Other Books by Jacey Bedford
1 | A Bitter Farewell
2 | Departure
3 | The Tavistock Road
4 | The Okewood
5 | Bideford
6 | Harper’s Inlet
7 | Heart of Oak
8 | The Lydia
9 | Information
10 | The Storm
11 | Ravenscraig
12 | Gentleman Jim
13 | Bacalao
14 | Plymouth
15 | Dark Magic
16 | The Ratcatchers
17 | Short Fuse
18 | Sutton Pool
19 | Moving On
20 | The Troubadour
21 | The Young Gentleman
22 | Mischief
23 | Summoner’s Well
24 | Rosie
25 | Watch-wolf
26 | Wolf Magic
27 | The Fae
28 | Larien and Margery
29 | Corwen
30 | London
31 | Walsingham
32 | Hellhounds
33 | Brotherly Love
34 | Here Be Pirates
35 | Fire Down Below
36 | The Winterwood Box
37 | The Great Summoning
38 | Between Wind and Water
A Bitter Farewell
April 1800, Plymouth, England
THE STUFFY BEDROOM STANK OF SICKNESS, with an underlying taint of old lady, stale urine, and unwashed clothes, poorly disguised with attar of roses. I’d never thought to return to Plymouth, to the house I’d once called home; a house with memories so bitter that I’d tried to scour them from my mind with saltwater and blood.
Had something in my own magic drawn me back? I didn’t know why it should, though it still had the capacity to surprise me. I could control it at sea, but on land it gnawed at my insides. Even here, less than a mile from the harbor, power pulsed through my veins, heating my blood. I needed to take ship soon, before I lost control.
Little wonder that I’d felt no need to return home since eloping with Will.
My ears adjusted to the muffled street sounds, my eyes to the curtained gloom. I began to pick out familiar shapes in the shadows, each one bringing back a memory, all of them painful. The dressing table with its monstrously carved lion mask and paw feet where I had once sat and experimented with my mother’s face powder and patches, earning a beating with the back of a hairbrush for the mess. The tall bed—a mountain to a small child—upon which I had first seen the tiny, shawl-wrapped form of my brother, Philip, the new son and heir, pride and joy, in my mother’s arms.
And there was the ornate screen I’d once hidden behind, trapped accidentally in some small mischief, to witness a larger mischief when my mother took Larien, our rowankind bondsman, to her lonely bed. I hadn’t understood, then, what was happening beneath the covers, but I’d instinctively known that I should not be there, so I’d swallowed my puzzlement and kept silent.
Now, the heaped covers on that same bed stirred and shifted.
“Philip?” Her voice trembled and her hand fluttered to her breast. “Am I dreaming?”
My stomach churned and my magic flared. I swallowed hard, pushed it down and did my best to keep my voice low and level. “No, Mother, it’s me.”
“Rossalinde? Good God! Dressed like a man! You never had a sense of decorum.”
It wasn’t a question of decorum. It was my armor. I wore the persona as well as the clothes.
“Don’t just stand there, come closer.” My mother beckoned me into the gloom. “Help me up.”
She had no expectation that I would disobey, so I didn’t. I put my right arm under hers and my left arm around her frail shoulders and eased her into a sitting position, hearing her sharp indrawn gasp as I moved her. I plumped up pillows, stepped back and turned away, needing the distance.
I twitched the curtain back from the sash window an inch or two to check that the street outside was still empty, listening hard for any sound of disturbance in the normality of Twiling Avenue—a disturbance that might indicate a hue and cry heading in my direction. I’d crept into the house via a back entrance through the next-door neighbor’s shrubbery. The hedge surrounding the house across the street rippled as if a bird had fled its shelter. I waited to see if there was any further movement, but there wasn’t. So far there was nothing beyond the faint cries of the vendors in the market two streets over and the raucous clamor of the wheeling gulls overhead.
Satisfied that I was safe for now, I turned back to find my mother had closed her eyes for a moment. She snatched a series of shallow breaths before she gave one long sigh. Opening her eyes again, she regarded me long and steady. “Life as a pirate’s whore certainly seems to suit you.”
“Yes, Mother.” Pirate’s whore! I pressed my lips together. It wasn’t worth arguing. She was wrong on both counts, pirate and whore. As privateers, we cruised under letters of marque from Mad King George for prizes of French merchantmen, Bonaparte’s supply vessels. As to the whore part, Will and I had married almost seven years ago.
