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County Kilkenny, 1888
I could feel his strong hands on my arms. They were rough against my skin and as they moved down towards my waist, I knew what was about to happen. He would make me his, whether I wanted him to or not. It had been a long time since a man, any man, had dared lay hands on me. And as he looked into my eyes, I knew there was nothing I could do to stop him…
Ciara sat up and looked around the bedroom. Where had he gone? She had felt his hands on her, seen his dark green eyes staring into hers and known he would have her no matter what she wanted. Her fists clenched the covers as she tried to catch her breath. She could almost smell the scent of him, lingering in the room.
It had to have been magic. He wasn’t there, but he was close. She jumped out of bed and pulled her shawl around her. This wasn’t the first dream she’d had about Donal, but it was by far the most unsettling. She forced herself to calm down as she walked into the main room of the cottage.
Seeing the embers were still warm, she added more peat to the fire and put the kettle on. Glad she’d filled it with water the night before, she decided to look through her grandmother’s books while she waited. A cup of tea would help calm her nerves…but finding the right potion would be even better. The books were lined up neatly on the shelves by the fireplace.
As she opened the shutters to let in the light, Riordan jumped onto the sill. He meowed once, then landed on the chair by the fire. Carefully washing a paw, he watched her set the books on a small table next to the chair. He kept washing as she started flipping through pages in the first book. Finally, he stopped and looked at her for a moment, then stepped down and touched the book under the one she had opened.
“Fine,” Ciara said, blowing a loose curl of auburn hair out of her eyes. “If you know where it is, why don’t you just tell me what I need to do about this.”
Riordan jumped down to the floor and rubbed his body against the leg of the chair. Then, walked over and stared at the door.
“Yes, I know we need to leave,” Ciara agreed. “What I’m wondering is how do we do it without him following us? He’s closer than I expected.” She sat down on the chair and put her head in her hands. “He’ll be here by nightfall.”
Her grandmother had warned her about Donal a few weeks before she’d died. He was a sorcerer, who’d been taking any and all magic he could find for years. Her grandmother had been a powerful witch…powerful enough to block his magic, but Ciara was not.
A few months ago, her grandmother had taken sick and the next day, the dreams had started. At first, they were harmless enough. A tall, blond man with dark green eyes. He was very handsome until you looked too closely. Then, one saw the hard set of his mouth and the anger in his eyes. When she told her grandmother about the dreams, she found out it was Donal O’Brien.
“He’s a sorcerer, Ciara,” her grandmother had said. “He’s drawn to magic and when he can, he steals it from others. Sometimes he charms it away from unwary young witches, other times he seduces them with the promise of more power, but once he has what he wants, he moves on.”
“I won’t be fooled,” Ciara had replied. “I have no desire to get more power or give what little I have away. Surely, there must be far more talented women than myself, when it comes to magic.” She’d stopped and offered a small smile. “I’m a healer, not a witch.”
“I thought that would protect you,” her grandmother had said, sadly. “Apparently, I was wrong. I should have taught you more, prepared you more for all of this.” She’d paused and looked up, patting her hand. “You have much more ability than you know. Remember that.”
The next day, Riordan had shown up. A skinny, gray striped cat with an attitude, he’d followed Ciara everywhere. He watched as she prepared teas for her grandmother to lower her fever. Sat by the fire as Ciara went through each book, hoping to find some potion that might help. Finally, she realized there was nothing more she could do.
“I’m so sorry, my dear,” her grandmother had said, holding her hand. “I cannot stay with you much longer. I’ve taught you everything about healing that I know, but Riordan can still show you a few things. Trust him. He’s more than just a cat.”
As if she’d had to explain that to Ciara. She’d read the books. She knew what a familiar could do.
Riordan walked over and rubbed against her leg, bringing her back to the present, then stared at the book. Nodding, she opened it and quickly thumbed through the pages. “Here it is,” she said. “A spell to disguise a traveler. That’s what we need.”
