Authors: Lenora Henson
Copyright © 201
3 Lenora Henson
All rights reserved.
Special thanks to my constant cheerleaders Joanna Devoe, Brooke McNutt, Gabby McNutt and Joleen Minarik. You kept me on my path with your tireless enthusiasm and support. Thank you to my extraordinary editor and research champion, Jessica Jernigan. It’s been an incredible journey. Thank you to cover model RaeChelle Leiken. Thank you to Jennifer Adele, Robert Scrimpsher, and Emalie Babb for sharing your knowledge. Thank you to Mom and Dad, for fostering my creativity. Thank you to Sophia Henson for your patience and being the coolest kid I know. Thank you to Jim Murphy for everything.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Scotland, Early 1600s
An unholy stench—sulfurous, metallic, sweet, and fatty—swirled in the late June breeze. The wind blew indifferently; the element of air was unmoved by the day’s terrible events. The element of fire, however…. The blaze seemed to be relishing its work, consuming its victims like ravens falling on a fresh carcass. The pyre’s hunger for human flesh seemed desperate, eternal.
Hidden on a hill nearby, a girl sobbed quietly. The smell made her stomach turn, and being with child, she could not stop vomiting. Wiping tears, bile, and greasy black ash from her face, she decided to take action. She knew it was too late to save her twin. Her sister had been strangled to death like the others before the fire was set. She could not save her, but she could join her in the flames. It was where she felt she belonged after what she had caused. It would be her redemption. They would find her soon enough anyway.
The decision was made, but just as she moved toward the fire, she felt herself being pulled back. She struggled wildly as powerful arms held her tight. A scream rose in her throat, only to be silenced by the familiar, weathered hand of her grandmother. The girl had little strength left to fight as she was dragged from the gruesome scene. The gentle summer breeze sent burnt hair and charred flesh trailing after her. She would never see her sister again. She would never be redeemed. She would never be forgiven, and never seemed a very long time.
Epona stood on Pringle Street, eyeing a two-story Victorian in a quiet neighborhood, well away from the bustle of the university. It was a lovely house, well-built and carefully maintained. Her head was canted gently to one side as she considered it from across the road.
This was the place. She had seen it in a vision.
It was dark, and a light rain drizzled. This was something of a distraction. Earth was her element. Water pulled at her too strongly. It wanted all of her, just as it had wanted her mother, and her mother’s mother…. So many women in Epona’s family had ended their lives in water.
And this was why she stood in the dark rain before a stranger’s house on Pringle Street. It wasn’t just to save her own life, but also to protect the ones to come. She had to break the curse, and there was something inside the house on Pringle Street that she needed if she was going to do that.
Epona sensed that she had company—otherworldly, if she had to guess. She could see that there was a thickly wooded area out back. The presence from the forest was by her side with a movement as instantaneous as thought.
“You’ve arrived.” The voice in Epona’s ear was soft and seductive.
“Indeed,” she replied. She knew that she had to be careful with this one. Epona ventured a quick sideways glance. The creature standing beside her was delicately made, and not nearly as tall as Epona—few women were—but she had a powerfully beguiling presence. Epona knew her kind. In fact, she now realized with a start, she knew
“Penelope received his seed last night, with the energy of the new moon,” the fairy said.
“Yes, Claire. I know. I saw it in a vision. That’s why I’m here.” Epona stood very still.
“Aye. Your gifts are still strong.
strong. You’ve reached, what—fifty-some years now? You were never meant to make it past forty.”
Epona took a deep breath of cool, misty air. “I have no choice but to live. I have a responsibility to help fix what has been broken. To heal the past.”
“You think you’re stronger than the past?” Claire’s tone was incredulous, almost condescending.
Epona turned and looked directly at the fairy. Claire’s long black hair shined like a raven’s wing and her skin was impossibly smooth. “I don’t know if I’m stronger than the past, but I’m damn sure going to strengthen the future.”
A small grin grew on Claire’s face. “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye.”
Epona nodded. “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye.”
The pair stood in silence for a moment.
“He might come back, you know, to reclaim that which you seek,” Claire said.
“But I need those journals.” Epona looked inside herself, she looked toward the future. She saw a man climbing the stairs that led to the front door of the house on Pringle Street. He had a head of wild curls and aquamarine eyes.
“I have to get inside that house, Claire. Now, before it’s too late.
The fairy gave an appraising look. “You’re the strongest woman your family has ever seen. Do what you came to do.”