“So you finally risked your neck to come and say good-bye. I wondered how long it would take. You’re almost too late.”
I didn’t answer.
“Oh, come on, girl, don’t beat about the bush. My belly’s swollen tight as a football. This damn growth is sucking the life out of me. Does it make you happy to see me like this? Do you think I deserve it?”
I shook my head, only half-sure I meant it. Damn her! She still had me where it hurt. I’d come to dance on her grave and found it empty.
“What’s the matter?”
I waited for “Cat got your tongue?” but it didn’t come.
“Give me some light, girl.”
I went to open the curtains.
“No, keep the day away. Lamplight’s kinder.”
I could have brightened the room with magic, but magic—specifically my use of it—had driven a wedge between us. She had wanted a world of safety and comfort with the only serious concerns being those of fashion and taste, acceptable manners and suitable suitors. Instead she’d been faced with my unacceptable talents.
I struck a phosphor match from the inlaid silver box on the table, lifted the lamp glass and lit the wick. It guttered and smoked like cheap penny whale oil. My mother’s standards were slipping.
I took a deep breath; then, to show that she didn’t have complete control of the proceedings, I flopped down into the chair beside the bed, trying to look more casual than I felt.
Her iron-gray hair was not many shades lighter than when I’d last seen her seven years ago. Her skin was pale and translucent, but still unblemished. She’d always had good skin, my mother: still tight at fifty, as mine would probably be if the wind and the salt didn’t ruin it, or if the Mysterium didn’t hang me for a witch first.
She caught me studying her. “You really didn’t expect to see me alive, did you?”
I shrugged. I hadn’t known what to expect.
“But you came all the same.”
“I had to.” I still wasn’t sure why.
“Yes, you did.” She smirked. “Did you think to pick over my bones and see what I’d left you in my will?”
No, old woman, to confront you one last time and see if you still had the same effect on me. I cleared my throat. “I don’t want your money.”
“Good, because I have none.” She pushed herself forward off her pillows with one elbow. “Every last penny from your father’s investments has gone to pay the bills. I’ve had to sell the plate and my jewelry, such as it was. All that’s left is show. This disease has saved me from the workhouse.” She sank back. “Don’t say you’re sorry.”
“I won’t because I’m not.”
Leaving had been the best thing I’d ever done.
Life with Will had been infinitely more tender than it had ever been at home. I didn’t regret a minute of it. I wished there had been more.
The harridan regarded me through half-closed eyes. “And have I got any by-blow grandchildren I should know about?”
“No.” There had been one, born early, but the little mite had not lasted beyond his second day. She didn’t need to know that.
“Not up to it, is he, this Redbeard of yours? Or have you unmanned him with your witchcraft?”
I ignored her taunts. “What do you want, forgiveness? Reconciliation?”
“What do I want?” She screwed her face up in the semblance of a laugh, but it turned to a grimace.
“You nearly got us killed, Mother, or have you conveniently forgotten?”
“That murdering thief took all I had in the world.”
All she had in the world? Ha! That would be the ship she was talking about, not me.
“That murdering thief, as you put it, saved my life.”
And my soul and my sanity, but I didn’t tell her that. He’d taught me to be a man by day and a woman by night, to use a sword and pistol, and to captain a ship. He’d been my love, my strength and my mentor. Since his death I’d been Captain Redbeard Tremayne in his stead—three years a privateer captain in my own right.
“Is he with you now?”
“He’s always with me.”
That wasn’t a lie. Will showed up at the most unlikely times, sometimes as nothing more than a whisper on the wind.
“So you only came to gloat and to see what was left.”
“I don’t want anything of yours. I never did.”
“Oh, don’t worry, what’s coming to you is not mine. I’m only passing it on—one final obligation to the past.” Her voice, still sharp, caught in her throat and she coughed.
“Do you want a drink?” I asked, suddenly seeing her as a lonely and sick old woman.
“I want nothing from you.” She screwed up her eyes. Her hand went to her belly. I could only stand by while she struggled against whatever pain wracked her body.
Finally she spoke again. “In the chest at the foot of the bed, below the sheet.”
