Territory between the Iceni and Trinovante Kingdoms
“Why are you watching me?” The woman didn’t turn as she spoke.
Though Camulos knew her face to be fair and fine boned, the blond curls tumbling down her back and the brown woolen skirt concealing her legs were all he could see from the shadows. Great trees loomed overhead, casting the shade he hid within. It terminated at the edge of a clearing that was blanketed with snow.
How had she sensed him? He’d made a point to stay concealed, to keep to the dark of the forest as she’d practiced her archery in the clearing. Then again, he visited earth so rarely that he was no expert at remaining unseen.
Or perhaps he’d wanted her to see him this time.
“Well?” She spun, gripping her bow loosely at her side. Ire sparked in her green eyes.
She was lovely, though that wasn’t what drew him. There were plenty of beautiful gods in Otherworld. No, it was the damnable fact that she made his chest feel strange. Like he knew her, though he was sure he’d never met her.
His foot moved forward. His mind stopped it. Revealing himself to a mortal, especially this mortal… No good could come of it. If he was to kill her, as he should, then it would be better if she didn’t see him.
But from the relaxed way she held her bow, she wasn’t afraid of him. Or she was confident enough in her speed to think that she could pluck an arrow from her quiver, sight it, and kill him with a shot.
Little did she know.
“You’ve been watching me for days. I want to know why,” she demanded. Her grip on the bow tightened. Nerves?
“Maybe because I want to know how a girl like you can shoot a bow like that.” The words were out of his mouth before his mind could stop them.
Her bow was up, arrow sighted, drawn, and fired a mere second before a thudding sound to his left made him glance down. Her arrow vibrated where it pinned the bottom of his cloak to the tree. He raised a brow and nodded.
“You’re as skilled as they said.” Though they hadn’t mentioned how beautiful she was. Or that she had the ability to make a god’s chest feel odd.
“Of course I am, but who are they that you speak of?”
“The gods,” he said, yanking his cloak from the tree and stepping forward. Perhaps it was best that she fear him. The cockiness of her tone made his chest feel even stranger. Was this what emotion felt like?
“The gods.” She laughed disbelievingly, but when sunlight hit his face as he walked out of the shadow, she stepped backward, her knuckles whitening around the bow. “Who are you?”
“Camulos.” He should make her fear him. It would make it easier to kill her. He’d see the light of panic in her eyes, and she’d be just another mortal.
Her brow creased. “The god of war? Here? In my woods?”
“No, you’re not.”
“I am.” His head drew back. She didn’t believe him?
“You can’t play me for a fool. The gods don’t come to earth. They haven’t in centuries. If they ever did at all.”
She was right. They’d stopped visiting earth before he was born. There was too much emotion here. The place seethed with it. He seethed with it. Because of her? He rubbed his chest.
“You’ve been watching me for days. But I’ve never been able to see you, and you’ve never come close. Why?”
He felt a frown drag at his mouth. He couldn’t tell her that he’d come to kill her, but had been stayed by the sight of her practicing with her bow until her fingers bled. Or that the sight of her so diligently training had made his chest tighten.
“I told you,” he said, pushing away duty in favor of curiosity. “I want to know why you use the bow. And where did you get your skill? Magic? A spell?”
Her jaw dropped, and his eyes riveted to her parted lips.
“Absolutely not!” she cried.
He arched a brow, almost expecting her to shoot him again. Maybe this time she’d make contact with his flesh. But she’d never answered why she practiced so much with a weapon that the Celts only used for hunting.
Yet she never hunted. She practiced as if she were training for war.
“Well then, let’s see it,” he said as he raised his bow, notched an arrow, and shot it high into the sky. She mimicked his movements, and her arrow knocked his as it headed back to earth.
She propped a hand on her hip and shot him a smirk. “Why are you so concerned about my skill?”
“The bow is a rare skill among the Celts. It is my skill.” Rarely did a mortal’s skill match that of a god’s. When it did… Well, it was best to kill the mortal. It wasn’t unheard of for one of them to usurp a god, though that hadn’t happened in centuries.
