A cluster of squat, honey-brown mushrooms growing near the base of a large oak played right into her charade. She kneeled, keeping one hand on her heavy wooden bucket as she plucked the mushrooms and dropped them in the pail one by one. The footfalls drew nearer. Symonne half turned, pretending to search for another mushroom, and quickly peeked over her shoulder.
The man stood a few feet away. Though she had caught but a fleeting glimpse of his shoes, she knew by their fine make and large size exactly who she was up against. She fought a sudden chill as she calculated the angle and force at which she would need to swing the bucket to purchase her escape. She would have to hit him very high, very fast, and very hard.
Just a bit closer, Symonne thought, narrowing her blue eyes in concentration. She picked up the lighthearted song again, luring her would be captor into dropping his guard. The leaves rustled ever so slightly as he inched closer. She cast her bonnet aside to let her long blonde hair cascade down her back, teasing him to draw closer. She sighed deeply and rubbed the back of her neck before slowly rising to a standing position, willing her knees not to shake all the while.
He lunged forward impatiently, just as she knew he would. In the same instant, she whirled around, smashing the bucket into his shoulder.
“Merde!” She cursed at the near miss, raising her arm to issue a second strike, but he was faster. With his lip turned up in an arrogant sneer, he caught her wrist, twisting it cruelly until she dropped the bucket. Symonne bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out in pain.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” he growled, brown eyes glittering with anger.
Symonne arranged her features to reflect nothing but shock. Inside, her stomach churned, the bile of contempt slowly creeping its way up her throat. Under his classic good looks, the strong chin, broad shoulders, and golden blond hair, hid the heart of a monster. However, instead of the vile names she wanted to spew at his hated face, she made sweet words drip like honey from her tongue.
“Victor!” She cried out, blinking repeatedly as if taken by surprise. “Thank God!” She placed her hand over her heart and batted her eyelashes at him. “Sorry, you just startled me!”
He grabbed her other wrist and yanked her closer, causing her to stumble into his chest. He laughed, a short, harsh bark of a noise, and she tensed uncontrollably in response. Slowly, tauntingly, he leaned down to brush his lips against her ear, and her control snapped. She yanked her head back and shot him a defiant glare, but he dug his thumbs mercilessly into the pressure points at the base of her wrists in response. She continued to pull back, but he chuckled and pressed harder, an unspoken threat that he would dole out greater punishments if she didn’t cooperate.
“Ah, Symonne, Symonne,” he purred. “No more games.”
She made her body seem limp, defeated by the strength of his embrace. Make him believe he has the upper hand, then strike…
“You can’t keep denying me.” He lowered his head toward her again, his hot breath lingering over her throat. Though her mind screamed to fight, to run, she kept her expression schooled and her mouth shut.
“What must I do to make you see?” He released one of her hands so as to caress her hip. His fingers brushed her side, then traveled up her neck to her face. He traced the outline of her jaw, then rubbed the pad of his thumb against her lower lip. “Marchand men always get what they want.”
Symonne swayed slightly toward him, as if one more touch would have her melting into his embrace. Victor smiled wolfishly, dropping her other hand to cup her face. She licked her lips nervously, and he read it as an invitation, roughly tilting her chin upward to deliver a punishing kiss.
Choking back revulsion, Symonne whimpered against his lips, making him think her weak, submissive. She moved her hands up to his chest, and he growled appreciatively. His grip on her face loosened, his hands eager to roam about her body. Before he could make his next move, Symonne bit his lip and slammed her knee into his groin.
Victor grunted in pain as she drove her knee into him a second time, and then pushed him with all her might. She spun on her heel and sprinted off into the darkening forest.
A furious “Salope!” rang out behind her. Terrified that he would overtake her at any moment, Symonne ignored the burning in her chest and the painful slap of branches against her arms and legs.
Night was quickly closing in. Her father would be back soon, but she didn’t dare return. The meager wages Guillaume Pecheur earned at market for his daily catch would be long gone, lost at the bottom of more than a few pints. Symonne could picture him now, stumbling through the front door to collapse in the chair by the hearth, mumbling slurred curses about her mother as he lost consciousness. Even if he had been sober, Symonne feared he would only encourage Victor’s advances. “You could do worse than the son of the wealthiest man in Annecy,” he had replied caustically in response to her complaint about the boy’s forward manner. “Consider yourself lucky. It’s not like you have a line of suitors begging for your hand, Symonne.”
