This story follows Hope Forgotten I: Priestess by Parda (September 1998)
It is written from the deserts
to the mountains they shall lead us.
Carnevale, 1501 CE
Venice, the Italian Peninsula
Roland was hunting her. Again. He had been hunting her for over twenty-seven centuries, and still he hunted. Cassandra had hoped to escape him by coming to Venice, but she could sense another Immortal here at the masquerade ball at the Doge's Palace, and she knew the other Immortal had sensed her, too.
She did not look about her, did not try to determine which of the fantastically garbed figures was scanning the room carefully. She pretended she felt nothing. She had heard Roland was in the south of the peninsula. Her friend, the Mother Superior of the Abbey of St. Anne, had sent word of an unusually persuasive mercenary captain. The captain had recently been working for Cesare Borgia, the pope's son. Cesare was apparently very impressed with his new accomplice, who had a talent for intrigue and destruction. But perhaps Roland was no longer in the south; perhaps he was here.
As she moved casually yet quickly out of the large ballroom, she caught a glimpse of a man across the room dressed as Death, or at least dressed as this culture's idea of Death. He carried a long scythe in his hand, and a black domino covered his face. If that was Roland dressed as Death, she had no doubt that the scythe would be sharpened. Roland would enjoy that little joke.
She was in costume, too, masked and dressed in gray as Athena. If the other Immortal was Roland, he might not have recognized her. Yet. Even if the other Immortal was not Roland, she had no wish to meet him. Or her. Cassandra had not learned how to kill an Immortal until she had been over two centuries old, but now every Immortal seemed to know about taking heads. Roland had indeed liked to boast.
And Kalia had been right. Others did come hunting, hunting for heads. They called it the Game, and they spoke of a Prize for the last Immortal left alive. The winner of the Game would receive all the power of every immortal who had ever lived, enough power to rule the world. Cassandra did not believe in the Game or the Prize. She did not believe there would be a final victory. If such a prize truly existed, then the Four Horsemen would not have been content to be "brothers." They would have killed each other for it. The only "prize" from taking a head was the Quickening, that excruciating and addicting surge of power as the lightning entered your body and the dark agony burned into your brain. She hated that feeling. She craved that feeling.
She was not sure when "the Game" had started, when she had first heard the phrase, "There can be only one." At the beginning there had been so few Immortals; she had often gone decades without meeting any. But then the challenges had started coming more frequently, and she greeted each Immortal with distrust and dread, wondering if they would try to kill her or if she would have to try to kill them. She knew she could not quit the Game; no one could quit.
But that did not mean she had to play. She could run, as she had run so many times before. Holy Ground was a refuge; no immortal could challenge her there. The cathedral was close by, but it was too obvious. She would go to the church of San Zaccaria; it was not far away. Cassandra slipped through the door to the portico and was immediately greeted by a stout man dressed unconvincingly as Apollo.
"Fair Goddess Athena," he declaimed, "thou art lovely indeed. But I must confess that I believe one so beautiful as you should be Aphrodite, the goddess of love." He tried to adjust the wilted crown of leaves on his head and left it crooked. "No matter, we have both traveled far from Olympus. May I offer you shelter for this night?" He gave an unsteady bow, twanging his untuned lyre in the process.
Cassandra gritted her teeth at the sound and heartily regretted her choice of costume. It had seemed appropriate enough earlier; her helmet helped to mask her face and hair, and as Athena she carried a sword and shield. Aphrodite would have carried an apple.
Even with a sword, Cassandra wanted to get as far away as she could from the other Immortal, whoever it was. "My pardon, brother Apollo," she said politely, "but father Zeus summons me." She started to walk away.
"I shall see you ere I pull the chariot of the sun across the sky," he called after her.
Cassandra did not reply, but moved rapidly through the crowd on the portico, making her way to the Piazza of San Marco. She dared not go home; she must get to the sanctuary of Holy Ground.
Away from the fetid and perfumed air of the ballroom, the coolness of the night was a welcome relief, even with the underlying reek of sewage. She wrapped her cloak about her more tightly and mingled with the singing and shouting crowds of merry-makers. No one would sleep tonight, this last night before the Lenten season of repentance.
