The Tanglewood Witches (The Three Sisters Book 1)- eBook
The Tanglewood Witches (The Three Sisters Book 1)- eBook
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Bound to each other by unexpected magic...To win the game of the gods thrust upon them, Orpheus and Alena will have to learn to trust again and heal old wounds before it's too late. The biggest surprise for both of them? Surviving their quest is just the beginning. Together, they have the potential to build a dynasty of powerful witches and wizards. All it will take is a book, a tree... and a dragon.
Bound to each other by unexpected magic...
Hauled out of bed by a brutish soldier and tossed into a stone cell, the last thing Alena expects is to come face to face with wealthy businessman Orpheus. The rake almost tricked her into his bed once and is the one man she's tried to avoid ever since. To her utter dismay, she learns he's her new partner in a forced mission: to acquire a celestial weapon, one protected by the gods.
Orpheus never anticipated meeting anyone like Alena, let alone deceiving her. Could their immediate connection be due to a common secret—ancestral magic? To win this game of the gods thrust upon them, he'll have to earn her trust again and heal old wounds before it's too late.
The biggest surprise for both of them? Surviving their quest is just the beginning. Together, they have the potential to build a dynasty of powerful witches and wizards. All it will take is a book, a tree... and adragon.
Alexandria, Egypt, 30 BC
“Unhand me. I demand to know what this is about!” Alena grunted as the guard’s palm rudely connected with the center of her back and thrust her into the stone cell with no regard for her ongoing protests.
This morning had gone from bad to worse. At the crack of dawn, a team of Egyptian soldiers had hauled her out of her meager lodgings and dragged her to Cleopatra’s palace. The soldiers had offered no explanation for her arrest. That was bad.
But if the experience had warranted the label of worst day since she’d come to Egypt, her current situation trumped that epithet. She found herself in a crowded room that smelled of limestone and dark spices, and judging by her company, the guards had made a terrible mistake.
She rubbed her sleepy eyes and took in the others around her. It wasn’t just her tattered, filthy garments that made her stand out like Zeus’s lightning bolt; she was the only woman in the group, and based on appearances, these men were important. Sau priests if the leopard skins draped over their shoulders was any indication. Powerful magicians. Each was completely shaven of all body hair, as was the custom. Dressed in light linen, they sparkled from their bald heads to their bare toenails. She’d never been that clean in her life.
Suddenly she realized the source of the scent she’d noticed when she arrived. Not dark spices but anointing oils. The priests gave her a disapproving look, and she moved away from them to huddle on the far side of the room.
She did not belong here. Not only was she not a priest, she wasn’t even Egyptian. Alena hailed from Crete, Greece, a commoner who had taken to the healing arts. She’d only made the perilous journey to Egypt to study in the library of Alexandria. Herbs and pharmacopoeia were her passion, and she wished to learn what knowledge the books and scrolls there contained. The library had almost burned down once. It was her life’s dream to investigate what it had to offer before some other disaster challenged its stacks.
Her father had begged her not to go. He’d become dependent on her in many ways, the least of which was to fill the hole that had been left when her mother died. But two seasons ago she’d realized she would never leave Crete or realize her potential as a healer if she didn’t seek passage to the greatest source of knowledge her generation had ever known.
Thank the gods her talents had proven lucrative. Quickly she had taken to tending the sick and acting as a midwife. News of her competence had traveled far and wide and earned her the sobriquet of Healer of the Nile. And although it was dirty work and she was rarely paid in coin, her calling had provided a suitable dwelling and a full belly.
At least the presence of the priests in this stone room meant she wasn’t in any real danger. Why would Cleopatra imprison her own sorcerers? This was either a misunderstanding or some sort of royal request for services. Perhaps the pharaoh was in need of healing. She tried to remain calm and take comfort in the fact that she was in the company of important men, not criminals.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t the Healer of the Nile,” a man said from behind her.
Her spine stiffened. She knew that voice. She hated that voice. She closed her eyes and sighed before turning to face him.
“Orpheus, the louse charmer.” She shot the man a slanted glance. Like her, Orpheus stood out from the others in the room, although his clothing was also of far better quality than hers. His thick black hair and short beard contradicted the clean-shaven heads of the others, and he was certainly not a priest. A smooth-talking charlatan maybe, but not a priest.
By profession, he was a popular barber, one who claimed the rare distinction of successfully ridding heads of vermin without having to shave them. The skill was all but unheard of, and people came from everywhere for his services. Truly, it was a shame a man of such talent and wealth had the personality of a pimple on the ass of a diseased rat.
