As Princess Catrin frantically ran alongside another warrior through dense woods to escape the carnage, the image of her father being wounded at the prisoner exchange haunted her. With the chaos of the conflict, she was uncertain if he had been retaken as prisoner or slain. She feared if he had died, her banished half-brother, Marrock, would war against her mother for the throne. The decision to use the dark forces of the Ancient Druids to alter the future could doom her father and people.
Glimpsing nearby warriors carrying casualties to a cave, Catrin dashed toward them. She ducked her head under an oak branch and pivoted into the cavern’s dank womb. Under the illumination of a flaming torch she could see several men hovering over the king’s motionless body.
Catrin trembled as she knelt by her father. Studying his blood-smeared face, she could sense a chill slice down her spine. Dreading he had already succumbed to his wounds, she placed her palm on his forehead. His skin was hot and clammy, but he was still alive.
Feeling the bloody streaks on his tunic, Catrin pulled her fingers away. She turned to Cynwrig, the king’s most-trusted guard. “Help me remove the tunic. I need to stop the bleeding!”
Cynwrig supported the king as Catrin cut the fabric from his chest. The ghastly crisscross cuts and deep abdominal gash made her cringe. A stench like rotten eggs assaulted her nostrils.
King Amren fidgeted. “Fetch Agrona,” he rasped.
“No!” Catrin snapped. “Agrona is a traitor. We can’t risk letting anyone know that we tending to you. There are herbs near the wall that will help reduce the swelling.”
Catrin clasped her father’s icy hands and noticed the fever in his eyes. She looked to Cynwrig. “Heat a knife so I can seal his wounds. I also need water from the river.”
“Do what my daughter says,” whispered King Amren.
Cynwrig pointed to the cave’s opening. “I’ll start a fire over there and get someone to fetch the water.”
While Cynwrig prepared the fire, Catrin rummaged through several pouches, searching for the proper herbs. After a warrior returned with a bucket of water, Catrin soaked several strips of willow bark in the container. She crushed dried blackberry, borage, and sage stems in a ceramic mortar. She added vinegar to the powder and stirred the contents with her finger into a green paste.
“Is the knife ready to seal the wounds?”
Cynwrig pulled the blade from the flames. “It looks hot enough to stop the bleeding.”
“Then bring it to me.”
Catrin took the knife from Cynwrig who then restrained the king’s arms. She pressed the hot blade on the wounds, methodically moving downward. The king writhed in agony from the red-hot metal, his wild eyes like a wounded animal’s as he fought Cynwrig’s restraint. Concentrating on her task, she swallowed the bile in her mouth. She handed the dagger to Cynwrig to reheat the blade. Light-headed and in a cold sweat, she leaned into the hard wall to brace herself.
Catrin now fingered the paste dressing over her father’s reddened wounds. Even with her gentle touch, his muscles flinched. Observing the anguish on his face, she placed a blanket under his head and gave him chamomile and poppy in water to ease his pain.
She continued the treatment by placing the bark strips on the dressing until the king’s grip around her wrist stopped her.
“We need to speak about Marcellus,” Amren said.
Catrin winced, worried her father knew about her relationship with Marcellus, the Roman hostage under her charge. She warily studied the king as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. Amren then waved Trystan over and whispered into his ear. With a nod, Trystan ordered everyone away.
The hairs on Catrin’s neck prickled. The only reason the king would order warriors away would be to reprimand her. She wilted under her father’s burning glare as he began questioning.
“Trystan told me when we were imprisoned together that Cynwrig found you unconscious in Marcellus’s arms. I want to know what happened between the two of you,” Amren growled.
Catrin hesitated, fearing her revelation would anger her father and cause his condition to deteriorate. She finally said sweetly, “You should rest now.”
“No. I want to know now!” Amren snapped.
Catrin could feel the king’s eyes probing her like a sharp-edged scalpel for the truth. She bit her lower lip to stop it from quivering. “When I was stricken from the falling sickness, Marcellus came to my aid.”
“Trystan said the Roman was found naked with you!”
“Marcellus had just finished bathing,” Catrin answered, suddenly feeling queasy.
Amren cocked an eyebrow. “Bathing?”
“And that is all that happened?”
“Father, let us discuss this later, when you are feeling better.” Catrin said.
“I want to discuss this now! I was told Agrona accused Marcellus of bewitching you and seducing you.”
Catrin froze under her father’s cold stare.
“You can’t trust what Agrona says,” Catrin said.
“And why is that?”
“She is a druidic spirit from your past.”
“Get to your point,” Amren grunted.
“Remember Rhan? Your former Queen? Didn’t you know she possessed Agrona at the time you executed her for treason?”
Amren’s brow furrowed. “How do you know this?”
Catrin nervously shifted her weight. “I had a vision. Under the blood moon, you were walking on a pathway of red-hot rocks around a towering fire. A woman with a wolf pelt draped over her shoulder approached you between two lines of people chanting, “Rhan, Rhan, Rhan.”
“What did this woman look like?”
“She had coppery hair and wolf-like eyes just like Marrock’s. He was also there just a few feet in front of her. He looked to be about eight years of age.”
A lump formed in Amren’s throat. “What did you see next?”
“You accused the woman of treason and cut off her head with your sword. Her head flew off and through the arms of a girl standing next to Marrock.”
“The girl was Agrona.” Amren’s face was now pale as a corpse. “How do you interpret the vision?”