The crowds thinned after she crossed the high bridge that led away from the Piazza, and Cassandra walked more quickly. She dropped the shield and the helmet into the next canal; the helmet's distinctive profile would give her away instantly. She was in a narrow side street, almost to the church, when she felt the tingling on her neck and the ache in her head that heralded the arrival of another Immortal. Cassandra swiftly drew her sword and hid in the shadow of a doorway, then pulled off her mask so it would not obscure her vision. Was it Roland? How had he found her so quickly?
She saw him then, a dark-robed figure moving cautiously along the street, a drawn sword gleaming in his hand. She swallowed, trying to moisten a dry mouth.
He turned, seeing the flutter of her robe, and called out, "Stand forth!"
She closed her eyes briefly in gratitude as she recognized the voice-deep, warm, a little throaty. Even in a challenge it sounded good. She stepped out of the doorway, her sword still ready but not raised to attack.
He hesitated, seeing her face in the dim light. "Cassia?" he asked in disbelief, taking a step back.
"Xanthos," Cassandra replied, the name he had used when first they met nearly two thousand years ago. "Or should I say, Lucius?"
He swept off his hat and bowed extravagantly, being careful not to take his eyes from her. "Actually, of late I have been known as Luciano Antonio Calaveri." He straightened and clapped his hat back on his head. "However, that name no longer appeals to me, and I am thinking of choosing another. And you are called ...?"
"Isadora Caboto," she answered.
He nodded in approval. "The name suits you."
She bent her head slightly and smiled, wondering if it had been him she sensed earlier. "Have you been celebrating tonight?"
"Yes, I was with friends at a small party at an inn."
Cassandra kept the smile on her face, though she felt cold inside. So there was at least one more Immortal in Venice. She could not take the chance that it was Roland; she must leave immediately. And perhaps Xanthos, or rather Luciano, could be of help. Roland did not like fighting other Immortals, at least not experienced ones. "You are alone?" she asked.
He grinned at her, his white teeth gleaming against his darkened skin in the dimness of the alley. "Yes, alone, and quite - unencumbered, shall we say?"
She smiled back, remembering. "I, too, am free to travel."
His grin turned into a slow smile. "But this is no place to talk!" he exclaimed, looking about him at the filthy alley. "Shall we find a more congenial spot?"
"Yes, I think we should," Cassandra replied.
Carefully watching each other, they sheathed their swords. He bowed again and offered her his arm. They went back to the Piazza and made their way through more crowds. The frenzied celebrators were grotesquely lit by flaring torches. After crossing three bridges they arrived at a small inn, marked by a swinging sign of a howling wolf.
The inn was warm and smoky, well-lit by torches on the walls. He strode in with her on his arm, his polished boots ringing on the stone floor. With a flourish, he swept off his plumed hat and tossed it unerringly onto the hat-rack against the wall. He walked past several of the tables and claimed a small one in the corner, pulling out the chair for Cassandra and bowing gracefully to her.
She smiled and inclined her head graciously to him, then seated herself. It had been a long time since anyone had treated her thus. She forced herself to sit calmly, even though her legs still trembled with the desire to flee. She must not arouse his suspicions if she were to convince him to help her.
He took off his ermine-trimmed black cape and hung it on his chair. "Wine and bread!" he called to the serving wench, then sat down and lounged back in his chair, crossing his feet at the ankles.
"You look well," she said. His silvered hair was neatly pulled back, and his expressive mouth was accentuated by a small beard and mustache. His clothes were of dark-red velvet and cream silk, and he wore a large red ruby in his left ear.
"I haven't changed?" he asked, smiling.
"Your taste in attire is as elegant as always, though the fashions have changed somewhat."
He smiled at the serving wench as she set a loaf of bread wrapped in a white napkin on the table.
She smiled back as she brought over a tray with a bottle of wine and two goblets on it, then shot a quick glance at Cassandra and left. He watched her make her way across the room, then turned to Cassandra and said in an undertone, "It's been a long time since I arranged a toga." He pulled out an elaborately jeweled dagger and sliced off some bread, offering her a slice and then taking one for himself.