I knelt and ran my fingers across it. It had been my father’s first sea chest, oak with a tarnished brass binding. I let my fingers linger over his initials burnt into the top. He’d been an absentee father, always away on one long voyage after the other, but I’d loved his homecomings, the feel of his scratchy beard on my cheek as he hugged me to him, the smell of the salt sea and pipe tobacco, the presents, small but thoughtful: a tortoiseshell comb, a silken scarf, a bracelet of bright beads from far-off Africa.
I pulled open the catch and lifted the lid.
“Don’t disturb things. Feel beneath the left-hand edge.”
I slid my hand under the folded linen. My fingers touched something smooth and cool. I felt the snap and fizz of magic and jerked back, but it was too late, the thing, whatever it was, had already tasted me. Damn my mother. What had she done?
I drew the object out to look and found it to be a small, polished wooden box, not much deeper than my thumb. I’d never seen its like before, but I’d heard winterwood described and knew full well what it was. The grain held a rainbow, from the gold of oak to the rich red of mahogany, shot through with ebony hues. It sat comfortably in the palm of my hand, so finely crafted that it was almost seamless. My magic rose up to meet it.
I tried the lid. “It’s locked.”
She had an odd expression on her face.
“Is this some kind of riddle?” I asked.
“How does it open? What’s inside it?”
“That’s for you to find out. I never wanted any of it.”
My head was full of questions. My mother hated magic, even the sleight-of-hand tricks of street illusionists. How could this be any inheritance of mine?
Yet I could feel that it was.
I turned the box around in my hands. There was something trapped inside that wanted its freedom. No point in asking if anyone had tried to saw it open. You don’t work ensorcelled winterwood with human tools.
Wrapping both hands around the box, I could feel it was alive with promise. It didn’t seem to have a taint of the black about it, but it didn’t have to be dark magic to be dangerous.
I shuddered. “I don’t want it.”
“It’s yours now. You’ve touched it. I’ve never handled it without gloves.”
“Where did it come from?”
She shook her head. “Family.”
“Neither you nor Father ever mentioned family, not even my grandparents.”
“Long gone, all of them. Gone and forgotten.”
“I don’t even know their names.”
“And better that way. We left all that behind us. We started afresh, Teague and I, making our own place in society. It wasn’t easy even in this tarry-trousers town. Your ancestors companied with royalty, you know, though much good it did them in the end. You’re a lady, Rossalinde, not a hoyden.” She winced, but whether from the memories or the pain I couldn’t tell. “That blasted thing is all that’s left of the past. It followed me, but it’s too much to . . .” Her voice trailed off, but then she rallied. “I wasn’t having any of it. It’s your responsibility now. I meant to give it to you when you came of age.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at me. “How old are you, anyway?”
I was lean and hard from life at sea. You didn’t go soft in my line of work. “I’m not yet five and twenty, Mother.” I held up the box and stared at it. “What if I can’t open it?”
“I suppose you’ll have to pass it on to the next generation.”
“There won’t be a next generation.”
She shrugged and waved me away with one hand.
“Give it to Philip.” I held it out to her, but she shrank back from it and her eyes moistened at my brother’s name. What had he been up to now? Likely he was the one who’d spent all her money. I hadn’t seen Philip for seven years, but I doubted he’d reformed in that time. He’d been a sweet babe, but had grown into a spoilt brat, manipulative and selfish, and last I saw he was carrying his boyhood traits into adolescence, turning into an opportunist with a slippery tongue.
“Always to the firstborn. But you’re behind the times, girl. Philip’s dead. Dead these last seven months.” Her voice broke on the last words.
“Dead?” I must have sounded stupid, but an early death was the last thing I’d envisioned for Philip. The grievances I’d held against him for years melted away in an instant. All I could think of was the child who’d followed me around, begging that I give him a horsey ride or tell him a story.
“A duel. In London. A matter of honor was the way it was written to me.”
“Oh.” It was such an ineffectual thing to say, but right at that moment I didn’t really know how I felt. Had Philip actually developed a sense of honor as he grew? Was there a better side to my brother that I’d never seen? I hoped so.
“Is that all you can say? You didn’t deserve a brother. You never had any love for him.”
I let that go. It wasn’t true.
“I thought you might have changed.” My mother’s words startled me and I realized my mind had wandered into the past. Stay sharp. This might yet be a trap, some petty revenge for the wrongs she perceived that I heaped on her: loss of wealth, loss of station, now loss of son. Next she’d be blaming me for the loss of my father, though only the sea was to blame for that.
