The hair on Augusta’s neck prickled. She resisted the urge to look around the grand, dimly lit hall and tried to focus on what Transy and Jox were saying.
“And the mood—it’s so wonderful to have fire and all the other elements in place,” Transy said. “I think this is the best year I’ve experienced.”
“Yes,” Augusta replied, forcing a smile in spite of her distraction. “The Manon has done his work well this year.” She shifted her position, angling to grab a sideways glance at the entry hall. Whatever had sent her hair up waited there, and much as she didn’t want to see it, she was quickly losing the ability to resist.
A swell in her breasts had forced them more tightly into the plunging neckline of the purple dress, a dress which appeared to her in a dream. After struggling with the impulse, she had commissioned its sewing. A high collar stood at the back of her neck, then flattened to lapels at her collarbone before forming a deep narrow “V” to her solar plexus. Short cap sleeves left her arms mostly exposed, but she had been driven by the image from her dream to wrap gold bracelet bands around her upper arms and to pull on long gloves of shimmering black satin. The stiff silk brocade dress hem stopped abruptly at the top of her thighs. Dark knit tights and sleek black boots covered her legs, which now had begun to quiver slightly.
Whatever it was, it exuded power in all realms. Her eyes darted briefly to the entry hall opening before she forced her gaze back to her companions.
“The inclination is at its full apogee,” Jox muttered. “All craft waxes in these days. But for the solstice, they are warning that the dimensions may merge.”
“Yes,” Transy said dismissively, “we’ve heard that so often this season. But what could it mean, really? Shall we fly any faster? Have stronger visions? I for one wish not to have foresight at all—it often proves terribly depressing.”
Augusta let her gaze wander over Transy, a beautiful woman by any measure, but in the world of their times, a doubly remarkable appearance. Her pastel-tinged white hair lay in long radiant tresses past her shoulders. The pale pink velvet of her fitted dress lay like icing on a tiered cake. Her figure, transformed by spells and, if she admitted or not, a bit of what the body crafters had on offer, featured full, perfectly formed breasts and wide flared hips, daunting in someone who stood nearly six feet tall. While the fashion trended toward smaller, more androgynous looks for both sexes, a few like Transy had chosen a different path.
“I agree that visions can be disturbing,” Augusta murmured. “But they hardly ever have to do with us personally. I’ve learned to let go of the emotion.”
“Good for you,” Jox laughed, lifting his glass toward her, an intense expression on his handsome face. “Psionics 101, right? Informed and immune.” He wrapped his arm around Transy’s waist and pulled her tight against his side. “Some of us, unfortunately, can’t seem to work out the immune part.”
Jox’s masculine energy enveloped Transy in a way Augusta knew pleased and reassured Transy. For all Transy’s intimidating appearance, she really was quite a kitten. A damn good thing Jox loved her, catered to her moods and watched over her. Transy would be lost without him.
The banter between Augusta’s two friends rose and fell like so much ambient noise and failed to keep her attention. In a sudden burst of emotion she didn’t try to define, she excused herself and wove through the crowded room toward the entry hall. All around, people laughed, drank, and danced. The tables, set on either side of the tall Yule tree, groaned with their burden of roasted boar and fowl, root vegetables cooked tender in fatted broth, trays of cheeses, breads, and dried fruits, and honeyed cakes. For a solstice gathering, always boisterous and thick with intrigue, this one writhed and turned around them in unexpected ways. Surely that alone accounted for the tension rising through her.
Music from the musicians assembled at the far end of the room sailed around her in sharp clean waves. The scent of the heavy pine boughs stung her nostrils. Her breath rose and fell on wafts of wood smoke, the fragrance of a hundred scented candles, and something else, something that defied her in its very essence. The drum of her pulse pounded in her ears as she reached the wide arched doorway.
“Absurd,” she muttered, looking intently through the few clusters of people in the process of arriving. A brace of candles shown from the wall mount, casting its flickering glow toward the massive iron-clad door and around the attendants accepting furred wraps and hats from newly arrived guests. None of them emanated anything more than the typical effusion of light. Whatever set her nerves on edge did not rest among them. Yet Augusta’s senses reached an even higher pitch.
After a moment in which she scanned each and every person, she whirled around to return to the main hall. Perhaps another of her frequent visions had piqued her attention, not a real person. Dreams, visions, all of it came forth in extra force at winter solstice and especially this year as they had reached the earth’s furthest distance from the sun. So she shouldn’t be at all surprised to feel so on edge. Laughter rolled out from the room, welcoming as the warmth from the fires roaring at the enormous hearths at either end of the grand hall.
A subtle rumble grazed her eardrums like a touch. Her breath drew in sharply as her eyes sought the source and quickly settled on the unmistakable gleam of eyes set in seeming black space of the corner. Gooseflesh erupted over her body and her nipples stood at sharp points, almost painful against the taut silk of her dress.
“A vision, no less.” A rasping baritone voice cut through all other sound. “And well worth the wait, I might add.”
Whether she wished it or not, Augusta’s full sensory array riveted immediately on this man, now revealed in his aura of red and gold, his energy radiating in visible bands. Tall, well formed, he watched her with dark eyes and an intent expression. His face shifted as she stared, a leering phantom one instant, a sensitive brooder the next. His presence pulled on her like a powerful magnet, so that she had the sensation of leaning backwards to avoid falling against him. How had he come so close?