They watched each other warily - measuring, remembering, wondering what had changed. After she poured the wine, he observed, "You look much the same as always. Even the dress reminds me of times past." His gaze swept over her appreciatively, lingering on the smooth curves under the clinging gown where her cloak lay open.
"It was a costume ball," she explained, glad now that she had chosen the Athena costume after all. She felt an unexpectedly pleasant shiver as the deep tones of his voice reached out to her. Perhaps going to bed with him tonight would not be so difficult after all. She had not let a man get that close to her in many, many years. She preferred more time to prepare herself, to get to know and trust the man, but they had been lovers before. She could be his lover again.
And she could use his attraction to her; at least that hadn't changed in all these years. But first they should talk about him. "You said you were thinking of choosing a new name." She watched him over the edge of her wine goblet.
He shrugged slightly and said, "I am visiting Venice on business now, but Luciano Calaveri has been in Genoa almost ten years. It is time to move on."
"Will you be French?" she asked.
"No, unfortunately not. Jacques Belarmand was killed in Paris just before Luciano Calaveri arrived in Genoa. It's much too soon to go back to that country."
He shuddered. "Certainly not! Do you know what they consider to be food in that country?"
She considered the matter. "Spanish then?"
He leaned back in his chair. "I haven't been to Spain since Charlemagne was Emperor." He slapped his hand on the table and took a drink of wine. "Spain it is! Now for a name. How about Juan Sanchez?"
"Oh, no." She shook her head. "That will not do at all. In Spain, the longer your name, the more important you are."
"Juan Sanchez Ramirez?" he asked.
"Better," she acknowledged, "but still not enough for an impressive figure like yourself." She knew he would like that, and he carefully combed his mustache with his fingers, pleased with her comment. "There you are," she said and motioned to the painting above the fireplace; it was of a snarling wolf, companion to the picture of the howling wolf on the sign outside. "The house of the wolf."
He nodded, well-satisfied. "Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez it shall be." He lifted his goblet to her, and they toasted his new name together.
"Will you be leaving for Spain soon?" she asked, while she refilled their goblets.
He nodded. "Soon. Perhaps in the spring. I have a friend near Barcelona."
"A friend?" she asked innocently. Now it was time for the flirtation.
The corners of his brown eyes crinkled as he watched her, and he answered, "He is my business partner."
"Ah." A few drops of wine had been spilled on the table, and she drew circles in it with the tip of an elegant finger. "Would there be room in your life for - another friend?" She touched her finger to her tongue and licked off the wine.
Ramirez smiled a slow lazy smile. "I think there is," he said and lifted his goblet to her in another toast. "Will you accompany me?"
"I think I will," she responded, relieved to have finished the negotiations so quickly. Maybe they could leave tomorrow; she should be safe enough with him tonight. She lifted her cup to him in return and they both drank deeply.
He sighed and set the cup down on the table. "You realize," he said, looking at her from under thick eyebrows, "that you will need to pick a name similar to mine."
"What do you mean?" she asked.
"Well, Spain is a most Catholic country. People will talk of us. We must either live there as father and daughter ..."
"That will never work if you look at me in that fashion," she observed. "They will certainly talk then."
"Mmm," he said. "And I might have to speak to suitors who come seeking your hand."
She gave him a disgusted look.
"Or, we could, perhaps, live as husband and wife," he continued cheerfully.
Cassandra put a small smile on her face and looked into her cup. "That is an important decision," she temporized, allowing just a fraction of her very real reluctance to show. She was not ready to put herself in his power, but she knew she had no choice. She forced down her fear and widened her smile as she glanced up at him. "Perhaps we should - sleep - on it, and decide in the morning?"
Ramirez grinned at her and went to rent a room for the night, while Cassandra sipped at her wine to quell her uneasiness. She knew Ramirez was a skilled and tender lover; tonight could be very pleasant if she let it be. She could do that; it would not be nearly so difficult as other things she had done.
Still, she was pleased with their arrangement. She could survive tonight, and later it would be better. It would be good to have an Immortal companion, especially an older one. Ramirez knew the rules of the Game and could take care of himself. Roland was unlikely to challenge an experienced Immortal like Ramirez. He preferred to take on the younger Immortals, especially students. Especially her students.