“Why the hostility, Alena? You’re not still mad about what happened between us?” He flashed his most disarming smile.
She silently cursed as her insides reacted with a reflexive rush of lightning. The man was devastatingly handsome with the tawny glow of one blessed by the gods. In other circumstances, she would feel quite honored to have garnered his attention, she’d give him that. Dark-haired and blue-eyed, he had a mouth that seemed locked in a permanent smirk. She’d made the mistake of kissing that mouth, an act akin to drinking sweet poison.
An exasperated sigh tore from her lips. “Did you have something to do with this? You did something stupid, didn’t you, and then likely threw out my name as an alibi!”
“No!” He scoffed.
She spread her hands and gestured toward the priests, who were doing their best to ignore them properly. “Then why are we here?”
“No idea, but we are the only ones in this room not employed by Cleopatra. These men are magicians, sorcerers, priests. They tend to the gods. It seems odd they’ve summoned us as well.”
“My thoughts exactly.” Alena hated to agree with Orpheus about anything, but she was hard-pressed to come up with any explanation.
Their conversation was interrupted by the heavy grinding of stone on stone. Alena whirled to find soldiers sliding a heavy slab into the doorway, completely sealing off the exit. With no windows or alternate ways out of the tiny room, Alena instantly felt choked off.
“Stop! What are you doing?” She lurched toward the door, but Orpheus caught her by the arms.
“Those swords aren’t for show, Alena. Whatever they have in store for us, you won’t avoid it that way.”
“But… but… we’re trapped in here.” Pain flared in her chest, and her breath came in ragged pants.
“Easy.” Orpheus rubbed her shoulders. Her wild eyes found his and he guided her through some deep breaths. “Keep your wits about you. We’re going to need them.”
Slowly her panic abated. Despite being a rake and a scoundrel, Orpheus was an important man in Alexandria. Surely she was safe here among the priests and him. A half dozen torches mounted above their heads bathed them in flickering shadows.
“I can’t even make out the door we came through,” Alena said.
“Odd that.” Orpheus grimaced, showing a mouthful of suspiciously straight white teeth. No other man, Greek or Egyptian, sported such a perfect smile. She wondered for the hundredth time what bargain he’d struck with the gods to maintain his impossibly good looks.
“Can’t you charm a louse to squeeze through the walls and get us out of here?” Alena said through her teeth, annoyed by his nearness. She crossed her arms between them and tapped her foot expectantly in his direction.
“If there was a louse among this hairless crew, yes I could.”
“I have hair.”
He arched a brow. “And we both know that thanks to your herbal concoctions, there isn’t a single louse on you either. Although what a tiny insect could do to open a stone door anyway, I have no idea. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single living thing in this room that would be any help in getting us out of it.”
She shook her head. “As expected, a bastion of self-importance but completely useless in a crunch.”
He recoiled from the insult but recovered soon enough. “What about you, Alena? Don’t you have anything in that bag that could help us?” He glared at the satchel at her hip.
She didn’t go anywhere without her apothecary basket, and she’d felt fortunate when the guards had allowed her to bring it. Inside, she stored a wide variety of herbs and elixirs in small glass jars or wrapped in parchment.
She placed a protective hand over it. “Only if we all come down with fever.”
Nonchalantly, he leaned a shoulder against the wall and crossed his legs at the ankle. “As expected. Asserts to raise the dead but completely useless in an emergency.”
“I never said I could raise the dead! Oh, you’re a child.” She turned her back to him, a welcome surge of anger and frustration driving out her previous fears.
“Frankly, I’m surprised the soldiers allowed you to bring your apothecary,” he murmured thoughtfully.
She turned back to him. “It was unusual. At the time, I assumed someone in the palace needed healing, but clearly that’s not why I’m here.” Her eyes narrowed on him.
“Why are you here anyway? Didn’t you tell Cleopatra’s guards that you’re an archon of Athens, invited here as an advisor by the pharaoh herself?”
His face fell at her reference to the lie he’d used to try to take advantage of her. “I never said I was an archon. You assumed.”
She clenched her teeth. “Only because you had suggested as much on the boat to Alexandria. The elaborate clothing, the food, the servants. It all seemed to indicate you were an important government official, a leader.”
“As I recall, you benefited frequently from my generosity.”
She couldn’t deny it. He had been generous, and at the time that generosity had meant everything to her.
“The crew of the vessel said you were the eponymous archon of Athens. Who would have told them such if not you? And you did not refute it, although you must have heard the rumors.”
“Is it my duty to correct every wagging tongue? Athens has a council of archons, not a single magistrate. You should have known it was a falsehood.”