Lucky, indeed, she thought bitterly as she stumbled down the rocky embankment to the mouth of the gorge below. She cast a worried glance to the tree line above, but nothing stirred the vegetation save the gentle hiss of the wind. Taking deep, shuddering breaths, she continued on, careful to keep her thin boots from slipping on the mossy stones.
As she walked, the bank steadily narrowed before finally disappearing into the high, stone walls that formed the thin gorge. She was lucky it hadn’t rained in a while, or else she wouldn’t be able to access the cave. Symonne shoved her toes onto a thin shelf in the limestone and palmed the surface of the rock until she found adequate hand holds. Though her muscles screamed with fatigue, she couldn’t stop now. She imagined Victor’s enraged face popping over the cliffs above, and more than once she thought she heard the splash of a boot in the river behind her. She shuffled along the rock face, adrenaline overcoming the heaviness in her limbs.
Right as she swung a leg into the cave, an eerie wail flew through the gorge, and for a terrifying moment she almost lost her balance. Symonne smashed herself into the rock and squeezed her eyes shut, chanting a rhyme her mother had taught her. Beings of light, cast evil from my sight. Local legend held that the ghost of a scorned lover haunted Fier gorge; few dared to visit the site by day, let alone by night. Beings of light, protect me from the night. Though reason said the strange sound was nothing more than the wind playing through the canyon like a flute, her frayed nerves screamed otherwise. Her heartbeat spiked and her mouth went dry. Beings of light, overcome the wicked with thy might.
Once she had regained her sense of calm, Symonne pulled herself onto the narrow shelf at the mouth of the cave. She held her breath and stood with head cocked, ears trained for the slightest splash, the soft snap of a twig. But… only the calming swoosh of the water below met her ears. With a relieved sigh, Symonne turned, crouching low as she felt her way into the little cave.
“Thank you,” she whispered into the dark warmth of her haven. When her mother began showing her how to hide in the woods, how to conceal a trail and fade into the foliage, Symonne had rolled her eyes, thinking her paranoid. The past year had taught her otherwise. In the face of Geneviefe’s absence, she finally understood why her mother had prepared her for the worst. In her world, the worst case was the most likely case. The happiness and ease she experienced for the first 16 years of her life were but the calm before the storm, a lucky reprieve. Without her mother’s protection, hardship reared its ugly head, and she learned the truth of the matter; she was on her own. If she didn’t fight for herself, no one else would.
Symonne curled up into a ball at the foot of the cave for a few moments of much needed rest. She thought about a more pleasant time, of simpler days spent by her mother’s side. Dipping into one of her earliest memories, she recalled sitting on her mother’s lap, watching her graceful fingers flit from bowl to bowl as she worked. An array of different herbs and spices were laid out on the table before them, and a growing pile of completed medicine pouches sat in the basket at their feet. Symonne’s job was to hold each little bag open while Geneviefe deposited the right mixture therein. As she took a pinch from each bowl, she told Symonne the name of the plant, and why she was including it in that particular bag. In this way, Symonne was slowly learning her mother’s trade. She couldn’t have been any more than six years old, but her little chest had swelled with importance.
“What are the bags with the blue ties for?” her mother had asked.
“Tummy aches,” the younger version of Symonne had replied seriously.
“Good.” Geneviefe had reached for a stone bowl with dried green leaves. “We’re putting mint in the bag because it helps with digestion,” she said as she took a pinch and dropped it in the bag. “Do you remember what’s next?”
Symonne had smiled and pointed to a bowl at her mother’s elbow filled with tiny brown seeds. “Aise?”
Her eyes filled with tears as she recalled her mother’s sweet reaction. Geneviefe had laughed, then offered gentle correction, saying “Almost, sweetie. Anise, with an N.”
She had repeated the word under her breath several times, her tiny features scrunched in concentration. To this day, it was one of her favorite spices.