Roland had gone after her families, too. After he had hunted down and killed the first three mortal families she had joined, Cassandra had been unwilling to risk mortals' lives again. She had taken to living alone, moving every few years, hiding on Holy Ground. She had been alone a long time, skimming along the surface of life, never daring to plunge in, to touch bottom, to take root. Always she moved on, wandered, drifted. Such a very long time. Such a waste. She poured the dregs of the wine in her cup onto the table, and dabbled her fingertips in the dark liquid.
Ramirez returned to the table. "The room is ready."
She wiped the red stains on her hand onto the napkin, then rose smoothly and smiled at him. "Good."
The next morning, Luciano Calaveri and Isadora Caboto left Venice. A few months later, they set sail on the ship Persephone, bound for Spain. The passengers Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez and his young and beautiful wife the Senora Maria Caterina Rohas y Ramirez disembarked in Barcelona.
After a few years in Barcelona, they bought an estate near the small seaside town of Mataro. Senor Ramirez soon became known as an outgoing fellow, though they lived quietly and seldom entertained. The townspeople thought Senora Ramirez a quiet, pious woman, perhaps saddened by her lack of children. She gave generously to the poor and sewed beautiful altar cloths for the church. Senora Ramirez took a particular interest in the convent, visiting the sisters frequently and becoming close friends with the prioress.
Asuncion de Nuestra Senora, 1515
The day was warm, and the bright sunshine made intricate patterns on the floor through the latticed windows. The polished wood furniture gleamed darkly against the pale stone floor, and the rich rugs were patterned in the Moorish style.
Ramirez strode into the hall and walked past the long banquet table. He joined Cassandra where she sat in front of the fireplace, unused now in the heat of summer. Lounging in the carved wooden chair opposite her, he selected an orange from the silver bowl on the low table between them and began peeling it with dexterous fingers.
Cassandra glanced up from the vestment she was embroidering and called to the young lad who was polishing the banquet table. "Roberto! Wine, please." She quirked an eyebrow at Ramirez, who nodded. "For both of us," she finished. Roberto bowed and left the room. Cassandra watched Ramirez, her expression serious.
"Is something wrong?" Ramirez asked, almost done peeling the orange.
Cassandra spoke quietly. "King Ferdinand of Aragon is gravely ill. His daughter Juana..." She shrugged. She did not need to say more. The Queen of Castile was commonly known as Juana the Mad. "Juana's son Charles is only fifteen. There may well be trouble. And the Inquisition is growing in strength." There was something else wrong. The Prioress had told her that Roland was in Spain, working for the Inquisition.
They exchanged a sober look. They had seen times such as these before. Times when everyone was suspect, when no one dared be different. Twelve years was a long time to be in the same place when you never aged.
Roberto returned with a dusky green bottle of wine and two silver goblets on a tray of beaten gold. Cassandra poured the wine, and they sipped slowly. Cassandra continued, "You know how messy successions can be." She knew Ramirez made it a practice to leave countries if there was any doubt as to who should be the next ruler.
Ramirez's mouth twisted in annoyance as he ate an orange section.
Cassandra observed Ramirez's look with satisfaction. It seemed to be working. Good. She added, "If Charles becomes king, they say he will become the Holy Roman Emperor. France will not stand for that. There will be war."
Ramirez spit two seeds into the bowl and swallowed the orange section. "Perhaps we should leave now," he said thoughtfully. "Who knows when Ferdinand will die?"
"Leave to go where?" Cassandra asked. "The war will be here, in France, all over the Italian peninsula."
"Hmmm." He swirled the wine about in his goblet.
"Perhaps not every country will be involved in the war," she said, snipping the thread with her embroidery knife and threading another color onto her needle. "There is Scotland," she suggested, as though the thought had suddenly occurred to her. The prioress had also mentioned a novice who had joined the convent recently. The girl's mother was Spanish, but her father was a lord in Scotland and had an estate high in the hills of that northern land. Cassandra had been most interested and had even asked to speak to the girl.
"Scotland?" he exclaimed dubiously. "Why should we want to go there? It is far to the north, is it not?"