“That’s all I’ve got for you.” She turned away from me. “It’s done. Now, get out.”
“I’m ready for my medicine.”
I knew it would be the last time I’d see her. I wanted to say how sorry I was. Sorry for ruining her life, sorry for Philip’s death. I wanted to take her frail body in my arms and hold her like I could never remember her holding me, but there was nothing between us except bitterness. Even dying, there was no forgiveness.
I turned and walked out, not looking back.
THE DAMP APRIL DAY had faded to an early dusk, a good time to slip between shadows. I left Twiling Avenue behind me and turned downhill, toward the sea and through the market into the Old Town.
Philip, dead. I still couldn’t quite believe it.
Any ill will I’d harbored was already receding, though I could summon it if I recalled the times he’d caused me to be blamed for his own petty misdemeanors.
“I forgive you, Philip.” I muttered the words quietly and tried to recall the good times: games in the nursery with Ruth, our rowankind nurse; making up stories to send him to sleep at night; our shared dislike of the governess Mother appointed to look after us the year she went traveling.
Cobbled East Street burrowed between crazily crooked houses where the licensed witchkind lived and did their business, constrained by the town’s bylaws and the Mysterium to practice only small magics.
I was not like them.
The Mysterium was afraid of my kind of magic. Natural magic couldn’t be constrained by their rules.
A shadow moved ahead of me.
“Aye.” A lean figure, face like a walnut above a bushy brown beard, emerged from a gloomy alley between two shops. “Been waiting here nigh on an hour. Best not go down to Sutton Pool. One of the sailors from the Dormir let slip there was a woman in breeches an’ a bearded man on board. There’s a few rumors flying ’bout Redbeard being back in town, and there’s a troop of marines sniffing their way from tavern to tavern on the quay.”
“Goddammit!” We’d lost our planned exit route back to the Heart. My mother might be the death of me yet. “Are you certain they know who we are?”
“They ain’t takin’ no chances. Redbeard’s still wanted for murder and you for—”
“I know. Any other ships getting ready to sail?”
“Nothing we can take passage on. There’s a navy ship heading off to Dover and a merchantman taking on cargo for Boston, but she ain’t due to leave until three days hence.”
The winterwood box sat solid in my pouch, giving off a low-level magic tingle that I could feel in my bones. I couldn’t take time to think about it now. My head was spinning. Damn my brother’s mortality and my mother’s deliberate obfuscation!
We were going to have to go cross-country to the northern coast. That would tax my control of magic to the limit. If I had a better choice I’d take it, but I hadn’t. Since we couldn’t safely leave by sea from here, we were out of options.
I weighed the danger of going against the danger of staying, and decided I didn’t want to risk dancing the hempen jig anytime soon.
“We’ll have to go across the peninsula and take a ship from Bideford.”
“Go inland?” Hookey’s tone indicated that I’d asked him to do something unthinkable.
“No, we’ll take horses.”
“Oh, no, Cap’n. ’Tain’t right to put a seaman upon a horse. Sink me, it ain’t.”
“It’s fifty miles. Would you prefer to go on foot?”
“I’d rather lay low here and take a ship later. You know me and horses. My arse don’t much like saddle leather.”
I had different reasons for not wanting to pass close to the Okewood. That haunted woodland still had power to drive good men mad, even in this enlightened age. Magic may have been sanitized in our towns, confined to licensed, “safe” practitioners controlled by the Mysterium, but it still gathered in the wild woods, pooling in the hollows, twining with the roots, and dripping from the branches of the great trees. The last thing I wanted, or needed, was to go near any of those places. I hoped to skirt the Okewood rather than go through it. I’d grown up with my mother’s stories and her warnings to stay away from the forests where evil lurks.
I shuddered. It wouldn’t take much to dissuade me from going inland, and Hookey knew that. He looked at me from under heavy-lidded eyes. “Or you could call the Heart.”
It’s a part of my magic that works without my knowing how or why. Deep inside me, I know where the Heart is at any given time. When I need her, she comes to me. Mr. Sharpner, my sailing master, was skeptical at first, but he long ago stopped worrying about it. When the Heart turns her bow and runs counter to her course, he’s learned to follow.
