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Divine by Mistake P.C. Cast I get this bizarre mirror world filled with a horse/guy who I have the serious hots for, creatures who are terrorising civilisation, deodorant-less armpits that probably stink and no toilet paper. This sucks. The only excitement Shannon Parker expected while on holiday was a little shopping. Finding herself flung through fire into the world of Partholon (and left with a massive headache, thank you very much), she’s now being treated like a goddess. Somehow Shannon has stepped into another’s role in another world.And while there’s an upside – who doesn’t love lots of pampering? – it also comes with a ritual marriage to a centaur and threats against her new people. Can Shannon survive this new world and ever find her way home? Divine by Mistake P.C. Cast www.mirabooks.co.uk (http://www.mirabooks.co.uk/) PART ONE 1 Finally, on my way. My Mustang felt sweet as it zipped down the nearly empty highway. Why is it that cars seem to drive best when they’re freshly washed? Leaning down, I popped a CD into the player, skipped forward to track 6 and began singing at the top of my very tone-deaf lungs with Eponine about the futility of love. As the next song keyed up, I swung around a slowmoving Chevy and yelled, “God, I love being a teacher!” It was the first day of June, and the summer stretched before me, pristine and virginal. “All those days of sleeping in to go!” Just saying it aloud made me happy. In my ten years of teaching I’ve noticed that teachers tend to have a bad habit of talking to themselves. I hypothesize that this is because we talk for a living, and we feel safe speaking our feelings aloud. Or it could be that most of us, especially the high school teacher variety, are just weird as shit. Only the slightly insane would choose a career teaching teenagers. I can just see my best girlfriend Suzanna’s face screw up and the involuntary shudder move down her spine as I relate the latest trials and tribulations of the high school English classroom. “God, Sha, they’re so…so…hormone filled. Eew!” Suzanna is a typical college professor snob, but I love her anyway. She just doesn’t appreciate the many and varied opportunities for humorous interludes that teenagers provide on a daily basis. Jean Valjean’s dynamic tenor interrupted my musings, bringing me back to Oklahoma I-44 East and June 1. “Yep, this is it—the life of a high school English teacher with a sense of humor. Doomed to having no money but plenty of comedic fodder. Oh, crap, there’s my exit!” Luckily my little Mustang could take the hard, fast right onto US-412. The sign said Locust Grove 22 miles. I drove half with my knee and half with my hand while I fumbled to unfold the auction flyer that held my written directions. Somewhere about midway between Locust Grove (what an awful name for a town) and Siloam Springs there should be a big sign that pointed to a side road till another sign, another side road, and so forth, until I came to the Unique Estate Auction—Unusual Items—All Offers Considered—All Must Go. “Well, I certainly like weird old stuff. And I really like weird old cheap stuff.” My students say my classroom is like a bizarre time warp. My walls and cabinets are filled with everything from prints by Waterhouse to posters of Mighty Mouse and hanging Star Trek Enterprise models, along with an almost scary number of wind chimes (they’re good chi). And that’s just my classroom. They should see my condo. Guess they really wouldn’t be surprised. Except at home I’m a neat freak. My classroom is always in a perpetual state of disarray. I can’t seem to find anything if everything is found. Whatever the hell that means. “I’ve got to stop cussing!” Saying it out loud would, hopefully, reinforce the idea. Kind of a twist on the Pavlov’s dog theory. I keep saying it; it will begin to happen. “I can’t take you today, Javert.” Flick! Off went Les Misérables. On goes the jazz station out of Tulsa. It’s cool that I could pick it up way out in the boonies. The sign read Locust Grove City Limits. So I slowed down, blinked, and the town was gone. Well, maybe it was nominally bigger than a blink. And I stayed slowed down. Time to stop and smell the green of Green Country. Oklahoma in early summer is an amazing display of color and texture. I went to college at the University of Illinois, and it always annoyed me that people talked about Oklahoma like it was a red dust bowl. Or some black-and-white scene of misery from The Grapes of Wrath. When I tried to tell the college gang that Oklahoma was really known as “Green Country” they would scoff and look at me as if they thought I’d eaten too many tumbleweeds or punched too many cows. I passed through the tiny town of Leach (another unfortunate name) and topped a rise in the road. Oklahoma stretched before me, suddenly looking untamed in its beauty. I like to imagine a time when these roads were just paths, and civilization hadn’t been so sure of itself. It must have been exciting to be alive then—not exciting like facing the principal after he has just heard from a parent who is upset about me calling Guinevere a slut—but exciting in a rugged, perhaps-we-won’t-bathe-or-brush-our-teeth and we-kill-our-own-food-and-tote-our-own-water kind of way. Ugh. On second thought…It’s delicious to dream about the days of cowboys or knights or dragons, and I will admit to an obsession with poets of the Romantic era and literature set, well, way back when (technical English teacher term). But reality reminds me that in actuality they did without penicillin and Crest. As my kids would say, “What’s up with that?” “There it is! Turnoff number one, as in a road sign, not to be confused with the blind date who comes to your door in navy blue double-knit trousers and a receding hairline.” UNIQUE ESTATE AUCTION AHEAD and an arrow, which pointed down a side road to my left. This road was much less traveled (poetic pun intended). Kind of a sorry little two-laner with potholes and deep gravel shoulders. But it twisted and rolled in a pretty way, and “To Grandmother’s house we go” hummed through my mind. I tried in vain to remember the rest of the song for the next several miles. UNIQUE ESTATE AUCTION AHEAD and another arrow. Another side-side road. This one more gravel, less two lane, than the other. Well, maybe the out-of-the-wayness of the estate would serve to dissuade the antique dealers, whom I considered the bane of every broke auction-goer. The jazz station faded out, which was actually fine because the Grandmother’s House song had also faded from my internal radio—and been replaced with the theme to The Beverly Hillbillies (these words I did remember all of, which I found vaguely disturbing). Speaking of hillbillies, I hadn’t seen many houses. Hmmm…maybe the “estate” was really an old ranch house, smack in the middle of what used to be a real ranch owned by some Bonanzaesque rich folks. Now they’ve all died off and the land would be subdivided into neat little housing divisions so upper-middle-class folks could commute to…well, wherever. I call that job security for me. Upper-middle-class folks always have the prerequisite 2.5 kids, plus an additional 1.5 kid (from a previous marriage). And those kids gotta pass English to graduate from high school. God bless America. Over a crook and a rise in the “road” loomed what I had been imagining as an old ranch house. “Holy shit! It’s the House of Usher!” (Summer was definitely not the time to work on the cussing thing.) I slowed. Yep—there was another sign: UNIQUE ESTATE AUCTION, planted next to the gravel trail leading to the estate. A few cars, but mostly trucks (it is Oklahoma) were parked on what at one time was obviously a beautifully maintained front…I don’t know…what the hell do you call something like that…it stretched on and on…yard seemed too simple a word. Grounds. That sounded better. Lots of grass. The drive was lined with big trees, as in Gone with the Wind, minus the weeping moss. I realized I was gawking because an old guy dressed in black slacks and a high-necked white cotton shirt was waving me in with one of those handheld orange flashlight things, and his face had an irritated “stop gawking and drive, lady” look on it. As I pulled up next to him, he motioned for me to roll my window down. “Afternoon, miss.” He bent slightly at the waist and peered into my window. A fetid rush of air brought his words into my air-conditioned interior and killed my initial joy at being called “miss,” which is definitely younger sounding than “ma’am.” He was taller than I first thought, and his face was heavily lined, as if he had worked outside in the elements most of his life, but his complexion was a sickly, sallow color. Good God! It was the daddy from Children of the Corn. “Afternoon. Sure is warm today.” I tried to be pleasant. “Yes, miss.” Ugh—that smell again. “Please pull forward onto The Green. The auction will begin promptly at two.” “Uh, thanks.” I tried to smile as I rolled the window up and moved to follow his pointed directions. What was that smell? Like something dead. Well, he was awfully pale; perhaps he wasn’t well. That would account for the smell and the fact that he was wearing long sleeves in June, and I was a seriously hateful bitch to call the poor old guy Children of the Corn’s daddy. And the front yard is called The Green. Learn something new every day! I said to myself with a grimace. Clichés are the bane of educated mankind. Before I turned off the car, I took my required several minutes (a man once told me he could always tell how attractive a woman was by how long it took her to get out of a car—I try to take a longgg time) to reapply my lipstick. I also took a minute to scope out the house. Scratch that—mansion. My first impression held. This place seriously conjured images of Poe and Hawthorne. It was humongous, in a sprawling, Victorian-type of way. I’m usually drawn to unusual old homes, but not so with this one. I tipped my sunglasses down my nose to get a better view. It looked odd. It took a moment to figure out why, then it hit me—it looked as if it had been built in several different parts. The basic building was roughly a huge square, but added on to this square were two different porches, one rectangular with steps leading up to the entrance in a grandiose, sweeping manner. Not twenty feet down from the first porch was a second, rounded gazebo-like structure just, well, stuck on to the front of the building, complete with latticework and gnarly-looking roses. A large turret room was attached to one side of the building, like a cancerous growth, and a slope-roofed wing emerged from the opposite end of the structure. The whole thing was painted an awful shade of gray, and it was cracked and crinkled, like an old smoker’s skin. “There should really be some unique items to be had here.” Muttering to myself, I got ready to tear my eyes away from Usher’s abode when a shiver tickled down my spine. A thick cloud passed in front of the sun and the “walking on my grave” feeling hit me like a bad dream. Is it late? It seems to me that the light darkens. My English teacher mind plucked the quote from Medea. Greek tragedy, replete with revenge, betrayal and death. Seemed, in an inopportune way, appropriate. 2 “Jeesh, get a grip, Parker!” Ridiculous—I needed to shake out of my gruesome mode, and get into my junkshopping mode. Oklahoma heat was waiting to embrace me with its humid arms as I stepped out of the car and clicked the lock on my keypad. Set up around the side of the house was a large table with a line of assorted auction-goers milling about it. I figured that was the sign-in table and headed that way, keeping part of my attention on the various piles of “stuff” that began stretching from the side yard around and disappearing into the rear of the grounds. My palms were already all atingle at the thought of digging through those heaped boxes. But first the sign-in. “Whew! I should’ve put this hunk of hair up in a ponytail!” I was making neighborly small talk with the matron in front of me in line. “Yup.” She fanned herself with one of the UNIQUE AUCTION flyers, and her eyes slid from my already frizzing and sweaty hair, down past my white silk tank top, which slid just over the waist of my very hip (and short) khaki Gap skirt, to my long (and very bare) legs. “Ugf.” She made a sound like a hen expelling an egg, and I guessed that was the end of my attempt at neighborly conversation. “This place sure looks like it should have some interesting stuff for sale.” I valiantly tried a second attempt at conversing, this time with the receding hairline behind me. “Yes, I couldn’t agree more.” The hairline fidgeted, blinking sweat out of his eyes. “I heard that they will be auctioning several pieces of Depression Era glass, and just knew I had to make the trek. I find American glasswork fascinating, don’t you?” By this time his squinty little eyes had found my cleavage, and it was obvious that glass wasn’t all he found fascinating. “Mmm, hmm, glass is cool.” I stepped forward. It was the matron’s turn to get her ticket, but she was so busy watching the hairline watch me that she could hardly give the registrar her info. “Actually,” he leaned way into my Personal Space, “I’m in the middle of editing a wonderfully informative coffee table book on the origins of Depression Era art and how to distinguish the difference between authentic pieces and facsimiles.” “Oh, that’s, um, nice.” He was still in my Personal Space and I tried inching forward, obviously crowding the matron, who was still standing in line pinning her auction number to her Depression Era bosom. “I would be happy to offer you my expertise if you find any pieces you are interested in bidding on. I would hate to see such a lovely young lady taken advantage of…” His voice cracked and he nervously dabbed the sweat off his upper lip with a folded handkerchief. I noticed the yellowed stains shadowing his pits. Guess that button-down oxford was just a little too warm for this trek. “I’ll be sure to let you know if I need you.” My turn, thank God. “Name, please.” I could sense hairline’s ears growing to catch the answer. “Shannon Parker.” “Ms. Parker, your number is 074. Please fill out your address next to the 074 slot. Keep the number with you at all times, the auctioneer will refer to your number if you purchase an item. When you have made all your purchases, simply give the cashier your number and she will present you with your bill.” Typical auction directions—I grabbed my number and fled before Hairline turned into a sticky booger. I will never understand why short men are attracted to me. I’m not an Amazon, but in flat feet I stand five foot seven, and I love high heels so I’m rarely in flat feet. My height aside, I am definitely not a small woman. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not big. I work out like a fiend, but I always seem to carry around about five to ten pounds more than I wish I did. I’m not the lean, lanky, anorexic type that’s so “in” today—I’m the voluptuous, chesty, hippy, leggy type. And I feel ridiculous around small men; I always imagine that I could probably beat them up, which makes me totally disinterested in anything else coming up. Give me a man the size of John Wayne and I melt like a Popsicle in a warm mouth. Unfortunately, my love life is as dead as the Duke. The bulk of the auction was behind the house in what once must have been gorgeously landscaped gardens. Smack in the center stood a crumbling fountain complete with a naked nymph. The auction lots were in a rough semicircle around the fountain—the open end of the circle pointed toward several pieces of farm equipment. Billy Joe Bobs and Bubba Bo Bobs were clustered in groups amidst the equipment, obviously in a feeding frenzy. Carried on the wind, I could overhear the Oklahoma melodies of “y’all” and “yup.” One of them had a piece of straw stuck in a gap between his front teeth. Really, I’m not making it up. The other items were grouped in lots, and upon closer inspection it was obvious that someone had been meticulous in setting them out. Neatly arranged together were pieces of like furniture (bedroom sets, dinettes, ornate chairs, etc.) in one area, and tables filled with lamps, fixtures, sconces and crystal in another. (I noticed Mr. Receding Hairline making a beeline for that particular table.) Knickknacks in boxes marked with lot numbers were spaced so that customers could paw through them without maiming each other, and artwork was displayed tastefully on folding tables and easels. The art was where I gravitated. I couldn’t help sending a covetous glance in the direction of the furniture, but a glance was all it took for me to be fairly certain that a schoolteacher’s salary wouldn’t allow for any purchases in that area. The soon-to-be ex-owner’s tastes were certainly consistent. All of the paintings displayed on the easels had a like theme—mythology. I wandered from watercolor to acrylic to oil. Everything from Venus’s birth to a great lithograph of Wotan’s farewell to Brunhilde. “Ohmygod, that’s hilarious!” I couldn’t help nudging the Garage Sale Queen standing next to me and pointing to a wonderful full-color print of a huge fiery dragon roaring flame at a blond female warrior on a plunging white horse. She was deflecting the fire with a shield and brandishing a sword. I couldn’t make out the artist’s name, but the title painted on the bottom of the print read, Stamp Out Forest Fires. “I have to have this one.” I was still chuckling. “Well, it’s kinda strange.” The Garage Sale Queen’s nasally twang interrupted my smile. “Yep. But I like to think of it as not normal, versus simply strange.” She gave me one of those sheepy, duh looks and started over to the household items section. I sighed and opened my little notebook to write, “Lot #12—dragon print.” A closer look at the frame made me wonder if I had a chance of affording it, but maybe everyone would think it was “kinda strange” and I would be the only bidder. Many of the other paintings were interesting, but I had already decided to focus my financial energy on a single print, and maybe a small vase or sculpture or some such “strange” knickknack. Behind the paintings were the lots filled with artsy stuff. Tables held individual pieces, along with boxes of variously grouped odds and ends. Again, there seemed to be a theme. Sculptures were miniature reproductions of stuff that looked very Greek or Roman, and, well, very naked. This would be fun. Three male statuettes were placed on one table. They each stood about two feet high. I paused and gave each the respectful, proper attention they seemed to deserve, while trying not to ogle as I read the identification and lot tags: Lot #17 Statuette of Zeus, Thunderbolt at the Ready (very nude—actually naked, and he looked very, um, ready). “Sorry, sweetie. Can’t take you home—too kinky.” I tweaked his thunderbolt. Lot #18, Statuette of Hellenistic Ruler, possibly Demetrios I of Syria. Demetrios was a large, muscular, naked man. Very large. “Oh, baby, wish you were Galatea and I was your enamored sculptor.” I patted his cheeks and giggled, while I looked around to make sure I wasn’t causing a stir. Lot #19, Statuette of Etruscan Warrior. Too skinny for my tastes—only two things stuck out about the statuette: his weapon, and, um, his weapon. “Bye-bye, boys. It’s just so…well…hard to leave you.” I chortled at my own pun and moved to the next table, which was filled with about half a dozen large vases. My gaze drifted over the elegant urns… And the world stopped. Suddenly, and totally, the day stood still. The breeze died. Sounds ceased. I didn’t feel the heat. My breath stopped. My vision tunneled until my awareness was completely filled by the vase. “Oops, sorry. Didn’t mean to bump ya.” Breath rushed into my lungs and the world started again as a kind man grabbed my elbow to steady me. “That’s okay.” I sucked air and attempted a smile. “Guess I wasn’t looking where I was going. Almost ran ya over.” “I’m fine now. No harm done.” He looked at me like he wasn’t sure, but nodded and went on his way. I brushed a trembling hand through my hair. What was going on? What happened? I was looking at the vases and… My attention turned back to the pottery table, and my eyes were immediately drawn to the last of the vases. My feet were moving toward it before I told them to go. My trembling hand reached out to touch the lot identification tag. It read: Lot #25, Reproduction—Celtic vase, original stood over graves in Scottish cemetery—Scene in color represents supplications being made to the High Priestess of Epona, Celtic Horse Goddess. My vision was blurred and my eyes felt strangely hot as I looked back at the vase. Blinking my vision clear, I studied it, attempting to ignore how strange I was feeling. The vase was a couple of feet tall and shaped like the base of a lamp. A curved handle balanced off one side. The top was open with a gracefully ridged circumference. But it wasn’t the shape or size that drew me; it was the scene painted into the pottery, stretching from one side all the way around. The background color was black, which made the scene seem to jump out with the other colors all highlighted in golds and creams. A woman reclined on some type of cushioned lounge chair. Her back was to the viewer, so all that could be seen of her was the curve of her waist, one outstretched arm with which she motioned regally to the supplicants on their knees before her and the cascade of her hair. “It’s like my hair.” I didn’t realize I had spoken aloud until I heard the words. But her hair was like mine, only longer. The same red-gold, the same wavy semi-curls that never wanted to stay put. My finger crept forward of its own accord and I found myself touching the vase, transfixed. “Oh!” It felt hot! I yanked my finger back where it belonged. “I didn’t know you were interested in pottery.” Mr. Receding Hairline squinted up at me. “I am actually quite knowledgeable about several categories of Early American pottery.” He licked his lips. “Well, I’m not really interested in Early American pottery.” Hairline’s reappearance into my Personal Space had served to dash cold water on whatever weird feelings I had been experiencing. “It’s way too Southwest for me. I’m more of a Greek/Roman-esque kind of girl.” “Oh, I see. What a fascinating little piece you were admiring.” He reached his sweaty hands out, and in a jumpy, cockroach-like movement he lifted the vase, turning it upside down to peer at the bottom. I observed him for any signs of weirdness, but he just kept on being his normal, nerdy self. “Um, you don’t notice anything, well, odd about that vase, do you?” “No. It’s a rather well-made reproduction, but I don’t detect anything odd about Epona or the urn. What do you mean?” He put the vase down and dabbed at his upper lip with a damp handkerchief. “Well, it seemed to feel a little, I don’t know, hot, when I touched it.” I stared into his eyes, wondering if my neurotic breakdown was obvious. “Might I suggest—” he leaned even farther into my Personal Space, practically resting his pointy nose on my cleavage “—that the warmth may have been generated by your own generous body heat?” He was almost salivating. Ugh. “You know, you might be right,” I purred. He stopped breathing and licked his lips again. I whispered, “I think I have been running a low-grade fever. Just can’t seem to get rid of this nasty yeast infection. And it sure is sticky in this heat.” I smiled and squirmed a little. “Goodness. Well, my goodness.” Hairline quickly receded from my Personal Space. I smiled and followed. He continued backing up. “I feel that I had better go back to my Depression Era glass lots, I certainly want to be there to open the bidding. Good luck to you.” He turned and scuttled away. Guys are such a pain in the ass. But really easy to get rid of, just call into play the dreaded Female Problem card and watch them freak out. I like to think it’s just one small way God lets us get even. I mean, we do have to give birth. “Now what’s up with this damn vase?” It was just too Dark Shadows for words. Blurred vision—loss of breath—hot pottery—same hair. Oh, please, I was probably just having a premature hot flash (twenty years early—okay, fifteen years early, at least). So, I decided I’d simply confront the source. The Dreaded Mystery Vase/Urn/Friggin Pot. It sat innocently enough just where Receding had left it, vaguely moist spots glistening where his sweaty little fingers had smudged the glossy surface. I took a breath. A deep breath. It certainly was an intriguing-looking pot. I squinted and bent to get a closer look, careful not to touch it. The Priestess did have hair that looked like mine, only longer. Her right arm was draped in a creamy, gauzy white cloth, and there was a definite grace and beauty about the way it was stretched, palm held up and forward, slightly tilted. She seemed gracious in her acceptance of the offered gifts from the kneeling supplicants. A rich-looking gold armlet snaked around her bicep, and golden bracelets adorned her wrist. She wore no rings, but the back of her hand seemed to be decorated with a design— “Oh, God!” My own hand flew to my mouth to stifle my screech. I felt a sinking in the pit of my stomach, and all of a sudden it was again difficult to catch my breath. Because it wasn’t a tattoo or a jewel that decorated the back side of her hand. It was a scar. A scar from a third-degree burn. I knew because my right hand was “decorated” with the exact mark. 3 “Ladies and gentlemen, the auction will now begin. Please make your way to Lot #1, directly east of the fountain. We will open this afternoon with bedroom and living-room furnishings…” I could hear the auctioneer droning in the background as opening bids were taken for Lot #1—Victorian reproduction oak six-piece bedroom set, but the pot captivated my attention. Along with other stragglers, I remained by the item of my choice, waiting for the auction to come to me. With a shaking hand I dug into the black depths of my purse and fished out a wadded-up, aged Kleenex. Slowly, I reached toward the pot and wiped off all the smudges left by the Receding Nerd. Maybe it was just a trick of sweat and the light. I blinked hard and looked back at the priestess’s hand. Then I looked at my own. The familiar burn scar was, indeed, there—and had been since I was a four-year-old and had precociously thought I could help Grandma boil water for macaroni faster by shaking the handle of the pot. Of course, boiling water had painfully poured onto my little hand, leaving a funny-looking scar that resembled a star. Thirty-one years later the raised tissue still evoked comments from friends and strangers. And the lady on the pot had the same scar tissue? Impossible. Especially in a reproduction of an ancient Celtic urn. Yet there it was, in all of its hair-looks-like-mine-hand-has-my-scar-and-makes-me-feel-like-I’m-having-a-nervous-break-down glory. “I need a drink.” Understatement of the year. A glance toward the auctioneer told me they were only on Lot #7 (reproduction of Louis XIV armoire—bidding was fast and furious). I had time to find the refreshment stand and get a grip on myself before they got near the artsy stuff. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be bidding on Lot #25; the cool dragon print would have to go home with someone else. The pot was where my money and my energy had to be focused. Strangely enough, I noticed that as soon as I got away from the pottery table I began feeling normal again. No hot flashes, no trouble breathing, definitely no “time is suddenly freezing” moments. The makeshift refreshment stand was situated near the farm equipment. They had cold drinks, coffee and evillooking hot dogs for sale. I ordered a “diet anything” and took my time sipping, wandering slowly back toward the pottery. I have always had a great imagination. I love fantasy and make-believe. Hell, I’m a friggin English teacher—I actually read. For pleasure, as shocking as that seems to be to some people. But I have always known the difference between fantasy and reality—even relished the difference. So, what in the hell was going on with me today? What was up with the strange feelings? And why did the woman on that pot look like me?! I pinched myself, and it hurt. So I wasn’t having one of my ultravivid weird dreams that seem real. I meandered back to the pottery area, and instantly my stomach tightened. It was utterly bizarre. I should buy the damn dragon print, get in my car, go home and drink a medicinal bottle of Merlot. All this ran through my mind as my legs carried me straight back to the pot. “Friggin thing still looks like me.” “It is rather odd, is it not, miss?” The skeletal guy from the entrance stood behind the pottery table. He reached out and let his hand slide slowly over the pot, pausing briefly on the priestess’s hair, then tracing the line of her arm with his finger. “So you noticed it, too.” My eyes narrowed and he pulled his bony hand away from my pot. “Yes, miss. I noticed your hair when you drove in. Quite a nice color to see today—too many young women seem to want to ruin their hair by dying it unnatural colors: burgundy, yellow, black. And cutting it short. So, yours stands out.” His tone was harmless enough, but his eyes had an intensity that suddenly made me feel uncomfortable. And even across the table I could smell his nasty breath. “Well, it’s been a surprise for me, actually, kind of a shock.” I watched him. His attention kept leaving me and refocusing on the pot with an almost sexual intensity. And he kept touching it. A lot. “Probably Fate telling you that you must buy it.” He turned that unnatural gaze back to me. “This urn must not go home with anyone else.” That made me laugh. “I hope Fate knows to keep the bidding within a teacher’s price range.” “She does.” With that cryptic remark he caressed the pot one last time and glided away. Damn, that guy was strange. More like a talkative Lurch than Children of the Corn’s daddy, though. The auction was moving quickly and the bidding was beginning for the statuettes. Seems several people were interested in “the boys.” Can’t say that I blamed them. I stepped into the group around the mobile auctioneer’s platform as it was being wheeled into position behind the table. Bidding began at fifty dollars for Zeus, but five people quickly raised that fifty to onefifty. Finally it sold to a solid-looking woman for one hundred seventy-five dollars. Not bad. The Syrian got more interest (must have been the muscles). Bidding quickly went from the opening bid of fifty dollars to three-fifty. I was beginning to worry about the price range. The Syrian went for four hundred fifty dollars. A bad sign. I had budgeted two hundred dollars for my auction outing today. I could scrape together another fifty, but above that was beyond my limited means. The skinny warrior went for four hundred dollars even. My stomach clenched again as I drifted with the crowd over to the pottery table and listened to the auctioneer talk about what excellent museum-quality reproductions of Greco-Roman and Celtic pottery were exemplified in the next six lots. Couldn’t he please just shut up? I pushed through the crowd, ignoring the disconcerting feeling that being so close to the pot gave me. The bidding on Lot #20 opened at seventy-five dollars. There were only three people who were seriously bidding on the pottery. I noticed that all three had the look of dealers. They had the little handheld notebooks, the glasses perched on their noses and the look of professional intensity casual auction-goers never wore. It was a whole different look than just falling in love with an estate piece and wanting to take it home. The dealer has a clinical attitude about his or her purchases, an “Oh, boy, I can’t wait to get this into my store and mark it up 150 percent” attitude. I was doomed. Lot #20 went to the dealer with the frizzy blond hair (roots desperately needed a touch-up) for three hundred dollars. Lot #21 went to the dealer who looked English. You know: proper, prim, smart, well-bred, but in need of a bath and some orthodontic attention. He paid five hundred dollars (and, sure enough, he had an accent) for the beautiful second—to fourth-Century Roman pot which the auctioneer described as made in the Moselkeramik style, which meant (he explained to us ignorant lay-folks) that it was of the highest quality and exquisite. The English guy looked smug with his purchase. Lots #22, #23 and #24 went to the third dealer. Believe it or not, it was the Depression Era matron I had offended with my legs earlier. Great. Ms. Matron paid three hundred, four twenty-five and two hundred seventy-five dollars, respectively, for the pots. “Now the last of our beautiful pottery pieces is Lot #25—Reproduction—Celtic vase, original stood over graves in an ancient Scottish cemetery—Scene in color represents supplications being made to High Priestess of the Horse Goddess Epona. It is interesting to note that Epona was the only Celtic deity adopted by the invading Romans, and she became their personal Goddess, protectress of their legendary legions.” His voice sounded stuck-up and proud, like he had created the pot and perhaps was a personal friend of Epona. I hated him. “Notice the exceptional use of color and contrast on the urn. Shall we open the bidding at seventy-five dollars?” “Seventy-five.” I raised my hand and caught his eye. It’s important to telegraph to the auctioneer (via eye contact) serious buying intent—and I was Morse-coding him to death. “I have seventy-five, do I hear one hundred?” “One hundred.” The Matron raised her fat hand. “One-ten.” I tried not to shout. “One…ten.” There was no mistaking the patronizing tone to His Majesty’s voice. “I have a bid of one hundred and ten dollars. Do I hear one twenty-five?” “One hundred and fifty dollars, please.” It was the Brit. Figures. “The gentleman bids one hundred and fifty dollars.” Now his voice was ingratiating. What a little weasel. “One hundred and fifty, do I hear two hundred?” “Two hundred,” I said through clenched teeth. “Ah, the lady bids two hundred dollars.” Back in his good graces. “Do I hear two twenty-five?” Silence—I was holding my breath. “The last bid is two hundred dollars.” Expectant pause. I wanted to throttle him. Say “once, twice, sold,” my mind was screaming. “Do I hear two hundred and twenty-five dollars?” “Two-fifty.” The Matron again. Before I could raise my hand to spend more than my budget allowed, the Brit, in a flutter of long white fingers, softly raised the bid to two seventy-five. Above the pounding in my ears I could make out the bidding war between the Matron and the Brit. It culminated at three hundred and fifty dollars. Beyond my budget—way beyond my budget. I backed away slowly as the crowd moved on to the next set of lots, and found myself sitting on the edge of the rotting fountain. I watched as the auction assistants began boxing up the pottery. The Brit and the frizzy-haired blonde were hanging around, obviously done bidding—they probably owned shops that specialized in works d’art. They were laughing and talking with the good-natured camaraderie of peers. The pot wasn’t going home with me. It looked like me. It made me feel neurotic, but it was going home with the Brit. My sigh came straight from my confused heart. I didn’t know what the hell was wrong with me, but I felt, as I’m sure the Brit would say, buggered and bloody awful. In Oklahoma we’d just say I felt like shit. Maybe I should ask the Brit for his card, and save up enough money to…what? Put the damn thing in layaway? Maybe I could pick up a summer-school class and… I noticed the Brit lifting my—I mean, his pot. He was examining it with a proprietor’s smile as he waited for the assistant to pack the waiting box with enough tissue to keep it from breaking. Suddenly, his smile changed to an angry, distraught expression. Hmm—I stood up and moved closer. “My God! What the bloody hell is this?” He was holding the pot up above his head, looking intently into the interior. “Sir, is there a problem?” The assistant was as confused as I. “I should say so! This pot is cracked! It is totally useless to me.” He set it carelessly back on the table, and it rolled around on its bottom edge, coming precariously close to tipping over. “Sir, let me take a look.” The assistant grabbed the pot and held it up to the light, mimicking the Brit’s actions. His expression blanched. “Sir, you are correct. Please accept my apologies for this damaged merchandise. Your bill will be corrected immediately.” As he spoke, another minion rushed off to the accounts payable tent. “Excuse me…” I tried to sound nonchalant. “What will happen to the pot now?” All three turned to stare at me. “It will be reauctioned, as is, of course.” And he handed the pot to yet another assistant, who hastened toward the auctioneer area. I followed on rubbery legs, feeling suddenly like the proverbial moth to a flame—or more appropriately Okielike, the mosquito to the heavy-duty two-acre bug zapper. “Oh, my. It seems we have an error in need of correcting.” The auctioneer’s voice was annoyed. “Before we continue to Lot #31, we need to reauction Lot #25. The reproduction pottery evidently has a hairline crack running the width of the base. Quite unfortunate.” I pushed my way through the crowd as he held up the pot, open end to the audience, so that we could all peer into its imperfect depths. I squinted and looked…and the opening of the pot seemed to ripple, like the surface of a black lake. I felt dizzy and blinked hard several times, trying to clear my vision. The auctioneer looked into the opening and shook his head, contorting his face into a grimace of disdain for such abominably damaged merchandise. Then he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Do I have an opening bid of twenty-five dollars?” Silence. I couldn’t believe it—I wanted to shout, but contained my exuberance as he surveyed the mum crowd and quickly revised the bid downward. “Fifteen dollars? Do I hear fifteen dollars?” Silence. Just ten minutes before, the bidding war had been on, and it had brought three hundred and fifty dollars. Now it wasn’t perfect, and the guy couldn’t get fifteen bucks. Fate whispered in my ear. “Three dollars and fifty cents.” I couldn’t help myself. It was some kind of quirky justice. “Sold! For three dollars and fifty cents. Madam, please give your number to my assistant.” He grimaced. “You may collect your pot immediately.” 4 “My number is 074. I’m here to settle my account.” The accounts payable person appeared to be an hourly employee…she moved very slowly. I tried not to fidget. I want my pot I want my pot I want my pot. I was turning into a psycho. “The total is $3.78…that’s with tax.” She even blinked slowly, reminding me of a calf. “Here ya go. Keep the change.” I handed her a five-dollar bill. She grinned at me like I was Santa. “Thank you, ma’am. I’ll have your merchandise brought right out.” Over her shoulder, “Zack, bring out number 74’s stuff.” Zack emerged from behind the building bearing a box like those I had observed the other pots being packed into. The lid was open and he held it so that I could see that it was my pot. But I didn’t need to actually see it, that now-familiar yucky feeling was back in my stomach. “Thank you, I’ll take it from here.” Before I could chicken out, I grabbed the box, slammed the lid shut and headed for my car. “I’m getting the hell outta Dodge.” Talking to myself kept my nerves at bay. Well, almost. I double clicked the passenger’s door unlocked, and gently set the box in the seat. On second thought, I decided I had better seat belt the thing in; I didn’t want it flopping over, falling out and making me grab at it while I was driving. Gulp. The air conditioner began its magic as soon as the engine rumbled to life. Trying not to peek sideways at my passenger, I threw the Mustang into gear and retraced my path out. “What now!” Children of the Corn’s daddy, aka Lurch, was back at his post, again waving the orange wand in my direction. I rolled to a pause and tapped the window open—halfway. “I see Fate was faithful.” His eyes skittered back and forth from the closed lid of the box to me. God, his breath was awful. “Yeah, there was a crack in the bottom of it, so I got a great deal.” Letting up on the clutch I started to roll forward. Couldn’t he take a hint? “Yes, miss, you have no idea what an extraordinary deal you have purchased for so little.” His eyes pierced me, then he glanced up at the sky. “The weather is changing. You be sure to drive—” pause “—carefully.” (What the hell was he implying?) “I’d hate to think of you having—” pause “—an accident.” “Not a problem. I’m an excellent driver.” I pressed the window up and let loose the clutch. Glancing in the rearview mirror I saw Corn Daddy take a few steps after me. “Freak.” I shivered. Turning onto the gravel road felt good, and I gunned the engine, enjoying the juvenile rush of pleasure that spewing gravel with my tires gave me. Glancing in the rearview mirror again, I could see that Corn Daddy was now standing in the middle of the road staring obsessively in my direction. The Freak’s warning about the weather flashed through my mind. I looked up at the sky. “Oh, great, this is all I need.” Puffy gray clouds towered, giving the blue horizon a bruised look. I was heading southwest, the way back to Tulsa, and apparently the way into a lovely example of an Oklahoma summer thunderstorm. “Well, friends and sports fans, let’s check what the localyokel weather stations are predicting.” Flipping through my radio all I could tune in clearly was a country-music station, a farm show discussing how bad the ticks are for June (I’m not making that up) and a gospel preacher who seemed to be screaming about adultery (I didn’t listen long enough to figure out for sure if he was for or against it). No weather—not even any jazz or the elusive “soft rock.” “What say we just pretend like we’re Meatloaf and drive home like a bat outta hell?” I was talking to the damn box. Great. I was stuck in the middle of friggin nowhere, driving smack into (another look forward and a little to the left told me the bad news) a wall cloud, and I was talking to a box filled with a pot that made me feel as if I had taken several diet pills and chugged a large frappa-cappa-mocha-latte. “That’s it—first town I come to I’m stopping at the bumpkin gas station. I’m going to get something chocolate to eat, and find out what the hell is going on with the weather.” Suspiciously I glanced sideways at the box. “And get some fresh air.” For an instant I almost regretted my cell-phone phobia. I don’t own even one cell phone. All of my friends do—usually multiple phones, like it’s some contest to see how many they can have and how small they can be, kinda the opposite of the penis thing. My best girlfriend (the stuck-up college professor) has a special one installed in her car so she can blab on the phone without taking her hands off the wheel. She also has a cute little deceptively harmless-looking model that nests in her purse. I tolerate the ridicule of my peers because I’ve decided that when they are all dying of brain cancer I am going to tell them “I told you so.” I continually explain to them that, no, I am not a Neanderthal out of synch with the modern world. I simply do not need a phone in my car, my purse, my desk, my gym bag, etc., etc. And I will visit them as they are pitifully wasting away from basketball-size brain tumors caused by constant cell-phone radiation waves bombarding their skulls as they chatter about where to meet for lunch and whose stepkids are the most screwed up. So I won’t die from brain cancer, but the thunderstorm-wall-cloud-possible-tornado was making me just a little nervous. Studying the sky as I drove quickly down the road, I realized the incoming storm was definitely getting worse. Oklahoma storms have personalities, big mean personalities. It has always amazed me how the summer sky can change so quickly and completely. I remember one time I was lying out in the sun at the current flavor-of-the-month boyfriend’s pool. As proper sunbathing etiquette requires, I was facing the sun and drifting in that wonderfully relaxing sunbathing la-la land (obviously the boyfriend wasn’t home, you can’t drift in la-la land while a male is telling you what great tits you have) when suddenly the wind shifted and cooled. I opened my eyes and glanced behind me to see puffy gray clouds forming. I grabbed my stuff, left a thank-you note for the boyfriend and took off. I only lived fifteen minutes away, but I didn’t make it home before the skies opened. The gray puffy clouds had morphed into blacks and greens. The bizarrely cool wind bent trees. Sheets of rain made driving impossible. I was lucky that I made it to the little hospital in Broken Arrow. I just had time to run through the E.R. entrance and into the basement before a tornado blasted through the center of town. Okay, maybe I was more than a little nervous. And the damn pot wasn’t helping any. The green-and-white road sign said Leach 10 miles, which turned out to be the last road sign I could make out, because at that moment the sky puked ropes of rain that began to beat up my Mustang. Now, I love my car. Really. But the little sucker is truly not the car to drive in rainy weather. It loves to slide and hydroplane all over the road. So I downshifted to slow, turned my wipers on high and tried to keep to my side of the centerline. The radio was static. The trees I could vaguely see on the side of the road were bent over at insane angles. I flipped the headlights on, trying vainly to help visibility. It felt as if the wind was slapping my car around; it was taking both of my sweaty hands to hold the wheel still. Sweaty? “What the hell?” The car felt warm. Why? There was cool air blowing from the vent, but I was still uncomfortably hot. And then I noticed it. The heat was coming from the damn box. My eyes darted from the nearly invisible road to the box. I swear it was glowing, like it had a heat lamp inside it, and someone had just flipped on its switch. I tore my eyes from the box and back to the— “Oh, God!” Suddenly there was no road! I could feel the tires crunch in the shoulder gravel and, too quickly, I yanked the wheel to the left. My overcompensation began a spin and I tried desperately to correct back to the right. No good. The wind and rain completely disoriented me. I struggled, just trying to keep the wheel straight; my heart fell into my stomach as the spin carried me across the road, tires screeching. And then the world turned upside down. At the same time I felt a slice of pain shoot through the side of my head, I realized that I smelled smoke. My eyes must have been closed, because I wrenched them open and it was like I was trapped in the middle of the sun. The pot had burst from its box. It was a ball of heat and light hurling, slow motion, in my direction. Time stalled and I seemed to be suspended on the outskirts of hell. Staring at the luminous globe, I got a bizarre glimpse of myself, like I was looking into a rippled pool of water that had been set afire, but was still able to show a ref lection. My mirror image was rushing forward, naked, with arms outstretched and head flung back like a glorious pagan dancer being submerged into the fiery ball. Then fire and smoke enveloped me, too, and I knew I was going to die. My last thought wasn’t a flashback of my life, or regret about leaving friends and family. It was simply, “Damnit, I should have quit cussing. What if God really is a Baptist?” PART TWO 1 Consciousness didn’t return easily; it was an elusive thing. It felt like a dream, like the kind of dream I have had during an especially yucky period, complete with awful cramps. In my dream I change the cramps to weird, sugar-laced labor pains and then I give birth to a Twinkie, which somehow makes me feel better. I know. I’m Freud’s wet dream. My head hurt. A lot. Worse than a sinus headache, even worse than an I-can’t-believe-I-drank-all-that-tequila hangover. And my body felt like—no, I couldn’t feel my body at all. Couldn’t open my eyes. Oh, yeah, I’m dead. No wonder I felt… Blackness closed softly, like a friend. The next time I woke, my head still hurt—a lot. And I was sorry to realize that I now felt my body. Every joint ached, like the flu from hell. Oh, God, maybe this was hell (if someone started yelling math problems at me, I was in hell for sure). But I couldn’t hear anything except a strange ringing that seemed to be inside my ears. I tried to open my eyes, but they wouldn’t obey. That was probably because corpses don’t have functioning eyelids. