When Cassie Martin slips through the top-secret time-bridge to find herself in 1348 Avignon, France, she has high hopes that she can make this trip a quick and magical one, and most of all, keep it secret from her lover Aaron Reegan. She wants to get onto Avignon’s famous bridge, see it and get back within minutes. Then, Cassie comes through the time-bridge the first person to see her is a cruel monk who calls her Hecate and “Death’s Maiden.”
Top-secret time travel facility? Creepy (yet mysterious) fellow reporter Syd Meyer who has lied and betrayed Cassie? No-nonsense ex-Delta force Army Captain who loves BDSM play, has a riding crop – and will use it, if only he can also follow Cassie back in time and find her.
What could possibly go wrong?
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Day One: Saturday, March 15, 1348
Avignon, France: Plus one hour
Her awakening was not gentle. Cassie Martin sat, semi-upright, propped against a stone wall, and her first sensation was that her head hurt badly. Her best guess was that someone had dropped the back of her head indifferently against the rock wall. The stench and cacophony of language around her was unrelenting, just on the edge of her comprehension. Her stomach roiled with nausea.
In the instant before she opened her eyes, she’d had a moment of desperate hope that it was all a dream, but she realized in the same instant that it was not. She knew where she was; she knew it was real. She, Cassie Marie Martin, twenty-eight years old, lay, dressed in a cast-off Halloween costume, a folded dish towel turban, and a knitted scarf-belt, on the Saint Benezet Bridge in Avignon, France. She had been born in the late twentieth century in rural Wisconsin, but today was March 15, 1348.
The time-bridge worked. Syd Meyer had really been able to open it. Together, they had walked through it, walked into a reeking miasma populated by cruel-eyed monks and bodies floating in the water. Then the time-bridge had closed, its evil hum evaporating totally in a millisecond.
It was a not-to-be-believed impossibility. And it was true.
Cassie licked her dry lips and looked at her hands, aching terribly, and she saw why. They were bound too tightly with rough rope, her hands already darkened to purple with stagnant blood. Why had someone had a length of rope at the ready? she wondered, but then she realized the answer. From the dirtiness of the cord, and the knots, she knew it was the belt of one of the monks. While she had been unconscious, someone had dragged her over to the side of the bridge, slammed her carelessly into the wall, and tied her wrists.
Cassie had always wondered if people really could faint from fear or emotion, like the heroines so often did in historical books and old time movies. Now she knew: they could. Unfortunately, here there was no one to rush up with smelling salts and to lay her solicitously on a settee. Here, they tied her hands brutally tight with coarse rope and left her.
Cassie felt herself fading out again, but this time she fought the fainting and ruthlessly forced herself to stay conscious. The monks out in the middle of the bridge were still casting their dark gazes towards her and Syd, but they were also craning their necks at something in the distance.
Next to Cassie, Syd Meyer lay, still moaning. He was not writhing as frantically as he had been earlier, but he was obviously in significant pain. “Syd. Can you hear me? What happened?”
“Oh, Cassie,” he gasped out. “I’m burned.”
As ragged as his voice was with pain, Cassie knew at once that mentally he was all there. Syd Meyer had betrayed her, more than once, the last time only minutes before they’d gone through the time-bridge, but for right now he was all she had, and she was pathetically grateful that he was conscious.
“How did it happen?” Cassie glanced up furtively, to see if their conversation would garner notice, but all the monks were now craning their necks, gazing down the bridge. Everyone around her was standing. From her seated position below the clustered crowd, she couldn’t see what everyone was looking at, but she knew nevertheless: Queen Joanna’s procession. The fact that it was still some distance away told Cassie that she had not been unconscious for long. “The burns. How did it happen?”
“I don’t know. You didn’t get hurt?”
“Coming through the…” she stammered over the word, “time-bridge? No. It hurt, but…” Her eyes flickered over Syd, who lay next to her still curled in a fetal position. “Not like what happened to you.” She paused. “What did happen to you?”
“I don’t know,” Syd whispered. He rolled onto his back, gingerly lifted his tee shirt, and pulled the front of his jeans slightly away from his body. His hands were shaking. “All the metal melted.”
