Cassandra shifted the quiver slung over her left shoulder into a better position, then, at a full run, chased after her brothers. Her flame-red curls fell out of the braid Polyxena had put it in that morning, and they tumbled down her back in a thick cascade. As she navigated her way down the slope toward the horse stables, she let out a peal of laughter as joy swept through her. The fresh summer wind whipped around her, and the sun warmed her coveted powder-white skin.
Her laughter alerted her brothers. The three stopped and faced her. Deiphobus, the oldest of the trio, tapped his foot in time with his irritation.
"What do you want?"
Cassandra nodded at the various weapons her brothers carried. "To come with you."
Deiphobus shook his head. "Why can't you be more like the Queen or Creusa? Gods, even Polyxena knows certain activities are inappropriate."
Already tired of their age-old argument, Cassandra fought the urge to roll her eyes. "If you're worried about me looking unpresentable, I'll bathe when we're finished."
"Hunting isn't a trait your future husband will admire."
Cassandra adjusted the bow she'd stolen from Polites years ago (he had so many, he hadn't noticed). "You don't know that."
Deiphobus puffed out his chest and stepped toward his sister. "It's not something I'd admire."
"Good thing I won't marry you."
Cassandra caught the humored glint in her twin brother Helenus' eyes. She wanted to smile back, but instead batted her lashes and stuck out her bottom lip; her gaze never wavered from Deiphobus. Cassandra hadn't used this tactic since she was Polyxena's age, but what had once worked with her brother may still stir his now-toughened heart.
"We should let her," Helenus chimed in. A grin tugged at his mouth, and he had to turn his head so Deiphobus wouldn't see and reprimand him.
"Of course, you want her to," Polites said. He spoke from the corner of his thin lips like their mother did when she couldn't hold her tongue but hopped her comments went unobserved.
Deiphobus ignored his brothers and wagged his finger at Cassandra. "You'd only hold us up and spook the game."
"No, we both know you don't want me along because I'll make you look bad." Under her breath, Cassandra added, "Like the last three times."
Deiphobus' finger-wagging increased, and he almost hit her nose. "You've beguiled the gods."
Cassandra finally rolled her eyes. Since they were young
children, Deiphobus had used the same reasoning whenever
Cassandra outshined him. In truth, he refused to acknowledge she'd inherited the same skills he boasted about, and that she could execute those skills as well as he did.
"Don't tell me you're afraid of a woman, favored by the gods or not, getting the better of you. What sort of man does that make you?"
Deiphobus' face reddened. "Don't push me."
"Come, prove your might."
Polites' bored expression disappeared. "Cassandra, maybe you—I think—"
Cassandra blocked out her brother's sniveling and stepped on her tiptoes to come face-to-face with Deiphobus. Her stern gaze earned a scorching glare from his hard-blue eyes, but she didn't back down. Their wills clashed like two storms meeting at sea.
"If you continue bothering me, I'll drag you back to the palace and rip out every strand of your hair," Deiphobus threatened in his cavernous voice after a chilling silence.
"How terrifying." Cassandra poked her brother's wide shoulders. "Your old age is making you soft."
Deiphobus grumbled an unintelligible response, brushed his unruly blond curls off his forehead, and turned away from Cassandra. He marched toward the stables.
"Are you two fools coming?" he called to Helenus and
Polites shrugged. "Maybe next time," he told Cassandra before he raced after Deiphobus. His long legs quickly carried him across the vibrant grass.
Helenus shook his head. "Deiphobus is an ass. I don't want to spend the afternoon with him."
"You know you'll have fun. Go."
"No, I wouldn't feel right. The two of us should go hunt—"
"I don't want your pity to make you miss out on a good time."
Helenus stared after their older brothers. A soft sigh escaped his full lips. He realized what he'd done and wiped the longing from his elongated face.
"I don't offer out of pity," he said. Sincerity poured out of his deep-set eyes the same shade of light blue as Cassandra's—except hers had green flecks around the pupils, like their mother's.
Cassandra patted her brother's arm. "Pity was the wrong word, but we both know you should go."
Helenus chewed the inside of his cheek. "Well, I won't be out for very long. And we'll spend time together when I return."
"Great." Cassandra kissed her twin's cheek and shoved him in the direction of their brothers. "Show them up, will you?"