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was dead, I think my heart would have pounded out of my chest. Can corpses panic? Obviously, yes…this time blackness wasn’t friendly, it was seductive, and I willingly spiraled into its waiting arms. “Be still, my Lady, all will be well.” The voice was sweet and familiar, but it had a funny lilt to it that I didn’t recognize. My head was heavy, hot and sore. My body felt beat up. Something that lay on my head focused my disjointed attention to a sudden wet coolness. I touched a thick compress, but someone gently brushed my hand away. “All is well, my Lady. I am here.” Again, that elusive familiarity. “Wha—” God, my throat was raw and still on fire. Fire! Memory hurled back, bringing fear and panic. This time when I told my eyes to open they obeyed. Kind of. I tried to concentrate on seeing, but images and lights blurred together into confusion. The large blur sitting next to me moved, and my eyes began to focus on— Thank God, it was Suzanna. If she was here then I couldn’t be dead, and maybe everything would be all right. I tried to maintain my focus on her as the room pitched and I struggled to blink my vision clear. She was already holding one of my hands, but, strangely, she tried to pull away as she saw my eyes open. I just grabbed on all the harder. It seemed she went pale, but it also seemed like there were four of her, then two of her, then four again as my vision wavered. “My Lady, you must lie still. You have been through much tonight, your body and soul are in need of rest. Do not worry, you are safe and all is well.” I tried to say, what the hell is wrong with you, but the sound my throat made was like a whispering snake—or one of those horrible opossums caught in headlights. (No, they don’t just play dead, they hiss and scare the crap out of unsuspecting women who have stopped the car on a dark country road just because they’re looking for some privacy so they can pee, jeesh.) Anyway, I couldn’t understand me, so I knew Suzanna couldn’t, either. She pulled her hand loose from mine and someone I couldn’t focus on handed her a goblet. Goblet? A golden goblet? In a hospital? “Drink, my Lady. It will soothe your throat and help you to rest.” Her gentle hand lifted my head and she held the cup to my lips as I tried to gag down the sweet, thick liquid. Lifting my head had set off waves of renewed pain in my temples. Before the world went black again, I tried to stay focused on my friend. She was taking the cloth off my head and exchanging it for a new, cool bandage handed to her by an incredibly young nurse wearing an odd, flowing uniform. The “nurse” looked like she was ready to frolic in the meadow, not go to work in the E.R., or ICU, or… Blackness was tinged with the sweet, cough-syrupy taste of medicine. The next time the blackness lifted suddenly. It was not a gentle awakening. Oh, no, I was going to— “Here, my Lady. Let me aid you.” Suzanna supported my back and held my hair out of the way as I puked my guts up over the side of the bed (she really is a good best girlfriend—I’m sorry I called her stuck-up before). When I finished barfing up my innards, she guided me back to my pillow and wiped my face clean. I seriously hate puking. Always have. It makes me shake and feel out of control. I’m glad I don’t do it very often, but when I do, I admit I’m a baby about it. So, true to form, I couldn’t stop shaking. I was weak and disoriented, but I thought that might have been because I was dead, not just because of the puking. “Wa…wa…ter.” I managed to get an understandable squeak out of my throat, and Suzanna immediately motioned to a waiting nurse, and another goblet appeared. She held it for me and helped me to drink. “Uuuckk!” I spewed most of it out—it wasn’t water, it was weak wine. Now, I adore wine, but not after puking. “Suz! Wa…t…er.” I gave her the girlfriend, I’m gonna kill you look as I tried to get my point across. “Yes, my Lady!” She paled again and turned to the nurse, handing her the goblet. (What kind of hospital was this, anyway?) “Bring Lady Rhiannon water immediately!” The nymphlike nurse rushed away. Suzanna turned back to me, but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Forgive me, my Lady. I misunderstood. Blame me, not the maiden.” She folded her hands together over her breast, like she was praying or something, and bowed her head, still not meeting my eyes. Okay, what the hell was going on? I caught hold of one of her hands and tugged, trying to get her to look at me. And then I noticed her hair. It was her normal color—blondish, with pretty, natural highlights—but it had become tangled with my hand. Because it was waist length and falling over her shoulders and breasts and was therefore entangled in our hands. “No. How…” I managed to sputter. Suzanna has always had a short, sexy haircut. I love to kid her about it looking mussed and naughty. She says, “Why, thank you!” like a cat that just lapped up cream. How could it possibly have grown down to her waist? Oh, great. Had I been in some kind of coma? Perhaps I’d been “out” for a gazillion years, and out of grief she’d descended into some unfortunate Lady Godiva phase while I was unconscious, and without my astute girlfriend-telling-her-what-looks-right fashion sense she had grown her hair down to her butt. Nope, she didn’t look any older. The bitch. She still avoided my eyes as I studied her. It was definitely Suzanna. Same petite bone structure. Beautiful round face that somehow radiated goodness. Her long tresses were pulled behind her perfect little ears, just like when her hair was short. The same freckles dotted her nose and high cheekbones. If she’d smile (which didn’t appear too likely) I bet I’d see familiar dimples on either side of her gentle lips. “Suz…” I tugged on her hand, trying to get her to look at me. As she glanced up, my eyes met the same golden-brown eyes that have been peering back at me for years. “Wha…” I tried to rasp out a question while giving her the what’s up, girlfriend? look. She seemed to soften, but the nurse ran in (really, the nymphet actually ran into the room) with a new goblet. “Here, my Lady.” Thank God, real water. And it was even cool. I tried to suck as much down as I could, but my throat rebelled. “Th…anks,” I managed to rasp. Suzanna had to lean forward to hear me, but I knew she understood because she suddenly blushed, hastily grabbed a soft cloth and began wiping my face dry. It amazed me to realize I was exhausted. All I’d done was puke my guts up, try to talk and drink a couple swallows of water. Suzanna stroked the hair back from my forehead, humming a tuneless song. “Rest, my Lady. All is well.” And just what the hell was she wearing…? My other friend, blackness, stealthily took me away again. 2 “Forgive me, my Lady. You must awaken.” No, I’ve called in a sub, let me sleep. This must be a horrible dream. Maybe if I screwed my eyes tightly shut and concentrated on conjuring up a dream image of Hugh Jackman enslaved to me by love, I would drift back into my Dreamland. Then I made the mistake of swallowing. Crap—my throat was killing…crap. Oh…that’s right. I might be dead. And my eyes popped open. Two nymphet/nurses flanked the long-haired Suzanna. One had a gauzy something-or-other draped over her shapely and very bare arms. The other was holding combs and brushes and a lovely little crownlike golden thing (I think they’re called coronets). Hmm…Hell couldn’t be all bad if it had jewelry. “My Lady, your father’s messenger has just arrived, and he announces that the banns have been posted and your betrothed will be meeting you here to finalize the handfast ceremony.” My what? “Today. Please, we must make you ready.” All I could do was blink up at her. What was she talking about? My betrothed? I wasn’t even dating anyone! I’d fired the last guy I’d gone out with halfway through our blind date (Note to self: never, ever go on another blind date). Suzanna seemed to hesitate. “Mistress, are you still unable to speak?” “Misssss—uhh.” What was up with this “mistress” and “my Lady” crap? Obviously, my rasping opossum-like whisper was answer enough. I noticed that the sound of my very messed-up voice sent the nymphets into an attractive state of panic. Suz acted pissed off; suddenly she was snatching the gauzy robe, combs and jewels from the nymphs. “You are dismissed.” (Boy, she sounded stern—which intensified the strange, almost musical lilt to her voice.) “I will care for our mistress.” They scampered away, looking relieved. Guess they don’t make nurses like they used to. “Here, my Lady, lean on my arm and I will take you to the baths.” You’d think getting up and walking to take a (much-needed) bath wouldn’t be a tough thing to do, and maybe it wouldn’t have been if the damn room would quit moving. “Uuuuhhh—” I felt like I was hobbling, like one of the old crones from Act I of Macbeth—God knows my hair felt scraggly enough that I must have looked the part. “You are doing well, my Lady. Come, it is only a few more steps.” We were walking down a dimly lighted hall. Glancing up, I noticed the lighting was dim because, well, because (and this made me come to a total halt) there were live torches jutting out of wrought-iron holders. I have a college degree; you can’t fool me. Live torches are not normal for a hospital! And, damnit! I most certainly am not engaged! “My Lady, do you need to rest?” What had happened to Suzanna? Did they stop making Prozac while I was “out,” and had that sent her into some kind of tragic medieval hysteria? One of my arms was already linked with hers, so grabbing her other hand was simple. I forced her to turn toward me and look directly at me. Taking my time, swallowing several times in an attempt to clear the opossum from my throat, I held her gaze with mine and said slowly and intently, “What has happened?” Still, she tried to look away, but I gave her hands a quick shake and her eyes darted back to mine. “My Lady…” She paused and glanced around her like she was afraid of being overheard, then she whispered in a serious-as-Oprah-in-a-shoe-store voice, “What is your name?” Okay, I’d play. But if Sean Connery showed up around the next corner, I would know for sure that I was having the Mother of All Bizarre Dreams. “Shannon.” I rasped as clearly as I was able. She didn’t even blink. “And what is my name?” Jeesh. Maybe she was drunk—the woman never could drink. One little sniff of tequila and she was off into some blonde la-la land. Deep breath—nope, I didn’t smell any alcohol. “Your name is Suzanna.” She leaned even closer to me and shook her head slowly from side to side. This time she seemed more able to force herself to meet my gaze. I couldn’t help noticing that the fear that had been flickering through her eyes was now shadowed by pity. “No, my Lady.” Her gentle-sounding, strangely accented answer rocked me. “My name is not Suzanna, it is Alanna. And you are not Shannon, you are my mistress, Rhiannon, High Priestess of the Goddess Epona, daughter of The MacCallan, betrothed to and soon to be handfasted with the High Shaman ClanFintan.” “Bullshit.” “I know this must be difficult for you, my Lady, but come with me. I will help you ready yourself and I will try and explain how this came about.” She did sound concerned as she helped my numb body move forward down the hall and through a door which stood ajar to the right of us. The room we entered conjured images of those PBS specials that first show current-day ruins, which look like a jumbled, confused mess of old stone and decaying columns—then they morph a computer image over the ruins so that the audience can see what the original supposedly looked like in all its glory. This room definitely looked like one of the computermorphed images. The floor and ceiling were smooth marble. It was hard to tell if the gold color came from the stone or the many wall torches. The symmetry of the walls was interrupted often by cutout niches, which looked to be carved into the stone at varying heights. In the niches lighted candles nestled in odd-looking golden holders (gosh, I really appreciated a room accessorized with gold), giving the walls the appearance of being set ablaze by faceted jewels. Along one wall hung an enormous mirror in front of which sat an elaborate vanity. The mirror was softly fogged by steam wisping up from a deep, clear pool of water that bubbled up from the center of the floor, and overflowed out in a fast-running stream which emptied itself into another pool in an adjoining room. The air was so warm and moist it felt caressing. Just breathing it made me feel relaxed, and the smell reminded me of something… “It’s a mineral spring!” Even my voice responded to the room’s healing aroma and Suz/Alanna didn’t have to strain to understand me. “Yes, my Lady.” She seemed pleased that I had enough sense to identify the metallic smell of the water and speak semiclearly (a little like walking and chewing gum). “Here, let me help you out of your robe.” Which she did, quickly and expertly. Then she motioned for me to follow the rock steps down into the steaming water. It was deep, but there were several comfortably smoothed ledges conveniently placed all along the near side of the pool, and I sank gingerly onto one with the sigh of the truly dirty. I watched through half-lidded eyes as Suzanna/Alanna gathered sponges and small pots and bottles from the vanity, poured me a glass of dark red something from a waiting pitcher into yet another golden goblet, then knelt on the side of the pool near my ledge. I gratefully accepted the goblet and sighed in pleasure at the taste of a wonderful cabernet. Then, as if she did it every day, she lifted my arm that was not holding the goblet, and began running a soapy sponge down it. I yelped and pulled away. “My Lady, you need be readied to meet your betrothed.” “I can—” (swallow, take a breath) “—wash—” (swallow) “—my—” (breathe) “—self!” I slammed the goblet down next to her and whispered forcefully, “And don’t think you can lull me into forgetting the bizarre crap you just laid on me in the hall. I want to know what’s up—now, Suzanna Michelle.” Girlfriends only use each other’s middle names when a crisis exists or when deviant sex is being discussed, so she had to know I was serious. “Forgive me, my Lady. I did not mean to offend or prevaricate.” She bowed her head and clasped her hands over her breast, like she was waiting for discipline. I didn’t know what was going on; something was definitely wrong. But whatever it was, I was sure the lovely cabernet would help. Another sip felt soothing to my throat, almost as soothing as the warm water felt to my body. Another sip—deep breath. Suzanna hadn’t moved. Okay, if I only tried to whisper, maybe I could make my opossum voice last long enough to get this mess cleared up—or get snockered enough that I didn’t care. “Suz.” Her chin moved up slowly at the sound of my whisper. “I’m not mad, you know better than that.” Before she got her expression under control, I was sure I saw shock reflected on her face. “But I am confused.” Another deep breath. I cleared my throat again. “Start over and tell me where we are.” Seemed like an easy enough question. “We are in your bathing chamber in the High Temple of Epona.” I mentally shook my head. Oh, sure—a hospital named after a pagan goddess deep in the Bible Belt? Maybe I hadn’t been specific enough in my question. “In what state?” Another goblet or two of wine and my opossum and I would be ready to take on the world. “You appear to have been injured, my Lady, but you look to be recovering remarkably well.” She blinked up at me with what I liked to think of as her soft little rabbit look. “No, Suz, not my state of being, I mean what state am I in?” She was still giving me the rabbit look. Sigh. “Which of the fifty United States?” Man, I wished I could yell. “You mean our location in the world?” The lightbulb clicked on. “Yes, friend of mine.” I was going to personally lace her favorite brownies with her new Prozac prescription. “Epona’s Temple controls all the lands around us. As High Priestess to Epona you are Mistress of Her lands.” Well, that was comforting. I was having a psychotic episode, my best friend was having a nervous breakdown, but, hey, at least I was Mistress here! As the King (I mean Elvis, not some medieval dreamworld phony) would say, “Thank you, thank you very much.” “Suzanna, I don’t want to shock or upset you—and please don’t cry (she always has been a crier), but I have no friggin clue what you’re talking about.” “My Lady,” she said tentatively, “perhaps that is because you are no longer in your own world.” Now, that got my attention. “Suzanna, you just said I am mistress here, and my betrothed is on his way. Can you explain what the hell you are talking about? Oh, and please pour me some more wine, I have a feeling I’m going to need it.” I think she was relieved to turn away from me—maybe she could collect her neurotic thoughts and I could get to the bottom of this. Actually, this could all be an elaborate plot to get back at me for forgetting her birthday last month. (Damnit, I knew she was still mad.) “It is complicated, my Lady.” “Suz, you sound like Jeannie when you say that my Lady stuff.” She ignored my comment—I hated it when she didn’t get my jokes. “Just make it short and to the point, I’ll try to figure it out from there.” And we’ll get you some professional help very soon. “My original mistress, the Lady Rhiannon, has exchanged places with you. She said your world made magic with machines, and power with money made from those machines, and she longed to live there. So she sent her soul there during one of her Magic Sleeps and found you. She said you are her mirror, her shadow, and that she could trade herself for you, thus entering your world. She believed that she could leave enough of her consciousness here, as she does when she enters the sacred grove, to aid and guide you.” Intently studying my face, her litany slowed, “But I do not think she is here with you. You appear to be her, but you do not have her…” Here she faltered, as if catching herself in the middle of a thought. Then she continued, “…her manner. Now she has become you, and you must become her.” “This can’t be. I don’t believe it.” “The Lady Rhiannon directed me to ask a question of you if you did not seem to understand or believe.” I raised my eyebrow like Spock and waited. “In your world do you know stories that tell tales of gods and goddess, myths and magic, spells and sorcery?” She paused, and looked expectantly at me. Obviously, she wouldn’t take the eyebrow for an answer. “Yes, of course, I’m a teacher, I teach those stories to kids.” “My Lady Rhiannon said to tell you that this world is where those stories came from. They leaked across The Divide like shadows and smoke, seeking their mirror images in your world. Thus have I learned of that world, in the form of smoke and shadows, and thus I found my mirror image—you.” “That’s fantasy sci-fi crap, Suz. How can you expect me to believe it?” “Lady Rhiannon told me that she would use her image that was already in your world, and a wall of fire to move through The Divide.” “That friggin pot.” It couldn’t be. “Pardon me, my Lady?” “The fire. How was she not harmed if she passed through a wall of fire? And why wasn’t I burned up, too?” Suzanna’s face drained of color. “More wine, my Lady.” “Yep. And you haven’t answered my question.” Two quick taps on the door interrupted her. She had the good manners to look sheepish…and keep looking and looking at me. Wha—? “You may enter,” she finally called. A new nymph bowed her way into the room. Suzanna was still looking apologetically at me. Oops, I kept forgetting, I was the mistress, which (I guess) meant I should be ordering around the nymphs. Okay, I’d give it a try. “What?” Even though I was still sounding like a whispering opossum, I tried to project that “don’t interrupt my classroom” voice my students knew and loved so well. The little nymph turned toward me and spoke in a charming lilt. “Mistress, your betrothed has arrived.” I looked quickly at Suzanna. She was no damn help; her eyes were squeezed shut and her lips were moving in what looked like some kind of silent prayer. Jeesh. “Fine. Tell him (stall, think, think) tell him…um (at the “um” the nymph’s eyes widened in surprise—oops—guess mistresses/my Ladys don’t um) tell him I will greet him when I have finished dressing.” So there. I’m female—no matter where the hell I was, men must be accustomed to waiting on women to get ready. “Yes, my Lady.” She bowed her way out. My ruse seemed to have worked. I almost felt like Penelope. “How’d ya like that, girlfriend? Did I sound like The Mistress Here?” “We are players in a dangerous game, my Lady.” “Oh, come on, Suz. This is all a dream or something!” “Please, my Lady—” she grabbed my hands and squeezed “—if you bear any love for your Suzanna, please listen and heed my words. More than just your own life rests upon your actions today.” “Okay, okay, Suz. I’ll listen.” “First, you must not call me by that name. You must only call me Alanna. You must meet with ClanFintan. Your betrothal period is over, it is time to enter into the formal handfast.” Something about her eyes caused me to bite back my refusal. She really believed this. She was not pretending or kidding. She looked terrified. “You know I will always help you, my girl—” “Alanna! If you call me by name you must use that name. Do you understand?” “Yes, Alanna.” Whatever was wrong I couldn’t fix it without more information, and Suz—oops—Alanna definitely needed fixing. “Okay, isn’t a handfast a temporary marriage?” “Yes, my Lady. It is a marriage that is arranged for only one year.” She definitely wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Why was Rhiannon only marrying him for one year?” “That was the agreement.” She was suddenly oh so busy reaching for and then pouring something that smelled like honeysuckle into the water from one of the little bottles that sat on a marble ledge near the side of the pool. Yep, she was hiding something. Lots of something. “So, how do you expect me to pull off a handfast with a man I have never met?” “Lady Rhiannon has met him.” By the look on her face I was beginning to think that might not be a good thing. “I will present you and explain that you had an accident during the last Moon Ritual, and your voice has left you. I will speak for you.” Helping me from the warm pool she was totally businesslike, and I told myself that I would ignore the fact that she was matter-of-factly toweling me dry. “Okay, but what about the…um…intimate details of this handfast thing? I don’t even know this guy—I’m certainly not going to consummate anything with him!” And if he turned out to be the mirror image of my ex-husband, I was outta there. “Simply remember you are Lady Rhiannon, High Priestess and Beloved of Epona. The Lady Rhiannon is only touched when she allows it.” “Even by the man she is handfasted to?” “Yes, even him.” She sounded pretty confident. I must be a real bitch. Smile. The gauzy bit of nothing that she had carried into the room had somehow found its way into Alanna’s hands. Man, it really was pretty. It was my color, a shimmery golden-red that seemed to move by itself. “Please hold your arms out from your sides, my Lady.” Doing as she asked, I was a captive audience, entranced as she wrapped the diaphanous material around my body. Reaching behind her with one hand, she rescued two lovely woven circles of gold from the vanity, and expertly pinned one at my waist and one at my shoulder, much like a Highland kilt would wrap and hang (except that I didn’t think kilts were semitransparent and silky, unless purchased from MacFrederick’s of MacHollywood). Stepping back, she surveyed her work, making alterations and tucks here and there. She always had been good at crafts. “My God, it’s see-through!” And it was—not in aslutty, stand on the corner of Eleventh and Peoria Streets at midnight kind of way, but in a sultry Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra kind of way. “Oh, forgive me for forgetting.” She lifted a small triangle of the same gauze from the vanity (I thought it was a hankie) and held it for me to step into. Seriously, it was a teeny thong. Gosh, I felt so much better, so much more “covered.” Jeesh. “Please be seated, my Lady, and I will dress your hair.” Fine. I might as well have some part of me dressed. Frowning over my damp locks, she began attempting to work a wide-toothed comb through them. “Your hair is shorter than hers. The same, but shorter. I will arrange it up until it grows longer.” Seemed like she was talking to the hair, not me. Relaxing into her ministrations, I thought I’d enjoy my coiffure. I don’t know about you, but having my hair brushed is a borderline sexual experience, secondary only to getting a really great foot rub. Yum. Only Alanna reaching for a piece of jewelry could snap me out of my hairbrush trance (proving that jewelry can combat apathy as well as accessorize). She settled a thin gold band around my forehead, artistically arranging my swept-up hair to complement it. I turned my head from side to side to get a better look. The candlelight reflected off the polished gold and caught a diamond-shaped stone set in the center of the circle, making its facets flash. I leaned closer. “Garnet?” “Yes, my Lady. Your favorite stone.” “My favorite stone?” My eyebrows crept up in suppressed amusement. She actually smiled at me, almost like my Suzanna. “Well, Rhiannon’s favorite stone.” “Mine is a diamond, but garnets are nice.” Smiling back at her felt good—almost normal. “But, my Lady, you must remember you are Rhiannon.” Back to serious Alanna. “Okay, not a problem.” She looked relieved and continued to pull tendrils of reddish curls out of the cool updo to frame my face and hang down my back. “Now I will work on that face.” I guess a closer look at “that face” was pretty sobering, because she gave me the stubborn Suzanna look and went to work, stroking on creams and powders from beautiful glass jars scattered in disarray on the vanity. “Uh, I don’t care what you do, but my one request is for lots of golden-brown lip color.” “Exactly as Rhiannon would have chosen.” “That’s pretty weird.” “She said you would be of one soul.” She glanced nervously at me, only briefly meeting my eyes. We needed to get this crap straight right now. For good. “She lied.” “Pardon, my Lady?” Alanna looked like she had just received an electrical shock. “I said she lied, Alanna. I am not her—I am Shannon Parker, a high-school English teacher from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, who has been caught up in something even more bizarre than the World of the Teenage, which takes some damn doing. I’ll help you. But I know who I am, and I am not her.” My gaze never left hers. “Understand?” “Yes, my Lady. But it is difficult.” “No shit.” She smiled again. “You have a very odd way of speaking.” “So do you. It’s something like a cross between a Scottish burr and Deanna Troi’s Star Trek accent.” Now she looked really confused. “Never mind. It’s not important.” She smiled again and returned to making me up. My eyes strayed around the unusual room. I felt relaxed and warm but not sleepy (guess a semi-death/coma experience replaces a good eight hours of sleep). My eyes kept being drawn back to the myriad candles set within the smooth, creamy walls. It was like my eyes wanted to look at them—a weird but not exactly unpleasant feeling. “Those sconces are really unusual. They remind me of—eeuew! Are they skulls?” “Yes, of course, my Lady.” She sounded surprised at my screech. “Skulls form an intricate part of your devotion to Epona.” Now she gave me a schoolmarmish look. “Surely, even in your world you understand that all things powerful and mystical come from the Fire in the Head, the Seat of Learning and Knowledge?” I swear she made a very Suzanna-ish hmmph noise when I didn’t respond. “You have always surrounded yourself with the power of the mind. It is only right.” “But they’re skulls dipped in gold!” “Of course, my Lady, the High Priestess and Beloved of Epona has only the best.” She sounded as if I had just tried to choose a Days Inn over the Hyatt. Well, looks like I had finally found something I didn’t like in gold. Amazing. “So, tell me something about my betrothed. What was his name?” She continued to work on my very tired-looking face, attempting a transformation from yuck to non-yuck. “His name is ClanFintan. He is a powerful and well-respected High Shaman.” That was it. Hmm…good thing I’m not Hamlet, ‘cause something sure stinks here in Denmark. “So, uh, I’m in love with him?” “No, my Lady.” She was looking nervous again. “It was a marriage arranged by your father.” “Hey, I thought I was mistress here!” “You are, my Lady, but sometimes the greater good of the people must overshadow the desires of the one.” Who was she, Spock? “Okay, admit it. I can take it. He’s hideous, isn’t he?” “No, my Lady.” She actually looked like she was telling the truth. She was a good little actress when she wanted to be. “Then what’s wrong with him?” Herpes? Balding? Tiny penis? Or worse—was he a tightwad? “Nothing that I know of, my Lady.” Okay, she wasn’t going to tell. Guess I’d have to find out for myself. “Your toilette is complete.” She looped through my pierced ears two waterfalls of garnet beads and slid a golden garnetencrusted armband up to encircle my bicep as I stood. “Beautiful, as always.” Did she sound smug? She was right, though. For a woman who thought she was in hell just hours before, I was looking damn good if I did say so myself—scantly clad, but good. “Showtime.” “What shall I show you, my Lady?” “Never mind. Let’s just get this over with—I’m starting to remember I haven’t eaten in days, or whatever.” “Follow me, my Lady.” I followed—she chattered in a low conspirator’s voice. “Normally, you would, of course, lead the way. But today I will walk somewhat in front of you.” She observed my progress as I followed her out of the room. “Good, my Lady. You are recovering. Remember, the Lady Rhiannon never hurries unless she desires to get somewhere quickly. Walk slowly, languidly, as if you rule all you see.” “Do I?” I teased. “Of course.” Huh! I do? Not the response I expected. I rule all I see. So I gawked/looked around as I languidly made my way to meet some guy I didn’t know but to whom I was engaged. We were in a hall much like the one that led to the bath, only we were walking in the opposite direction from which we had come (I think). We kept moving forward. Alanna had straightened her spine. Actually, she was walking like she had something stuck way up her butt, so I did the same. We rounded a corner in the hall and ran into a huge set of double doors. They were carved with intricate looping designs, interweaving like Celtic circles. I blinked and could have sworn some of the circles looked like skulls (yeesh). But my attention didn’t stay with the carvings long, because decorating either side of the doors were two adorable men, scantly clad. At my approach they snapped to very attractive attention, banging hateful-looking swords against their firm, muscular chests (God bless them). One jumped forward to open the doors for me (now, that’s what’s missing in America today—guys don’t think they have to open doors anymore). Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to give them the attention they so obviously deserved. Alanna was nudging me into a huge room. High ceilings, carved pillars (I swear I saw more of those stupid skulls everywhere) and exquisite frescoes, complete with frolicking nymphs and…oh, jeesh…me! also scantily clad, astride a gorgeous white horse, very obviously leading the frolicking. (Does the weather never turn cold here?) In the middle of the room, on a clichéd raised dais, was a lovely gilded throne. A couple of the prerequisite nymphets were lounging on the dais steps, but at my entrance they leaped to their bare little feet and bowed their cute little heads. I should have been nominated for some kind of Greco-Celtic Academy Award for Best Voluptuous Ascent to a Throne. God, it felt good to sit down. Before the dead airtime grew, Alanna, who had situated herself directly to my right, jumped in with, “Inform Shaman ClanFintan that Lady Rhiannon will see him now.” One of the nymphets scampered out another enormous arched doorway, and I wondered briefly if the men guarding it were proportional. My eyes met Alanna’s briefly and she gave me a tight smile of encouragement. I dropped one eyelid in a quick wink as the doors reopened and the nymphet returned in a cloud of transparent wisp masquerading as clothing. “He comes, my Lady.” She seemed flushed and excited (maybe he really wasn’t hideous) as she melted her way back to the dais steps. With all that skin showing she probably couldn’t help being high-strung. Everyone was looking expectantly at the arched doorway. I noticed a distinctive sound beginning to roll from the open doors, building as it came closer. It reminded me of…hmm… of…I know! Horses! My betrothed was riding a horse into my throne-room-chamber-place? Okay, I realize Epona was some kind of horse goddess, but he and I were going to have a talk about proper palace etiquette. Soon. I mean, as my grandma would have said, that certainly couldn’t be mannerly behavior. The hoof sounds were now quite loud. There must be several of them. Oafs! That’s it. He was probably the mirror image of an Oklahoma bubba. I could see it now, he would want to call me his sweet thang and slap me on the butt. I could see my door guards (yes, they did appear proportional) snap crisp sword salutes as the horses reached the doorway and entered the ro— And the breath caught in my throat. Just like in the movies. I felt like I couldn’t breathe and I had to struggle not to make the Universal Choking Sign as I swallowed my heart. Two abreast they entered the chamber. I quickly counted—amazed I could still think well enough to count—ten of them. “Centaurs.” My voice, already strained from whispering too much, barely squeaked the word, but Alanna’s expression said she heard me. So I closed my mouth (which was flopping open like a wind sock) and shut up. No, Toto, we were damn sure not in Kansas anymore. The two lead centaurs kept coming toward the dais, while the other eight spread out in a neat flanking motion. As the leaders got close to the steps, one of them stayed a little behind, while the other approached the stairs and made a graceful, sweeping flourish with his arm. “Well met, Lady Rhiannon.” His voice was surprising, deep and smooth, like dark chocolate, with the same musical accent as Alanna’s. At least it was damn obvious that he wasn’t my ex-husband. Before I could attempt a reply, Alanna executed a neat little curtsy and began to address him. “Lord ClanFintan, my Lady Rhiannon regrets that she has temporarily lost the use of her voice.” His eyes narrowed at her words, but he didn’t interrupt. “Lady Rhiannon has directed me to greet you and to say she is ready to finalize the handfast.” “What a most—” pause “—inopportune time for you to lose your voice, my Lady.” Was that sarcasm? Sure sounded like it to me. Guess I wasn’t the only one disconcerted by this arrangement. “Yes, my Lord, Lady Rhiannon has been most distressed by it.” Alanna didn’t lose a beat. “How did it happen?” He didn’t even glance at Alanna, but kept looking at me, like the words were really coming out of my mouth. I thought I’d better just keep looking into his eyes; if I allowed my gaze to travel I was certain my mouth would probably flop open again. “During the Moon Ritual she became ill, but my Lady’s dedication to Epona would not allow her to withdraw. After the ceremony was completed, she retired to her bed for several days, and has just today emerged. Her health is returning, but, as yet, her voice has not.” I could hear the reassuring smile in her voice. “Do not worry, my Lord, it is only temporary and will heal quickly as long as she rests and gives herself time to recuperate.” “I understand your situation, Lady Rhiannon.” He didn’t sound understanding, he sounded pissed. “But I trust this—” another pause “—unfortunate malady will not delay our business today.” Business! What an odd way of describing a marriage, albeit a temporary one. And I really didn’t like the tone of Mr. Ed’s voice. I couldn’t say what Rhiannon would have done, but I sure as hell knew what Shannon Parker was going to do. As Alanna took a breath to answer for me, I reached out and put a restraining hand on her arm. My eyes locked with Mr. Grumpy. Slowly and distinctly I raised my chin (in a stuck-up, bitchy way) and shook my head from one side to the other. Once. “Good. I am pleased. Your father sends his blessing, and his regrets that he has been detained and cannot join us for the ceremony.” Oh, goodie. “Will you come to me, or shall I join you on your—” another rude pause “—pedestal, my Lady?” I could feel my jaw setting, but before I could respond, Alanna stepped in. Gracefully, she took my hand and helped me to my feet. “Lady Rhiannon will continue, as is customary.” Alanna and I descended the dais steps until we were standing on the floor. ClanFintan backed one step to allow me a little room, but he really was very close. And very tall. He seemed to fill the space above me. His scent came to me then, a little horsey, but not unpleasant, like a mixture of sweet grass and warm man. Reaching down he grasped my right hand in his. I jumped and Alanna covered my squeaky yelp by saying, “My Lady is ready to proceed.” The hell she is. His hand felt hard and warm—almost hot. I looked down at it and saw that it engulfed mine. It was a burnished tan color, like the rest of the human part of his body. At the sound of his voice, my eyes shot back up to meet his. “I, The ClanFintan, do take you, Rhiannon MacCallan, in handfast this day. I agree to protect you from fire even if the sun should fall, from water even if the sea should rage and from earth even if it should shake in tumult. And I will honor your name as if it were my own.” His voice was no longer bordering on sarcasm. It was deep and hypnotic, as if his words painted fantastic images of our covenant in the air between us. Then Alanna’s soft voice spoke for me. “I, Rhiannon MacCallan, High Priestess of Partholon and Beloved of Epona, do take you, The ClanFintan, in handfast this day. I agree that no fire or flame shall part us, no lake or seas shall drown us and no earthly mountains shall separate us. And I will honor your name as if it were my own.” “Do you agree to this, Lady Rhiannon?” With the question his hand tightened until his grip bordered on painful. “My Lord, she cannot recite the oath.” Alanna sounded worried. “Not an oath then, but a single word either agreeing or disagreeing with it.” He squeezed my hand even tighter. “Do you agree to abide by this oath, Lady Rhiannon?” “Yesssss.” Purposefully I let my abused voice drag the word out. He didn’t blink. Instead, he loosened his vise grip on my hand, and turned it in his so that it rested there, palm up. “Then it is settled. For the length of a single year we belong to one another.” Without moving his gaze from mine, he lifted my palm to his mouth. Gently, taking the meaty, muscular area below my thumb between his teeth he bit down. The bite was quick, and, quite frankly, more surprising than unpleasant. My eyes must have been huge as I pulled my hand out of his intimate grasp. I’ve married a friggin horse. And he bites. Okay, I’m from Oklahoma and I like big horses, and I’m a John Wayne fan, so I like big men, but this was more than a little ridiculous. And, well, shit, he bites! 3 “My Lord, please allow me to show you to the Great Hall so that you and your warriors can partake of the feast we have provided to honor your handfast.” Alanna smiled and gracefully led the way from the throne room. ClanFintan bowed his head slightly to me and offered his arm. With my hand placed lightly atop his, we followed. I could hear his men (horses?) in turn following us. “I know how distasteful this is to you, but I am glad to see that you have finally managed to set aside your own desires and do your duty.” He didn’t look at me and spoke low, for my ears alone. Glancing up at him, I saw his face was an unreadable mask. What the hell had I stumbled into? “Because we have sworn to honor each other for the next year, I will forgive the dishonor you have shown me by refusing to meet with me during our betrothal, returning my gifts and forcing me to follow you here to finalize our contract.” His low voice sounded strained. Horse or no horse, I wasn’t going to let him bully me. “And I will forgive the disrespect you’re showing me now by criticizing me in the temple of my goddess on the day of our handfast.” Ha! He had to tilt his head down to hear my whispery voice. His expression registered instant surprise, and he came to an abrupt halt. “You are correct, Lady Rhiannon. I dishonor our vows and myself when I disrespect you. Forgive me for my rude behavior.” His dark eyes held mine. I had to clear my abused throat before I could squeak out an “I forgive you.” He still looked pissed, but now he seemed more pissed at himself than me. At least for the moment he appeared satisfied with my answer, because he began following Alanna again, with me in tow. Alanna had just reached another arched doorway (yes, flanked by two more bewitching guards—Rhiannon certainly had an eye for muscles) and we entered a large banquet hall. Man, this was truly weird. Okay. This has to be a dream, but even for me it was one wicked weird dream. The room held at least two dozen large, flat couches. Each had one side that was raised with a kind of reclining armrest, a little like old-fashioned chaise lounges. Next to the raised end of the lounges stood squatty marble pillars with flattened tops. On each flattened pillar sat a golden goblet. Endless supplies of beautiful, nymphlike young women were scurrying from chaise to chaise, filling the goblets with yummy-looking red wine. I tried not to drool. Make that one wicked cool dream. Alanna motioned us toward two of the strange-looking couches situated head-to-head near the center of the room. They shared one pillar. The rest of the couches were placed in an oblong circle surrounding ours. “Shall we to dinner, my Lady?” Guess I had no choice. And I was suddenly starving to death. So I nodded and approached the deceptively comfortable-looking dinner torture device. I mean, come on. It reeked of Ancient Rome. Please. All those Romans and their “He who controls Rome controls the world,” blah, blah, lie down to eat, eat too much, go puke. They couldn’t even figure out a dining room table. Get serious. Well, at least reclining would make me look thin… The instant my butt touched the couch everyone looked flustered, like I’d emerged from the potty with toilet paper attached to the heel of my pump. Please, God, let Alanna know what the hell was up. I gracefully arose and snatched a piece of her sleeve, pulling her toward me so that I could whisper. “What am I not doing?” She smiled and curtsied to me like I’d said the right thing, which I knew I hadn’t. “Lady Rhiannon wishes you to forgive her lost voice. She is dismayed that she cannot bless the feast of her own handfast, but she cannot make her much-abused voice carry.” Smiling, she began to help me re-recline (was that a word?). “Can she not whisper to you her blessing, and you could speak her words, as you did earlier?” My new husband’s voice held a very apparent challenge. Mr. Ed was turning out to be a real pain in the ass. (And he was a biter.) Perhaps he thought he was dealing with some kind of slowwitted, cobwebby priestess. May I just say, he was so wrong. I felt a smile begin to spread over my face. Again my hand stayed Alanna’s intercession as I whispered close to her ear, “Repeat what I say.” “My Lady!” Her response was filled with concern that edged on panic. She obviously didn’t realize she was dealing with a high school teacher—we make a living handling weirdness on a daily (or hourly, depending on who has or hasn’t been suspended recently) basis, and we manage to stamp out ignorance and touch the future in the midst of chaos. This was small potatoes. Thinking on my feet is the norm for me—it’s even what I consider fun. “Trust me.” I winked quickly at her and she nodded, albeit reluctantly. “You are correct to remind me of my place, Lord ClanFintan. Forgive me, I will repeat my Lady’s blessing on this happy occasion.” Showtime—again. I knew all those semesters of European Lit would come in handy some day—I just thought it’d be on Jeopardy. Leaning dramatically (and showing a nice amount of cleavage), I whispered to Alanna lines from an ancient Irish blessing I had memorized for some useless college class. This just had to be appropriate: “Wishing you always—” “Wishing you always,” Alanna’s sweet voice echoed mine as I spoke the ancient blessing, smiling at my rapt audience, loving their respectful silence. “Walls for the wind—” “Walls for the wind—” “And a roof for the rain—” “And a roof for the rain—” “And tea beside the fire—” (I felt a moment of panic as I hoped they drank tea.) “And tea beside the fire—” (smiles all around, I guessed they did.) “Laughter to cheer you—” “Laughter to cheer you—” And now the coup de grâce. Turning to my new and temporary husband, I looked directly at him as I whispered the final line, and then enjoyed seeing his eyes widen in surprise as Alanna repeated the closing of the blessing. “And those you love near you, as well as all that your heart might desire!” Her words echoed mine, and were met by the centaurs’ shouts of “Salute!” I swear I saw ClanFintan’s cynically twisted lips form the word checkmate. As my favorite college prof once sagely said, “Don’t fuck with an English major. They keep lots of useless crap trapped in their heads. Once in a while they let some of it out and it bites you square on the ass.” Alanna’s shining face was further evidence of my victory, and the smells emanating from trays being carried in by the…well…thicker-looking employees (I guess nymphs can’t be expected to hold up all that transparent gauze and dinner, too) were going to my head. I felt dizzy. Wonder how long it had really been since I’d last eaten? “My Lady, please be seated.” Alanna saved me again with her well-timed intervention. My temp husband’s herd of friends followed suit, and the kitchen help began setting lovely plates before us. But the supposed object of my affection executed a neat bow in my general direction and stepped aside to put his head together with a guy who must be his friend/assistant/whatever. Sipping my wine, another excellent red, this time more like a rich, smooth Merlot than a Cabernet, I used the fact that his attention was elsewhere as an opportunity to sneak a peak at him. If I had to play the Describe Him In One Word game, the word would be Power. He was huge and muscular—very muscular, which in no way counts against him. I’m an equalopportunity kind of a girl. I try not to penalize skinny wimps and try not to obsess over muscular Swarzenegger types. (Please note I said try.) He seemed engrossed in his conversation, so I took my time and got a good long look. Yes, I managed to allow my mouth to flop open only wide enough to catch the wine I was pouring into it. The hair on his head was thick and black, with an errantlooking wave. It was long, but he had it tied back in some kind of a leather thong (almost bigger than the one I had on). His face was ruggedly masculine—high cheekbones, a straight, well-formed nose and a deep cleft in his chin (a little reminiscent of Cary Grant, God bless him). His neck was thick without being steroidesque and it tapered nicely to wide shoulders and—yes, I’ll just admit it—an absolutely wonderful chest smattered with just the right amount of tightly curled dark hair. His skin was a deep bronze, gilding him with a statue-like perfection. He was wearing a vest made of dark leather, which was open, giving me a lovely view of sleek, well-defined pectorals (I did very well in my college anatomy and physiology elective) tapering down to my personal favorite of all clichés: the sixpack abs. And a smooth, yummy waist. In short, the human part of him, which ended low on his abs, about where a man’s hips would start, looked like a pretty damn handsome guy in the prime of his life—eighteen—no, just kidding, he was probably thirty-something. Whatever that was in horse years. The horse part of his body was a maple-bay color, like ripe acorns or the leather binding of old books, shading down to mirror the black of the hair on his head from knees to hooves. He shifted his stance, still deep in conversation, and his coat rippled and caught the light from the sconces. He might be a grump, but he must groom himself regularly. Like I said before, he was large, and would probably measure fifteen or sixteen hands high at the withers. He was shaped more like a Quarter Horse than a Thoroughbred, heavily muscled and built for bursts of speed. Studying him, I realized that I was not revolted or horrified by this merging of horse and man. And I didn’t have to waste too many brain bytes pondering my acceptance. I grew up horse crazy, which definitely was the norm for an Oklahoma girl, and had my own horse until I left home for college. Actually, my dad liked to joke that I could ride before I could walk. (Wonder if being an experienced equestrian was a prerequisite for this kind of marriage? It certainly couldn’t hurt.) And, truthfully, if he wasn’t Mr. Frown Face I would say that he was actually attractive in a bizarre I’ve-lost-all-touch-with-reality kind of way. Their discussion appeared to be over. His friend saluted him and headed toward the door, pausing only long enough to bow quickly to me. ClanFintan settled himself into the chaise next to mine. He really did move gracefully for such a big guy/horse/whatever. In a formal, stilted voice he said, “Please excuse the interruption, my Lieutenant had matters of great import to discuss with me.” He truly sounded like he had a cob up his big ol horsey butt. “Not a problem. Join me in a glass of this excellent wine,” I whispered. Ignoring my abused throat I beamed him a big, gosh-I’m-such-a-nice-girl smile. “Thank you.” Maybe if he had a drink he’d loosen up and act human (or whatever). Servants were spilling out of a distant doorway with platters so laden with food that they reminded me of scuttling crabs. Smells engulfed me, and my tummy suddenly rumbled so loudly that I swear ClanFintan had to fight back a smile. I would have whispered an explanation about being “just a tad” hungry, but I didn’t think my voice would carry over the ladylike roar of my stomach. Several wonderful servants (sorry I thought of them as crabs) began offering first me, then ClanFintan, choice portions from platters steaming with delicious-smelling fish in creamy sauce, tender mouthwatering poultry (well, it tasted like chicken) sprinkled liberally with what appeared to be lemon pepper, grains that had a distinctly garlicky smell and veggies that looked like a nice mixture of pea pods, whole mushrooms and baby onions. Being a dainty and ladylike eater, I snagged helpings of everything while motioning for more wine. Yes, I realized I was drinking perhaps a tiny bit too much wine, but it was medicinal. I had, after all, recently been dead. The meal decided it. I couldn’t be in hell; the food was too wonderful. Between bites I did manage to glance at my dinner companion, and I was interested to note that he was also eating with gusto, and not just the grains and veggies. It looked like centaurs were omnivorous. (Note to self: be careful, he likes meat and he’s a biter.) I guess he noticed my lingering glances, because his mouth twisted in a sardonic smile as he announced, “A good appetite is a sign of returning health.” “Well, thank you, Dr. ClanFintan.” You’d think I sprayed milk out of my nose the way his eyes opened at my whispered retort. His look made me worry that I had a big piece of food stuck in my tooth or a big booger stuck in my nose. “You know that I am not a physical doctor. I am spiritual High Shaman.” I had to swallow a piece of chicken before I could whisper an answer. “I’m just kidding you.” “Oh. I. Oh.” Now his eyes narrowed at me, and I swear he gave a very horselike snort before he returned to chowing down. I was starting to believe Rhiannon didn’t have any sense of humor at all. “My Lady, my Lord and honored guests. To demonstrate the Muses’ approval of your handfast, Terpsichore, incarnate Muse of the Dance, will perform.” The centaurs’ ears all pricked up (figuratively speaking) as Alanna clapped her hands twice and music began. I hadn’t noticed the three women sitting in the far corner of the room, but the silky sounds of harp and flute and some kind of heart-beat-like drum were enchanting. Then, from the arched doorway nearest the musicians, in floated the dancer. She moved with a ballerina’s grace, head down, arms beautifully rounded, to the center of the room, which was, of course, directly in front of my chaise. Being High Priestess obviously meant having the best seat in the house. There she seemed to melt into a deep curtsy, head still lowered, while the music paused. As the music began again, and she raised her head in time to the beginning tempo, I was caught swallowing and I did (delicately) spew wine out my nostrils. Thankfully, everyone was watching her and not me, so I had time to wipe my nose and regain my composure. Holy shit! The dancer was Michelle, a girlfriend I’d been teaching with for ten years! And here she was, Goddess Incarnate Muse of the Dance—that friggin figures. Michelle and I love to laugh about the paradox of two of the three passions in her life. Passion number one is dance, passion number two is science (and she really likes reptiles, which has always worried me, especially because my classroom is next door to hers and at least two or three times each school year some kind of snake escapes from its cage and gets “lost”). So she combined her first two passions by attending Northeastern Oklahoma University as a chemistry major on a dance scholarship. At our high school she combines them by teaching honors chemistry and choreographing the school musicals. Strange girl. Watching her move languidly in time with the sensual beat, I took another gulp of wine and smiled gratefully at the little servant who darted obediently in to replenish it. There was no doubt—it was certainly Michelle, or rather, as I’m sure Alanna would have clarified, Michelle’s mirror image. Same thick, dark hair and, as in Alanna’s case, her shoulder-length