She scratched Riordan behind the ears, then got her tea. Deciding she was hungry after all, she tore off some bread, then sat down at the dining table. “No reason to make breakfast,” she said, munching on the bread. “We’ll have to be on the road within the hour. It will take us until late afternoon to reach New Ross. From there, we can take the train to Wexford, then board a ship for England. Maybe that will finally get us to freedom.”
She looked down at Riordan, who simply stared back at her, then he jumped on the table and tapped the book with one paw. Turning a few more pages, she saw the protection potion.
“It will take time to gather all these plants. We won’t reach town before dark.” As Riordan continued staring at her, she nodded her head. “Very well. I’ve learned that when I don’t follow your advice, I usually regret it.”
As she walked out of the cottage to gather the herbs, she turned back and looked at the whitewashed walls and thatched roof. Then, she saw the roses blooming against the wall and smiled. Dark red and almost as tall as the chimney, she stopped to smell their fragrance on her way to the herb garden. She would miss the plants even more than the cottage, she thought, leaning down to pick some lavender.
She’d brought her basket and it was soon filled with thyme, sage, rosemary, fennel, a bit of rue and the lavender. As she went back in, she took some of the rose petals and added them to the rest. There was power in the things you loved. Her grandmother had taught her that the first day she’d arrived.
“Never underestimate the power you give to that, which you care for,” she’d said. “When you put a bit of yourself into something, your power goes with it. And by surrounding yourself with those things, you create a shield that cannot easily be broken.”
Except by a powerful sorcerer. Ciara shook her head and took the herbs into the cottage, setting the basket on the table. She brought the book over and checked that she had everything she needed. Normally, she remembered every detail, but this was important and there wouldn’t be time to make a second batch.
She smiled as she saw the familiar writing and realized she’d miss her grandmother’s books, too. She looked over at the shelf and knew she couldn’t take them with her. It would slow her down to have too much baggage…but she couldn’t leave everything behind. She walked over and picked up two books and brought them over to the table. She’d take these and the one with protection potion. They were her heritage and they might be of use. Even if she couldn’t stop Donal, she might be able to slow him down. Or confuse him. She took a deep breath and went back to the herbs.
A few hours later, she had everything packed and looked around once more at the cottage. She straightened her shoulders, said a thank you to her grandmother and walked out the door. Riordan meowed once, then followed her.
They made good time on the road and only one wagon passed them on their way to New Ross. It was getting dark as they reached the edge of town and Riordan brushed against her leg as they passed a tavern.
“We don’t have time to stop,” she said, quietly. “We’ve got to get on the train tonight.”
She knew the last one left at half past eight. It was not a long trip to Wexford, but she didn’t know if there would be a ferry that late. She had enough money to get a room and wait for the crossing first thing the next morning. Still not sure if her plan would work, she decided to focus on getting to Wexford and putting distance between herself and Donal.
As she walked up to the ticket booth, Riordan veered off towards the railway tracks. “I’d like a ticket to Wexford,” Ciara said, watching the man look around and behind her.
“You traveling by yourself, Miss?” he asked.
When she nodded, he handed her a ticket as she gave him the money. “Train should be on time tonight. It’ll be leaving in twenty minutes.”
Ciara smiled and walked over to the bench. She put her two bags on the ground and sat down. She watched Riordan stalk a mouse by the station, then her gaze moved past him to the two men arguing. She could barely make out what they were saying.
“I told you going to England won’t solve anything,” the taller one said. He seemed angry and muttered something else she couldn’t make out.
“It’s worth a try,” the other man replied. He turned away from her and walked towards the ticket booth.
Ciara waited another few minutes, then saw the train coming towards them. As it pulled up, she suddenly felt a wave of nausea sweep over her. A moment later, the feelings of anger and frustration were almost overwhelming. Then, just as quickly they were gone. Thankful she was already sitting down, she closed her eyes and took a few deep breaths.
“Everything alright, Miss?” she heard. Opening her eyes, she saw the second man looking down at her, concern clouding his eyes.
“I’ll be fine,” she replied. Taking another breath, she added, “Thank you.”
He nodded and held out a hand. “Sean MacLir,” he said. “Happy to make your acquaintance, Miss….”