Something had sounded in the distance, and Geneviefe jerked her head up to listen. In an instant, Symonne was on her feet and with a bucket in her hands. She remembered being herded her out the back door to fetch some water.
The drill had been a familiar one. It meant her father was coming home. First, she would drop to her hands and knees, rolling in the dirt to make it look like she had been working outside all day. Next, she would spring to her feet and run to the well. She would hook her bucket on the line and watched it descended to the sweet, cool water below. When she hauled up the heavy, sloshing bucket, she had to make certain to spill some of it on her dress so as to appear clumsy. It would give Guillaume something to yell at her about, a distraction if Mama needed more time to hide the evidence of their forbidden lessons.
Then, a light breeze scented with cinnamon had pulled at her hair, making her smile. Symonne had known that when she turned back to the house, she would find a bucket of mushrooms or a pile of wood sitting by the door, “evidence” to present to her father of how she had spent her day. She never figured out how her mother worked these little miracles, but it made her love her all the more.
Guillaume was an angry, withdrawn man. Though there was a time Symonne had ached for his attention, his love, she had long outgrown such hopes. When her mother was still around, she had found contentment in the thrill of secrets kept, of rules broken. Despite his best efforts, she and her mother had forged their own happiness. Even so, Symonne had secretly wished that one day, it would be just the two of them.
Now, however, that day would never come. Symonne rubbed her eyes, wincing at the sharp pain in her shoulder; she wasn’t used to sleeping on a slab of stone. The thin yellow light of day snaked its way into the cave, allowing her to see her narrow quarters.
Yet she wasn’t ready to face reality. Symonne closed her eyes, reliving the bittersweet memory of her mother’s lesson. Women and men from all walks of life had flocked to their humble abode seeking her mother’s remedies. Though Guillaume had disapproved of the method, he hadn’t turned down the means. It was her mother’s earnings that kept the family afloat. Her father was a decent fisherman, but his true talent lay in wasting coin.
Symonne shook her head, pushing aside the ever-unanswerable question regarding her parent’s unhappy union. She simply couldn’t fathom how a cold, unimaginative man had netted someone as warm and talented as her mother. When asked, Geneviefe would paste on a smile, a haunted look in her eyes. Fingering the tiny pearl she wore on a thin silver chain about her neck, she would simply say, “He knew what it took to catch me. I was helpless to resist.”
You have to get up, Symonne told herself. Guillaume would be livid to discover that she hadn’t spent the night at home, but she was used to concocting tales to avoid his ire. His patience could only be stretched so thin, however. Symonne’s joints creaked in protest as she stood. I’ll say I was helping the widow Gagnier, she decided. She kept me later than expected, and it was too dark to travel. It had happened before, and father wouldn’t bother to check her story.
Symonne picked her way back along the gorge and crawled up the steep slope to the forest above. She trudged through the woods, the gears of her mind spinning all the way.
Dare I sleep at home tonight? Knowing Victor, it wouldn’t be long before he made another appearance. No; not worth the risk.
Should I go into town? Knowing Victor, he was already dragging her name through the dirt, dropping juicy, outrageous lies about her for the eager gossips of Annecy to gobble down and regurgitate again and again. No one would care for the truth of the matter, especially when it was her word versus that of one of the richest men in town. No, that won’t work either.
Is it time to move on, then? Though she had plenty of knowledge to get by, the thought was still daunting. A woman traveling and living on her own was a walking target. And Victor would probably try to hunt me down.
Symonne rubbed at her temples, weary of thinking in circles. It wasn’t the first time she had asked herself these questions. Though she knew she should go, though she knew the risks of staying outweighed the benefits, it was as if her feet were chained to the familiar paths around her home.
But…maybe today was the day. Yesterday’s little victory had steeled to her spine, and the feel of the wind kissing her cheeks buoyed her hope. Symonne felt the need for change seeping into her bones, as if time itself were urging her forward to meet her destiny.
I have to go, she told herself as she pushed past the rough wooden door to step into her once happy home. Mama isn’t coming back.
With the disappearance of her mother, the house had rapidly fallen into disrepair, as if the walls themselves had lost the strength to stand in her absence. The sight that met Symonne’s eyes, however, was not the normal mess she struggled to contain each day.