chic modern cut had been replaced by waist-length tresses that rippled and glistened with her every movement. And covered her petite dancer’s body more than the totally transparent shimmery pieces of gauze she was dressed in. As she danced, the slips of fabric floated around her, exposing enticing glimpses of her tight little body with every change in movement. Her body has always been sleek and gorgeous though she eats like a sparrow—ten times her body weight per day. She’s the only person I’ve ever known who can eat a full school lunch off the Main Line, complete with every fat and carbohydrate known to man, every day, and not get violently ill or gain weight. The bitch. The music was increasing in tempo, and Michelle/Terpsichore increased her seductive movements as she wove between the chaises. The centaurs sure were having a good ol’ time—they’d stopped chewing because they were so busy gawking. She really was a great dancer. Right now she was performing an amazing dance—sex and grace all rolled up together into one delectable ball. Kind of like Bob Fosse Does Swan Lake. Her sexy little hips were moving rhythmically and seemed to be calling every bit of erotic energy in the room to attention. She was making eye contact with each male audience member, and the nasty girl just touched herself! Which brings to mind the third of her three life passions—men. She adores men. Tall men, short men, hairy men, slick men, muscular men, lean men…etc., etc. She likes them all, as long as one part of their anatomy is big (no, I’m not talking about their wallets). Yes, she truly enjoys a big, hard penis more than any woman I know. With her it’s a veritable art form. She’s not exactly a slut—let’s just say that men are her hobby and, well, she stays incredibly busy. Her dance was climaxing, and she was working her way back toward center stage. There was no doubt about it—she was a sexy woman. Glancing at Mr. Ed I saw that he agreed with me; his rapt attention was centered on Michelle. She locked eyes with him as each pulse of the music drew her hips (and her scantily clad crotch) nearer and nearer his chaise. Because I wasn’t romantically attached to him, it was easy for me to watch the spell she wove around his hormones. With clinical detachment I realized this must be how Salome got Herod to chop off the Baptist’s head. At the closing chord she collapsed into a satiated heap in front of us as her audience erupted into thunderous cheers. She raised herself liquidly and took her bows. I was smiling, waiting to catch her eye. But the “attagirl” look I intended to telegraph to her froze on my face when she finally looked at me. The hostility in her gaze was no less obvious because it was quickly replaced with cold propriety. “Blessings to you at your handfast, Beloved of Epona.” Her voice was an odd mirror of Michelle’s. It sounded the same, but the words were hard and flat, totally devoid of the familiar warmth we share in another world. “I hope this mating brings you all the joy you so richly deserve.” With a visual caress to the mate she was wishing me joy with, she turned and floated back out of the room. Well, spank me and call me bad—I think I had just been insulted. And more and more I was wondering what Rhiannon had been up to. A little bird was telling me she might not be a nice girl. I glanced over at ClanFintan and noted he was still gazing, or should I say leering, at Michelle’s departing form. “She dances well, don’t you think?” Noting his guilty start, I smiled knowingly up into his eyes. “Yes, my Lady, she evokes Terpsichore’s presence well.” His voice had taken on a decidedly husky tint. He was almost purring. As we would say in Oklahoma, Sheeet boy, settle down! But instead of looking away from those eyes, which were still glazed with passion, and instead of being annoyed by that purring, husky voice, I found myself becoming intrigued. Under the pretense of leaning closer so that he could hear my whisper, I got all into his Personal Space. “Her dance was a blessing to our occasion.” Man, he was warm. I wasn’t even touching him and I could feel heat radiating from his body. Which, for some reason, made me want to giggle. Reciprocating, he leaned toward me, which did make me giggle. (Quick note to self: yellow light—wine alert!) Oh, well, a yellow light was just a warning. “The handfast dance is meant as more than a blessing.” He paused—my eyebrows raised, inviting him to continue. “It is typically used as an incentive.” On the last word his velvety voice dropped to match my whisper. “But as an Incarnate Goddess yourself, I am sure you are very aware of that.” Yipes. My eyes broke from his heated gaze to trace the length of his body as his did the same to mine. Had I forgotten that he was…well…a horse? As if by a will of its own, my body stiffened and sat straight up—definitely out of his Personal Space. My abrupt movement brought on a wave of dizziness, a blur to my vision and a throb to my head. The Yellow Wine Alert changed to Red. “Uh…” Trying to set my wine down, I totally missed the tabletop. Wine spilled all over. The goblet clattered and clanged. All attention was suddenly centered on moi. “My Lady, are you well?” God bless Alanna’s concerned sober little self. “Too much to drink…” I wished she would quit dividing into several Alannas. Blinking hard, I got her image to settle back into one person. As I rubbed my forehead I risked a look at ClanFintan. He was watching me closely. “You have overexerted yourself, Lady Rhiannon.” His attempt at concern felt more like a challenge. “For one so recently ill, today has been overtaxing.” Now, that was the understatement of the decade. “Perhaps it is time we retire.” Did he just smirk? “Uhhh!” The noise I made was somewhere between a shriek and a gasp. Retire? As in go to bed with him? In the Biblical sense? Where in the hell had my head been? Suddenly I realized I hadn’t really considered all of the ramifications of this handfast. Yes, I had discussed the consummation thing with Alanna—she had reassured me—but I didn’t know then that my intended was a horse! I had been worried about sex with a stranger, not bestiality! My stomach clenched. Please don’t let me barf up this delicious meal all over my chaise. “Uhhh…” And why the hell hadn’t I been thinking about the sex issue? On my last wedding day when I married my stupid ex (who I like to think of as my starter husband), getting into bed with him was all I thought about. It wasn’t like I was an innocent virgin and not aware of what happened on a wedding night! “Uhhh…” Guess almost dying and changing worlds could truly screw up a normal thought process. Not to mention drinking too much wine. Medicinal or not. Well, I’d better think about it now. Consummation. With a horse. Who bites. 4 “I think I’m going to be sick.” “My Lady, shall I escort you to your chamber?” At least Alanna’s concern was real. Her hands felt soft and cool as they pushed sticky tendrils of hair off my visibly moist forehead. “Yes, please.” Standing was suddenly a nautical experience. Pitching…rolling…ohh, feeling sick…eyes shutting tightly. “Whoa—” Just as my butt was getting ready to slap the lovely marble floor, I felt myself being lifted into a firm burrow of heat. “Allow me, Lady Rhiannon.” Holy shit the horse had just picked me up! Peeking one eye open, I saw his face at close view. He wasn’t paying any attention to me, though, he just nodded at Alanna, who beamed some kind of thank-you smile at him and led us out the way she and I had come in. Looking at her retreating form from above reminded me of just how big ClanFintan really was—and how far above the ground I must have been and— “Ugh.” Maybe I should just keep my eyes closed. “You will feel better after you sleep.” His wide chest vibrated with his words. With my eyes shut he kinda reminded me of a large, warm vibrator, and I had to stifle a silly giggle. “I didn’t realize I drank so much wine.” He made a deep hrmmph noise in his throat, which only heightened the vibrator effect. “You did.” “You vibrate when you talk.” “What?” “It’s okay. I like vibrators.” I realized I was sounding tipsy, which was okay because I was definitely feeling tipsy. And for some reason my head was very heavy, like my hair weighed a lot. With a sigh I felt it plop down on ClanFintan/Mr. Ed’s shoulder. Yes, I was most certainly deeply entrenched in The Land of the Lush. “You smell good.” Yes, I realized I was speaking my thoughts out loud. And, yes, I realized I was going to have a serious wine headache in the morning. But, no, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it just then. Giggle. “You have had too much to drink.” “No way!” Another snort from him, which rumbled his chest and made me giggle again. Then I noticed that the snort had stopped but the rumble hadn’t, and my eyes popped open. He was laughing. At me, but he was laughing. And it was a nice laugh, which suddenly turned his face from a handsome cold face to a handsome nice face. Of course, about this time my giggles gave me the hiccups, which really cracked him up. Alanna stopped in front of the door I vaguely remember as the one to Rhiannon’s room, and she seemed to be having a hard time containing her own laughter as she watched us. She saw me watching her through my semi-hysterical wine-hiccup giggles and her face flushed a bright pink right before she turned hastily to open the door and usher us through. Yep, Rhiannon obviously had no damn sense of humor. “Dang,” hic! “I have a seriously,” hic! “big,” hic! “bed!” Setting me down on the seriously big bed he studied me through his lingering smile. “Thank you,” hic! “ for the,” hic! “ride.” Convulsing in winesoaked giggles against my smooth pillows, I couldn’t help but crack myself up. Thanking him for the “ride”—now, that was funny! “You are different from the last time we met.” His smile was still in place, but his deep voice had a contemplative quality to it that, even wine-soaked, I recognized. Glancing at Alanna, I saw the cheerful pink of her cheeks suddenly drain to white. I felt myself struggling to sober up. My hiccups evaporated. “I’m, uh, me. As usual.” “Nothing is ever usual with you, Lady Rhiannon.” His smile faded then, and for an instant I was sorry to see it go. Then I remembered that he was a horse and this was supposed to be our wedding night—and, according to Alanna’s fearful face, there was lots of stuff going on around here about which I was clueless. I closed my eyes and let myself slur a whispered reply, “Whatever…” and took a deep snorey breath. As if on cue, Alanna piped in. “My Lord, perhaps you would like me to show you to your chamber.” The silence that answered her made me want to open my eyes, but I could feel his gaze, so instead I took another deep breath and let it out in a decidedly unladylike snore. “Your chamber adjoins this one, my Lord.” Alanna’s voice was insistent. “Yes, I am definitely ready to retire.” His voice was back to cold formality. His retreat from the room was loud and abrupt. So loud it almost drowned out Alanna’s musical lilt. “My Lord, she has been through much recently.” The softness in her voice mirrored Suzanna’s sweetness so completely that I felt an unexpected rush of homesickness. “So have we all.” And the door closed with a grim finality. “He is gone, my Lady.” As was my giggly, tipsy feeling. Nothing like a little personal intrigue in an alternative mirror world to sober you up. Returning, she stopped at the basin of water on the nightstand at the foot of the bed. Her hands shook as she made fluttery movements wringing out a small cloth. “He knows I’m not Rhiannon.” Her hands still shook as she wiped my clammy forehead with the cool cloth. “No, my Lady, he just knows you are different than he expected.” “Tell me about Rhiannon.” Her hands stilled. “She is my mistress and High Priestess, Goddess Incarnate of Epona.” “I know all of that. Tell me what kind of person she is.” “She is a powerful person.” Sigh. “Alanna, I don’t mean that. I mean her personality. You say she isn’t like me, so I want to know what she is like.” Silence. “Don’t you know enough about me already to know you don’t need to be afraid to tell me the truth?” “It is difficult, my Lady.” “Okay, I’ll help. Tell me why ClanFintan doesn’t like her.” “She did not want to handfast with him, so she avoided him when she could. When she could not, she treated him coldly.” Alanna’s eyes shifted away from mine. “Why didn’t she just break off the betrothal?” “Duty—the Incarnate of Epona has always mated with a High Shaman of the centaurs. If she wanted to remain High Priestess, she must handfast for at least the required year with ClanFintan. Most matings between Epona’s Beloved and the centaurs’ Shaman last for life, though.” She certainly looked uncomfortable talking about it. As she should! “I know I’m not from here—but I really can’t blame her for not wanting to have sex with a horse!” Alanna blinked in surprise at me. “I mean, please! It’s freaking me out, too.” Alanna tried to interrupt but I put a hand up and shushed her. I was sobering up, and I was on a roll. “And I don’t appreciate you not warning me. He’s nice-looking, and seems okay when he loosens up, but what the hell are you people thinking? How am I supposed to, well, do it? The logistics alone are mind boggling!” “My Lady, it is not what you think.” Her cheeks certainly were pink. “He is a High Shaman.” She said it like that should clear everything right up. “Yes, and he’s a friggin horse!” “What is ‘friggin’?” “Just an expression. I’m trying to quit cussing. Never mind.” Sigh. “Are you saying that he and I are not expected to consummate the handfast?” “No, of course not.” She looked shocked. “No, we’re not to consummate—or no, we are to consummate.” My headache was back. “Yes, you are to consummate the handfast.” “Please explain how. Is he not a horse from the waist down?” God, my throat hurt. “Well, yes, my Lady. In his present form.” Now she was downright red around the cheeks. “Alanna, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about! What other form does he have?” “He is a High Shaman, which means he can shapeshift into many different forms. A human is only one of them.” “That’s impossible.” Wasn’t it? “Not for ClanFintan.” She said it all matter-of-factly, like water running downhill or wine inducing giggles and hiccups. “So, I don’t have to have sex with a horse?” “No, my Lady.” “Well, that’s a relief.” “Yes, my Lady. Here, let me help you get more comfortable.” And she promptly started puttering around, removing my crown-thing, jewelry, makeup… “You still haven’t told me about Rhiannon.” Now it was her turn to sigh. “Did she know ClanFintan could turn into a human?” “Of course, my Lady.” “Stop puttering! I’m fine. Sit here and talk to me.” She reluctantly sat next to me, looking prim and uncomfortable. “It was not ClanFintan she abhorred. It was the idea of being mated to any male.” “Why?” Oh, great. Was I a lesbian? Not that I was homophobic or anything stupid like that, but being gay would seriously complicate an already difficult situation. “Lady Rhiannon has made it exceedingly clear to him that she would not be happy limited to one man.” She sounded embarrassed and sad. “Not even for one year.” “No wonder he doesn’t like me.” It all made sense now. “Yes, my Lady.” “You didn’t approve of her behavior, did you?” “It is not my place to approve or disapprove of Lady Rhiannon’s behavior.” Her voice was flat and impersonal. “Why not, aren’t you her assistant or something like that?” “Assistant?” “Yeah, like an executive secretary or the person in charge of her schedule? You know, her employee.” “My Lady, I am her servant.” “Sounds like she didn’t appreciate you or give you a decent job title. I’ll bet the pay is crap, too. Couldn’t you just quit?” “You do not understand, my Lady. She owns me. I am her property.” Ohmygod. “You’re her slave?” “Yes. And now I’m your slave, my Lady.” “No! I can’t have a slave! I’ll set you free. Give me the papers, or whatever. This is absolutely ridiculous.” “You must not, my Lady.” Her face had paled once again and her voice sounded panicky. “Being Rhiannon’s slave is my life. The MacCallan purchased me for his daughter when I was just a child. It is the way of our world.” “It isn’t my world.” “It is now, my Lady.” A wave of exhaustion overwhelmed me. What was I doing here? How could this be real? “Sleep, my Lady. Everything will be more clear in the morning.” “Everything will still be screwed up and bizarre.” But sleep tugged at me. Wine and the stress of the day combined to make an excellent Tylenol PM. My closing eyes were leaden, my strength and desire to open them gone. Blackness was a welcome respite. Besides Diana Gabaldon’s Scotland and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern, DreamLand is my favorite land to visit. My dreams have always been in color (and 3-D, of course) and wonderful. The Land of My Dreams is populated with flying heroes who fall in love with the heroine (me, of course), save the world (which has a sky that is a lovely shade of lilac violet) and then grind faceted diamonds out of raw coal with their strong (yet gentle) hands. My favorite suitor always begs the privilege of being allowed to pay off my enormous Ann Taylor credit card debt to prove his worthiness. In between scenes of being wooed by Pierce Brosnan (who can also fly), I laze about the lilac sky on clouds of golden cotton candy (the nonsticky kind) tickling the tummies of fluffy fat black-and-white cats, drinking fifty-year-old single-malt scotch and blowing the little white things off of old dandelions, which turn into snowf lakes. So, you can understand how drifting into my Land of Dreams would be something that I would look forward to after several days of stress and a change of worlds. Curled up on my side, breathing deeply, I fell willingly into a deep sleep, happily anticipating the newest dream in my fantasy land. Which is also why you can understand I wouldn’t be alarmed at first when I began to experience a floating sensation and I opened my eyes to see my soul detaching from my sleeping body as I drifted up and through the roof of my room. And, yes, I did have a big bed—even from an overhead view. Flying or floating is a cool side effect of visiting my Dream-Land. Granted, in my dreams I usually have to take a running start and hold my arms in front of me before I can leap off the ground and become airborne, but what the heck, it’s Dream-Land, and not exactly steeped in reality—so just about anything goes… …Back to floating through my ceiling. As I drifted up and out of the confines of Epona’s temple I had an unusual moment of vertigo. Flying is always a pleasant dream experience, consequently the dizzy, gut-clenching feeling surprised me, but the vertigo was fleeting and I soon forgot the momentary oddity. Floating in the night air I was relaxed, breathing deeply and enjoying the beauty of the high, puffy clouds passing in front of an almost full moon. I noticed that they weren’t the usual golden cotton-candy clouds of my dreams, which also was a little odd. And, yes, I realized that in tonight’s dream I did seem to be able to actually smell the night air, but my dreams are normally very graphic and realistic, so I was curious, but not overly concerned with the vague fluctuations from the norm. After all, I was in another world. Maybe my DreamLand had been affected, too. Looking below me, I was interested to see that my dream had totally made up a whole set of lovely buildings that pinwheeled around the stately temple. Movement in a corral just outside of a rich-looking building which must be a stable piqued my interest. The stable was actually attached to the side of the temple, but that figured because it was the temple of a horse goddess and, of course, my dream layout would give horses extra privileges. Besides, I really do like horses—I’ve dreamed about riding/flying Pegasus several times. The movement caught my eye again, and my dream body floated down toward the corral until I was hovering just above the stone fence. A soft gust of wind pushed the puffy clouds away from the moon, and the sudden brightness illuminated the interior of the corral. I smiled and cooed in awe at the perfection of a silver-white mare. At the sound, the mare stopped grazing and lifted her dainty head in my direction, blowing softly at the surrounding air. “Hi there, you gorgeous girl.” The mare’s neck arched at the sound of my voice. I was delighted that instead of being afraid of my floating body, she seemed to recognize me (well, it was my dream) and pranced toward me. I held out my hands to her and she stretched her muzzle in my direction. She was an amazing-looking animal. She reminded me of one of the Royal Lipizzaner stallions I had seen several years ago when their tour stopped in Tulsa. She was a nice-size mare, probably almost fifteen hands high. From a distance her coat appeared to be all one glistening silver color, but as she got closer to me I could see that her muzzle was dark, like black velvet, and her silver coat faded to darkness around her expressive eyes and her well-shaped hocks. I had never seen a horse like her before, and I smiled at my dream imagination. She continued her contented grazing and I gave her a last look as I floated back up into the night. Maybe I would return before my dream was over and we could go for a lovely ride in the sky. The puffy clouds seemed to have cleared for good, and from my aerial view I could turn my floating body slowly in a circle and see for miles in all directions. The elaborate temple buildings were surrounded by a huge marble wall. The land outside the temple proper was sweet and rolling, reminding me of the Umbria region of Italy. (I took ten high-school kids on an “educational” trip to Italy a couple of years ago. They did just fine chaperoning me.) The gentle hills looked to be covered with grapevines. Which figures because, of course, my dream would have to touch on wine somehow. Hopefully, a floating waiter who looked like Pierce Brosnan would soon appear to serve me my favorite Merlot. But I guess I’d had enough wine for one night, because Pierce didn’t show. Yet. Exploring my newest DreamLand seemed like a fun idea, so I kept floating and gawking. In the distance, probably to the north of the temple (don’t quote me on that, though; I am directionally impaired) I could make out what appeared to be a large mountain range. While I was beginning to float toward the mountains, I noticed, again, the breeze which, again, struck me as an odd addition to my DreamLand because it had a scent. The breeze was coming from the west and I turned my head into its softness. I took a deep breath and recognized the smell of…hmm…I think salt in the air. An ocean? My shifting of attention also changed the direction of my airborne body, and I felt myself float into the wind. By squinting my eyes I could barely make out some flickering lights and, maybe, the reflection of the moon on water. Smiling in anticipation of the dream possibilities, I decided to head in that direction—and was shocked by how quickly my dream self responded. The land passing quickly beneath me was populated with sleepy little villages that were scattered between vineyardcovered rolling hills. A shimmering river connected them and I noticed several small, flat boats moored at each village site. The scent of salt was stronger, and I could make out a large body of water in the quickly decreasing distance directly in my flight path. Its shoreline looked imposing—rugged and green, which suddenly reminded me of Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher. (I took students to Ireland one summer. We called it the Educational Pub Tour.) The shoreline stretched on in the distance as far as I could see in the moonlit night, and as the dark liquid horizon met the night sky, I could see silhouetted the western edge of the mountain range I’d noticed earlier. My body was still racing forward and I could see that I was headed toward some type of large structure situated solidly near the edge of one of the most dramatic-looking cliffs. (Kind of like Edinburgh Castle—yes, I took a group of high-school students to Scotland, too. I didn’t cause them too much trouble…no matter what they say.) Drifting closer, I felt myself slowing down and I took a good look at what I could now see much more clearly. It was a wonderful, enormous old castle, and I was floating directly above the entrance that faced away from the sea. Unlike most of the castles I’ve toured in Europe, this one looked like it was in perfect condition, complete with four massive towers over which flew flags decorated with a rearing silver mare. Huh. Looked just like the cool horse back at the temple. The rear side of the castle was situated near the edge of the nasty-looking cliff; the inhabitants must love the amazing view. The front of the castle, above which I was floating, looked out on a tree-covered plateau, which gradually dipped down to a valley where a neat-looking village nestled. A well-worn road ran from the village through the forested plateau up to the castle, giving evidence of a congenial relationship between castle and town. The typical walled ramparts surrounded the castle itself and were joined at an enormous gated entrance, but rather than looking menacing and cold, the castle was well lighted and its entrance was open and welcoming. A castle used as a military fortress would be closed and guarded. The lovely forest of old trees would be shorn so that an advancing enemy couldn’t sneak up. My dream castle obviously wasn’t war friendly, and it was probably “guarded” by (who else?) Pierce Brosnan! It was more than likely that he was waiting inside for me to quit my floating tour so that he could rub edible pink coconut oil all over my body. Then lick it slowly off. Yummy…Which is why it was odd