“Morrighan,” Ciara replied.
“Miss Morrighan,” Sean repeated, smiling. She was a bonny lass, he thought, with her red hair and blue eyes. “Are you traveling to Wexford alone?” At her look, he added, “I only ask because you look a bit…um, tired.”
Ciara gave him a small smile. “I didn’t eat dinner,” she admitted, although she knew the feeling had more to do with Donal finding her cottage empty than a lack of food. She couldn’t help glancing around. “I’ll eat in Wexford.”
“I’d be happy to accompany you if you like.” Sean smiled, but Ciara shook her head.
“Thank you, but I already have plans,” she replied. In truth, she did not…she just wanted to get through the night and put the Irish Sea between herself and Donal.
“Then, I’ll take no more of your time,” Sean said, bowing slightly. Glancing back once, he smiled as he got on the train. Ciara picked up her bags and followed him, sitting down on a bench at the opposite end. No reason to make friends, she thought. She wouldn’t be in Ireland after tomorrow.
At the last minute, Riordan jumped onto the train and somehow a commotion started among the passengers as the cat slipped under her seat. Ciara smiled slightly and shook her head. No one had seen the cat and she doubted they’d notice him when they got off the train either. Riordan was very good at blending into the background.
An hour later, she and the cat were walking to the hotel across from the Wexford train station. It was large and seemed fairly clean. If they had a room available, Ciara would be happy to get some sleep and deal with everything the next morning. However, Riordan had other ideas.
As soon as they walked into their room, he started mewing. “We can’t go back out,” Ciara said. “We just got here.”
Riordan gave her a look, then swished his tail and cocked his head to one side.
“Alright, we’ll get something to eat,” Ciara agreed. “But we get the food and come right back. It won’t take Donal long to figure out where we’ve gone. Wexford is the most logical choice.”
As they walked into the pub across the street, Riordan vanished under a table and reappeared as soon as she was seated. They ordered fish and chips with Riordan eating a third of the fish, then he disappeared out the door.
Ciara smiled slightly, knowing he’d show up again when she went back to the hotel. She looked around and realized Sean MacLir was sitting at a table across the room, watching her.
She nodded and was not surprised, when he walked over. “I see you’re enjoying dinner with your friend,” he said, smiling.
“He seemed hungry,” Ciara replied, surprised he had noticed Riordan. “Won’t you sit down?” she added, hoping to keep his mind off the cat.
“Thank you,” Sean said, taking a seat. “I hope you feel better after the meal.”
“I do indeed,” Ciara agreed, smiling. She noticed his brown hair seemed darker in the glow of the gas lamps.
“What brings you to Wexford?” Sean asked. “If I’m not being too personal?”
“I’m on my way to England to visit relatives,” Ciara replied. She wished that were true, but in fact there was no one now that her grandmother was gone.
As she stood to leave, Sean got up with her. “Can I walk you back to your hotel?” She saw he was only a few inches taller than she was, but he looked like he’d have no trouble holding his own in any fight. His gray eyes looked into hers for a moment, then he smiled.
“It’s just across the street,” Ciara replied.
“Then, I’ll wish you a good evening and a safe trip,” Sean replied, following her to the door. He watched as she walked to the hotel, then turned and headed down the street, glancing up once at the clouds covering the moon.
Ciara was back in her room, getting ready for bed, when the moon finally broke through the clouds. She looked over at Riordan and said, “It’s a good thing we cleansed the crystals last night. There’s not enough moonlight to do a good job of it this evening.”
Riordan jumped up on the dresser and stared at her for a moment, then sat down and washed a paw.
“Yes, I brought them,” she said, smiling. “And the books, the herbs and even a few candles. I’m surprised I had any room for my clothes.”
She knew she could buy more dresses in London. In fact, she’d planned on it. The last thing she wanted was to look like an Irish lass from a small village. She doubted Donal would follow her, but she planned to make sure of it. She took one more look at the dark sky, then got up and closed the curtains. As she turned back to the bed, she thought she heard a wolf howling…but that was ridiculous. There wouldn’t be any wolves in a town as large as Wexford.
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