“Let’s see it, then.” She shot his words back at him and an arrow high into the air.
He grinned, then scowled at himself, swiftly nocking an arrow and firing. He knocked her arrow with his own.
“You have some talent,” she said.
“And you’re too arrogant for your own good.”
“Not when the arrogance is well earned. As I have earned it.” She spun the small bow in her hand, the only movement of her otherwise still form.
He felt his mouth twitch up at the corner. He’d never spoken to a mortal before. Were they all this arrogant? And entertaining? He rubbed his chest again.
When he’d first come to earth several days ago, he’d been determined to find her—kill her, and return to Otherworld. It was the way things were done on the rare occasions a mortal approached godly skill and it should have been a quick job, not unlike hunting deer for dinner.
But then he’d found her, practicing with her bow in a clearing in the woods. And his chest had started to feel odd. His mind as well. She was so interesting that he couldn’t look away.
He’d watched her, as the sun had risen and set, for five days. But only when she was in the clearing. He shouldn’t be seen by mortals, and with limited time to spend on earth before the other gods noticed his too-prolonged absence, he watched only while she practiced alone with her bow.
“Why do you need to be so good with the bow?” he asked.
“Haven’t you other things to see to? A family? A husband?”
“I shall not marry. I’m from a family of warriors. I shall be a warrior too.” She looked proud of the fact, but too slight to bear the burden.
“Female warriors?” The Celts did have some, but a whole family would be extraordinary.
Her lips twitched, almost a frown. “No. I’m the only female.”
Ah. That was why she practiced alone; her brothers wouldn’t let her join them. Was that why she used the bow? Could she not obtain a sword?
His hand twitched. He should reach for his arrow now. Find it. Shoot it. Kill her.
Before the other gods noticed he hadn’t.
There were rules to being a god. Rules that one didn’t break without deadly reprisal. Rules that he’d never broken because he’d never cared to. He’d never cared about anything. He’d never even known what it was to care.
But here on earth, things had all started to look a little bit different. A little bit darker back in Otherworld and a little bit brighter when he looked at her.
He should turn, walk away, and shoot her from the shadows. Because he couldn’t, he asked, “You’ve decided that you are a warrior?”
“I’m more than what I am right now, I know that. I’m more than just a girl.”
“What’s your name?” he asked, then cursed himself. Knowing it would only make killing her harder.
“Andrasta,” she said. She wished that her heart would stop racing, but it hadn’t stopped since he’d walked out of the shadows. Her eyes were drawn once again to the big hand that gripped his bow and then up to his face. He carried a bow like it was a weapon of war. No one did that. No one except for her.
The damp wind rustled his pale red hair, and she told herself to look away. He was the handsomest man she’d ever seen. Something unfamiliar within her ribs fluttered. He couldn’t really be a god, could he?
Most men ignored her. But not this one. He’d watched her for days. Why would a god watch her?
And he was skilled with his bow. Not as skilled as she, of course. But still, quite good.
Good enough to fear? She started to step back, then reminded herself that she feared no one.
Something in his eyes shuttered, and he turned to go.
“Wait.” She reached out to stop him. He couldn’t leave. She didn’t know why, but she’d never felt anything like this before. Excited, nervous, afraid. Danger radiated from him, but not enough to stop her from trying to get his attention.
He turned toward her, and she bit back a sigh of relief.
“Do you use that in war?” She nodded to the bow. “Or just for hunting?”
Her heart sped up, pounding in her chest. “And you say you’re Camulos, the god of war.”
“I am Camulos. I don’t just say it.”
“A competition then.” She didn’t know if she believed him, but she did believe he used the bow for war. She wanted to believe it. Among her people, no one considered the bow to be a weapon of war. But it was the only weapon she could get her hands on, and if she wanted to be a warrior, she must have a weapon.
He scowled, his eyes darkening, and she swallowed hard, her skin prickling.
She shook her head. She wasn’t afraid. Of course not. And she wanted him to stay. His interest made her feel special and fascinating, even if he did make her nervous.