I let my senses rove to the Heart and found her sailing off the coast of France, probably cruising for a prize, preferably one of Bonaparte’s supply ships. I shook my head. “She’s six or seven days away, Hookey, and besides, I’d not risk her in Plymouth waters under the Citadel’s guns. She’s too well known around this coast as Redbeard’s ship, even with letters of marque.”
I could tell that Hookey had his eye on a whorehouse down by Sutton Pool for a hideout, and that stiffened my resolve as it stiffened other parts of my very able seaman. Even if we could keep away from the redcoats, I was damned if I was going to spend a week or more imprisoned in some garret, whiling away my hours by darning my stockings, whilst Hookey took a blithesome holiday endeavoring to catch seven different doses of the pox.
I grinned at him. “Besides, what possible attraction could a week in a whorehouse have for a sailor?”
“And with that thick bush on your chin it’s likely they’ll hang you for Redbeard Tremayne without asking too many questions.”
He sniffed. “Where are we going to get horses from?”
“My mother has a pair of carriage horses. She’s not likely to be needing them again.”
Side by side, Hookey and I strolled back to Twiling Avenue, trying not to look furtive. As dusk deepened, people about us hurried home, hunched against the weather.
A pair of rowankind, one middle-aged and one young, struggled to push a large barrel up the short ramp to an inn door. One glanced at me, and for a moment I saw a look of barely concealed hostility before he blinked, and that vague rowankind expression smoothed out the lines on his face.
“Have you ever wondered,” I asked Hookey, “why the abolitionists press the cause of the Africa trade so fervently, yet never make mention of our own rowankind?”
Rowankind were bonded to one family, usually for life. They couldn’t be sold like cattle, but their bond-papers could be transferred if circumstances required it.
“They don’t see it,” he answered gruffly. “Or maybe they don’t want to see it. It ain’t like rowankind are whipped or beaten or starved or frozen to death in the winter.”
Was he right? Could it be that few perceived the rowankind’s bondage as slavery? It was never named as such. Just because the fetters were paper rather than iron didn’t mean the rowankind had freedom, though.
“Did you have rowankind—before you went to sea, I mean?”
Hookey had never offered to tell of his background and I’d never asked. He’d been a pirate, I knew that much.
He made a dismissive noise and shook his head. “There were times I’d have signed away my freedom like the rowankind for a hot meal and a place to sleep out of the rain. I was so scrawny when I was twelve that I practically had to beg the press-gang to take me. That’s how I went to sea, courtesy of His Majesty.” He held up his hook. “Until this. I was put off in Portsmouth with five shillings and what I wore on my back.”
“How old were you?”
“Seventeen—eighteen, maybe, but I’d grown some by that time, even on navy vittles, and I’d learned the seafaring life. Managed to talk my way aboard a barquentine. Sloppy ship, she was. Got attacked by pirates. I was happy to take up the pirating trade. Couldn’t be any worse than the bilges of a barquentine, and it was a good alternative to being thrown overboard.” We walked in silence for a minute or two, until Hookey said, “Rowankind don’t fare well on the sea, though. When I sailed with Rogers on the Black Dog we took a Scottish schooner on its way to the Americas with a family trying to transport their rowankind. Three of the poor bastards had died already and two more were belowdecks puking their lives away. Too far gone to save, so the first mate made an end of them. A kindness.”
I didn’t ask what had happened to the family or the ship’s crew.
“Have you ever seen rowankind or their like anywhere else in the world?”
Hookey shook his head.
“Neither have I. When I lived in Plymouth I never questioned their presence—our own rowankind were part of my family—but have you ever wondered why rowankind bondservants are unique to Britain? It’s only coming back that I see the strangeness of it. If the abolitionists achieve their aims for the Africans, will they then turn their attention to the rowankind, do you think?”
No one sailed aboard my ship as a slave. They were all free and equal, regardless of their origins, hue, or even their gender.
Hookey just shrugged. “There’s a lot wrong with the world. The do-gooders can only tackle a small part of it.”
The hill took our breath away as we climbed toward Twiling Avenue and ended our conversation.
My mother’s house stood behind a high wall in a quarter-acre of overgrown greenery. It was an elegantly proportioned residence, built some years ago in the time of the first King George. The facade had once been gracious, but now patches of stucco crumbled away from the brickwork, and ivy rampaged up the side wall and over the hipped roof. There were no lamps burning that I could see, but that didn’t signify. My mother’s thick curtains would effectively smother any light at birth.