that my body was still floating over the castle. Okay, I was definitely ready to stop flying now and get to the more “personal” part of my dream. Anticipatory smile. Nothing. Still floating. Okay, I was ready to stop flying now! Nothing. What in the hell was up with this? DreamLand was my fabrication. It obeyed me. I remember when I first realized not everyone had the ability to control their dreams. I was in third grade and a friend of mine was looking pale and upset one Monday morning. At recess I asked her what was wrong and she said an amazing thing—she said she’d had a horrible nightmare the night before. I told her she should have just told the dream to change, and she looked at me as if I was crazy (or scary), and told me that that was impossible. Dreams did what they wanted to do. Until then it hadn’t occurred to me that everyone couldn’t control his or her dreams. If my dreams ever began to get uncomfortable or frightening, I just told them to change. And they accommodated my request. In thirty-five years I have never had a dream that wouldn’t obey me. My girlfriends think it’s way cool, my boyfriends think I’m making it up. So my dreams have always been mine to control. Until tonight. Hovering over the castle, my feeling of confusion was compounded by my rising frustration level. I wouldn’t really classify this as a “bad” dream; it was more like an annoying dream. And I really wanted it to stop— Then everything changed. Fear enveloped me. It was like nothing I had ever known. More terrifying to me than my car wreck. More horrible than my snake phobia. It was the raw fear that comes with the certainty of being in the presence of evil. Living evil, like the kind that inspires pedophiles or rapists or terrorists. Trying not to panic, I took deep breaths and reminded myself that this was only a dream…only a dream…only a dream. But the feeling persisted. Gazing beneath me, I studied the castle for some hint that could explain my terror. The castle looked sleepy and innocent. In a room built on the wall near the open front gates, I could see two men dressed in uniforms who might be guards or night watchmen. They were sitting at a wooden table playing what appeared to be some kind of dice game. No evil there; slacking employees, perhaps, but nothing overtly villainous. Various other rooms in the castle were still lighted, and once in a while I could glimpse figures moving in front of windows. No one seemed to be committing any murders, no raping or pillaging was going on. At the side of the castle that overlooked the ocean I could see a man standing on an observation ledge, but he wasn’t cutting up any babies or raping any grandmas; he was just looking. No evil there, either. But it was here. I could feel it. I could almost touch and smell it. It was like after you drive your car over an animal that has been lying dead in the road for a very long time. The stench seems to cling to your car’s wheels and to your throat even after you’ve left it miles behind. My body turned gently as I continued my search, and I found myself looking out over the forest— That was it. No question about it, the evil was there, coming from the forest. It emanated from the northern edge, the part that eventually met the distant mountains. It was so strong that I found it difficult to keep my eyes focused on that area; my vision kept shifting, like I was trying to concentrate on one of those 3-D pictures but couldn’t quite get the hidden image right. It was as my gaze slid over the trees, not quite focused, that I saw it. A ripple in the darkness of the night-shadowed trees. Blinking, I focused above the tree line and, again, the forest rippled. It was like ink seeping down a naked page—crawling shadows, oily and thick. A mass of something was moving through the trees, singular in intention and demeanor. The forward line of it was swift and silent. I gasped in realization. Its destination was obvious—it was converging on the sleeping castle. 5 There was nothing I could do to help. I tried to scream at the dice-playing guards, and my ghostly voice was carried away by the wind. My body still wouldn’t descend, and, for a moment, I felt shamefully thankful as I realized that the thought of being in the castle as the darkness drew closer and closer terrified me. And I couldn’t wake up. Glancing back to the edge of the northern tree line, I was horrified by how quickly the darkness had advanced. And as they got closer, the evil radiating from them felt thicker. How could anyone in the castle sleep or play cards or hang out? How could they not feel it, too? And suddenly it wasn’t a dream to me anymore. Here and now the unfolding horror had become my reality. As if responding to my thoughts, my floating body moved closer to the dark line. I was afraid, but curious and committed to understanding what was happening. I watched the front of the line break out of the trees. I drifted closer. At first I thought they were tall men wearing dark, flapping cloaks. They appeared to be running with amazingly long strides, and then leaping, like a long jumper at a track meet, only not landing on two feet and falling, but landing on still-running legs. This odd manner of movement ate up the land beneath them and gave them the appearance of gliding more than of running. Like instead of being living beings they were really specters or shades of the dead. As they got closer, my attention was riveted on their long, loose cloaks. I watched them move against the wind currents caused by the gliding run, until in horror I realized that the movement was voluntary. More and more of them poured out of the forest, and I understood what the cloaks really were—wings, enormous dark wings that spread and trapped the wind, aiding the leaping run and enabling the glide. A shiver of revulsion shuddered through my floating body. There must have been hundreds of them. They were like huge predatory humanoid bats, or gigantic humanoid roaches. I began to be able to make out individuals and their features. It was only their wings that were dark, and because they were so large and outstretched, they lent the line the appearance of being dark. In truth, under the wings, their bodies were so white they almost seemed translucent. They were naked except for loincloths, and their thin torsos looked skeletal. Their hair was light colored, ranging from blond to silver and white. Their arms and legs were abnormally long, like what would result if a human was mated with a spider. But they were most definitely humanoid. They had the faces of men—cruel, determined men. And a short Bobby Burns poem flashed through my mind: Many and sharp the numerous ills Inwoven with our frame; More pointed still, we make ourselves Regret, remorse and shame; And man, whose heaven-erected face The smiles of love adorn, Man’s inhumanity to man, Makes countless thousands mourn. I was unable to look away from them as they spread to the unguarded castle doors beneath me like a virulent strain of a terrorist’s plague, and then they were there. They poured into the castle, silent and deadly. The dice players didn’t notice. No new doors closed or windows opened. Silence. Silence. Silence. But I could feel them. Somehow, I could feel what they were bringing. I couldn’t see what was happening inside the many rooms below me, but I could sense the terror and pain rustling through the castle like a silent cancer spreading throughout a diseased body. Frantically, I searched for some way to warn them. Some way I could help them. And my errant body began floating in a different direction. This time it was taking me toward the solitary man still standing on the observatory ledge. Getting closer, his shadowed shape took on familiar lines. Oh, my God. My breath rushed out of me in one word. “Dad!” He turned at the sound of my voice, and as he glanced around, presumably looking for me, I saw him clearly in the moonlight. It was my father. Damn the mirror-image crap; damn the alternative-world garbage. This man was my dad. In his mid-fifties his football player’s body was still powerful. One of my cousins once told me that as a child he thought my father was the strongest man he had ever known—and now that he’s an adult he’s sure of it. And he’s probably right. Not that Dad’s a huge guy, he’s not. Probably only five foot ten, graduating from a small country high school he was told he wasn’t big enough to play football at a major university like the University of Illinois. But they didn’t figure on his tenacity. Like a mean little bulldog, he was just too damn tough to be benched. After a successful college-football career, he passed his strengths on to the players he coached, was recruited by the biggest high school in Oklahoma and become the coach who took his team to the state championship seven years in a row. And won all seven times. I have always been a Daddy’s Girl. I grew up trusting in his strength. As a child I knew that there was no dragon he wouldn’t slay for me, no demon he couldn’t banish. I saw all of this reflected in the man below me. “Dad!” His head shot up at the sound of my disembodied voice, but his brow was wrinkled with confusion. How well could he really hear me? “Rhiannon? Are you here, daughter?” Perhaps he could only hear the echo of my soul. Summoning all of my concentration into one word like a prayer, I cried. “Danger!” The word ended on my sob. “Yes, lass, I sensed danger in the night!” His brow suddenly cleared and he began striding purposefully off the ledge. Leaping to the wooden catwalk that ran the length of the inside wall of the castle, he broke into a run. My hovering body was right behind him as he rushed toward the watchtower, booming in a voice very like Dad’s except it was thick with an almost Scottish-sounding brogue. “Get yerselves armed and awake the castle! Epona has warned me of danger! Hurry, lads, I feel a crawling in me skin that says we donna have much time.” Through the window I observed the shock on the faces of the guards as they followed the man who looked so much like my dad into action. Arming themselves, they rushed down into the bowels of the tower, and I could hear them waking other men. The night was now filled with the sounds of shouting men and clanging weapons. And screams, which originated from the interior rooms of the castle. Led by my dad, half dressed in hastily tied kilts, men scrambled to arm themselves as they rushed out of the towered barracks toward the heart of the castle, only to find the enemy already there. Helplessly, I watched as the creatures leaked out of the inner castle to meet the guards. The blood of their early victims had dimmed the white of their skin. They were not creatures of nightmare—they were the nightmare. I could not make out any weapons in their hands, yet as the guards began battling them, their swords and shields did little good against the man-creatures’ bared teeth and claws. The sheer number and ferocity of them overwhelmed the castle guards. Many of the man-creatures had time to stop and feed at the necks and warm entrails of still-living men, as others stepped around them to resume the slaughter. The ripping and tearing of flesh is a sound like no other, and as I watched I felt my soul begin to shake. I had lost sight of Dad, and I tried to get my body to float closer to the battle. It wouldn’t obey me. And then there was no need—I saw him. Man-creatures surrounded him. Blood poured from open wounds that had been torn in his arms and chest, but his huge sword was still swinging in an arch around him. At his feet were two headless things, victims of his strength. The man-creatures circled him, being careful to stay out of the reach of his blade. “Come to me, ye bloody cowards!” His voice reached me, and I recognized the challenge it carried. I had only heard it once before. It was at football practice. Dad had benched the star linebacker because he’d been caught shoplifting at a local store. The smart-ass kid was telling Dad his behavior off the field didn’t matter, that he should still play because he was the best they had. Dad took him (and his ego) to the middle of the field, and while the team looked on as witness he said to the kid, “You can play tomorrow night if you can knock me off my feet.” The kid was almost six inches taller than Dad, more than thirty years younger, and outweighed him by at least forty pounds, but he couldn’t knock my father off his feet, and he damn sure didn’t play in another game that season. I heard the echo of that challenge in the man’s voice below me. His stance was the same, and his strength was the same. Again he was in the right, but this time I knew that wouldn’t matter. He had caught the attention of more of them. One by one the ring grew until at least twenty man-creatures, their wings taut, surrounded my father, their bloody mouths snarling in expectation. I’ll never forget how he stood there. He didn’t panic. He was calm and sure. As one being, they began to converge. I saw his sword flash and heard it slice through the first and second and third, until it could no longer keep up. Then their fangs and teeth reached him. He fought with his fists, which were slick with his own blood. Even as he dropped to his knees, he didn’t cry out. And he didn’t quit. But I could take no more. My soul felt like it was shattering with his body and I shrieked my agony to the night— And I was wrenched abruptly awake. “No! Dad, no!” My body was shaking and my cheeks were wet with tears. Alanna and ClanFintan burst through different doors into my room at almost the same instant. “My Lady! Oh, my Lady, what has happened?” Alanna rushed to me. Not caring that she wasn’t really Suzanna, I wrapped my arms around her and wept into her embrace. “It was horrible.” Around sobs my broken words came out. “They killed my father. There was nothing I could do but watch.” Alanna was making wordless, soothing noises as she stroked my back. “Is there danger? Shall I summon the guards?” ClanFintan’s voice was a warrior’s, and I had a sudden feeling that he would be courageous in battle, and like my dream premonition of evil, I knew this, too, was true. “No.” My sobs had begun to quiet to whimpers, but the tears still flowed freely down my face. “It happened in my dream, not here.” Abruptly I felt Alanna still. She gently moved my body back from hers far enough so that she could look into my eyes. “You must tell us what you saw, my Lady.” Her voice was calm, but I could hear the fear in her words. “It was a dream.” Over her shoulder I saw ClanFintan move restlessly, his eyes dark with some emotion I could not identify. “What did Epona reveal to you, Rhiannon?” His voice beckoned to me, and I closed my eyes tightly, feeling confused. “It was no dream.” Alanna’s whisper was for my ears alone, and it sent more shivers of shock through my already abused body. Oh, God, what had happened? Forcing myself to square my shoulders and still my body’s quaking, my eyes lifted to meet ClanFintan’s steady gaze. “I need a moment to get myself together, please. Then I’ll tell you everything I saw in my dream.” The compassion that flashed through his eyes gave me a glimpse of his kindness. Little wonder he was spiritual leader of his people. “Of course, my Lady. Have your servant send for me when you are ready.” Not caring about the consequences, I said, “She is not my servant. She is my best friend.” I could feel Alanna’s shocked intake of breath. “My mistake, Lady Rhiannon. Have your friend send for me.” His smile looked sincere and unexpectedly it comforted me. As the door clicked softly shut my shaking resumed. “My Lady, I am not your friend. I cannot be your friend.” Alanna’s voice sounded frightened. “No, Alanna. What you are not is Rhiannon’s friend. You were her slave, her servant. I am not her.” I wiped my eyes and smiled my thanks to her as she handed me a cloth so I could blow my nose. “I realize you are not Suzanna, but I can’t help but see her in you—and she is my best friend. I hope that you will humor me and maybe eventually you will come to feel that friendship for me, too. And, Alanna, I really need a friend right now.” And I promptly started to cry. Again. “What you say is true, my Lady, you certainly are not Rhiannon.” Her eyes filled with sympathetic tears as she brushed the hair back from my face and gave me a sweet, impromptu hug. “And your voice seems to be recovered.” “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it?” My smile felt awkward and strained, as if my face had forgotten how. “Shall I get you something soothing to drink so that you do not cause it to relapse?” “How about some hot tea? I want to stay away from wine for now.” Alanna clapped her hands twice and a sleepy nymph appeared to fetch and carry for me. (Oh, jeesh, is that another of my slaves?) Despair felt easy to slip into and I was disgusted when my tears began anew. “Alanna, help me understand what has happened.” Wiping my eyes again, I gained control over my hovering depression. “You said that what I saw was real? How can that be?” “You experienced the Magic Sleep. It is one of the gifts you have that makes you High Priestess and Beloved of Epona. Even as a small child you were able to send your sleeping soul away from your body and observe events, and sometimes even communicate with people. You were not able to do this in your old world?” “No, not exactly, but my dreams have always been mine to control, which is unusual in my world. I visited made-up places and had fun things happen to me.” And now that innocence was gone. DreamLand would never again be a place of pure happiness. Not after tonight. I shivered again. “That must have been how your gift manifested itself in a world devoid of Epona.” After what I had observed tonight it was hard for me to understand why Alanna’s voice sounded sad. “But why tonight? I definitely didn’t ‘send’ my soul anywhere. Remember, Alanna, I am not Rhiannon. Why would it happen without me even understanding what is going on?” My eyes filled with more tears. “It was horrible. Why was I forced to watch it?” “Perhaps Epona touched you tonight because she required you to serve as witness.” “Is your Goddess so cruel?” “No, my Lady. Great evil can only be combated by great good.” The nymph was back with a tray holding an exquisite tea set. I smiled my appreciation at her, which she shyly returned. But as she turned to leave I noticed she had brought only one teacup. “Excuse me.” The nymph froze. “Please bring Alanna a cup, she will be joining me.” “Y-y-yes, my Lady.” “Thank you.” She looked confused, but she scampered off to do my bidding. Alanna was studying me with what was becoming her familiar What Are You Doing Now face. “Don’t start. I’m under too much stress to deal with this slave crap. You’re going to have to get used to me treating you like you’re my friend. Like they say, damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!” “Wha—” “Just another expression.” The tea was spreading comforting warmth through me and I was starting to feel a little less shaky. “It means let’s try and forget all that is working against us and forge ahead.” The little nymph-maid came back with another cup, which she handed to Alanna. She still looked confused, but she was enthusiastically returning my smile as she bowed her way out of the door. Alanna awkwardly poured herself a cup of tea. “Okay, so what you’re telling me is that what I observed wasn’t a dream or a vision. It was real, happening as my soul or essence or whatever floated above it all?” “Yes, my Lady,” she said sadly. “So—” I took several deep breaths “—he’s dead?” “I am so very sorry, my Lady.” The teacup clattered against the delicate china as my shaking hand set it back on its saucer. A sudden thought made my breath stop. “My mother. What about my mother?” I felt a constriction in my chest. Not her, too. “I didn’t see her, but wouldn’t she be there, with him?” “My Lady, your mother died shortly after your birth.” Her voice was soft and she set her teacup down on its saucer and reached for my hand. “Oh…” My voice trailed away thoughtfully. “Oh, that’s good.” Alanna’s eyes widened. “My Lady?” “No, I didn’t mean I was glad she is dead.” Alanna looked relieved. “I’m just glad she wasn’t killed by those creatures. In my world she divorced my father when I was a child.” Alanna looked shocked. “It was a good thing, really. They both remarried and are very happy.” “If you say so, my Lady.” She sounded doubtful. “You don’t have divorce here?” Oh, please. “Yes. But it is considered dishonorable.” “Whatever your customs, I’m glad my mother didn’t have to go through what happened tonight.” Somehow it was easier to think that she had died thirty-five years ago, and not have to picture her being murdered tonight. Like Dad had been. I took a deep breath. Still feeling shaky, I asked the question that suddenly mattered very much to me. “Was Rhiannon close to her father?” “I think he was the only man Rhiannon has ever been able to truly love. He never remarried and he raised her alone, not sending her away from him, like many Chieftains would have done.” She smiled sadly at me. “The MacCallan was so very proud of her. He doted on her. I believe he saw a side of her she never allowed anyone else to see. Rhiannon was always on her very best behavior around him.” My throat felt tight and hot. “Then we do have one similarity—the love we feel for our fathers.” “You must explain what has happened tonight to ClanFintan. He can help you. Trust him, my Lady. He could be a powerful ally.” She grasped my hands and spoke earnestly. “Except for The MacCallan, Rhiannon did not care for anything that did not bring her pleasure, or anyone she could not manipulate and use to her advantage.” Her soft brown eyes searched mine. “You look like her. You have her fire, her humor and her passion, but because of your strange world, and the different choices you made as you grew to adulthood there, you have developed into a very different woman. I do not believe you are as she was. You have a caring heart. Please, my Lady, have more wisdom, too. Remember, your father approved of your mating with him. ClanFintan is strong and wise, he will know how to right this horrible wrong.” “Send for him.” I gave her hands a quick squeeze. She smiled at me and touched my cheek before clapping her hands again and informing the answering nymph that I would like to see ClanFintan. Abruptly I realized how disheveled I must look, and with my fingers I began to try to comb my wild hair into some semblance of submission. Alanna’s skillful hands stilled mine as she grabbed a brush off my nightstand and quickly fashioned my hair into a beautiful French braid. “Thank you, friend.” Her warm smile was answer enough. ClanFintan entered the room, closing the door softly behind him. Without hesitation he moved to the side of my bed and reached out to grasp my hand in his. “I would like to offer you my deepest sympathies. The MacCallan was a great Chieftain and friend.” His grip was warm and firm. “All of Partholon knows of your love for him.” He squeezed my hand before letting it loose. “T-t-thank you.” My hand felt suddenly cold without the warmth of his touch. “Are you ready to tell what you have witnessed?” His deep voice was filled with concern. “Yes.” I squared my shoulders. “My dream began here. I went up through the ceiling and visited the beautiful mare.” Alanna and ClanFintan both smiled in acknowledgment, so I guessed she was real, too. “Then I flew up, loving the brilliance of the moon and the night.” “Yes, the moon does call.” His voice sounded wistful. “Yeah, um…” His eyes were warm and kind as they looked at me. Jeesh, now was not the time to be getting confused by a pretty face, or whatever. “Well, I found myself drawn toward the sea. And there was the castle on the cliff overlooking the shore.” He nodded understanding. “Almost from the beginning I knew something was wrong. No, not just wrong. I knew there was evil present. I couldn’t see anything, I just felt it.” He nodded again, encouraging me to continue. “As I tried to find the source of my premonition, I looked out at the forest. That’s where they came from.” I stopped and shuddered. Alanna, who was still standing next to me, put her hand on my shoulder in reassurance. “They were horrible. At first I thought the forest was actually alive, some kind of nightmare creature. It rippled and surged. Then I saw that it wasn’t the forest itself, but that there were awful things passing through it. And then I really saw them. They had wings, but they looked human.” “Fomorians,” ClanFintan’s voice hissed, incredulous. Before I could question him, Alanna’s hand tightened on my shoulder in warning. I glanced up at her and saw her nodding her head, agreeing with ClanFintan’s naming of the abominations. “When I understood what was happening, I screamed a warning to him, and he even heard me. But it was too late. They overran the castle. They killed all of the guards, and all of the people.” I put my face in my hands. “I watched as they killed my father.” “Lady Rhiannon.” His voice brought me back to the present. “Could you tell how many of them there were?” “Lots. They were like a ravenous swarm of insects. They devoured everyone.” “I am sorry to ask this of you, Lady Rhiannon, but I need you to describe them to me—in detail.” His kind eyes were gentle and apologetic. I cleared my throat and took another drink of tea before beginning. “They seemed to be taller than most of the men from the castle.” Pausing, I blinked away scenes of winged demons flinging themselves on the courageous guards. “They all had enormous, dark wings that grew out of their backs. They didn’t fly with them, but they used them to help them run and glide. They moved amazingly fast. Faster than a man can run. Their arms and legs appeared to be very long and thin, their skin milky white, their hair was long and mostly