“Between you and me?” he asked.
“Yes.” She had to force her voice not to waver. She nodded at the quiver strapped to his back. “I like your arrows. I’ve never seen feathers of that bright a blue before. If I best you, you’ll give me one.”
If he really was the god Camulos and she defeated him, his arrow would be proof. It proved that her weapon wasn’t just a silly tool for acquiring dinner. It proved that she was capable. To her brothers. To her father. They might not let her wield a sword, but her bow was just as good. The fact that a god used it proved the fact. Now, she had a way to show them.
“One shot,” she said, speaking quickly to convince him before he could leave. She pointed to the huge tree upon which she’d carved an X. It was nearly two hundred yards away, but the X was very small. “To that spot on the pine over there.”
“And what do I get if I win?” He stepped closer, his big body looming over hers when he stopped only a couple of feet away.
She tilted her head to look up at him. Swallowed again. “What do you want?”
He thought for a moment, his eyes searching her face. “I want to know why you work so hard at this.”
He reached out and lifted her hand, gazed at her calloused fingers. Her palm tingled and a shiver ran up her arm. She could feel the heat radiating off of him in the chill air. “I want to know why you’ve tried to make a weapon of pleasure a weapon of war.”
He dropped her hand and she fisted it, but didn’t argue his assessment. She nodded, drew a line in the dirt with her toe. “From here. You first.”
She admired his form as he stepped up to the line. The broad sweep of his shoulders, the strength of his arms and hands as he drew back the bowstring. His bow was bigger than hers. His arms stronger.
No matter. Speed and accuracy were her signature. But she couldn’t help admiring the flex of his muscles as he fired.
His arrow struck the middle of the X. The look he gave her was almost apologetic. But she just grinned and stepped up to the line. In quick succession, she shot two arrows, one after the other, and watched with her heart in her throat as the first split his arrow and the second split her own. She didn’t know why she’d been nervous. She hadn’t missed a shot in over a year.
She grinned, then turned to him and stuck out her hand for her prize. He didn’t hand it over, and there was something she didn’t recognize in his eyes.
“We both hit the middle of the X,” he said.
“Which is why I hit it twice.” She held out her hand again.
He inclined his head, then pulled an arrow out of his quiver and gave it to her. Her palm tingled when she touched it. Could he really be who he said he was?
“Why the bow?” he asked.
“You lost. I don’t have to tell you anything.”
He removed another arrow from his quiver, held it tightly. She eyed it, debating what he was offering. With only one, she’d have it to show her family, to prove herself. They’d probably take it from her to confirm with their Druid priestess that it was from Camulos. If she had two, she could keep one for herself. She weighed her secrets against her desire.
But her brothers were expecting her home soon, and she wanted to see Camulos again. She said, “Give me the second arrow and return here tomorrow. I’ll tell you then.”
“If I give it to you now, how will I know you’ll return?”
Because I wouldn’t miss it for all the arrows in your quiver. Even if he did scare her. But she wanted to see him again more than she wanted the arrow. “Fine. I’ll meet you here tomorrow.”
His brow wrinkled, as if he were debating something of great import. “All right. Tomorrow.”
She ignored the reluctance in his tone and had to stifle her grin.
He nodded, his expression still torn between two things she couldn’t identify, then turned to go.
“Wait.” He couldn’t leave. Not quite yet. She just wanted a minute more.
But he disappeared.
She stepped into the clearing and guilt tugged at him. He had a duty to complete where she was concerned. Force of will made him raise his bow. The bowstring pulled taut beneath his fingers as he sighted the arrow at her.
Let go. When he did, the arrow would pierce Andrasta’s skull and this would all be over. Let go. He removed one finger. One step closer to killing her. Let go.
All he had to do was release the string and his problems would be over. The other gods would be off his back about the upstart mortal who could threaten to take his place with her skill. If she could do it, others might get ideas, and the other gods wouldn’t have that.