Cassie saw it then, although she wasn’t sure exactly what she was seeing. The button at the top of his jeans did look melted. No longer round, it was now a distorted lump. Underneath was his fat belly, Cassie caught of a glimpse of white flesh that had, seconds earlier, been under the snap of his jeans. A brilliant raw red mark was there; the metal of the jeans snap had melted all the way through the fabric. “Are you going to die?” Cassie whispered. She had absolutely no idea how badly he was really hurt.
“No. I don’t think so. But my God it hurts. My feet too. I don’t think I can walk.”
The first comment that came to mind was, of course, that he needed to get medical treatment, but Cassie cut that absurdity off before she even uttered the words. Next to her, Syd carefully eased himself out of his fetal curl and, moaning, brought himself to a sitting position. Cassie noticed immediately that the monks had not tied him.
“We did it,” he whispered, and in spite of everything, Cassie was glad to hear his voice returning to some sort of normalcy. “And, we’re stuck here.”
Suddenly, an image crashed into Cassie’s brain, something incredibly that she had not remembered when she had come to her senses after her faint. “Maybe not. Oh my God, maybe not, Syd.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He came through. Someone came through after us.”
“What?” Syd’s voice was growing stronger by the moment, but now went hushed with emotion. “Who came through?”
“When I was on the stairs, I could see back down into the chapel. And the tech guy… the one with red hair. He came through after us.”
“Sam Winslow.” Syd paused a long moment. “Are you positive?”
“Yeah, I am. He was wearing a tee shirt and boxers. And he was carrying something. I’m sure of it.”
“Carrying…” Sid breathed. “Was it… oh my God, was it one of the anchors?”
Cassie shook her head. “I don’t know. I mean, I was looking back down into the chapel from on the stairs. I couldn’t see the time-bridge, the light I mean, just maybe the very edge of it. He flashed by the door for just an instant, and then maybe ten, fifteen seconds later, he ran back.”
“Could it have been one of the anchors?” Syd angled himself even more upright and caught Cassie’s arm in a desperate grip.
“I… don’t know.” Cassie’s head was spinning as she tried to recreate the very quick glimpse. The anchor was the piece of technology that went back with the travelers and allowed the technicians in present day Wisconsin to connect to and reopen the time-bridge to the exact place and time so the travelers could return. It was the connection between past and present. In the video she’d watched countless times of the trip through the time-bridge to Pompeii, the anchor had been carried by one of the travelers, encased in a heavy bag, so she hadn’t actually seen it. “It looked heavy. From the way he was running, yeah,” she repeated, “he was carrying something heavy. It could have been the anchor.”
Syd shook his head, a quick hard motion. “It couldn’t have been anything else. It had to be.”
Without warning, one of the monks standing on the bridge turned and noticed Syd and Cassie talking to each other. He loomed over her and his foot shot out, catching her on the side of her thigh. “Tace,” he screamed and then turned back to look into the distance, without verifying that his directive, whatever it had been, had been obeyed.
Cassie rolled away from the kick groaning. She didn’t know what was more shocking, the pain itself, or the fact that someone had, with no preamble or warning whatsoever, just kicked her.
When it was obvious that the monk’s interest was elsewhere, Syd whispered, “What was that?”
“I don’t know,” Cassie answered, her voice catching. “Shut up would be a good guess.”
“Can you understand them?”
“Some,” she responded quietly, trying to ignore the pain in her leg. Fortunately, the monk was wearing some sort of soft leather shoes, and he had not really kicked her that hard; still it hurt. “The monks seem to be speaking something that sounds a lot more like Italian than French or Latin. I’m getting some of it. When we came through one of them called me virgo mortis. Maiden of Death.” Cassie lowered her voice even further, and moved closer to Syd. “So, if Sam Winslow brought an anchor back, what does that mean? Is someone going to come back for us?”
Syd responded by also moving his body closer to Cassie’s, a motion that caused a grimace of pain to wash across his face, but quickly he brought his breathing under control and answered. “If he brought an anchor back, and left it, yes, that means they can open the time-bridge again. And I can’t imagine why he’d risk coming through, with an anchor, and then not leave it.”