Helenus wrapped her in a tight hug. "Gladly." He released
her and moved toward the horses but stopped a moment later.
"Don't you dare go into the forest by yourself," he warned without glancing at her.
Cassandra made a noise she hoped sounded like compliance before she sprinted across the grounds, in the opposite direction. She climbed the surrounding outer wall of the palace after tying the abundant material of her peplos above her knees and entered the forest. Cassandra moved with silence and took even breaths, like her eldest brother, Hector, had taught her. In mere heartbeats, she blended into the natural rhythm of the forest, almost as well as Hector could. Most times, Cassandra could sneak up on whatever animal she had in her sights, and the creature wouldn't register her presence until too late.
Her patience and natural talent had led to many impressive kills, some of which had stunned Hector and Helenus. But Cassandra had never mentioned a word of her ability to her father. He knew of her escapades, and he'd tried on countless occasions to stop her, but he had no idea his daughter put all the men of Troy but her brothers to shame in marksmanship.
Cassandra worried what would happen if he knew, fearful of the extremes he may go to, to make her the proper princess he could use to woo enemies or strengthen already forged bonds.
She understood, and accepted, the limitations of her title. At times, though, Cassandra wished she could come back from a hunt,
proud of a magnificent beast she'd triumphed over, and have her father beam at her with unembarrassed pride. In her secret heart, she longed for the pelt of an animal she'd hunted to hang in the King's game room alongside her brothers'.
Cassandra lamented this cruel fact as she crept further into the forest. Birds chased each other through the trees. Their ecstatic songs filled her ears, and she inhaled the rich scents of growth. In time, the brief glimpses of unbridled life around her brightened her mood.
If Cassandra could live here, free of the chains royalty had shackled her with, she'd have the perfect existence.
She didn't hate being a princess of Troy. Cassandra had a loving family and knew comfort only rivaled by the gods. But the knowledge her father had the power to marry her off to whomever he deemed fit, regardless of her attraction to the man, made her think her existence to this point would one day seem no more than a dream.
What if she married an abusive man? Or a man who conducted himself no better than a pig wallowing in its own filth? How could she bare children for a man like that?
She could always serve a temple.
Cassandra frowned at the option. From what she'd seen and heard, bondage to a temple fared no better than marriage to a monster of a man.
Maybe she should sneak away in the dead of night and run as far from Troy as she could. Wherever she collapsed from exhaustion, she'd begin anew.
The idea made Cassandra smile, but she could never abandon her family. They were all she had, all she knew, and despite a couple glaring flaws, she loved them.
Movement to Cassandra's left caught her attention, and she froze. She turned to glimpse what had captured her eye and bit her tongue to stifle a gasp. Not ten paces from her stood the most massive wolf she'd ever seen. Its length was that of two adult men's height, and it possessed the stature of the largest horse in the King's stables. It had a full coat that looked more golden than white in the sunlight falling through the leaves.
The beautiful wolf scratched at the dirt with its shiny, black nails, unaware Cassandra watched it. In an instant, the need to have it consumed her. She wouldn't return home until the creature succumbed to her superiority. And the King would display its pelt in his game room, even if Helenus had to claim the kill.
Cassandra sent silent thanks to the gods as she selected an arrow and forced her nerves to quiet. She took two deep breaths like Hector had made her do before each shot when he'd trained her. When she felt grounded and calm, she drew back her bowstring.
The wolf remained ignorant of its impending doom as she
released the bowstring with the confidence borne from years of practice. The arrow followed a straight path to the wolf's exposed neck and embedded into the animal's flesh. The wolf cried out with an almost human-like scream.
Cassandra prepared to shoot it a second time but stopped when the wolf's head turned in her direction. She met its eyes, two all-consuming balls of white fire. They flared a blinding red as the animal glared at her and flashed a mouthful of dangerous teeth. From the neck wound, a luminous gold liquid dripped around the arrowhead and onto the forest floor.
Her jaw dropped, and Cassandra's heart missed a beat. The wolf she thought she'd brag about tonight was anything but. In her feverish haste, she hadn't studied the creature thoroughly. She hadn't given as much thought as she should've to its abnormal size or strange coloring.
If she had, Cassandra wouldn't have been so eager to go in for the kill.
She wouldn't have attacked a god.