As we turned down the alley toward the back of the house we walked into evening shadows solid enough to make an undertaker’s hat. Hookey cursed as he tripped over something. I risked a tiny witchlight, no bigger than a single candle flame, and sent it ahead of us, low down to the ground, to guide our way via the back gate to the yard.
The gate stood wide open. Next to it was a stable attached to a cottage where, in my father’s time, our rowankind groom and gardener had lived.
My mother had retained just four rowankind after my father’s death. Larien and a stable lad had lived in the cottage while Ruth and Evy had had the attic rooms above the main house. I hadn’t seen any on this visit, but I wondered whether Mother still had rowankind. Larien, perhaps, though a rowankind who’s seen the underside of his mistress’s bed sheets is an embarrassing liability.
I motioned to Hookey to follow me, and we slipped into the stable. I took the risk of making another witchlight. The magic sprang from deep within, tingled down my right arm and rushed into my fingertips faster than ever it did at sea. I molded it and tossed a glowing ball of energy up into the rafters.
A pair of round bay rumps faced me from wooden-walled stalls. She might have been near destitution, but my mother had kept up appearances. Selling the carriage and pair would have been an admission of defeat.
The stable was neat. Someone must be looking after the horses.
“Saddles, over there.” I nodded Hookey toward the harness room.
I slapped the rump of the nearest gelding and clicked my tongue. “Move over,” I told him. He obligingly sidestepped in his stall to leave enough room for me to walk to his head. I patted his neck and spoke softly, and he flicked his ears, listening. I’d missed horses more than almost anything during my years on the sea. As if he knew, the big bay dropped his velvet muzzle into my hand and blew warm hay-breath over my fingers.
Hookey came back with the first saddle. “They look a bit old, but they’ve been looked after.”
“As long as they fit.” I saved the horses from Hookey’s tender ministrations and saddled them myself while Hookey hacked off the reins of the driving bridles and tied them into a knot. I was always amazed at how dexterous he was with only a hook for a left hand.
“Shh!” Hookey hissed.
I let the witchlight blink out, leaving both of us at a disadvantage. If someone was outside, their eyes would already be used to the dark.
“Who’s there?” It was a young voice.
The door creaked open and a shadow passed across it. I held my breath. A scuffle in the darkness and a choked off cry made me snap on the witchlight again.
Hookey’s left arm froze in mid plunge. The lethal steel hook glittered an inch away from a young rowankind’s throat. The boy gulped, his brown eyes wide with terror.
“Who are you?” I asked.
He didn’t reply.
“Well, boy? Cat got your tongue?” I heard my mother’s phrase and repressed an overwhelming urge to spit to clear my mouth.
“D-David.” His voice broke. Having Hookey’s hook poised above their larynx will often have that effect on people.
“Work at the house, D-David?”
“Been looking after . . .” I almost said my mother, but I stopped myself in time. “Mrs. Goodliffe?”
“No one else left to do it.”
I nodded to Hookey to back off, but the boy still watched him warily. To his credit, he didn’t try and bolt.
“What about Larien?”
“I don’t even remember him. He was my father.”
I didn’t remember Larien fathering children with any of our rowankind.
“Who was your mother?”
“Ruth never had children. You’re lying, boy.”
“I wasn’t born here. Ruth was the missis’s maid when she went traveling. I was born in Dover and Missis didn’t want the bother of a baby, so I was left with a Kentish family. Missis sent for me when I was ten.”
I remembered my mother traveling one year while my father was away on a long sea voyage.
So Ruth had presented her with a baby, legally belonging to the Goodliffe household, but too much of a bother to travel with. What a terrible separation. It’s a wonder she never said anything. And how like my mother to reclaim what she still considered to be hers as soon as he was old enough to have some usefulness.
“I never knew my momma. She died before I was brought here.”
Ruth had nursed me as a baby and had raised me just as much, if not more, than my mother. She had soothed my hurts and calmed my fears, given me sweet treats from the kitchen. She’d explained what was happening to my body when I’d started my courses and shown me how to deal with it. She’d stood by me when I developed magic, when my mother had rejected me, never showing fear or offering recrimination. She’d always been there for me. I’d taken her for granted, taken her love for granted as if she’d been a mother to me. In a way she had been. I’d last seen her just before I’d run away with Will. She’d held me in her comfortable embrace and had kissed my hair and wished me well. I’d thanked her and told her that I loved her. I was glad I’d said it at last.