“You knew and you allowed me to believe it. It was under that presumption that I allowed you to woo me within a hair’s breadth of your bed, only to discover in the most embarrassing way that it was all a lie.”
For weeks he’d pursued her, bringing her gifts, sharing long walks, even doing his best to bump into her at the market. But then he’d invited her to a feast at the home of a prominent Alexandrian. It was there that a group of elderly wives had pulled her aside and told her the truth. He was the louse charmer—their name for the barber—and she was one of many women he’d wooed under false pretenses. He was a cad, a rake, and a scoundrel. The old women had wasted no time sharing their deep regret that her reputation among the elite was already scarred by arriving on his arm.
“I pursued you because I enjoyed your company.” He gave her a wicked half smile. “Not only to bed you.”
“He flirts with every woman in the city,” she said, mimicking the voice of the old women. “He’s a scoundrel, a cheater. Allow him between your legs and it will be the last time he gives you any attention whatsoever.”
“Untrue. You can’t believe such things.” He raised an eyebrow.
“Oh?” She planted her fists on her hips. “And the woman I saw coming out of your abode on the last moon?”
He opened his mouth but stopped short. His gaze lifted toward the ceiling. “Not that I don’t love debating the history of our meeting and my scandalous behavior once again, but does it appear to you that the smoke is gathering?”
Alena glanced upward to find a thick cloud building above them. “The torches. There’s no ventilation.” The small, windowless room was growing warmer as well. Already her eyes stung, and the air appeared cloudy between them. “There isn’t enough space and too many mouths breathing. Orpheus, if this keeps building…” She gave him an ominous look.
He inhaled deeply and muttered something inaudible under his breath.
One of the priests tested the door. As she suspected, it was sealed. Alena couldn’t even see the outline of the opening in the stone. Another priest pounded on the walls and cried for help. Still another tried to scale the wall to put out one of the torches, but the brace was set too high and caged in iron. Worse, Alena noticed more smoke coming through the stone up above.
“They’re doing this on purpose!” she cried, gathering a loose bit of fabric from the neck of her cloak and pressing it around her mouth and nose. Did Cleopatra mean to kill them all?
The smoke thickened by the minute. The walls were too close, the air too tight. True fear pulverized her resolve to stay calm, and the shaking in her knees spread to the rest of her body. Orpheus tugged on her hand, gesturing for her to sit. Considering her knees were about to give out anyway, she dropped to the rough, mercifully cool floor. The air was cleaner there, and she drew in a panicked breath.
“Alena, it’s a test,” Orpheus said with utmost certainty.
She stared at him with stinging eyes, willing her addled brain to understand what he was talking about. To her surprise, he didn’t seem to be struggling to breathe at all. Nor was he panicked as she was.
“What kind of test?” she rasped. “One to see who can hold their breath the longest? I fear we will all fail. Cleopatra may be the reincarnation of Isis, but the rest of us are only human.”
“Are you?” Orpheus’s eyes crinkled at the corners.
“Aren’t you?” Alena’s gaze connected with his through the smoky air.
One of the priests banged on the wall in earnest now, his pleas for release growing as he struggled for air, while still others slumped or crawled on their bellies, anything for a small measure of comfort. She lowered her chest to the floor. Orpheus followed, although the smoke didn’t seem to be bothering him anyway.
“Haven’t you noticed that everyone in this room has a reputation for magic?” he asked.
“Not everyone. I do not advertise myself as such.” She coughed into her cloak.
“Ah, but it is known, Alena. You are the healer they say can make a tonic to cure any ill. Some call you a hedge witch.”
She coughed violently. “Those who wish to be healed should stop making up names for me.”
“But they aren’t wrong, are they?”
A priest who’d balanced on the shoulders of another to try to extinguish one of the torches fell unconscious to the stone floor. His head cracked near her hand. Blood ran from his fractured skull, scoring a deep crimson river in the stone. Alena shuffled away from it. Her instinct was to dig in her basket and find something to try to heal him, but she could hardly breathe herself. They were all doomed. All but Orpheus, who hadn’t coughed once.
“You believe this is a test of our abilities? Someone is trying to prove we have… magic?”
His lips pursed and he gave a curt nod. “It would be a particularly gruesome horror to watch a woman as beautiful as you die. I’d much prefer your company under sweeter circumstances. I enjoyed our time together up until those crones ruined everything with their lies. More than I can say.” He grabbed her arm and gave her a hard shake. “Come on, Alena. Think. Tell me you have something in that bag you can use. How hard can it be? All you have to do is survive.”