She scrambled to regain her composure. “Perhaps your dreams delude you,” she replied beathlessly. “I am not your vision.”
A dazzling smile met her words, his face instantly cut with intriguing shadows that spread either side of his mouth and at the corners of his eyes.
There is no delusion, his words came to her mind. You are my dream just as I am yours.
Augusta’s chest froze in a half-caught breath. Only the hammer of her heartbeat reminded her that she still lived. She felt herself rise off the floor, caught in a conflict of such strength that she could not reckon with either side of the argument. Yes, he was her dream. No, she did not want him. And yet, she felt as though she had waited her whole life for this moment.
He didn’t move, but her breasts swelled as if touched. His lips burned her mouth even as he stood, still smiling, two feet away. He smelled of crushed cedar and juniper berries, damp forest earth, cold fur of wolf. A sudden urge to run seized her, but she could not move.
His form came more fully into the candlelight as he leaned against the wall and crossed his arms, propping his boot-clad feet in front of him in a gesture of enforced relaxation. Nothing of his appearance suggested anything less than great wealth and high breeding. Tall boots of fine smooth leather, garments in thick woven wool, a great coat whose ample folds passed his knees, and even the glimmer of white cuffs at his gloved wrists spoke to his generous circumstances. The line of his jaw cut menacingly along the top of his high white collar, as if his body only tolerated the trappings of civilization. Something of him exceeded these garments, something wild and ruthless. Only the quirk of his sensual mouth betrayed his cunning disguise. Fear and desire warred in her throat.
“Did you think that your equal would be any less feral than yourself?” he queried. His eyes trailed slowly down her body before returning to her face.
She felt his glance as if the rough graze of his hands. “I do not accept you as my equal or in any other relation, nor did I share my thought with you,” she retorted.
“And yet, I have received it. Perhaps that could serve as a statement as to our fate, my dear Augusta.”
“Nor have I given you my name, or permission to approach me.”
“I strain toward you, just as you toward me. Your voice whispers to me on the winds of summer and winter’s ice, your flesh burns my hands. I know your name as well as I know my own.”
Strathor. His name filled Augusta’s thoughts. I am bewitched.
The light changed, and she realized that they had risen halfway to the high ceiling of the hallway. Listless warmth invaded her form, somehow now clothed in little more than a gossamer veil. Likewise, Strathor’s powerful form shimmered in golden flesh barely hidden by folds of sheer silk. They circled, still rising, and the sounds of music and voices faded.
From some ancient time of which she had faint but familiar recollection, Augusta recognized the mountaintop where she found herself. A bare promontory of aged stone, its crown worn and bare. She stood facing Strathor, both of them clad in supple animal skins, a slight breeze brushing their hair. They rose again and circled around the peak, rosy skies of morning and dusk sending the sun’s golden gleam over their countenance.
I have always known you, he said without speaking.
His body met hers, skin so hot it burned her fingertips.
And I you, she replied.
She knew their past and future, knew it fully as she had flown through time and space with him, to this peak, this moment. They rotated in the fragrant air, their eyes interlocked, their thoughts merged.
And yet you resist me, he protested.
As I must.
Augusta, Goerta, goddess and mate, I am made to fit you.
His hands molded her breasts, his mouth scorched her lips. She inhaled his scent, filling her lungs with his breath, his essence hot as coals.
Flames of desire consumed her. His robes fell away as he stalked toward her across the verdant meadow. A spring rushed forth from the ground and frothed along its rocky passage where lush grasses dipped in the warm breeze. Strathor’s dark hair draped at his wide shoulders, teased the corded muscle that ridged to his neck, and partly hid the strength of his jaw. The ridges of his belly rippled along the narrow path of dark fur to its terminus between his legs. There, the stalk of his manhood rose in hunger, bold and rigid, veined and eager.
She embraced him, his muscled arms and chest, the strong legs, the curve of his neck. She settled upon his shaft with her form, the form of a woman wet with her own hunger. He captured her leg and pulled her upon him, latching his teeth to her shoulder as his other hand lifted her hips to give himself entry. Ever deeper he plunged, until the whole of her body trembled at the invasion and still he pushed farther. The world spun, the days and nights raced past in whirls of cloud, of red sunrise, of wind rushing past and stirring their hair, the black of his mane, hers copper.
They coupled, sweat pouring over them, their throats hoarse with cries of pleasure. Their arms encircled each other so that the rhythm of their hearts sounded in joined cadence, so that their loins rolled and pounded as ocean waves in storm. Fire swept over them in conclusion of their mating, lingering flickers of flame teasing and roiling.
Augusta raised a trembling hand to move a lock of hair back from her face. A curled strand had fallen from its clustered place on the top of her head. She stood in the hall staring at the stranger. His face too seemed less composed than when she had first set eyes on him. With a burst of cold, snow-laden air, more arrivals swept in through the door. How long had she stood there?
“Will you join me at the feast?” the man asked, offering his arm.
“Perhaps,” she said, suppressing a smile. “If you promise to continue the enchantment.”
His lips curved and his eyes glinted. “I’m pleased to say I have no choice,” he said softly, trapping her in his gaze. “Fortunately for us both, the Fates will have their way.”