“I’m sorry about Ruth. I didn’t know,” I said, swallowing a lump in my throat. “She was . . . kindly.”
“That’s what Evy said.”
The horses began to stomp uneasily from side to side and one let out a shrill whinny.
“So you saw the witchlight and came to investigate.”
He shook his head. “I came to get the horses out before the roof goes up.”
I must have been a little slow on the uptake, because it took Hookey’s warning to make me look at the crack around the open door. Across the yard, flames were leaping behind the lower windows of the house. As I watched, glass shattered, and a cloud of acrid smoke billowed across the cobbles. My eyes began to water even as my heart began to thump.
“Mother!” I started toward the door, but Hookey shot his arm out to bar my way. The house was consuming itself from the inside out.
“It’s all right, Miss Rossalinde, she’s already gone.” David knew who I was. “Gone on, I mean. Passed.”
“Called for her medicine right after you left. Took the whole bottle like it was the finest wine. Told me to wait until she stopped breathing, then set the fire and get out. I . . .” He swallowed. “I sat with her until the end.”
Tears threatened to flood my eyes. It was the smoke, I told myself, just the smoke. I swallowed hard to ease the lump in my throat and took a steadying breath. How like my mother: if she couldn’t take it with her, no one else was going to have it. The house and all it contained was going up in flames, including any debts on it.
Sparks flew. Both horses began to fuss uneasily in their stalls as the smell of burning roiled around us. Luckily the wind wasn’t blowing directly this way.
“Get the horses out.”
The order was for Hookey, but David patted the rump of the nearest gelding, moved it over, and took hold of its reins, talking nonsense to it in a low voice. I took the second horse, trying to keep calm so as not to spook it. Trying not to think of my mother.
In the yard, my horse snorted and danced away from the flames. My eyes streamed and my throat clenched against the smoke. It was already hot enough to scorch my skin. My ready-magic, that which comes easiest to me, is with wind and weather, so I reached into the atmosphere and conjured a breeze to push back the smoke and heat. The power rose from the small of my back and flowed out of my shoulders. A fresh wind blew in from the north, stronger than I expected. It fanned the flames licking up the eaves of the house, but gave us grace to clear the yard.
Messing with the weather is a difficult magic to balance. With the wind came the first splashes of sleety rain, drops as large as shillings plopping onto exposed flesh.
Hookey got behind my horse and gave it a slap with the side of his hook. It shot forward, half-dragging me into the lane behind the house. I clutched the reins with both hands and leaned into its shoulder, pulling its head down to steady it, then scrambled into the saddle. I used to be a fair rider, but with seven years at sea I was out of practice. The saddle felt stiff and cold between my thighs, and the horse pokey, more used to a collar than a saddle.
Even above the roar of the flames and the crackling of burning timber I could hear shouts in the street at the front of the house. We needed to get out fast.
Hookey heaved himself on to the other horse with little style and much determination. “What about the kid?”
“What about me?”
Hookey and David spoke almost together.
“What about you?” I looked down at a pale, frightened face illuminated by flickering flames.
“Where do I go?”
“Grab your freedom and run, or go find another master.”
From his scowl, finding another master hadn’t been part of his plan. “I was going to take the horses and go inland.”
Hookey spat. “Well, you ain’t taking ’em now.”
I could hear running feet in the alley and a curse as someone tripped. David could identify me. I should kill him—or let Hookey do it if I didn’t have the stomach.
I kicked my foot out of the stirrup, shoved my leg forward and reached down to grab the boy’s wet hand with mine. Quick as a cat he jammed his foot in the stirrup and leaped up behind me.
Five men emerged from the alley. Hookey wheeled his horse away from them, but I knew the lane ended at a neighbor’s wall. One shouted, “Hold!” and the others crouched. I heard the unmistakable clank of powder flasks tipping against musket muzzles. Redcoats. Damn!
“Let’s go.” I clapped my heels into my horse’s sides and with a grunt it sprang forward, knocking down the first man and clattering his musket to the ground. Hands grabbed at my leg as we barged past. A musket ball whistled over my left shoulder and David ducked his head into my back. A volley of shots and curses followed us into the black night.