Let go. The string of the bow cut into his fingers as he watched her practice in the clearing. She used his arrow. Did she realize that he’d given her the ability to kill him? Human arrows couldn’t, but his own could. Why had he done it?
He couldn’t explain why. Just as he couldn’t explain how being on earth, watching her, made him feel. He had no context for the emotions rushing through him. No way to identify them, if that’s what they were.
The best he could do was sort the way he felt into good and bad. The closest thing he had to the feeling of good was eating. Or killing. Bad was like a nebulous, emotion-ridden version of being stabbed by a sword. The idea of shooting Ana was most closely associated with bad. The bow felt like it burned his hands.
“Do it, Camulos. You have to.” The voice from behind nearly made his fingers slip from the string.
He lowered the bow and spun to face the other god. “Cernowain. And your boar.”
The beast rooted in the snow at the base of the brown cloak of the god of animals.
“Were you sent by the others?” Camulos asked.
“No. I come because I am your friend. I heard the others grumbling, and I wanted to warn you.”
Camulos grunted. Cernowain was the closest thing to a friend he had in Otherworld, for whatever it was worth.
“You have to do it. She’s a threat.” Cernowain nodded to Andrasta.
“No, she’s not.” She was good, but a threat? No.
“Hafgan was once mortal. His skill with a pike rivaled hers with the bow. If he could replace a god, she could do it too. She could replace you.”
“I’d think the other gods would prefer that.”
Cernowain inclined his head. “They might, if they weren’t so opposed to the idea in the first place.”
That was the crux of it. The other gods didn’t care if Camulos was replaced. They’d prefer it. He’d grown too powerful. When the mortal kingdom of the Trinovantes had built the city Camulodunum in his honor, he’d gained yet more influence from the power of their worship.
The other gods didn’t like that. But then, the other gods could hang. Otherworld could hang, for all he cared. He hated the damned place now. Cold and dead and dull. Everything there, no matter how perfect, was in shades of gray. Earth, with emotion and feeling, was vibrant with color. How could Otherworld be so different? So wrong?
“If you don’t want to kill her to protect yourself, do it for her. The other gods might take it into their own hands, and there’s every chance she’ll end up with a far worse fate than if you had killed her yourself.”
Cernowain shrugged, a thoughtful frown twisting his mouth. “There’s only one reason you would hesitate.”
“Emotion.” Cernowain almost spat the word.
Was that why his chest tightened when she was near? Why his brain fogged with what he guessed were desire and joy?
“Something is wrong with you, Camulos. As the other gods discover it, they’ll do what they can to replace you. Barring that, they’ll punish you.” He pointed to Andrasta. “Through her. Kill her, Camulos. Give her eternity in Otherworld. Don’t leave her alive, at the mercy of the gods when they finally figure out why you’re hesitating to do your duty.”
Camulos’ hand tightened on the bow. There was no question he had to kill her, but how in fate was he going to be able to do it?
“Do it, Camulos. You’re running out of time.” Cernowain disappeared, aetherwalking back to Otherworld.
Camulos swallowed hard and raised the bow again, sighting Andrasta at the other end of the arrow.
“Are you there again?” Her voice carried through the clearing.
His heart thudded and he jerked his gaze up to meet hers. He lowered the bow, unable to fire, and stepped forward, pulled to her by a force he couldn’t fight. She hesitated, her eyes wary, then approached to stand a few feet from him.
Her presence hit him in the chest again. He rubbed his sternum. Why the hell did she make him feel so odd?
Whatever it was, he wanted more of it. His gaze swept her slim form and his breath grew tight.
“Walk with me,” he said, hoping for a distraction from his body’s reaction to her and from the threat of the gods hanging over their heads.
She nodded and set off on a path around the clearing. He matched his stride to hers.
“Why do you work so hard to be skilled with the bow?” he asked, unable to get the question out of his mind.
“My brothers won’t let me use a sword. I can make the bow and arrows myself. They used to take them away, but I’d make another. They don’t try anymore, and the bow I have is perfect. I love it.” Pride laced her voice, and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“But why go to so much effort?”