Epona closed her eyes, centered herself, and chanted a string of words beneath her breath. When she opened her eyes, she was inside the house on Pringle Street. The first thing she saw was a new sofa, beige with pale roses, an echo of the riot of flowers that grew all around the house. The whole room was suffused with the same bright coziness. This home radiated warmth and peace. Epona gave herself a moment to take in some of the healing energy. The magic she had just worked was strong stuff. It would probably leave her weak for days—weeks even. After she had regained a little strength, she scanned the room, looking for the object of her mission.
There it was: a worn leather messenger bag. Epona pulled out one of many journals and tried to flip through it, but she couldn’t seem to open the covers. Charmed, probably. Well, she hadn’t time to worry about that now. She put the journal back in the bag, stilled herself, and uttered the spell that would send her back outside.
She had no choice but to try the front door, even if that meant making unwanted noise. The doorknob wouldn’t turn.
“Damn it,” she whispered. She tried every opening spell she knew. None of them worked. She tried not to panic.
Suddenly, Claire was next to her. “Leave the bag.”
“Because it won’t allow you to take it. It’s not meant for you. Take the journals and leave the bag. The bag is for the messenger.”
Epona had no idea who “the messenger” was, but she knew she had no choice but to trust Claire. She pulled out the stack of journals, dropped the satchel, closed her eyes, and recited the words that would carry her silently from the house.
She felt the chill breeze and the cool drizzle that meant she was back outside, but, when she opened her eyes, she still saw the front room of the house on Pringle Street. The scene had changed—the lovely floral sofa was now a sagging wreck—but the atmosphere was the same. There was love, laughter, joy, and, above all, that healing energy. Epona saw a young man with wild curls and aquamarine eyes, and she saw a bohemian beauty with hair almost as red as her own.
She saw an amethyst necklace.
She saw a tiny woman with a sleek, brown bob sitting on the threadbare sofa.
She saw scenes of abuse, pain, and horror.
She saw betrayal.
Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye.
He only beat her when he felt it was necessary. That’s what he told her anyway. When he felt it was necessary, she would most likely receive a blow to the back of the head. When he felt it was
than necessary, he would hit her in the stomach. And when he felt it was
necessary he would beat her senseless. But only when necessary.
The recipient of this punishment was Gretchel Shea.
Gretchel lived on an ordinary street, in an ordinary subdivision, but this woman was far from ordinary. She was, first and most obviously, beautiful, with hair the color of red velvet cake and white skin brushed with pale pink freckles. She was tall and lithe and gracefully made. These, however, were just the outward signs of her difference, which were visible to anyone. Were you to look into her gray eyes, you might catch a glimpse of her true nature. You might find yourself thinking,
Here is your life, child, please come and live it.
Looking even deeper, you might think,
This woman is the rise of creation, she is the question, she is possibility, she is creativity, and she is sex on a stick.
You might discover that you could not look away.
But Gretchel would never let that happen. She had become very good at hiding her difference. She had become very good at hiding herself.
Sitting on an ordinary beige sofa, she was the very image of tranquility. The ability to appear calm, to be still and quiet, was a skill Gretchel had worked hard to master. She was not the still, quiet type. Aphrodites never are. But Gretchel had decided long ago it was safer to keep her true nature hidden. At first, it was painful. Eventually, she grew indifferent. And, in any case, she felt she deserved the pain and the numbness that followed.
Once upon a time, Gretchel believed that she had been a very bad girl, and now she was paying the price. At the moment, she was paying that price by sitting very still, watching a video montage of famous putts. Famous putts? Yes. The Golf Channel is one of the severest punishments devised by the gods for women who renounce their own divinity. That’s what Gretchel had decided, at least. As she gazed blankly at the screen, she imagined that she was Amethystos, a maiden pursued by wild, drunken Dionysus. A maiden whose prayer for protection was answered when Artemis turned her to stone. She was safe, but dead—inside and out. Gretchel understood Artemis’s cruel logic. She had arrived at much the same conclusion herself, which is why she was sitting there, watching Tiger Woods sink a putt for birdie.
Lately, Gretchel had become aware that she could not stay still forever. She could feel a flicker of the light she had tried to smother, like a knife-blade of flame that would not go out. Her true self—the spirit she had buried—was surging back toward the surface. She was afraid of what would happen when her stony façade cracked, but she could not suppress a jolt of excitement.
, she thought,
it’s about damn time.
Her hip jerked. This involuntary motion made her heart race. It sent a ripple of energy around the room. Gretchel turned to see if her husband had noticed. He hadn’t… yet.
It would be dangerous to come back to life, perhaps even deadly in a paradoxical sense, but she was ready to take the chance.
As if I have a choice
, she thought as she felt the flame burn brighter within.
Her nose twitched, and her sense of smell awoke. Inhaling deeply, she smelled her old friend. Alcohol. The painkiller smelled like salvation, as she remembered how it quieted her torturous self-hatred, but it also smelled of damnation, of powerlessness and shame. Either way the smell seemed to be fuel for the awakening fire.