The place had been ransacked. Cooking utensils lay scattered about the kitchen, and precious herbs had been tossed to the floor and trampled underfoot. The tables and chairs were overturned, and cabinets and drawers stood open. Her father was nowhere to be found.
Symonne numbly walked past the chaos to her room. Her sleeping pallet had been flipped over and slashed open. The trunk with her meager belongings had been upended, its contents scattered about the room. With shaking fingers, she bent down to pick up the remains of her mother’s fishbone comb; it had been snapped in two.
Victor. It had to have been him. Though her father often raged through the house, casting things to the floor in his anger, he would never break something that had belonged to her mother. Though he basically kept Geneviefe under lock and key, he had shown her an odd respect, at times almost bordering on fear. Guillaume may have feigned ignorance, but he knew that magic pulsed in her veins.
Symonne frantically searched the room for salvageable items. All of her medicine bags were missing. Her heart sank; she had been counting on them to finance her escape. Victor had even ripped up her clothing and strewn her needles and thread across the floor. Damn you, she muttered through gritted teeth. Still, he hadn’t destroyed everything. Using the sheet from her bed to make a hasty knapsack, Symonne gathered what meager provisions she could find.
Without wasting tears on a goodbye long in the works, she rushed from the house. She wouldn’t be going back to the gorge, nor would she be headed to old woman Gagnier’s place. Town was Victor’s domain; she wouldn’t dream of going there. No, Symonne was headed the one place she swore she would never venture, the one place her mother had forbidden her to set foot.
As she ran, she pictured the ruins rising from the overgrowth, evidence of an ancient and mighty civilization brought to its knees by the sands of time. Grass surrounded the ghostly monoliths, and trees grow between the columns of temples long forgotten. Yes, her mind sang out with renewed hope. The Roman ruins that stood a few miles outside of town would be the perfect hiding place.
Wagons painted with swirls and geometric patterns in every color of the rainbow dotted the field surrounding the ruins. Children screamed as they chased each other round and round, men huddled in groups, smoking and chatting, and women stirred bubbling caldrons slung over low fires.
Symonne pinched the bridge of her nose and leaned back against a tree trunk, letting her feet slide to the ground. She hadn’t counted on company, and especially not the Roma. A gypsy could rob you blind with your eyes wide open, and she had little in the way of supplies as is.
Think, Symonne commanded herself. There has to be a way. Stick to the tree line and approach the ruins from the back? And what then? There could be more of them inside. If they caught her sneaking about, it wouldn’t be pretty. She let out a long sigh. Maybe they were leaving soon? They were a traveling people, after all, and their wagons looked fit to move at a moment’s notice.
Uncertain of her next step, Symonne watched them go about their morning routines. The sight of the happy families poked at her wounded heart, however, and an unwelcome recollection rose to dominate her thoughts.
It was early morning. Her father was passed out, his chest jerking from the force of his snores. He had gotten rip-roaring drunk the night before, even worse than usual. It would be a while yet before he woke. Symonne stared, working up the nerve to edge past him to get to the hearth. She needed to make breakfast, but he reeked of ale and vomit.
Mama was still in their room, getting dressed. Symonne smiled as she caught the soft, angelic notes Geneviefe sang at the start of each day. “I’m welcoming the sun,” her mother would reply with a warm smile when asked what the odd, lilting words meant.
Symonne turned back to her father. The light from the window fell across his face, illuminating the thin, golden chain he always kept about his neck. Her curiosity flared to life. He had worn the necklace for as long as she could remember, but she couldn’t imagine what might dangle at the end of that precious chain. He had reacted violently, scaring even her mother, the one time she had found the courage to ask. Symonne held her breath as she poked his cheek, but he didn’t react. She clapped loudly next to his ear, but he still didn’t stir.
At last, here was her chance. With his next chest-rattling snore, she gingerly pulled the necklace from under his shirt to find a little golden key. In a flash, Symonne pulled the long chain over her father’s head and retreated to the bedroom with her find.
With a questioning look, she thrust the necklace at her mother, whose eyes went wide with emotion. Geneviefe’s hands trembled as she grasped the delicate key. Symonne opened her mouth, on the verge of asking the question, but her mother shook her head and pulled her into a fierce embrace.