“When Agrona touched the severed head, Rhan’s soul entered her. When I confronted Agrona about it, she drugged me so I wouldn’t tell others. She also wanted to steal my powers!” Catrin cringed, recalling the slimy feeling of Rhan’s thoughts crawling in and out of her mind like a maggot.
Amren mumbled, as if struggling to comprehend what Catrin had just told him, but then he continued. “I believe the gods speak through Agrona. She was born mute but spoke for the first time after Rhan’s execution. Agrona declared me to be the king of truth and light. I implicitly trust Agrona on all spiritual matters. She has told me things only Rhan would have known.”
“She tricked you just like she tricked me,” Catrin said.
“I’m not so sure ..."Amren squeezed his eyes shut and moaned. “Give me some poppy for the pain.”
Catrin brought the cup with the poppy mixture to her father’s lips. Moments later, he relaxed and asked her to help him sit more comfortably. She helped him lean against the stone wall. Though he spoke more slowly, his voice seemed stronger as he continued his questioning.
“What are your feelings toward the Roman?”
Catrin couldn’t answer, her stomach twisting into knots from fear of what her father might do.
Amren narrowed his eyes, targeting on the truth. “Trystan told me that your mother questioned Marcellus about what he had done to you before you were found stricken with the falling sickness. He confessed that he loved you and that you had both … uh …?”
With a sob Catrin said, “Yes, I love Marcellus.”
Amren frowned. “You did this knowing I was negotiating your betrothal to Cunobelin’s son?”
A wavering shadow cast by a burning torch seemed to descend on Catrin. Shaking, she said, “Yes. I felt betrayed you did this without telling me.”
“What in the name of the gods have you done?” Amren grimaced. “Your mother showed Trystan the dagger inscribed with Rhan’s curse. The blade was glowing as if it had just been pulled out of a furnace. Words melted away as others were being formed. Your mother, afraid the curse was again altering, locked the dagger away to stop the transformation.”
This revelation stunned Catrin.
Amren then said, “I believe you altered the curse when you slept with the enemy.”
Dumbstruck, Catrin shook her head in denial.
No. No. This can’t be. Our love is blameless. Something else caused the curse to alter.
Catrin knew that no matter the consequences, she had to tell her father what shifted the curse. “Altering the curse has nothing to do with Marcellus. When you were gone, the Raven—my raven guide— explained how the powers of the Ancient Druids worked.”
Catrin drew in a long breath and exhaled slowly. “I can travel to other spiritual realms in the Raven’s mind. One place is a transitional barrier where the mortal world and the spiritual Otherworld join. It is called the Wall of Lives. On its surface, life threads for every living human weave in and out of a fluid tapestry. This is where the Past, the Present, and the Future merge into one. I discovered that I could change the future by manipulating the life thread.”
“How is that?”
"When I pulled the life thread of a person fated to die out of the portal leading to the Otherworld, I extended his life,” Catrin explained.
“No mortal has that power,” Amren said incredulously.
“I have that power. But I don’t know how extending a person’s life will impact the future.”
“Whose life did you extend? “Mine?” asked Amren.
Catrin’s voice cracked with emotion."I saved Marcellus.”
“Cursed gods!” Amren’s eyes blazed with fire as he pointed to the gash in his belly. “This wound was inflicted by your lover’s blade. He almost killed me!”
A foreboding sense of dread overcame Catrin. Marcellus couldn’t have done this! He knows how much I love Father. Why hadn’t I foreseen this? She tore her eyes away from her father. “I never meant to harm you!”
Amren snarled. “But I just saw Marcellus fall with an arrow in his chest.”
“No Father, he is alive. I rewove his life thread so the death arrow wouldn’t pierce his heart.”
Amren sunk his fingers into the cave’s dirt floor. “This is the disloyal act of a stupid girl blinded by love—not a noble princess I raised to put family and kingdom first. I must now go to war against my own son Marrock and King Cunobelin. The Romans will likely join their cause after what we did to their soldiers today at the prisoner exchange. Just when I needed you, you betrayed me and my people when you helped the Roman enemy. Your act of changing the future might have altered Rhan’s curse. In what way, I can’t be certain until I inspect the dagger’s inscription. You’ve left me with no choice but to charge you with treason!”
Catrin felt as if a mule had kicked her in the stomach, and she gasped. “Father, you can’t do this.”
“I can and I will. I will serve you the same justice as any subject who betrays me,” Amren said coldly. “Trystan, come here!”
The commander walked from the shadows. Amren’s face turned leaden as he ordered, “Detain Catrin as a prisoner until her trial …”
Amren went limp as he rolled over on the cave’s muddy floor.
Conflicting emotions of shock, fear, love and hate whirled inside Catrin as she pressed her trembling fingers on her father’s neck. Feeling no pulse, she pressed harder.
Suddenly, the king swatted her hand away. She recoiled in terror when his eyes fixed on her like a venomous snake. “Trystan, hold my daughter as prisoner.”
Horrified, Catrin pleaded to the commander for mercy. In his scowl, she could see none.
Trystan clenched her arm and dragged her to the cave opening.
Once outside, Trystan ordered a warrior to bind her to a tree until the next morning when they would return to the capital. In the long night’s gloom, unforgiving rain washed the tears away from Catrin’s face. Branded as a traitor for loving Marcellus, she must now share Rhan’s fate for treason.
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