"Yes," she admitted, "but it is said to have great hunting and beautiful lakes." She knew he liked to hunt. "Have you ever been there?" she asked. She knew Ramirez liked to travel, also. He shook his head, and Cassandra said, "And I have not either." She had been to Ireland and to the southern part of Britain over a thousand years before, but she had never gone so far north as Scotland. "Do we need another reason to go?" she asked.
Cassandra could, of course, think of several other reasons. They needed to leave Spain. Roland was hunting her, and Scotland was remote enough that Roland was unlikely to track her there for some time. And most importantly, for the first time in over twenty-seven centuries she had heard some of the words of the prophecy again. The girl in the convent had spoken of the highlands, the northland. She could not ignore that, and she needed to convince Ramirez to go with her.
"Perhaps we should go," he said. "I don't enjoy wars of succession. I had enough of that in Rome." He lifted his cup to her in salute. "To Scotland!"
Cassandra felt relief mixed with frustration, though nothing showed on her face. Always she must work through others! The injunction laid upon her so many years ago left her no choice. She had a sudden satisfying image of holding her sword and swinging it smoothly, cutting off Roland's grinning lying head, being spattered with his blood. Instead, her hand closed gently around the smooth stem of the wine cup, and she glanced at the red wine within. Soon, Roland, soon. She lifted the cup in salute and smiled at Ramirez sweetly. "To the Highlands of Scotland!"
They left the next spring. They sold their horses and dismissed the servants, then closed the house. Interested neighbors were told that they were going to visit Senora Ramirez's aging mother in Navarre. No, they were not sure when they would return. Senora Rohas was very old, and Senora Ramirez wished to be with her mother in her final days.
They went to the north coast of Spain and took a boat to the southern coast of Ireland. They traveled slowly, enjoying the overland journey to Belfast, then they sailed to Scotland.
The Highlands were fierce and wild, and Ramirez sometimes cursed the cold and the rain, though Cassandra loved the craggy peaks and great forests. They took their time, careful to be polite to the different clans and septs.
In 1518, they spent Christmas as guests of a sept of the Campbell clan and thoroughly enjoyed the extravagant Highland hospitality at that festive time of year. After Bairn's Day they said farewell to their hosts and traveled inland. On the third day, they found shelter for the night in an abandoned hut along the shore of a long narrow loch. They settled their horses inside, then climbed into the loft above. They spent the long night talking and making love and sleeping and making love again. The morning dawned bright and clear, a rare day of pale blue sky and glittering sun, while a full moon hung pale and ghostly above the snow-topped peaks.
Ramirez looked out the small window. "I wonder when it's going to rain," he said pensively.
Cassandra came to stand beside him. "What do you mean? The sky is clear."
"It doesn't matter what the sky looks like," Ramirez said. "It's always going to rain in this country, or it's just finished raining, or it is raining. Forty days and forty nights of rain were enough for the Lord God and Noah, but these Highland savages cannot count." He smiled as he said it, though, for the day was indeed fine. "Let's go for a walk along the loch and leave the horses be."
Cassandra happily agreed, and they tethered the horses outside the hut and walked down to the loch. The air was cold and crisp, with a hint of the smell of the sea in the wind, and tiny wavelets lapped at the shore. When they reached the hard-packed sand, Cassandra suggested with a mischievous grin, "Shall we race to the rock, that big one down the beach?"
Ramirez smiled back, and they were off. Seagulls flew up in alarm and scolded from above as they raced past. They ran until the breath burned in their lungs, and Ramirez tackled her just as Cassandra reached out to touch the rock. They fell to the sand, and Ramirez pulled her to him, laughing. After a long eager kiss, he pulled back and suddenly scanned the hillsides above them, intent. "There," he whispered, "the deer."
Cassandra looked and saw a majestic red deer, beautiful and lordly as he watched them from the hillside. They both inhaled slowly, feeling that tenuous connection with all life that was their birthright as Immortals. After a long moment the deer turned and disappeared into the trees.
"We need meat," Ramirez commented. "I'll go hunting today."
"Yes," Cassandra agreed. "I need to gather supplies as well." She smiled invitingly at Ramirez. "Should we attend to the food first, or other hungers?"