“How did he know?”
“That we’d come through. That the time-bridge was open?”
“Who knows?” Syd looked up into the sky, his expression distant and considering. “How long do you think the time-bridge was open?”
“I don’t know. I think I passed out when we came through but I’d say at least ten minutes. Probably more like fifteen.”
“At some point, if no one shuts it down, it’s going to put a huge pull on the reactor.”
Cassie knew that. In fact, as she had considered her options when she’d first come through and realized that Syd was hurt, that very question had occurred to her. What would happen in modern Wisconsin if no one shut the time-bridge down?
Syd continued. “Remember, I told you that I thought it was possible that a technician slept on site? My guess is that someone – well, obviously, Sam Winslow – was there and they called him or paged him somehow.”
“The staff at the reactor. And he came into the control room and saw what was going on and… somehow… managed to program an anchor quickly enough to bring it back and leave it.”
“So they can come back for us?”
Frantically, Cassie looked around. “Will they?” Cassie could not keep the desperate hope out of her voice. “Do you think they will? Like, are they coming right now?”
“No,” Syd said.
“Why not?” she asked desperately.
But before Syd could answer, the crowd surged around them, and without warning several of the monks rushed over to them and hauled them to their feet, their gripping hands cruel and hard. Syd screamed and fell back down, his burned feet collapsing beneath him; the monks ignored him but dragged Cassie forward, the man’s grip on her arm brutal. Two of the monks were looking at her, shouting at each other and pointing at her.
Standing, Cassie’s view down the bridge was restored, and the sense of unreality that had faded somewhat crashed back over her, so intense that she was unaware of the pain in her throbbing hands and kicked leg. She and Syd had been forced to the wall of the narrow bridge, perhaps ten or fifteen feet from the upper level of the chapel, between the window and a small open shrine which jutted out over the water. She stood, trying to take it all in, trying to figure out everything that was causing her disorientation, and then one thing occurred to her like a lightning bolt: in modern times, a four lane highway crossed the Rhone river about a quarter of a mile south of the ruined bridge, the car and truck traffic constant. Now, of course, there was nothing but open land, water, and sky.
Cassie’s eyes surged to the right, towards the French side of the river, towards Villeneuve, and took in the full half mile expanse of the bridge. Somehow she had always assumed that the medieval bridge was arrow straight, but in fact, that was not so. The span took a fairly significant jog to the left, and, Cassie realized, Joanna’s procession, the head of which now had clearly almost reached her, still stretched back as far as the turn. Even at this distance, she could see how mobbed the bridge was with spectators surrounding people on horseback and carried sedan chairs.
As she watched, perhaps a hundred yards down the span, a man who had been standing on the bridge’s side walls to get a better view tumbled off into the water, arms windmilling as he fell. He screamed and thrashed, then sank from view. A few people leaned over the edge, watched, and pointed, but once the bobbing, struggling body disappeared, the show was over. For a moment, Cassie’s thoughts were off herself as she watched the spectacle, and her mouth went dry as she realized in utter shock that no one even tried to do more.
Cassie froze. So intent had she been on what stretched far in the distance that she had not realized what was almost upon her. Low-voiced chanting suddenly surrounded her and then people around her began dropping to their knees in waves. When Cassie did not instantly follow suit, she was forced down, hard. Her knees, already bruised from being pushed to the hard stones earlier, throbbed with pain, but what was now passing was so overwhelming she could not even register it. Although she had been forced to her knees, no one seemed to expect that she keep her eyes down and not look; Cassie raised her head and stared.
The bridge was barely ten feet across; everything was so close she could almost reach out and touch those passing in front of her. First, two priests passed, swinging smoking braziers. In spite of the general stench, Cassie caught the biting scent of incense. Then a line of chanting monks passed by in pairs, lock step, their low-voiced plainsong strangely tuneless to her modern ears, but powerful all the same.
This is real. This is real. This is real. The words pounded in her mind; she had matched them to the chant of the monks, like a prayer.