She shrugged, her golden hair glinting in the sun. “I want to be like them. Anyway, what else is there to do? Marry? Tend the home? Not I. I’d rather be like my brothers. They’re brave and strong and nothing can get past them. They’re a team.”
“How many are there?”
“Seven brothers. Seven warriors. I want to be the eighth.”
He could hear the need in her voice. Her hands were fisted at her sides, one gripping her bow as if it were her way in.
“You want it badly,” he said.
“Yes. Other Celtic women are warriors, why not me? I’ve been on the outside my whole life, ever since my mother died. But I can prove myself if they’d just give me the chance.”
“So you practice alone, hoping to prove your worth.”
“It sounds pathetic, doesn’t it?” Her morose gaze met his.
“On the contrary. I find it admirable.” More than that. Since he’d met her, he’d felt that he recognized her, though he’d never seen her before. Perhaps he recognized himself in her. And perhaps the gods were right. With her talent and her thirst to prove herself, she could be strong enough to take his place. At the very least, she was strong enough to cause problems, should she choose.
He scowled. He’d been avoiding thinking about his duty where she was concerned. It didn’t matter that he found her to be intriguing. He had to kill her or the other gods would come for him.
But perhaps he could steal a few more moments with her, though it was stupid and dangerous.
She broke the silence by asking, “Why do you use the bow for war?”
“Because I like it. There are a people who live far south of here, across the sea. Greeks. They use bows in war, as do their gods. One of their gods, Apollo, gave me my first bow.” He didn’t see gods from other religions often, but when he did, he preferred them over his fellow Celtic deities.
“Other gods who use the bow in war? And people, too?”
She smiled, and he realized that the sight made his chest warm almost unbearably.
“I think I would like these people,” she said.
He smiled too, then frowned at the unfamiliar sensation of his lips turning upward.
She stopped in the shade of a large oak and asked, “Could I hold your bow?”
His hand tightened briefly on the weapon, but he loosened it and handed it over. A strange bolt of lust shot through him as he watched her hands trace over the fine woodworking.
He stepped toward her, but shock pulled him up short. He wanted to touch a mortal? Not possible. They were a step above animals. But the feelings surging through him now… They were cataclysmic.
“It’s beautiful.” She gazed up at him. Her eyes could hold him captive if he weren’t careful.
It’s yours. He barely stopped the words from leaving his mouth. Did she use some type of spell to ensnare him?
If she did, he couldn’t bring himself to care.
His hand twitched to reach out and touch her as a thousand unrecognizable feelings and desires surged through him. They made his skin tingle and his cock harden.
Understanding of his desires dawned in her eyes. Her lips parted and she took a step forward.
Unable to help himself, he reached out and palmed her cheek. The contact with her soft skin sent a spike of pleasure through him that was so strong he nearly doubled over. Was this why the Greek gods dallied with mortals so much?
He leaned down and kissed her, an animal noise rising from his throat as her soft lips parted beneath his own. His cock punched against his trousers as she pressed against him, hot and soft and unlike anything he’d ever felt before.
There was nothing like this in Otherworld. He tore away. It was something he couldn’t have in Otherworld, and he couldn’t have it here either. Contact with mortals was forbidden. The law had been in place since before he was born. He'd never really questioned the details of why because he'd never really cared. But the law was in place, nonetheless.
This was impossible.
A whirlpool of rage sucked him under. There was no way to save his own hide without killing her. Now he desired her too? And admired her for her strength and skill and determination? It was unbearable.
“What’s wrong?” Confusion clouded her eyes.
“You,” he growled. He had to scare her off, because fate knew he wouldn’t be the one to turn away. “Go. Now.”
He yanked his bow back from her. “I was sent to earth to kill you. I’m terribly close to doing—”
“Andrasta!” A deep male voice called from the forest. Camulos spun toward the voice and nocked an arrow in his bow.
“No!” Desperation laced Andrasta’s voice as she tried to pull his arm down. Her strength was that of a fly’s.
“Go,” he rasped.
Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of her desperate gaze. She fled in the direction of the voice.
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