light colored.” I paused again, remembering. “What was most horrible about them was that they looked like men. Take the wings off, dress them in regular clothes, and they could pass for human men.” I shivered. “Did they use weapons?” He broke into my thoughts. “Just teeth and claws.” Then I forced myself to add, “They were stopping to eat the guards before the castle was completely taken—and before the men were even dead.” My flat, empty-sounding voice could not begin to reflect the horror I felt at the cruelty I had witnessed. “I did not believe it true until now.” He paced back and forth in front of the foot of the bed, running his fingers through the thickness of his loosened hair. “I thought the stories told from our past about the Fomorians were myths, tales used to frighten children into good behavior.” “I don’t understand.” This is probably something I should already know, or rather, something Rhiannon knew, but now was not the time for me to play Ms. Silent (as if I ever could). “You’ve heard the stories.” He seemed too engrossed in his own thoughts to notice my lack of knowledge. “Partholonian mothers have frightened children who strayed too far from home with tales of winged demons who would swoop them up and devour them.” “Oh, yeah.” I tried to sound nonchalant. “I don’t remember the whole story. Where were they supposed to have come from?” “They came from the other side of the Trier Mountains. I do not think any of the legends ever specified their origin.” “What happened to them?” “Bards sing that generations ago Partholon rose against them. Although they possessed great evil, their numbers were small. They were defeated and the surviving few were banished back over the mountains. Which, according to legend, is why Guardian Castle was erected at the mouth of the pass, and how it got its name.” He looked at me intently. “But, being Epona’s Beloved, I would think that you would know this already.” “Epona does not traffic with evil.” As soon as it escaped from my mouth, I had an intuitive feeling that it was the truth. But my intuition was haphazard and I didn’t feel I could trust it. Great. Back to tap dancing. “And why would I concern myself with legends used to frighten children?” Grasping at straws, I glanced up at Alanna for help. “Epona is much too busy to bother with such foolishness.” I was totally lost—completely clueless. Fomorians? Partholonians? Trier Mountains? “Perhaps that is why she sent you to witness the horror of tonight, my Lady. So that you could realize what has been loosed upon Partholon.” Alanna’s voice was kind, and she reached down to take my hand. “Could Epona not have been warning you of a danger for which you have been unprepared?” Her words had special meaning for the two of us; she knew I was unprepared for all of this. Her smile was sad, and then she glanced at ClanFintan. “Perhaps that is why she has united the two of you. Epona knew her Beloved was unprepared for this evil, as she knew that as High Shaman you have been better informed about these legends, and would be more prepared to combat this evil.” “Of course. Thank you, Alanna.” She saved my butt. Again. “Yes, that does make sense.” Thank God ClanFintan seemed too preoccupied to think too hard. And after all, horse or no horse, he was a guy. And, well, they just don’t multitask very well. “Which means Epona was warning me that this evil is coming.” Like a big lightbulb going on, I abruptly sat up and shook off any lingering tears. “The damn things aren’t going to be happy with just attacking my father’s castle.” I looked back and forth between the two of them. “I think what Epona is telling us is that we’re not safe.” And, as weird as it sounded, I knew it was true. Maybe Rhiannon was experiencing the same kind of thing in Oklahoma—a bizarre ability to intuitively feel things she didn’t know before. “Yes, Lady Rhiannon, this is a portent warning us of impending danger.” ClanFintan’s manner was suddenly brusque and professional. “With your permission I will send for the Fintan warriors so they can aid your Palace Guard in evacuating the people who live between here and MacCallan Castle. They can come here. As you know, Epona meant this site to be easily defended, and they will be safer here. I assume you have provisions stored in case of emergencies?” Alanna’s nod of assent helped me to breathe easier. “Good. MacCallan Castle is two days hard ride from here.” ClanFintan was pacing again, totally engrossed in his thought process. “Let us hope that the Fomorians will pause to enjoy their victory and not immediately begin their next attack. That should give us time to send for reinforcements from the herd, gather the villagers and warn Partholon.” “Wait…” “Forgive me, Lady Rhiannon. I did not mean to take charge of your duties. As your mate, I only wish to aid you in preparing for that which Epona has warned you.” His voice was sincere. But he was a guy, and as usual he was missing the point. “What about my dad?” “I am sorry, Lady Rhiannon, but he is dead.” Again, his voice was kind—his honest concern obvious, but he still didn’t get it. “I remember what I saw.” My voice felt strained and I took a quick drink of tea. “But I didn’t actually see him die.” ClanFintan and Alanna exchanged worried looks. “What if he’s still alive? Suffering…” I took another drink of tea. I was not going to cry. Again. “Rhiannon—” his deep voice was comforting. “You must realize he could not have survived.” “I…I understand that. I know he must be dead. But, well, I can’t leave him and those men just lying out there.” I looked into his eyes, as close to pleading as I wanted to come. “You didn’t see how brave they were.” “Of course, Lady Rhiannon. They were valiant warriors.” He sounded confused. God, he was such a guy. “Yeah, and I need to bury them.” It was pretty simple. My dad and his men were not going to be crow bait. Alanna’s hand squeezed my shoulder again. “My Lady, you cannot go to MacCallan Castle.” “Of course I can. He just said it’s only two days away, and—” here I faltered. She knew I had only been there in spirit. “Well…I’ve been there before.” I was sounding like an idiot. Alanna and ClanFintan exchanged worried glances. “Lady Rhiannon, you cannot put yourself in such danger.” He held up his hand to still my protest. “The people look to you for guidance. You are the Beloved of Epona. Especially now, no harm must come to you. At a time when evil is loose upon the world, the people will be looking to Epona for stability and guidance.” “And the warriors, my Lady, human and centaur alike, will look to you.” Alanna’s worried voice interrupted ClanFintan. “You are Goddess Incarnate of the warriors, too. It will be a hard blow when they realize The MacCallan is dead. If the Beloved of Epona is in danger, it would severely damage the spirits of the warriors.” Wonderful. I was in charge of the esprit de corps and I wasn’t even Marilyn Monroe. Somehow it didn’t seem fair. “Think of what it would do to your people if you were injured or captured.” ClanFintan took my hand. His hand was warm. His grip was firm. God, he was a big guy/horse. He’d be hell on a football field. Dad would really like him. The thought almost made me smile. “Listen to him, my Lady. What if the Fomorians are still at MacCallan Castle? Your father would not want you to put yourself in danger, not even for him.” “But I can’t just leave him out there.” I felt tears forming in my eyes again as my frustration overwhelmed me. “Lady Rhiannon…” ClanFintan’s deep voice penetrated my swirling emotions. “Ask yourself what The MacCallan would have you do.” I shut my eyes. Of course Dad wouldn’t want me to get hurt. If only it were that simple. My mind could tell me that the man I watched die was not really my dad. He was not Richard Parker, high-school biology teacher in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, football coach, horse trainer, amateur artist (he liked to work with charcoal sketches of animals—which now seems vaguely ironic), excellent cook and a darn handy plumber. He was my dad. No, not just my dad. My favorite man in the world. Yes, my world, and I knew rationally that my old world was not this one. But my heart said something else. It said that it somehow didn’t matter. He looked like Dad. He sounded like Dad. And, no matter how bizarre and screwed up things had become since I’d awakened in this weird world, Rhiannon loved this man, too. She might be a bitch. She was definitely a slut. She wasn’t even a very good person. But she, too, was a Daddy’s Girl. She loved her dad. Before now I hadn’t thought too much about home. I’d been a little busy. But if something happened to my dad, I knew, somehow I just knew, no matter how crazy her new world seemed to her, Rhiannon wouldn’t desert him. And I wouldn’t desert her dad, either. I felt the responsibility of a devoted daughter. I couldn’t escape it and I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to even if I could. But Alanna and ClanFintan wouldn’t understand. I opened my eyes. Seeing clearly—finally. “What you’re saying makes sense.” I gave them my best accommodating smile. They relaxed. And I pretended dizziness. “Oh, I’m so tired. Is it morning yet?” They looked concerned, and I felt a momentary twinge of guilt. Alanna answered first, but ClanFintan squeezed my hand, looking worried. “My Lady, it is not yet daylight.” “Rest, Rhiannon, I will see to sending the warriors to begin bringing the villagers to the temple.” His free hand touched my cheek in a brief caress. He really was cute, in a horsey way. “I’m just so tired.” I played Lana Turner, falling back on my pillows, my free hand touching my forehead. The other one still clutched at ClanFintan’s. (Well, it felt good!) “Rest, my Lady.” Alanna was clucking and arranging pillows. “I will see to the warriors.” ClanFintan bowed over my hand and turned it, palm up. My eyes shot open, and for a second I was scared he was going to bite me again. Instead, his gaze caught mine and held it while he kissed the middle of my palm. I mean really kissed it. Man, his lips were warm. Yep—it felt good, too. I’m telling you—Dad would like this guy. Dad always liked a guy who could keep me on my toes. Then he dropped my hand and moved quickly toward the door. I could hear him yelling orders for his centaurs to be awakened and sent to him, then the door closed and I was left with the lingering warmth of his lips on my palm. Alanna was still plumping my pillows and looking worried, kind of like a sweet little mother hen. “Are you well, my Lady?” “Yes, Alanna, thank you. I think I just need to rest for a while. So much has happened.” I snuggled down into my comfortable bed. “You need to get some sleep, too. I’ll be okay, go ahead and rest.” She gave me a doubtful look. “Can I not get you some warm mulled wine, or perhaps brush your hair until you sleep?” Damn, she sure knew what I liked. “No, honey. Thank you, though. I just need some sleep.” “Then I will leave you to your rest.” She brushed the hair back from my forehead in a familiar gesture, and just before my eyes closed I felt her lips touch my forehead as she whispered, “Good night, Shannon.” As she turned to leave I couldn’t help but ask the question that kept popping into my mind. “Alanna, did Rhiannon ever mention how she was going to get back here—and get me back there?” My eyes were still shut, but I could hear her feet stop, and I knew she had turned to look at me. “She said it was not possible to return. It is only possible to pass through The Divide once and live.” Her voice sounded sad. “I am sorry, Shannon. I know this must be difficult for you.” “Don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault.” I wondered if she could hear my heartbeat all the way over there. Never go back home? I kept my eyes shut tightly. Suddenly I understood Scarlett O’Hara. I couldn’t think about this today. I’d think about it tomorrow. I heard Alanna’s footsteps fade away, and my eyes peeked open at the soft sound of the door closing. Then I sat up and downed the rest of the tea (caffeine is good for the soul). I had places to go and people to…well…inter. And this “stay safe and be good” crap might be okay for Ms. Rhiannon, but I’m a different kind of girl. And my dad was not going to be abandoned. 6 Damn, I wish I had my Mustang. Mobility is the modern woman’s emancipation. Who can keep a woman down when she can jump her ass into a car and drive to a different town/state/man/job? I tried to figure out how to get myself to a castle somewhere northwest of here. In the middle of the night. With some kind of vampire-looking monsters loose upon a bizarre world. Without a car. Well, to be fair, no one here had a car. So, with my theme song—“I Am Woman”—playing over and over in my mind, I tried to fend off a nervous breakdown. Okay, when in doubt, fix your wardrobe. First order of business—change these clothes. There was no way I could travel in pieces of filmy silk. And even here it must get cool at night. I’d catch my death dressed (or rather, undressed) as I was. Plus, if I couldn’t have my Mustang—I could feel the big lightbulb clicking on in my mind again—the next best thing was, well, a real mustang. Alanna said my dream was truth. So that gorgeous silver mare must really belong to me. Bet she wouldn’t mind a midnight ride. And this outfit was absolutely not made for horseback riding. (Ouch.) Looking around my spacious room, I noticed several carved wardrobes, like giant armoires. A little snooping yielded not just clothes but lots of clothes. No kidding, I felt like I was Barbie. Not just plain Barbie, but Prom Barbie, Summer Barbie, Cocktail Entertaining Barbie, Dating a Doctor/Lawyer/Corporate Executive Barbie…on and on. Rhiannon seriously had a lot of clothes, something I in no way held against her. Trying not to get sidetracked (or hypnotized; I could see we had something else besides love for our dads in common), I covetously ratted through yards and yards of clothes until I finally stumbled upon what must be the Sportswear Armoire. It was filled to bursting with soft leather leggings and tops. All the pants were one style, the same buttery-yellow color, each with its own intricately tooled decorations. I recognized a very Celtic-looking knot woven down the sides of many of them. And I swear I could see more of those gross skulls hidden in the decorative leatherwork. They all had narrow legs, and weird ties that laced up high on the left hip (I guessed they were clueless about zippers in this world). I eyed them askance, hoping I hadn’t put on any water weight lately. Deciding on one pair that seemed to have the least skull-like pattern, I started to pull them on, and couldn’t help but gasp at the supple smoothness of the leather. They felt as if someone had fastened a baby’s butt onto my legs. They didn’t just fit, they molded their softness to my ass and thighs. Yep. Rhiannon was one spoiled girl. She’d have a surprise coming when she checked out the price of clothes in my world, and the finite state of my closet. I unwound myself from my silky top and grabbed one of the matching pieces of leather. This, too, laced up the back (which I had one hell of a time tying—I could see why I needed Alanna to help me dress). But I wasn’t about to wake her and answer a gazillion questions, so I struggled all by myself (all the while maniacally humming “I Am Woman”…) and finally had the top tied securely. Actually, I was pleased to notice that besides being flattering, the outfit was obviously built for riding. The clothes moved with my body, yet they afforded support that Victoria’s Secret would be proud of. (Let’s be totally serious here, I’m thirty-five—my generous Ccup “girls” are old, and gravity is an evil thing. Know what I mean?) So I was pleased to note that I was wearing the Celtic equivalent of a sports bra. I could probably climb trees or slay dragons (I briefly but fervently hoped that wouldn’t be necessary) in it. Rummaging around in the bottom of the armoire, I found several pairs of very, very cool boots. They were made of the same buttery-colored leather, supple and pliant. They had thick soles, kind of like moccasins. As I grabbed a pair I noticed something on the sole and was delighted to see that into the bottom of each boot was carved a thick, five-sided star. I would leave footprints of stars everywhere I walked. Barbie doesn’t even do that. Well, I was all dressed, but— Remembering back to my dream vision, I could still envision the temple from above. If my iffy sense of direction was correct, the temple faced the west. The mountain range was to the north, spreading as far as I could see to the east and west. On the west edge it met the sea. Further down the coast was Dad’s castle. I clearly remembered there was a wide river that wrapped behind the temple, and from there stretched roughly to the west. The northwest end of the river ended (or began, whatever) at the sea. All I had to do was follow the river away from the temple to the sea, and then turn right. I would eventually come to Dad’s castle. At least that was the theory. I knew the stable was attached to the northern part of the temple, and that was where I would find the mare. But how the hell did I find the area of the temple that held the stables? It wasn’t like I could just wander around, unnoticed, until I stumbled into horse poopie. I had lifted up out of this ceiling. But I had no idea where I was located in the castle. Great. Then I got an idea. Remembering the adorable door decorations I had ogled earlier, I suddenly thought of one of my favorite mottoes: when in doubt, sucker a guy into helping you out. I patted my hair, which was really staying in place for a change (thanks to Alanna’s expertise), and gulped the rest of my tea. Then I proceeded to the door—the one I was sure led to the hall, as opposed to Alanna’s or ClanFintan’s room. I opened it quickly and surprised “the boys.” Yes, Lord, they were yummy. Flat tummies. Bare chests. Strong chins. Tiny little coverings, and…(staying in character of Rhiannon the Slut I couldn’t help but sneak a peek) large packages. And I’m not talking UPS. They banged their muscley chests in some kind of adorable salute. I drew myself up to as haughty an attitude as I’m capable (while trying not to drool), and looked the taller of the two in the eye. “I would like to ride my horse.” He blinked. “Now.” He blinked again. Why do I always assume tall guys are smarter? (Note to self: tall guys are not smarter, they’re just more attractive.) “Well, inform the stable…um…servants that they need to saddle her for me.” Nice save, but I knew I was reaching. (God, I hoped Rhiannon rode with some kind of a saddle.) I took a big breath and tried to act all sure of myself and bitchy—which, for some annoying reason, was suddenly more difficult than usual. “Mistress, shall I have your escort awakened?” Mr. Muscles still looked confused. “No!” I realized my voice sounded shrill and I got it under control. “I want privacy. Do not wake up any of my guards. Just have the stable servants saddle her for me.” “As you command, my Lady.” And I was right on his heels as he turned and headed for what had to be the exit to the stables. I did see him turn his head once, and caught his startled glance as he noticed me right behind him, but I figured he must be used to Rhiannon acting like a raving bitch—this was probably small potatoes compared to her screwing everyone in sight and God knows what else. The cute guard led me down a corridor that wound in the opposite direction of the one that led me to my handfast and feast. After a short walk we came to a set of carved double doors. Mr. Muscles spoke to the guards standing before the doors, and they hustled them open before rushing off to wake the stable hands. I entered the stable and my little Oklahoma horse-girl heart went all a-pitter-patter. It was a stable fit for a queen. Or better. The stalls were carved out of the same milky-colored marble from which the temple and its surrounding wall were made. They stretched down a wide hall on either side of me. There were probably twenty spacious stalls on either side, and as I walked down the hall I couldn’t help pausing at each stall and cooing to the beautiful horses they held. They were the breeding stock of royalty. All mares, they ranged from dainty bays with an Arabian look, to long-legged sorrel Thoroughbreds. As I made my way down the hall, I was touched by how each mare seemed to recognize me. At each stall the enclosed mare would raise her soft muzzle and blow in my direction, looking forward to my caress and my whispered flattery. “Hey there, beautiful girl.” “Hi, sweet thing.” “Look at you, what a pretty lady.” The mares whickered back at me, vying for attention. It was familiar horsey talk to a girl raised around horses. Each mare’s head reached out over the half door of her stall, waiting for my touch. Whatever else Rhiannon was, she certainly loved her horses. And they certainly reciprocated the feeling. Add another to the column of ways Shannon IS similar to Rhiannon. (I’d try to make sure that column didn’t get too large.) As I came to the end of the row of stalls, the chamber turned to my left, then widened into a gigantic stall attached to a private corral outside the stable. I recognized it as being the one my spirit body had visited earlier. Inside the spacious stall (which somehow reminded me of Rhiannon’s bedroom—as strange as that may sound) three lovely (but sleepy and rumpled-looking) nymphs were readying the silver mare for me. I entered the stall and the nymphs paused long enough to curtsy to me, then returned to grooming the mare. I stopped and breathed a sigh of happiness at the sight of such an exquisite horse. She really was magnificent, even more exceptional than she had appeared in my dream. She noticed my presence and I was delighted to see her twist her perfect head around so that she could see me. She telegraphed her greeting in a wonderful, full-throated neigh that made me laugh out loud with joy. “Well, hello to you, too, gorgeous!” I moved eagerly toward her, taking a currycomb from one of the servants and enjoying the feel of her sleek coat under the soft brush. I love grooming horses. I always have. Too many horse owners think that grooming a horse or mucking a stall is mundane. They despise the ordinary tasks of caring for their animals. I never have. From the time I was a little girl, I have adored the smell of the stables and the feel of cleaning my horse’s coat and stall. It’s a labor of love. It’s like lying in the sun—or weeding roses—soul—and mind-clearing work. Good for what ails ya. The silver mare nuzzled my face and lipped my shoulder as I combed her already perfectly groomed neck. “You are a sweet, beautiful lady.” I clucked and cooed at her, feeling like I was a girl again, soaking in her scent and the feel of her warm breath. Her head swung obediently forward when one of the servants approached with a dainty-looking hackamore (you gotta figure this mare wouldn’t need a bit). I stepped out of the way as two more servants lifted onto her back a saddle blanket that looked like a 1970s sheepskin bucket-seat cover with stirrups and a girth. The servant tightened the girth and stepped back. Then they all stood there. Just looking at me. I looked at those high stirrups. And the tall mare. And considered my thirty-five-year-old body. Great. Now I have to pretend to be Ms. Athletic. Wait—no, all I have to pretend to be is Ms. Bitch. And some people would say that was not much of a pretense. “Well, someone help me mount!” Damn, I sounded hateful. Smile. Without hesitating, I strode forward (relishing a true John Wayne moment), grabbed a fistful of silver mane and lifted my foot (hoping a nymph would catch it and give me a boost up). Thank God one did, and I scrambled aboard, sticking my other foot in the empty stirrup and squaring my shoulders. But now I didn’t know which way was out. “Well, open the gate for me!” I seemed to be catching on to this pretend-to-be-a-bitch stuff pretty easily. One of the nymphs scampered toward a door at the far side of the mare’s stall, and another nymph scrambled to open a seamless exit in the outer wall of the temple. I clucked twice with my tongue on the side of my teeth (in what I hoped was the universal horse noise for giddyup) and the wonderful mare moved forward. Just before I went through the last opened door, I pulled her to a halt and spoke over my shoulder to the servants. “Thank you. You may go back to your beds now. Sleep late, I will care for the mare myself when I return.” I squeezed my thighs against the soft saddle blanket and leaned forward. The mare broke into a rolling canter. We were out of the castle and on our way. The moon was still high and bright, so visibility was pretty darn good. I pulled the mare up so that I could look around and attempt to figure out just where the hell I was, and then I would theoretically know where the hell I should be going. The first thing I noticed was that the temple had been built strategically on the top of a hilly rise, and the grounds around it, although lush and green, were clear of trees. The temple itself was a huge circle, stately and rich-looking with marbled columns and a rushing fountain situated square in the foreground (some kind of giant horse rising from a fake ocean with what looked like hot mineral water spewing from several orifices—very Trevi Fountain-like). I tried to look at the building with a soldier’s eye, and I could see what ClanFintan had meant by it being built for defense. The biggest clue to that was the huge wall that encircled it. The wall looked thick and impenetrable, and the top of it had the stereotypical toothlike balustrades, complete with a battlement that would be a great place to situate archers (or sunbathers, whichever the current conditions of war or not-war called for). And