Then red-gowned men followed, all wearing flat, wide-brimmed red hats. They walked slowly and somberly, hands clasped in front of them in prayer. These were, Cassie realized, the entire college of cardinals that attended on Pope Clement. Cassie had read modern descriptions of Joanna’s entrance into Avignon, and the queen had been portrayed as leading the procession, but now Cassie saw that it was not true. “Syd,” Cassie turned her head and called behind her. “Syd, my God, you have to see this. The queen is almost here.” Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Syd struggling to his knees on the hard cobbles.
In front of her the procession slowed, then stopped. A horse pranced, caparisoned brightly, on its back a fully armed knight, chain mail gleaming. Just behind the knight was another, and just beyond that, Cassie could see a glimpse of a much smaller, white horse. It was Joanna, Queen of Naples, Countess of Provence. It had to be.
Cassie craned her neck to see around the two mounted knights, but the horses were too big, too restless. Their hooves clattered against the cobbles, so hard that once Cassie saw a spark. Still kneeling, she was no more than four feet from the war horse’s huge hooves.
Someone started screaming, just as Cassie had worried the horses were too close; the second horse had shied into the crowd and trampled one of the monks, who collapsed and lay writhing. Everyone ignored him. Cassie hoped for a brief second that it was the cruel gray-bearded monk who had called her Hecate – goddess of the underworld – when she had come through the time-bridge, but she quickly saw this was not the case. All around her, the crowd rippled with excitement, and Cassie knew suddenly that she was the reason the procession had stopped. A monk pointed at her, eyes glittering with fear and malice.
“What’s happening?” Syd’s hoarse voice came from behind her.
“They’re talking about me, I think,” she answered. She caught the words “miracle” and “demon” on the wind, and she knew it was true.
“What about me?”
“I don’t know,” Cassie whispered back over her shoulder. “Maybe they forgot about you.”
“God, I hope so,” came Syd’s fervent reply.
Suddenly, there were shouts, and with no warning, Cassie was dragged to her feet, propelled back in the line, past the two mounted knights, then forced to kneel. Again, she was slammed to her knees, this time with enough force to do real damage. Inadvertently, she cried out.
She saw instantly where she was, what was in front of her. Four men carried a purple canopy on poles, a canopy which shaded a white horse, led by two additional men. Gold fringe hung off the canopy in long colorful streams. Under the canopy, seated on the dainty beautiful horse, was Queen Joanna of Naples.
Cassie could only stare. It was impossible, even at this distance, to really ascertain what Joanna looked like, as her face was painted a ghastly white, her cheeks and lips rouged red. She wore a gown of purple velvet, richly embroidered with gold fleur-de-lys, a white fur cloak, and her head was covered with a white veil. On top of the white veil sat a crown and she carried a scepter in her arms. Then Joanna looked directly to her, and their eyes caught and held for a long moment, the queen’s narrowing and glittering with mistrust and malice.
As Cassie watched, one of the red-hatted cardinals approached yet another man, well-dressed, all black velvet and richly trimmed armor. Around her, conversations buzzed.
The man lowered his head to the much shorter cardinal, listened and nodded, looking towards Cassie. Her knees hurt and she didn’t know how much longer she could hold the posture, but knew that to break the kneel or to fall would gain her very unwanted notice. She had very real fear that her now-numb hands would not support her if she did fall. Desperately she took a deep breath and tried to keep herself steady and push the throbbing pain out of her mind.
Cassie knew from her research that Queen Joanna’s husband Louis of Taranto had come into Avignon only the previous day, along with the queen’s most trusted advisor, Niccolo Acciaioli. Could this be one of those two men? From the way he walked to the side of the horse and spoke up to Joanna, showing no deference, he had to be an intimate.
Louis’ arrival, which in Cassie’s book, had been greeted happily by Joanna was actually a major point in The Provencal Princess. Now, however, kneeling here, seeing this couple in front of her, if the man was Louis of Taranto, Cassie knew she had definitely gotten things wrong. Without question this man gave the queen no joy.
The couple argued briefly, but then, with no warning, the queen called out. Three more men ran up instantly, one taking the scepter from her, and the other two lifting her from the horse, setting her down on the opposite side of her horse from the man who had been arguing with her. Out of nowhere, a richly dressed young boy ran up and caught the queen’s train, lifted it high.