He grinned but shook his head. "Food, I think. There's not much daylight this time of year. I'll see you at the hut later."
He gave her a quick kiss, and she watched him stride off to the hut for his hunting gear. Cassandra started up the hill, intent on her gathering. The ground was frozen, and the grasses showed silver and gray as they bowed before the wind, but she knew how to find food.
Small bushes held berries, frozen and sweet. Underneath the great trees were caches of nuts, the hard work of the squirrels. She even found a honey-hive, hidden within the hollow of a great beech tree. The bees were too sleepy with cold to notice her foraging. She wrapped the dripping honeycomb in her kerchief and carried the food in her apron. The gathering took longer than she had thought it would; it was almost dark when she returned to the hut.
Ramirez returned a short time later with a dead deer over his shoulders, and they set to work preparing the evening meal. After they had eaten, Ramirez watched her as she combed out her hair in front of the fire.
Cassandra set down her comb and joined him on the pallet. "Should we attend to the other hungers now?"
Ramirez smiled and reached for her. "I think I like being in the Highlands."
A winter storm moved in that night, and the wind blew fiercely. Freezing rain and sleet kept them inside, and it was several days before Cassandra could go gathering again. This time she went farther into the forest and came to a clearing where an old woman was sitting on a fallen log.
"Good day to you!" Cassandra called. "May I be of help?"
"Good day, my beauty." The old woman's voice crackled like dry leaves, but her eyes were sharp and blue as the winter sky. They took note of Cassandra's embroidered gown, the ruffles showing at her throat and wrists, the generous mouth and burnished hair. "You are not from here."
They certainly are direct here in the Highlands, thought Cassandra. "Indeed no, grandmother, I have not been here long."
"I thought not. There's not many as would greet me so fair and offer me help." At Cassandra's puzzled look, she added, "Call me a witch, some do." She nodded her head contentedly. "There's those say I work spells." She smiled a little, showing her few remaining teeth, and pulled her faded gray cloak more closely around her shoulders.
"And do you?"
"Oh, for some, I will. They like a bit of magic." She peered more closely at Cassandra. "You know about that." She nodded again. "Mostly they come for the cures, though sometimes the lasses want a bit more help. I suspect you know about that as well."
Her bright blue eyes traveled over Cassandra's slim figure. "Found a newborn babe just t'other day, left nearby the path, here in the forest. I gave the wee one to a family what will care for it, down in the village of Glenfinnan there." She shook her head slightly. "'Twas not the first babe I've found left alone."
"It's a hard thing to be without a family." Cassandra knew that at least. "The child will be happy there."
"Like as not, but maybe not. I'm not one to tell the future."
Cassandra did not respond to that, and the old woman asked after a moment, "Why come you here, to the Highlands?"
An easy answer sprang to her lips, but she reconsidered as she looked at the old woman who regarded her with such an air of calm certainty. "I am waiting," Cassandra said. "Waiting for a child to be born."
"But not the bairn I found, eh?"
"No." Cassandra's answer was swift. "The child I seek will be born on the winter solstice."
"That's half a moon past. Could be you have a long wait." She stared at Cassandra expectantly.
Cassandra gave the smallest of shrugs. "It matters not. I will wait."
The old woman nodded as if satisfied. "My name is Brigit, though now I am called Lady to my face, and Witch behind my back. I serve the people hereabouts. Been here most my life; suspect I'll spend what's left of it here as well." She cocked her head to one side. "You serve, too, do you not?"
Cassandra nodded, surprised and gratified to find one of the sisterhood in such a remote place. Apparently at least one of the schools she had started in Ireland and Anglia had survived in some fashion over the centuries, had somehow managed to escape Roland, and the Vikings and Saxons and the Danes, and the wars, and the Church. "I serve."
"Aye, well, 'tis a hard taskmaster we serve sometimes. Hard for us, and hard for them." Brigit sighed and nodded again, and her eyes lost some of their brightness. "Hard indeed." She looked compassionately at Cassandra. "It's been very hard for you, I'll warrant, and harder still to come."