“Forgive me,” she whispered in Symonne’s ear. “Please, forgive me.”
After the space of a few ragged breaths, Geneviefe pulled away and quickly stepped around her daughter. Symonne watched as she fled the house, thinking her mother just needed a moment alone. She was never one to let Symonne see her tears.
Ten minutes stretched into twenty, at which point Guillaume awoke with a start. When he realized the key was gone, he tore from the house with a roar.
Day turned to night. Symonne got the first sneaking suspicion that her mother wouldn’t be coming back. She fell asleep clutching the fragile comb, hoping that when she woke, the nightmare would end.
A slight rustling noise drew Symonne out of her reverie. She held her breath, and the noise sounded again, closer. Someone was coming. Symonne clenched her hands into fists and cast her eyes to the forest floor, desperately searching for a branch, a stone, anything that might serve as a weapon. Nothing.
She would have to blend in, lie down and cover her body with mud and leaves. Symonne slunk around to the other side of the tree trunk. Suddenly, a calloused hand clamped over her mouth and a strong arm clenched around her waist.
“Don’t fight me,” a deep, male voice rumbled in her ear. “I’m sorry to scare you, but I didn’t want you to run.”
He slowly loosened his grip, testing her. Symonne willed her body to relax, trembling only slightly as his big hands grabbed her shoulders and spun her around to face him. She looked up, up, up, to find dark eyes set against nutmeg skin. His lips twitched upward in a half smile, and a lock of short, black hair fell against his forehead. He wore nothing but low slung, loose fitting pants, and his trim chest was crisscrossed with tattoos.
“Hello, Melusine,” he said, dropping his arms to his side. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Symonne took a step back, her mind clouded by confusion. “What are you talking about?” She stammered, completely thrown that this strange boy somehow knew the pet name her father had called her mother. “That’s not my name.”
“Sure,” the boy said sarcastically, smiling fully this time. His eyes glittered with amusement. “What shall I call you then, beautiful girl?”
Symonne shook her head. “You must be mistaking me for someone else,” she said, ignoring his question. She threw up her hands to ward him off, taking another step back. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, but I really must be on my way.”
He closed the gap between them. “We’ve much to discuss, and little time to waste.” He stretched his hand toward her in offering. “Come.”
She shook her head again. Her eyes darted from side to side, plotting the best path to escape.
He clucked his tongue. “I’m giving you a choice, Melusine, but leaving isn’t one of them. Take my hand and walk into camp,” he said, taking a step closer, “or I’ll throw you over my shoulder and carry you there.”
Symonne lunged to the side, but he anticipated the move. Before she knew it, the boy had tossed her over his shoulder, his long strides quickly carrying her into the thick of the gypsy encampment. She pummeled his back, crying and begging to be let down, but he wasn’t to be dissuaded. The boy laughed and spun in her circles until she had to clamp her mouth shut to keep from getting sick.
Her head was still spinning when he gave her a hard pinch on the rump and let her tumble unceremoniously to the ground. Symonne clamped her eyes shut, willing the grass and sky to stand still.
“Luca,” a woman’s voice rang out loud and disapproving. “That’s no way to treat our guest.”
Symonne heard him grumble in protest before his calloused hands pushed the hair from her face. He pulled her up into a seated position, propping her up against a wagon wheel. Symonne blinked against her swimming vision as the boy pressed a cup to her lips and tilted her head back, willing her to drink. “Sorry,” he mumbled grudgingly. As the cold water trickled down her throat, his big hands clumsily wiped her face with a cool, damp cloth.
“Better,” the woman snapped at him as she, too, crouched before Symonne. It was evident she was his mother. They had the same eyes, the same mouth, the same coloring.
Symonne scooted back cautiously, pressing her spine into the wheel. The boy’s cryptic comment rang out in her ears; we’ve been waiting for you. She warily observed mother and son, uncertain of what they might say next. Indeed, they were looking at her as if they knew her.
“I’m Drina,” the woman began, settling into a cross-legged position and smoothing her long red skirt over her knees, “and this is my son, Luca.”