Angrily, the well-dressed man came around the horse, and caught the queen’s arm and again said something, low and fierce, directly into her ear. Without even looking at the man, Joanna shook him away and approached Cassie. The man’s gaze moved to Cassie now, full on, dripping hatred. She’d made an enemy already, she realized. Without moving or speaking, she had caused this man, whomever he was, to loathe her.
Great. Join the club.
The queen approached her, swept fully to the front of Cassie’s body. Somehow, the knight on horseback that had been directly ahead of the queen’s palfrey had managed to move his mount so there was actually a clear space for the queen to walk. A courtier rushed forward and spread a velvet cloak down onto the slime encrusted cobbles, then a second, making a clear clean path for the queen to tread, so her slippers, which Cassie could see were soft and embroidered, did not have to touch the filthy paving stones. The queen moved to her, her skirt held up, the page behind her with the train.
The queen’s scent, sweet and spicy at the same time, wafted around her, the first remotely pleasant odor Cassie had smelled since she’d come back through the time-bridge. Even to her modern nose, she knew that whatever unguent had been used to produce the exotic scent, it was very rare and expensive. She’d never smelled anything like this at the cosmetic counter at the Boston Store.
The queen’s hand shot out and without warning, jerked free the linen dish towel Cassie had twisted into a makeshift turban, tore it off and cast it to the ground. Cassie’s red-blonde locks tumbled around her. Silently, the queen reached out and touched the hair, unable to keep from gasping. Cassie had no certain idea the reason for her surprise, but given the fact that shampoo and conditioner were fairly hard to come by in fourteenth century Italy, it was not hard to guess that Cassie’s hair might be the cleanest the queen had ever seen.
Suddenly, the queen’s hand caught in the back of Cassie’s head, claw-like, gripping her hair and jerking her head back. Their eyes locked. “Qui es?”
Cassie knew enough Latin to understand the question, Who are you? She also knew, however, that her college Latin would not extend to any real conversation. Despite the fact that Joanna ruled Naples, an Italian kingdom, her family was Angevin, primarily French. Plus, Joanna’s mother had been the niece of the King of France. Cassie could only pray she spoke French.
“Je suis ange.” I am an angel.
Joanna’s eyes widened slightly in her face, though any other emotion was impossible to read against the ghastly whiteness of the cosmetics. She snapped a response in fast colloquial Latin.
Cassie held her gaze. “I am an angel,” she said in careful French. “I only speak French.”
“You are no angel,” Joanna responded in the same language. “Nothing but a whore of a spy sent by the Father.”
Cassie felt a brief wash of incredible relief. The queen’s French was surprisingly understandable, much closer to modern French than she could ever have hoped for. For a second, the phrase “the Father” threw Cassie off, but then she realized that the word Joanna had used was not “pere” – father, but was “Papa,” which actually meant the pope. “I am an angel,” she repeated. “Come to save you.”
“Save me?” Joanna’s hand tightened in Cassie’s hair so hard that she was afraid it would be pulled out. “I need no saving from you. Who are you? There are good ways to find the truth.”
Cassie’s belly cramped horribly in terror, because she knew the ways that truths were discovered in medieval Europe, and there was nothing good about any of them. They tortured you until you said what they wanted to hear. If you still refused to say what they wanted to hear, they cut your tongue out and nodded your head for you. All around, pretty much a losing deal.
Abruptly, one of the monks rushed up dragging another monk, who was crying out in fear and fighting against the first monk. Cassie recognized him. He was the man that had been in the chapel when they had come through, the man who had screamed and prayed, crossing himself frantically at the sight of them. Clearly not trusting that simply kneeling was obsequious enough, he threw himself flat onto the disgusting stones at Joanna’s feet and spewed out a frantic stream of explanation in Latin. Cassie only caught a word here or there, but she didn’t need to be a linguist to understand that he was relating Cassie’s arrival from the underworld in a ring of black light. To punctuate his tale the other monk moaned out the word “Hecate” every ten or fifteen seconds.