Cassandra looked away, uneasy with the unaccustomed sympathy. The path she walked was her own, harder than others' paths perhaps, certainly longer. It was a path of her own making; she had set her feet on it long ago and could not turn back now.
Brigit patted the log beside her. "Come sit beside me, sister." The two sat together, discussing herbs and healing plants, until the old woman said, "Come with me, my beauty," and Cassandra followed her home.
"This way," Brigit said and walked past an ancient stone pillar near a grove of holly trees.
Cassandra stopped, reaching out a trembling hand to touch the carvings on the rock. It had been many years indeed since she had seen that symbol.
Brigit paused and said, "That's been standing some time, eh? From the old ones, the woman here before me said. The spring is a sacred place."
Holy Ground, thought Cassandra, and marked by the sign of the Sisterhood. She closed her eyes briefly in relief and thanksgiving. The Goddess had led her here; this was the place she was meant to be. "Yes," agreed Cassandra, tracing the triple crescents, "from the old ones."
Brigit beckoned again, and they walked side by side on the path that wound through the ancient woods. They walked between two huge oaks, and Cassandra's feet rolled unsteadily on the thousands of acorns dropped from the mighty trees.
A spring bubbled from a cleft in a great gray rock, filling a large oval pool with dark water. The graceful sweep of rowan branches showed white against the darkness of the pine trees which grew tall and straight around the pool. The water was warm, and tendrils of steam rose from it into the cold air. The bare branches of the trees made a network of lacy shadows, and the gleam of white pebbles shone dimly at the bottom.
The old woman paused and bowed to the guardians of the spring, then knelt and dipped her hands in and sprinkled the water on the large gray rock. Cassandra followed her actions, and they bowed again. Still silent, they returned to the cot, crossing over the slow stream that overflowed from the pool and trickled through the forest to join the river that led to the loch below.
Cassandra went back to Brigit the next day, while Ramirez went to visit his friend The MacLeod in Dunvegan Castle. Ramirez had friends in many places. All through the winter months, Brigit taught Cassandra the language and legends of the local people, and the plant lore of the Highlands. When Brigit died early that summer, Cassandra buried her near the spring, singing the ancient prayer of the Sisterhood over her grave. She would miss Brigit; it had been good to have a sister again.
When the old witch of Donan Woods died, her apprentice became the new witch, as had happened time and time again. And so Cassandra found herself to be the witch of Donan Woods, supplying medicines and herbal remedies to the village folk, listening to their tales and troubles.
Ramirez joined her in the cot, and they decided to rebuild the small structure into a larger, more comfortable dwelling. The work occupied them all summer, and Cassandra was glad when it was finished. She stood before the tall stone pillar set at the end of the yard outside the cottage and carefully traced the carving on it.
Ramirez's large hand joined hers as her fingers followed the path. "Shall we trace it together?" His voice sounded smooth and deep next to her ear, slightly amused, and his breath was warm on her neck.
She froze, then forced herself to relax into his nearness. The soft velvet of his doublet felt warm against her bare arms. He had already been nearby, so she had not felt the warning prickle of the approach of an Immortal, but she had not realized he had come to stand right behind her. He had a disconcerting way of being able to get close to her before she realized it.
"It does seem fitting," she acknowledged. Together they traced the edges of the three crescent moons and the interwoven symbols.
"It's an unusual carving," he noted. "The three moons usually represent the three Goddesses, but they're in an odd formation here. And I don't recognize this." He tapped the triangle in the center. "It may be a rune."
Cassandra recognized it very well, but did not say so. "The stone looks very old," she observed. "This has been a sacred place for a long time."
"I've noticed other stones like it in the forest, placed nearby. It could be confusing if you don't know which pillar you're looking for."
"We seem to have found what we were looking for." She turned away from the pillar and looked across the small clearing at the newly built cottage.
"It is a fine cottage." His tone was judicious and pleased. They had used the rocks left from the old cot and hauled more rocks from the hills to build a snug and comfortable home. "Built by a master."
"And a mistress," she added.
"Oh, yes. Mustn't forget the mistress." She leaned back against him comfortably, and his arms tightened around her. He placed a quick kiss behind one ear, then a slower and more lingering kiss behind the other.