He dipped his chin ever so slightly, and moved to sit as well, leaning back on one arm while resting his other on a propped up knee. He looked both carefree and arrogant, an air that Symonne found frustratingly attractive. She wasn’t easily thrown off her game, but the peculiar boy was undeniably handsome.
“It seems we may have gotten off to a rocky start, but I assure you, we are here to help,” Drina added.
Symonne drew her knees into her chest and gave the woman a long, hard look. Her brown eyes sparkled with fierce intelligence, but they also seemed to shine with…compassion? Drina held her gaze, her face soft and welcoming. Symonne was filled with the sudden and undeniable certainty that the woman meant what she said.
“Okay,” Symonne said with a nod. This gypsy, at least, could be trusted.
Drina gave a dazzling smile, and Luca’s lips twitched upward again.
“But… how do you know I need help?” Symonne asked, letting some of the tension melt from her shoulders. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had offered her aid; it felt odd to accept such kindness. “And what did you mean by what you said earlier?”
Luca lifted one eyebrow and shot an amused glace at his mother, who gave a minor shake of her head. Turning back to Symonne, he said in a voice like velvet, “You were wandering alone in the woods, for one.”
Symonne’s face colored slightly, but she stuck out her chin. “I can take care of myself.”
“And….” he said, ignoring the comment to give a pointed look at her rumpled, mud stained dress, “you spent the night outside.”
Symonne opened her mouth to contradict the claim, but he cut her off. “I’ve been dreaming of your face for the past fortnight.”
All possible responses flew out of her mind, and she crinkled her forehead in confusion. Not since her mother had anyone spoken to her regarding the power of dreams. Her fingers tingled with anticipation.
Drina made a noise of disapproval, but Luca tossed back his head and laughed. The sound was like a warm caress. “She can handle it, Mother. Besides, you can’t tell me you aren’t relieved she’s finally here.” He turned his gaze back to Symonne, making her blush. “My mother read it in the cards. Our paths were destined to cross, Melusine.”
The name was a cold splash of water to the heart, a harsh reminder of all she had lost. “My name is Symonne,” she said tersely as she pushed herself to her feet. She moved to step around him, to find space to breathe, but in a flash he was up and blocking her path, his hands resting lightly on her shoulders. She looked down, unwilling to be caught in his enchanting stare.
“I’m sorry my son is so blunt,” Drina’s voice sounded behind her. “I would have gone about that differently, but there’s no helping it now.”
Symonne felt Drina’s hand between her shoulder blades. The familiar smell of cinnamon and cloves washed over her, a comforting reminder of the home she had once known. “It’s time you show her,” Drina commanded Luca.
“You’re a healer, aren’t you?” Symonne asked, craning her neck to look at Drina.
A faint smile graced her features. “Of sorts. Nothing like your mother, though.” Drina dropped her hand. “She’s legendary.”
“You’ve heard of her?” Symonne asked, surprised.
Drina’s smile was tinged with sadness. She made a shooing motion at Luca. “Go.” With that, she turned, her skirts a bright whirl, and rushed up the steps of her equally colorful wagon.
The temple was beyond Symonne’s wildest dreams. She turned in a slow circle, head tilted upward in marvel. The late afternoon light played over lush vines bordering grand mosaics of fish, serpents, and other sea creatures, dipping the entire scene in gold. A marble statue of Neptune stood on a dais in the center of the room. A fountain surrounded the platform, complete with steps leading down into water that was miraculously clear. On closer inspection, Symonne found a trail of bubbles playing along the water’s surface. A narrow trench of stone set at a slightly downward angle led away from the fountain, and a thin trickle of water flowed along its course. She smiled at the realization that the temple had been ingeniously built around a natural spring.
Luca leaned against a pillar, watching her with a mixture of amusement and caution.
“It’s amazing,” she whispered.
“You’re amazing,” he shot back.
Noticing his attentive stare, Symonne cleared her throat, embarrassed by the sudden heat spreading over her cheeks. “I don’t understand. Why was it so important that I see this?”
Luca stepped forward silently, jerking his chin to the right to direct her gaze toward a vine-covered wall. He beckoned her to come closer, and then pulled back the verdant curtain to reveal yet another mosaic.