Then out of the blue, someone seemed to remember Syd, for with no warning they thrust him forward as well. The hysterical explanation continued, and even the man Joanna had spurned earlier, the one Cassie had guessed might be her husband Louis, walked up next to the queen and became involved in the shouted, frantic discussion. At one point, Joanna turned to the man and, in argument, said, “Mio Signore.” Even a queen must, in fourteenth century France refer to her husband as “my Lord,” and this confirmed it. This was Louis of Taronto.
The argument continued. The horse of the rearmost knight relieved itself onto the cobbles in a huge splash of steaming urine; no one seemed to notice.
Suddenly, Joanna held up her hand and all, even the husband, fell silent. Although she spoke loudly for all to hear, as she spoke she stared into Cassie’s eyes. “Throw the fat one into the river. Let God decide if he lives or dies.” Joanna waved her hand again. “The woman, it’s equal to me what you do with her. It is a trick. I want nothing to do with this. She is a spy.” Joanna turned and walked back towards her palfrey, her steps mincing, her train held high by the sneering page boy.
Cassie’s breath exploded from her lungs. Her realization from only minutes earlier, that she was likely to die soon and horribly, crashed into her brain. She’d had no idea just how quickly the predication was going to come true. Joanna’s words about the river, though, clicked into awareness. She could go into the river. It would be freezing cold, and unbelievably foul but she would be willing to bet that there was not a man or woman living in this world that could catch her, once she was in the water. Even with her hands tied, she could flip over on her back and swim with her legs only; she could still get away unless they shot her with arrows.
In college she had gotten her scuba certification, and one fact that had come up during that training was how long a person could survive in water of a certain temperature. It had shocked her at the time to learn that a good swimmer could survive at least an hour in forty to fifty degree water, which was, she calculated about what the Rhone was in March.
It would be her best chance, if the alternative was being turned over to these grasping monks. They might kill Syd indifferently and quickly, but she doubted that same fate would be hers.
Turning her neck, Cassie looked at the water below her and saw in the distance yet another bloated, floating body. “Last resort” didn’t even begin to cover it, but the truth was she was nearly there.
Joanna was almost to her horse, and two of the monks, eyes gleaming with horrific purpose moved towards Cassie and Syd.
“Fuck,” Syd whispered next to her. Cassie had no idea how much of the French he’d understood, but it seemed obvious he’d gotten at least some of it. Then, his voice came again, still ragged with pain, but clear and emphatic. “Tell her that you can keep her from getting sick.”
Cassie flipped her head to look at Syd, and saw him looking up at her, his face twisted but fully aware. “Tell her,” he repeated.
Cassie’s mind racing, she translated, but she couldn’t think of how to say “prevent” in French. Finally, she settled on, “I know what makes people sick.”
Joanna froze, but she did not turn back. She was listening, though; Cassie knew it. She needed to press her advantage before it was lost. Think, Cassie admonished herself hysterically, Think! You studied this woman for months. Even if only a tenth of what had been written, what you studied was true, you must know something.
Then it came to her. As Joanna had turned away, Cassie had seen the bulge of her pregnancy. She was five or six months gone with child, a girl which would be born in the coming June. Cassie surged forward, so suddenly that the monk holding her lost his grip. “I know what happens to your son,” she shouted to Joanna’s back.
Joanna froze, turned slowly. Her face went absolutely still, but her eyes were full of desperate emotion.
Lowering her voice just slightly, Cassie said, “I know what happens to Carlo.” She lowered her voice. “What will happen.” She used the future tense deliberately.
Joanna staggered as if she’d been struck and Cassie realized she was only keeping herself on her feet by force of will. It had been said of the queen that she’d been devastated to abandon her toddler son in Naples when she fled – even her enemies had admitted that she loved the child – and from her reaction it was true. She stared at Cassie full on for five, ten, fifteen seconds of dreadful silence.
Joanna of Naples turned away. She waved her hand over her shoulder in a dismissive motion. “Bring her,” she ordered.
“The man?” Cassie called out.
For one final time, Joanna paused, then the small flip of her hand again. “Bring them,” she ordered. “I go to the Clarissan House. Bring them both,” she repeated.