"It is a fine cottage," she repeated, looking over the results of their labor. "Built to last."
"Well, so are we," he said, and his lower lip traced a slow path along the edge of her ear.
"What is the longest you have ever lived in one place?" she asked.
"Hmmm?" His teeth made tiny nibbles on her ear lobe, and his hands shifted upward.
"What is the longest you have ever lived in one place?" she repeated, placing her hands over his roving ones. She knew he would be willing to talk first. He had told her once that it was a wise man who let a woman talk when she wanted to, if only to make sure of her undivided attention later. And he was right. Later she would give him her undivided attention, but for now she wished to talk. "I mean the same house, the same building, a place not on Holy Ground."
"Ah." His hands stilled, and he lifted his head. "I believe it was in India. Or was it Japan? About thirty years, I think, though I left from time to time to travel. And you?" he asked.
Cassandra smiled to herself, impressed. It was a rare man indeed who understood that when a woman asked him a question, she was often more interested in being asked the question herself than she was in any answer he might give. Ramirez was such a man. She had truly enjoyed their time together. "I'm not sure," she said. "At the beginning, we were in tents, moving all the time ..." She stopped, not wanting to think about that, then continued, "Perhaps it was in Babylon, about twenty years I think. Usually I move in fifteen years." Usually it was much more often than that, but she did not want to tell Ramirez.
"Fifteen years is as long as I usually stay, too. Or ten."
She turned in his arms and looked up at him. "I believe I will like staying here." She paused. "For a while." She smiled at him fondly. "And you, will you stay here?"
He smiled back, his brown eyes warm, the corners of his eyes crinkling in that special way of his. "Yes, I believe I will stay here, too, for a while."
"Good." She knew he would probably leave soon, within a few years. She would be sorry to see him go. There was no great love between them, but there was friendship and tenderness and caring, and those were rare indeed, in both their lives. Cassandra touched his cheek gently and said, "I'm glad to have known you through the years, Xanthos-Lucius-Ramirez. Tak-Ne."
He smiled as she listed his names, and he tightened his arms around her. "I'm glad to have known you, Cassia-Isadora-Maria Caterina. Cassandra."
Cassandra smiled in return and continued, "I'm glad we've had time to be together, both in Rome, and during these last few years. It's good to have a companion." She added softly, "A friend."
"Yes. A companion." He kissed her softly on the forehead. "And a friend." She blinked quickly and shook her head, trying to focus on him. His clothes kept changing color, and his face flickered.
"What is it?" Ramirez demanded. "What do you see?"
Cassandra blinked again. "You, and rocks."
Ramirez kept his voice deliberately cheerful. "I've carried a great many rocks lately."
"Not here. Not now. There were no trees." Cassandra tried to recall the image. "It was an open place, a tower." She shook her head. "It's gone." She shivered slightly, though the day was warm.
Ramirez shrugged. "No matter. This cottage is finished, and I, for one, will carry no more rocks today." He smiled at her, trying to dispel the mood.
She smiled back in invitation, also eager to forget the vision. There was nothing she could do about it. "As you say, the cottage is finished. Should we enter?"
"Oh, yes." His smile turned into a grin. "I will enter."
"Oh, will you?" Her tone was playful and challenging, and she disengaged herself from his arms. "You'll have to catch me first." She picked up her skirts and ran, long legs flashing. Ramirez followed and caught up with her at the door. He lifted her in his arms and kissed her soundly. "For good luck," he explained and carried her across the threshold.
Ramirez stayed for another year, and then left to join Charles I of Spain, who was by then established on his throne. Cassandra remained at the cottage. Though she missed Ramirez a great deal, she came to appreciate and even enjoy the solitude and the serenity of her new life. Sometimes she dreamed of grassy windswept plains or warm sunshine on blue sea, but she also dreamed of her new home-the ancient trees of peace and stillness, the carpet of moss underfoot, the canopy of leaves and branches overhead. She was content enough; it was a better life than she usually had, better than she had any right to expect.
And finally, she was where she needed to be. All she had to do now was wait, as she had waited so many times before.
Continued in chapter 2, wherein a Highland barbarian meets the Witch of Donan Woods