The sight brought her to her knees. Staring back at her was the image of a goddess reclining against a rock; a halo ringed her head, and from the waist down her legs turned into a shimmering, scaled tail. But it wasn’t her immortal appearance that stole the air from Symonne’s lungs. The beautiful woman looking back at her had her mother’s face.
“How…” she faltered, looking from the mosaic to Luca and back again.
“Tell me, beautiful girl,” Luca began as he moved to stand behind her, again placing his hands lightly on her shoulders. “Do you remember anything….out of the ordinary…about your mother?”
Warning bells went off in Symonne’s head, and she tensed in denial. With the country’s constant, irrational fear of the unknown, people were all too eager to label an intelligent woman as a witch. She knew that there was something undeniably…magical…about her mother, but it wasn’t evil.
Sensing her distress, Luca dropped his hands and stepped back, speaking soothingly. “Don’t worry; I’m just trying to jog your memory.” Keeping his distance, he sank to his knees beside her. “Did she ever sing in a strange language? Or did it ever seem like… like she could do things with the snap of her fingers?”
Symonne worriedly slid her eyes over to Luca, but his face shone with excitement, nothing more. “Yes,” she breathed, and a weight she hadn’t known she was carrying lifted ever so slightly.
“Did you ever wonder where her knowledge of the healing arts came from? Or how she met your father?”
Her eyes filled with tears, and she looked down. How did he know these things?
Luca scooted closer, intertwining their fingers. With his other hand, he tenderly brushed away her tears. “Look again.” He placed a finger under her chin and gently directed her gaze upward.
The woman clutched a tiny fish bone comb in her long, ivory fingers. In her other hand, she held a tiny medicine bag. A key of gold rested in the hollow of her graceful neck. Fish leapt out of the water around her as if dancing in celebration. “I don’t understand,” Symonne whispered.
“Let me tell you a story,” Luca said, gently pulling her into a seated position.
Keeping her eyes locked on the mosaic, Symonne nodded her head dazedly.
“Venilia was one of Neptune’s consorts, a sea nymph famous for her enchanting songs. To the Romans, she symbolized the power of beauty, gentleness, and truth. As time wore on, she came to mean different things to different cultures. To the people living in this land, she became Melusine, a fresh water spirit found in sacred springs and rivers. Women suffering from medical problems sought her aid, invoking her name as they washed themselves in springs dedicated to her name. Men seeking fortune and favor left her gifts, begging for wealth and success in exchange.”
Luca paused, drawing lazy circles on the back of her hand with his thumb. Though he meant to comfort her, his touch elicited an unfamiliar thrill in Symonne’s veins.
“Legend has it, however, that with the right bait, Melusine could be captured. If the man was quick enough to steal her golden key, she would then be forced to become his bride.”
“That’s a nice story,” Symonne interrupted, “but you can’t possibly believe…”
Luca placed a finger on her lips, cutting her off. Her heart lurched in response.
“Let me finish,” He said, his smile shooting straight to her core. “If Melusine reclaimed her key, however, she would be compelled to return, alone, to her true home.” Luca paused, letting the weight of his words sink in.
Another tear ran down Symonne’s cheek, and he caught it with his thumb.
“It’s said that any child to come from such a union can only inherit Melusine’s magical abilities once baptized in the waters where her mother was captured.” Luca tilted his head toward the fountain. “So, what do you say? If it’s just a fairy tale, nothing will happen. But, if the story is true...” he let his words trail off, his eyebrows rising in challenge.
“This is stupid,” Symonne said under her breath as she pried her fingers from Luca’s grasp and stood. She needed distance to think clearly. “There is no way my mother is some mythical goddess.”
Yet…her heart couldn’t deny the ring of truth to his words. There were too many similarities to boil it all down to coincidence.
Her legs shook as she approached the fountain. Symonne dipped her toe in the water; it was warm and inviting. Luca moved next to her. He gave a light push at the small of her back, and she swiftly followed the steps until the water came up to her hips. She looked back at him; he nodded. She held her breath, then dunked under the surface before she could change her mind.