the wall wasn’t just solid, I noticed with a start of surprise, it was beautiful. It looked as if it had been built of one solid slab of enormous cream-colored marble. In the moonlight it gave off an otherworldly glow. I realized that if you took away the outer wall, the temple itself would have reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome, only the top didn’t have a hole in it. The reflection of the moon on water drew my attention to the river, which looped around and behind the temple—not so close it would flood, but close enough that barges could dock nearby. It was a convenient setup. If it weren’t for those horrible flesh-eating man-creature things, this would be a very nice place to live. Which reminded me that instead of sitting there all slackjawed like a Japanese tourist at the Vatican, I should be following that river to the sea. I had more important things to do than gawk at a pretty temple. And I damn sure didn’t have a camera with me. I mean, please, where would I get the film developed? I headed the mare toward the river, glad that the night was so clear and quiet. I knew that somewhere inside the temple ClanFintan was rousing the centaurs and giving them instructions to start bringing the people to safety, so I leaned forward and squeezed my knees, urging the mare into a smooth gallop. It wouldn’t do to be caught out here in the open and have to go through some horribly embarrassing public power play about what I’ve been up to. Plus, I might very well lose. Rhiannon’s power seemed impressive, but I wondered how far it would extend if my desires were at odds with what was considered safe for Epona’s Beloved. Soon, the mare’s gallop brought us to the riverbank, and I turned her to the west. The river itself was impressive. I had no way of telling how deep it was, but it was wide and the current was swift. It had a nice smell, not fishy and muddy like the Mississippi, but clear and rocky like the Colorado River. Trees lined the banks and I was relieved to see that the mare had picked out a small path, probably some kind of deer trail, which ran parallel with the bank. There wasn’t so much underbrush that she couldn’t have made her way without the path, but this made things quicker and easier. And I sure didn’t want to ride down the road that I had glimpsed from the temple. It seemed to head in the general direction I wanted to go, but it looked like it was pretty well used. Not that it was a four-lane highway, but I was fairly sure that at first light it would be crowded with centaurs and people—and, please. Like they wouldn’t notice Epona’s Beloved trotting along on her shimmery silver mare? Speaking of my beautiful mare, I pulled her up from a gallop. She looked like she was in great shape, but we had two hard days of traveling, and no horse could keep up a gallop for two days. Patting her silky neck I relaxed and found my seat as she settled into a smooth, ground-eating trot. “Hey, sweet girl, what does Rhiannon call you?” Her delicate ears cocked back attentively at the sound of my voice. “I can’t keep calling you The Mare, it’s rude. It’s like someone calling me The Woman, or considering my attitude lately, The Bitch.” She tossed her head in obvious agreement. And in this world, you never knew, maybe she could understand my words. “Clearly, everyone calls you Epona, but that sounds too formal and stuffy for me.” I reached forward and mussed her mane. “How about if I call you Epi? It might not be as dignified, but in my world dignified is usually synonymous with what politicians try to appear to be.” I didn’t think she’d be interested in a depressing lecture on the downslide of modern American politics, but it might be a long two days and I filed the story away to tell her about later—if I got really desperate for topics. Her sassy snort and a little prance to the side were answer enough for me. “Epi it is.” I let my fingers trail through her soft mane and settled back for a long ride. It was clear from the start that Epi was not one of those horses who need a lot of her rider’s attention. She was smart and well able to trot forward along the path without me guiding and coaxing. So I settled back and took in the scenery. It certainly was pretty country. Between the trees I caught glimpses of homes dotting the scenic land. They looked well kept and adorably thatched, although thinking about all the bugs that lived in the thatching dispelled some of my romanticizing. Between cottages stretched acres of vineyards and fields filled with crops, I think I recognized corn and beans, but I couldn’t be sure in the moonlight. Once in a while I’d notice some sleepy animals, mostly cows and sheep with an occasional horse thrown in—and I was impressed and appreciative that Epi didn’t neigh like a common mare. Every so often I could see the moonlight reflect off the road as it snaked between homesteads, keeping in a generally northwesterly direction, but it was pretty far away and I felt well concealed by the trees. All in all it was a nice night. I guess some people (sissies) would be scared at the thought of being alone out in the middle of who-knows-where, but I have never been afraid of the dark and never been scared of being alone. True, my destination was daunting, and I wasn’t even entirely sure what the hell I was actually going to do when (if) I got there, but I was Scarlett O’Hara-ing that, so it wasn’t hard, with me deeply entrenched in denial, to find joy in a clear, lovely night ride. Gradually it became lighter. At about the same time the trees started to become more dense and the path less defined. Epi didn’t seem worried about it, so I let her pick her own path, and we gravitated toward the rocky riverbank. That horse-sense thing can really come in handy. Also, about this time I realized that I had ridden off, all Bitchy and In Charge, without giving one tiny thought to things like breakfast, lunch, dinner, water or toilet paper. Who knew what time it was, but by the time the sun was peeping over the top of the trees my butt and my stomach were both telling me that we had been riding “a while.” In Okie slang, “a while” ranges from five hours to five days. My mind said I had probably been riding about five hours. My butt and stomach said they were sure it had been five days. And let’s face it, my butt and stomach are bigger than my mind, so they won. Well, at least I knew where I could get some water. I could lithely dismount, lead Epi down to the sparkling river and (much like John Wayne) get a cool, refreshing drink. Maybe I’d even walk for a while and let Epi take a break. Easier thought than done. Have you ever ridden for “a while?” And I don’t mean round and round in a little corral while a riding instructor beams encouragement. And I don’t mean paying fifty bucks an hour to sit on a horse that could probably be declared clinically dead, following fifteen other Nags of the Walking Dead on an Authentic Trail Ride. Which lasts exactly thirty-five and one-half minutes. I mean riding a horse (one that’s actually alive) for several hours. Alternating between trot, canter, walk, back to trot. On a thirty-five-year-old butt. Without breakfast. Well, it’s not as easy as it appears in the movies, although I’m sure John Wayne really did ride a lot. His butt was probably made of iron. God bless him. Sliding down the side of Epi I couldn’t seem to find my feet—or my legs. My butt was where I had last left it, except it felt like it had grown broader and flatter. What a lovely thought. So I stood there and attempted to restore circulation to my extremities, glad that Epi was the only one who witnessed my appalling lack of gluteal competence. Eventually (almost “a while” later) I felt able to hobble—yes, I mean literally limping and cussing my way in the true tradition of the authentic Old West Hobble—down the bank to the edge of the river. “Well, at least it’s not muddy.” I grumbled and patted Epi, letting her drink first. Slowly, I straightened up, listening to the musical cracking of my spine. Epi lipped the water and took several noisy gulps, saying “tastes good” in horsey language. I gimped upstream a couple of steps and crouched (amidst much creaking of knees), bending forward to wash my hands. “Oh, baby, that’s cold!” I was expecting the river to be a nice room temp, because the climate was so warm, but the river was icy, which told me it had to originate in the distant mountains. Hey—I’m a college graduate; you can’t slip anything by me. Cupping my hands, I sucked the cold, clean water into my mouth. It was like Grandma’s well water. Nothing quenches a thirst as completely as cold water straight from the well. As a child I used to think that my grandma’s well water was the Fountain of Youth. I’d pump like mad and then run around to the front of the spigot and slurp handfuls of the clear liquid. My creaky knees proved my Fountain of Youth theory wrong, but the taste still quenched and refreshed like a spring rain. And I was suddenly not quite as hungry as I had been. “Well, old girl. How about I walk and give you a little break?” I smoothed her forelock and rubbed her broad forehead while she explored the front of my shirt and lipped my chin with her wet muzzle. God, horses are incredible animals. Being alone with her made me realize how much I’d missed owning one. Their smell, their equine beauty and intelligent kindness are things unique to them, not replaceable by a dog or even a thinking-it-has-no-owner cat (although cats are cooler than dogs—they’re the haughty bitches of the animal world, and I can’t help but appreciate that in them). But I’ve always adored horses. They are truly noble animals. Remember the scene in True Grit when Little Blacky allows John Wayne (Rooster Cogburn) to run him to death so that Baby Sister can be saved? Sob. What (sniffle) other animal would (blow my nose) do that (wipe my eyes)? No wonder I thought ClanFintan was so damn cute—I was in need of a pet and a man. Apparently with him I killed two birds with one stone. Except he was going to be really pissed when I got back to the temple. And he thought I was a bitch. After one more pat to Epi’s neck, I turned reluctantly away from the riverbank, looped the reins over my shoulder and started back to find our scraggly, fading trail. Epi followed me like the polite girl she was, occasionally grabbing a mouthful of grass and chewing contentedly. I started to whistle the “Hi-Ho” tune from Snow White. Epi blew through her nose at me, which I took as a commentary on my whistling ability, and I laughed over my shoulder at her, still whistling. Yeah, we were having fun now. The trees were decidedly more dense, and I could glimpse fewer and fewer homes between the thick foliage. I tried to remember the layout of the land from my dream, but my spirit body had been moving so quickly that I hadn’t gotten any landmarks more clearly defined than the river, the lush lands around it and the fact that it flowed from somewhere northeast of the castle and ran all the way down past my temple. I felt like Maid Marion lost in Sherwood Forest. Except I was pretty damn sure Robin Hood wasn’t going to come rescue me (and, quite frankly, I’m no maid). I hated to be a whiner, but I really was hungry. It wasn’t too long before the whistling and the laughing stopped, and the Search For Any Kind of Edible Friggin Berry started. “Here we are, surrounded by all of this damn nature.” Epi’s ears cocked forward, listening to me mutter. “You’d think there would be some wild strawberries. Or blueberries. Or mulberries. Even in Oz they had apple trees.” Epi grabbed another mouthful of grass. “Is that stuff good?” It’d probably give me the runs, and I didn’t even have any damn toilet paper. The visual picture that conjured was enough to keep me from trying Epi’s dinner. I truly hate camping. My parents used to make me camp with them (before they got divorced—I think it was their idea of quality family time, which sure as hell didn’t work), and I began hating it then. Not that I don’t like The Great Outdoors. I think nature is very inspirational and lovely. I like to hike, and I’m even willing to lie out in the sun and read a book while whatever man I happen to be with fishes. I just want to appreciate it during the day, and go somewhere with a comfortable bed, running water and a four star restaurant at night. I really don’t like roughing it. “So, what the hell am I doing out here?” Epi lipped the back of my French braid, and I swatted at her muzzle. “Stop—there’s no way I can carve a comb out of a tree and rebraid this stuff.” And my feet were starting to hurt. Rhiannon had broken the boots in, but they must have been made to be worn with socks, and, well, I had forgotten to look for the sock drawer before I left. Kind of like I’d forgotten to look for the kitchen. “Epi, I think I have a blister the size of Rhode Island.” Stopping, I rested my head against her warm neck and spoke into her softness. “And I think I need to ride again. Hope that’s okay with you.” I took her sweet nuzzle as an okay, and gave her a quick squeeze. “Let’s get another drink first. Shall I buy this time, or would you like to treat?” She snorted at me. “I like my margaritas on the rocks, with lots of salt.” I translated her look as horse language telling me how much more amusing I was than Rhiannon. Turning toward the river, I noticed we had wandered several yards from the bank, probably because it was very rocky and suddenly looked a little steep. Carefully, I led the way back to the river, scrambling down the bank in a shower of loose rocks. After all the trouble it took to get back down to it, I was relieved to see the water was as clear and cold as ever, especially because as the day progressed it had become noticeably warmer. Not that it was too uncomfortable under the shading cover of the trees, but the cool water was a nice relief. To keep the heat in perspective, I reminded myself that it was nothing compared to a typical Oklahoma summer day when the humidity registered at about a zillion percent plus the normal one hundred-plus degrees. Almost enough to make Wonder Woman’s bra melt. The change in worlds had hurt my reputation, but it had definitely improved the weather. So I guess I should count my blessings. Epi’s nudge interrupted my thoughts. “Ready to go, gorgeous?” Her look said yes, so I led her to a rock large enough to use as a mounting block. The mare tilted her head and gave me an odd look. “I guess you’ve already figured out that I’m not Rhiannon. She could probably leap up on you without any help.” Epi’s knowing gaze didn’t falter, and I felt the need to stand up for myself. “No offense, but that could be because she’s so used to thrusting herself up and down.” Epi arched her neck and blinked her beautiful dark eyes at me. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against some thrusting, but I like to think I choose quality over quantity.” The mare tossed her head and made a very human-like squeal. Really, it sounded like a little horsy laugh, and as I heaved myself off the rock and scrambled aboard I found myself giggling, too. “So we understand one another?” Epi reached back and nudged my foot, which was dangling awkwardly out of the stirrup. “I’ll take that as a yes.” I smiled and put my foot where it belonged before giving the incredible horse the “let’s go” cluck (as if she needed it). I reached down and patted her neck fondly. There are some things about this world that were just plain cool. Epi and I angled up toward the bank, and I was surprised to see how steep and rocky it looked from this direction. It hadn’t seemed so bad coming down. Well, it was probably just the difference between seeing it from my feet and seeing it from horseback. Leaning forward, I urged Epi up toward our soft, green path— Suddenly the rocks shifted, causing Epi to scramble and lunge awkwardly to keep her footing. I was jolted forward hard and had to grab her around the neck to keep from being thrown off. I could feel her struggling to regain solid footing. It was like she was trying to swim through rocky quicksand that kept sucking at her feet. She seemed to be unable to gain any ground as rocks and dirt tumbled around us. All I could do was hold tight and try not to let my weight shift too far to either side so that I wouldn’t cause her to lose her already precarious balance. All at once we broke free and lurched up over the bank and onto solid ground. Ignoring my quivering stomach, I slid off Epi and began running my hands down her muscular legs. She was breathing hard and shaking all over. Any other horse would have been white-eyed and panicked, but Epi stood quietly, letting me complete my frantic examination. “Good girl. There’s my sweet girl.” I kept talking to her, trying to calm my nerves as much as hers. “You were so brave. I am so proud of you.” I finished feeling all of her legs. No broken bones. No lacerations. She seemed okay. But I knew from having grown up around horses the deceptive fragility of their legs. Once you witness one horse race where they come around the corner and a horse places a foot at just the wrong angle, and it snaps, you never forget it. I was ten years old the first time I saw a horse break a leg. It broke clean, between the knee and the hoof, and that horse kept on trying to finish the race with the bone of his leg jutting through the skin. It just takes a single misstep. I let Epi press her forehead into my chest and I rubbed her beautiful head, straightening her mussed mane. “You’re okay, you’re okay. Such a good girl.” I kept murmuring inane endearments as we brought our breathing and heart rate under some semblance of control. Eventually she lifted her head and nuzzled my cheeks, which were wet with tears. I wiped my face and stepped back from her, looking her over again with a critical eye. “I think you’re okay.” I walked a circle around her while she lowered her head and blew at a tuft of lush grass. I smiled. “You’re hungry. You must be okay.” She chewed a mouthful and blew a sigh at me. “Let’s not do that again. Okay?” She tossed her head. “Well, big girl, now I have to get back on you with no damn help at all.” Epi stopped chewing, and I swear she made a very female sounding “hmmph” noise through her nose. “Just hold still and don’t laugh.” She held still, but as I groaned and struggled my way aboard, I can’t swear she didn’t laugh. We started forward and she seemed fine. Sighing in relief, I clucked her into a smooth trot. My hair, of course, had begun escaping from its braid of steel, and I began trying to poke curling red tendrils back into submission while humming the theme song from Bonanza. “I give up.” Epi’s ears cocked back to listen to me. “No matter how tragically unfashionable, I seriously need a scrunchie.” About half of my hair was curling around my head like I was Medusa’s crazy redheaded sister. The other half was still clinging to the French braid. “Maybe I’ll start a new fashion trend.” Epi made no comment. I think she was just being nice. Time for a new theme song. I was halfway through humming the theme from I Dream of Jeannie when Epi’s trot faltered and slowed to a strangefeeling walk. It felt like she was trying to stay on her tiptoes, or rather her tiphooves. I pulled her to a stop and slid quickly off. “What’s wrong, Epi?” I patted her neck and she tossed her head restlessly. “Let’s check it out.” Rule number one of horse troubleshooting: when in doubt, check the hooves. Grasping her left front leg low, I clucked at her and said, “Give, girl.” Wonderful, obedient animal that she was, she lifted her hoof. It looked normal. With my fingers I picked a couple of small stones out of the hoof base and pulled free a small dirt clod. Carefully and firmly I pressed my thumbs down on the frog part of her foot. Yes, horses have frogs. Don’t try and figure it out, just take my word for it. Lift a horse’s hoof sometime. Look at the part that Vs and is soft. That’s the frog. And don’t bitch about the name, some ancient frog probably martyred itself for the betterment of horsekind. Show some respect. Well, this frog sure seemed okay. Working my way around Epi, everything was just fine until I got to her right front hoof. When I pressed down on her frog she flinched and gave an equine groan of pain. I patted her neck to reassure her, and brushed away some clinging dirt and grass from the hoof. Moving my thumbs up higher on the soft V, I pressed again. This time the groan was louder and I could feel an abnormal warmth and mushiness under my thumbs. Gingerly, I set her foot down. “Don’t quote me on this, I’m not a vet, but I think you’ve bruised your frog.” I was trying to keep my voice light and not let this unusually smart horse know that I was very damn worried about this turn of events. I looked down at the offending appendage. It was obvious she wasn’t putting much weight on it. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think your hoof hurts.” She butted me with her nose. “I thought so.” I rubbed her jawline and she leaned her head into my caress. “So I probably shouldn’t ride you. How about if we find a nice little clearing, maybe somewhere upstream where the bank isn’t so steep, and we rest for a while?” Walking slowly, I led the way with Epi hobbling painfully behind me. I kept up a chattering monologue, and she walked with her forehead resting against my back in the space between my shoulder blades. I was glad she couldn’t see my eyes frantically scanning the land ahead of us, trying to find an easy place to descend. I knew I had to get her close to the river, and not just so that she could have water to drink. That hoof needed attention. My mind was rummaging through old horse-care-rules information I had filed away somewhere in my brain back in my youth. I just hoped they weren’t filed in the cells that my affinity for red wine had killed off. I seemed to remember that Epi’s kind of symptoms were telling me that the bruised area of her hoof should be iced. If I could get her to stand in the river for ten minutes or so, it seemed logical that it would stop some of the swelling and help the pain. Then she could rest and I’d figure out what the hell we were going to do next. For a fleeting moment I wished ClanFintan would show up with the rescue posse. But reality intruded on my moment. The centaur was busy rounding up people and dealing with the creature crisis—one AWOL reluctant bride was not a big deal. And anyway, I’ve never been the kind of woman who lived her life pining after a knight in shining armor, praying that he would come charging in on a white horse to rescue me. In my particular case the whole horse/guy thing was causing me to unintentionally mix my metaphors. Which was giving me an English-teacher headache. But luck was with me, and we hadn’t walked too far when we came to an abrupt right bend in the river. There were fewer trees here, so there was more erosion, and the grassy incline sloped gracefully down to meet the tumbling river. Picking our way carefully, I led Epi to the water. Without any major mishap we made our way slowly to the river’s edge. Balancing myself with one hand against her flank, I pulled off my boots and rolled up my soft leather pant legs. Epi was done drinking and she nuzzled me with her wet muzzle. “What we really need, old girl, is a couple of pedicures. But where the hell is a beautician when you need one, anyway?” I gave her a pat, then led her forward into the icy water. “How about we do the next best thing and soak our aching feet?” Epi seemed willing, gingerly following me as I picked my way between the largest of the slick rocks out a little way into the fast-moving current. Ohmygod it was cold. “Hey, Epi, have you ever heard the very sad, very Scottish love song ‘Loch Lomond’?” She lifted her right hoof fretfully and I leaned my weight against her left side so that she was forced to put it back in the cold water. She looked at me doubtfully but kept her hoof submerged. “It’s the story of two of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men who were captured in the revolt. One of them was executed and one was set free. Rumor has it the song was written by the doomed soldier as a final love letter to his sweetheart.” Epi looked clueless. “Haven’t heard it, huh?” Cold, cold, cold. “Well, you’re in luck—not because I can sing, because as you already know, I can’t, but I do know all the words to all the verses. And, yes, I’m willing to teach you.” She sighed and I think she might have rolled her eyes. As I launched energetically into the first verse, I noticed that my aching feet were going numb. Clearing my throat I put on my best bad Scottish accent, By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond. Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond… As I worked my way through a pitiful rendition of one of my favorite ballads, I noticed that Epi’s attention was waning. “Okay! Let’s sing that chorus one more time!” …O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road, An I’ll be in Scotland afore ye, But me and my true love will never meet again On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond! I sighed melodramatically and gave a big pretend sob while I wiped pretend tears from my eyes. “Beautiful, isn’t it.” She blew at me then lipped the water, shifting her weight fretfully. “I can see you’re not impressed with tragic and depressing love songs sung with a tragic and depressing lack of understanding of even the basics of musical pitch. Okay, okay—how about I give you a little taste of something I am actually fairly decent at.” She glanced at me, obviously gun-shy from the demonstration of my singing talent, or rather my lack thereof. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/p-c-cast-7/divine-by-mistake/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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