. Lots of building going on, so it seemed like a logical choice.” He smiled at the sheriff. “Do you suppose we might go, sir? There are many miles betwixt us and home.”
The sheriff swiveled in his saddle, looking right at Cassandra. “Whose wife are you?” he demanded.
Can I force a lie to cross my lips?
Do I tell him the truth—that I am no man’s wife—and have him jail me for harlotry? Does it even matter if he won’t believe anything I say?
Help me, Apollo, she prayed in desperation. It’s been so long. Please, please lift that damned spell. You’re a beautiful god. And once I loved you so.
She took a deep, measured breath. “I would be his, sir,” she replied, pointing at Cameron. “That animal, Gretch, used me sorely. I was neither his slave, nor his wife, yet he beat me and starved me. He’s the one you should arrest.”
She held her breath. Would he believe her? Or was she on her way back to iron manacles, the whip, half-rotten food, Gretch’s stink, and his twisted lust?
Cameron reached out, laying a hand over hers, and she leaned into him as their mounts stood side-by-side. Both of them watched the sheriff as he mulled over what to do. After what felt like an interminable time, he said, “Feels to me like the two of you fit together. Mrs. Tracy, you’re too much of a lady for the likes of Gretch Smythe. Travel safely.”
“You’re not letting them go?” Gretch’s aggrieved tone filled the air.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” the sheriff replied, turning his horse so he faced Gretch. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll ride out of here and back to that wagon of yours. When you get there, you’ll clear out of my territory. Lying to a peace officer is worth thirty days in jail.”
Gretch’s eyes widened in shock. Hauling his horse’s head around so sharply the mare whinnied in pain, he dug his heels into her side and was gone in clouds of dust.
“Sorry for the trouble, folks.” The sheriff tipped his hat. Gesturing to his five-man posse, they turned their mounts and trotted slowly along the thickly-wooded track.
“I need to get down,” she murmured once they were alone again. “Apollo heard me, and I must have my feet on the earth to thank him properly.”
“What did you ask for?”
“I begged him to lift the curse and let the sheriff believe me, so I wouldn’t have to go back to Gretch. I’m almost afraid to trust it, but this is the first time since the God of Prophecy’s malediction that anyone’s believed what I’ve told them.”
One corner of her mouth twitched upward. “I even managed to tell half a lie without choking on the words.” Slipping down from her horse, she tossed the reins to Cameron, wondering if her other gifts had disappeared along with her curse. If the curse had truly been lifted that is.
Oh please, please let it be gone…
The half-taste of freedom was so heady she could barely contain her anticipation.
A crow fluttered down, landing on her shoulder. “Little one?” she murmured hopefully.
“Sister,” the bird croaked.
Relief swept through her. Thank the Goddess. I can still understand him.
“The shining one would have you know that you are released. He says he’d have done so long ago, had you but asked.” The crow quorked his message, with a lyrical chirrup at the end.
It couldn’t have been that simple.
Or could it? Ach, what a stubborn fool I’ve been to not see the truth right under my nose.
“Blessings, little one,” she said to the crow. “Tell your shining one ‘thank you’ from me.” Cassandra stroked the soft places just behind the crow’s head. He cawed again and ruffled his feathers, leaning into her gentle hand before taking wing.
Turning to Cameron, she asked, “Have you a knife or scissors?”
He nodded. Dismounting from the bay, he pulled a short dagger out of its scabbard and handed it to her. “My thanks,” she said, as she laid it in the middle of a small clearing between two sycamore trees. Squatting, she gathered bits of bark, twigs and leaves into a pile. When she had enough to get a fire started she stood, stepped out of her clothes and pulled the pins from her hair. Naked, her hair swirling round her like a living flame, she raised her hands to the skies in supplication.
A prayer she’d not given voice to since she left Troy flowed from her lips in ancient Greek. Tears came with it, streaming hot and bitter down her face. With them came visions of long, wasted years, tripping over one another like unwelcome guests called to bear witness. Snuffling, she hunkered down, calling on her magic to light the fire. Once it was blazing skyward, she picked up the dagger and sawed off several locks of her hair, feeding them to the flames as she continued to pay homage, humbly thanking Apollo for hearing her plea.
Cameron took his place next to her, naked as well. Crouched low beside the flames, he joined his voice to hers. Druidic symbols were tattooed into his skin, mingling with fine, white lines of hundreds of scars.
“Apollo did send you to me. He must have. There’s no other way you could have found me.” She was crying again. “Somehow, through all these years, the old gods—our gods—still live.” Exultation swept through her, potent as strong wine.
“I never doubted it. Not really.” Cameron stood, pulling her to her feet so he could fold her into his arms. Lips buried in her hair, he whispered, “Join your life with mine, Cassandra. I don’t fully understand yet, but this seems to have been foretold.”
She breathed in the clean, woodsy scent of him. “’Twould be heresy not to since the gods led you to me.”
Tracing a few of his scars with her fingertips, she wondered about the wounds and how it was that a Celt understood the Greek prayers.
’Tis a tale best left for another day. He and I shall have infinite days together. As soon as she thought the words, she heard truth in them and it warmed her soul.
She opened her mouth to tell him, but he shook his head. “I see the same,” he murmured. “It’s why I asked you to become one with me. I never thought I’d love another woman, but I’m falling in love with you.”
“I’ll make certain you never regret it.”
Rather than words, he answered her with a kiss.
Cassandra leaned against him, and together they watched the flames of their fire kiss the afternoon sky.