Symonne felt a slight pang of disappointment; all seemed normal. In the next instant, however, a strange tingling sensation began in her fingers and toes. Then, a painful shock rocked her body and she pushed for the surface, gasping for breath. The bones of her legs felt as if they were melting and rearranging themselves.
Desperate to escape the sensation, Symonne clawed for the steps, but she couldn’t seem to make her feet work. Luca dragged her out of the pond. She opened her mouth, desperate for air, but it was as if a hand had locked itself around her throat. As she grabbed and scratched at her neck, she felt Luca hammering away at her back. Just as her vision was beginning to go black, the object flew out of her throat. She coughed and sputtered, and Luca pulled her limp form onto his lap, murmuring comforting words.
After a moment, she wiggled her toes, then rolled her ankles. She cracked open an eye and cautiously looked down. Her dress was pushed up in a wet tangle around her knees. Symonne blinked. She would have sworn that she had just seen opalescent scales sprouting from her calves.
A slow clap sounded through the temple, making Symonne jump in shock and the color drain from Luca’s face.
“What a show,” Victor declared mockingly as he stepped from the shadows. “Boy rescues girl, and she falls dramatically into his arms.” He stalked toward them, and Luca drew his arms around Symonne protectively. “The Roma trash might have told you a sweet little tale, but that’s not where the story ends,” he jeered. “Remember, Symonne? Marchand men always get the girl.”
Victor winked at Symonne, then bent down to retrieve a little golden key from the dirt. He waved it back and forth teasingly. Symonne trembled with a mixture of rage and fear.
“I take it this belongs to you?” Victor asked with false innocence.
Luca slowly rose, placing Symonne at his back. “Give it back,” Luca commanded in a menacing tone.
Victor smirked, dropping the key into his shirt pocket. “No. She belongs to me now.”
Symonne choked back a sob. The thought of being owned by that monster filled her with an unspeakable dread, momentarily rooting her to the floor.
“I don’t think so,” Luca growled, launching himself at Victor.
The two rolled around, exchanging sickening punches. With his wiry strength and quick reflexes, it seemed at first that Luca had the upper hand, but Victor hit harder. Luca caught a fist to the temple, and Victor had him instantly pinned below his hulking weight.
“Stop!” Symonne screamed. “Victor, please!”
But Victor didn’t believe in mercy. With a rabid laugh, he wrapped his fingers around Luca’s neck and leaned forward, gradually applying pressure.
Symonne scrambled to her feet, her eyes frantically sweeping the temple in search of something to use as a weapon. Yet, the sticks were too small and the stones were too large to be of use. Gods, help me! She pleaded from the bottom of her soul.
Victor cackled maniacally as Luca choked, and Symonne snapped. She rushed forward, set on thrashing the bastard with fists and feet if nothing else. With her first step, however, a thick wooden rod simply materialized in her hand. Symonne gasped and nearly dropped the weapon, but the sound of Luca’s struggle snapped her back to her senses.
“Take that!” she roared as she cracked the pole against the back of Victor’s skull. He slumped down like a rag doll, eyes rolled to the back of his head.
Luca pushed the dead weight aside, then rose to his knees. Symonne took a tentative step forward, but he put up a hand in warning. Luca cocked his head, looking Victor over before deciding to give him another solid punch for good measure. He then fished the key from the villain’s pocket, rose on wobbly knees, and stretched out his hand, offering the prize to Symonne.
Choking back a grateful sob, she threw herself into his arms instead. Luca hugged her for a moment, patting her wet hair, before drawing back and offering her the key once again.
“No,” Symonne said, her eyes bright with thankful tears. A sudden understanding bloomed in her heart. “Keep it.”
Luca gave her a confused look. “But…the cards said…I mean…I was just supposed to help you discover your inheritance,” he finished lamely, his cheeks turning crimson.
It was the first crack Symonne had seen in his confident façade, but it injected her with courage. “I think your mother may have left a few things out,” she said with a shy smile. She wrapped her fingers around Luca’s hand, making him draw a fist around the key.
Luca nodded, smiling in return as comprehension dawned over his features. He stepped closer, drawing their joined hands to his chest. “You’ll be free to leave, if you so choose,” he began, “but I hope to convince you otherwise.”