Her throat and eyes burned and her lungs spasmed with their need for air. She cursed. Why wasn’t he as affected as she? He still wasn’t coughing, and his eyes glowed an arresting shade of lapis in the dingy room. She shook her head and concentrated. He was right. She was a powerful healer. There must be something she could use to protect herself from the smoke if she could calm herself long enough to remember how to use it. Digging in her basket, she drew a length of aeras lily root and wove a braid of Nile grasses around it. Muttering a spell, she formed the resulting mask into a shallow bowl and cupped it over her mouth and nose. Instantly, she could breathe again.
“Aeras root. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I developed this spell for a boy in the village who has trouble breathing during the dry season. I wouldn’t have thought to use it if you hadn’t…” She stopped. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “What did you use?”
“Containment spell. I’m inside a sophisticated barrier. Although, to be honest, I didn’t think it through. The air is getting thin in here. If this test goes on much longer, I may be joining our friends.” He gestured to the priests who were now writhing on the floor, either coughing or limp and unconscious. “I can’t renew the spell without any fresh air to seal around myself.”
Alena could see it now, how the smoke never seemed to actually touch Orpheus. It curled away from his flesh. Genius, she thought. She’d love to ask him about that particular spell if they ever got out of this room.
“How long have you known about me?” she asked.
“Since the feast. When I kissed you, I knew you were magic. Couldn’t you sense it in me?”
She searched his face. The kiss had sent tingles through her body, but it wasn’t as though she’d had anything to compare it to. Weren’t all kisses like that? She shook her head.
Orpheus shrugged and started to cough. “Hades, it seems my spell is wearing off. And no closer to finding out what Cleopatra wants from us, other than to die.”
No one could claim to know the mind of Cleopatra. Far above the commoners of Egypt, her will was a maze of secrets known only to her. Alena had always thought it would be lonely to be a pharaoh; perhaps that was why it wasn’t hard to believe the rumors that Cleopatra’s obsessive quest for power had made her a killer. Some said she’d murdered her own brother for the throne.
Orpheus pressed his face into his hands, body stretched out on the floor. She had to make a difficult decision. Did she assume this trial must have one winner and allow the smoke to overcome him? Or did she help him and risk inviting the wrath of Cleopatra?
In the end, there was no decision to make. It was bad enough to live with the knowledge that she could do nothing to help the other men who’d collapsed in the room. Refusing aid to Orpheus when he was the reason she’d thought to build the mask in the first place would be a black mark on her soul she could not abide.
Alena took a deep breath and then moved her mask to cover Orpheus’s nose and mouth. His body eased beside her, his breathing evening out. He took three long breaths, then moved the mask back to her face. They survived together, sharing the mask, until the smoke was so thick she could no longer see the walls of the room, only his deep-blue eyes.
And then the stone-on-stone rumble filled the room again. Not the door this time. Like a dream, one entire wall of their cell slid away. Cool air wafted around them. The smoke rose up and out in a billow of gray. Light cut through the foggy air. Orpheus had her by the shoulders and was helping her to her feet.
She blinked rapidly. Through the dispelling haze, she could make out a vast hall ahead of them with brightly painted columns. Colorful tapestries draped the walls, and a long red rug led to a dais. She squinted to make out who or what was on that platform at the other end of the room, but her eyes still stung from the smoke, and their watering blurred her vision. Alena leaned into Orpheus, and together they hobbled along the aisle. Fire burned in a series of great gold bowls lighting their way. Alena blinked and blinked again.
Dread filled her heart when she realized who it was on that platform, sitting on her golden throne. Not some soldier or priest or counselor as she’d expected but Cleopatra herself.
Her hair was as black and shiny as the Nile at midnight, and her clothing was solid gold. Everything about her was fashioned to intimidate her subjects, from the robe made to resemble the feathers of Isis to the headdress of horns that framed a large red disk that reflected the light of the flickering torches in a way that seemed supernatural.
Alena swallowed hard. This woman ruled Egypt. She truly might be a goddess for all Alena knew. She definitely held their lives in her hands. It was said she was beautiful, but Alena didn’t see beauty, only power. She radiated it like a deadly, burning sun.
Orpheus tugged her shoulders as they arrived at the base of the dais, and she followed his lead, dropping to her knees beside him.
An elderly man who stood beside the pharaoh announced, “All hail Cleopatra, the embodiment of Isis, sister to Horus and Ra, and queen of all Egypt.”
Alena lowered her forehead to the floor and prayed to all the gods whose names she could remember that the worst was already behind her.
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