Gretchel peered down at her husband’s glass. The thin, caramel-colored liquid sparkled under the lamp, and the ice cubes clanked about in a beautiful dance of promised oblivion. Her hand was only inches away. She felt two forces within her. The first force was the addiction, and it was undeniably powerful. The other force was her will, which was making itself known to the addiction like a wolf baring its incisors to protect its young from harm.
She could hear the instinctual growl inside her soul, and knew she mustn’t take a sip, but a distant tug laughed wickedly in her mind. The laughter was familiar and malevolent. Something was not right. Or perhaps it was absolutely right. She had long ago lost the power to discern.
She took her eyes off the glass, just as Phil Mickelson chipped his way onto the green. A grin erupted on her face, shattering her perfectly practiced half-smile. Phil was pure of heart. She could feel it.
She turned away from the TV, and gazed out a window into the cold, dark night. A salt truck crunched by the house, making its way around the subdivision. It was an ordinary December evening in Illinois. Ordinary.
But it shouldn’t have been ordinary. It was the Winter Solstice, and Gretchel should have gone back home to Snyder Farms. Troy had forbidden her joining the Bloome family for its celebrations, and he certainly didn’t want their children involved.
Gretchel sighed gently as she looked beyond the window glass, through a white haze of precipitation, wondering if it was snow or sleet, hoping that her daughter’s travels were safe.
Her sense of restlessness grew.
She shifted on the sofa, stretching her long legs, smoothing the wrinkles from her gray yoga pants. Her husband shot her a look, and she froze.
“Are you watching?” he growled. The lovely smell of Scotch whiskey washed over her again, her nose twitched, and she felt the stirrings of another internal battle.
Troy clenched his jaw until Gretchel could see a vein pop out in his forehead. She obediently shifted her eyes back to golf.
She wasn’t a bad golfer. She could powder it off the tee like a female John Daly, but her short game wasn’t so good; it never had been, and she honestly didn’t care if it ever improved. Troy cared though, which was why Gretchel was spending Winter Solstice with Tiger and Phil.
She brazenly snuck a peek outside the window again, just as a blustery gust caught the pocket of a ratty white trash bag and sent it sailing. She watched as it loop-de-looped through the air.
A hand popped her on the side of the head. “Goddamn it, Gretchel! Pay attention!” Troy hissed.
Troy Shea. What the world saw of the man was the epitome of public achievement: school board member, avid volunteer, country club regular, Sunset Automotive’s most successful salesman, and everyone’s favorite guy to run into. He was a looker too, complementing his trophy wife with a fierce handsomeness. His big, dark eyes and perfect smile made women weak, and his fit physique left their men jealous. Troy’s image was of the utmost importance, and so, for seventeen years, Gretchel had kept their family’s secrets safe.
Timidly, she rubbed her head, and turned back to the TV. But her heart was racing, and an odd sensation was working its way through her body. Suddenly, her mind was filled with a dozen voices arguing and screaming. She felt strife and utter despair. A volcano of passion erupted within her being. She felt as though she were being pulled in all four directions, and she heard a voice that was not a voice, but a vibration echoing in the very depth of her soul. Startled and frightened, she sat straight up on the sofa.
“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye!” she shouted.
Troy turned to her, stunned by the outburst. It had been a few years since he’d had to enforce the heavy punishment. He shook his head in disappointment, and then grabbed his wife by the arm, and pushed her up the stairs of their sprawling two-story home.
Troy flung open the double doors of a walk-in closet and threw Gretchel to the floor.
“Assume the position,” he commanded. She was breathing heavily, but she didn’t dare let out a cry for mercy. She did as she was commanded as her husband pulled a fraternity paddle from the wall.
She endured blow after blow. Her bottom and thighs were bright pink by the time he wore himself out. He finally replaced the paddle, and knelt down to her face. “You know I don’t want to hear that witchy bullshit in my house. Ever.”
“I didn’t—,” she began, but a sharp blow from his open hand shut her up.
“I never thought I’d have to do this again,” he said, shaking his head in disappointment. Then he shut the door, and locked it from the outside.
Gretchel could tolerate a lot of things, but being locked up was not one of them. Quiet tears began to pour out of her haunting eyes. “Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye,” she mouthed, but no sound came out. Gretchel knew what was about to happen. She tried, and failed, to stop herself. With shaking hands, she unclasped an amethyst pendant from around her neck. Vibrating with raw fear and wild energy, she was no longer a woman made of marble. She was unprotected, and alive. Magic filled the air, and the precious stone was ready for its new owner.