Damn! Someone had obviously already tied together rumors of Tremayne on the dockside and the Goodliffe house going up in flames. The whole town knew about the business between Margery Goodliffe and Redbeard Tremayne. She’d tried to have him charged with stealing her precious ship. Even though the charge had been erroneous, what had happened in the resulting fight and flight had left Will with a death to answer for. They’d think Redbeard had taken his revenge at last and burned the Widow Goodliffe in her bed.
I pointed my horse’s nose toward the Tavistock road and with the rain lashing our faces we clattered north through Plymouth town. They’d doubtless send soldiers after us, even into the depths of the Okewood if they had to. We’d be lucky if it was a troop of redcoats. It would more likely be Kingsmen, mounted on fast horses.
We had no choice but to go north. Bideford, with its history of smuggling and known dislike of the Excise men, was our best option. Fifty miles as the crow flies, almost seventy if we didn’t go through the Okewood. I turned my mind from the old stories. We might not have the luxury of skirting the forest. If the Kingsmen braved it and we did not, they’d get in front of us and cut us off. Not a happy prospect.
The Tavistock Road
ICY RAIN DRIPPED FROM MY HAIR and eyelashes. Lightning flashed and a pale figure materialized, his arms open wide. Thunder rolled. My horse gave a half-rear then stood quivering. Hookey’s mount stopped completely, goggling at the apparition. Horses have the sight. I doubted Hookey or David could see him.
“Hello, love.” I mouthed the words. He didn’t need to hear me out loud, he always knew what I was saying.
You’re going the wrong way, he said.
“We’re going the only way that makes sense.”
“Well done, Will. Being dead hasn’t impaired your sense of direction.”
You know how you are when you’re away from the sea.
You can’t go to the forest.
“You don’t think I’m scared of ghosts, do you, Will?”
You should be scared of the things that scare ghosts.
“And what might that be?”
He shook his head and put his ghostly hand on my rein. My horse swung his haunches sideways, but was unable to pull out of Will’s grip. Ah, if only I could feel that hand on my own skin. I looked down into his blue eyes and my resolve softened. I reached to touch his cheek, but my hand passed through him. He faded to nothing.
My gut twisted. All I wanted to do was hold him again. Having him appear and disappear on a whim was so frustrating. Sometimes—rarely—his breath whispered on the back of my neck and once, just once, I swore I felt his arms around me, but mostly I had to be satisfied with a cryptic comment here, a terse instruction there. Sometimes it was good advice, but sometimes it was contrary and it seemed that he was sailing an altogether different ocean.
Behind me I heard David clear his throat as if to speak, so I touched my heels to the horse’s side and we pressed on. Hookey gave me a sideways look but kept silent.
We made good time along the Tavistock Road, almost deserted except for an overloaded wagon limping for Plymouth and a smart curricle traveling much too fast for the moonlit road, even with carriage lamps aglow. We only had to scurry off the main highway once when the mail coach came through, Plymouth-bound at a spanking pace, horn a-blowing. We ran out of the downpour as we crested a low bank near Crownhill, a few miles out of the town, but by that time all of me, except for the part of my back that David leaned against and what I sat on, was soaked through. Water trickled inside my clothes in uncomfortable places. Even the binding on my breasts was damp and beginning to chafe.
Worse, my magic had begun to burn inside me as though I’d swallowed a ladleful of too-hot soup. I must have been more keyed up than I thought to infuse my bones with so much magical energy so quickly. I needed to bleed off some of the heat before it became unmanageable. I didn’t want to make us into any more of a target than we already were, though. I judged the horses could see well enough by the moon, so I didn’t bother with a witchlight. My ears have always been unnaturally sharp—one of my witch skills, I think—and so I concentrated on blocking out the sound of our horses’ hooves clattering on the rough road and listened instead for sounds of pursuit with what my mother used to call my unnatural senses.
Just after we passed a milestone telling us that Plymouth lay four miles behind us and Tavistock eleven miles ahead, the roughly surfaced road dipped steeply down into a river valley and snaked through a small village, hardly more than a cluster of thatched cob cottages. It hadn’t rained here at all. The tavern porch was decked out with wedding ribbons. Young men and women had spilt out on to the lantern-lit steps where they laughed and teased in easy courtship. In the open space by the side of the inn a bonfire burned, and a knot of dancers clasped hands and circled to a lively reel played by two fiddlers whose timekeeping was better than their intonation.
“Cap’n?” Hookey turned back in his saddle to glance at me. He knew full well that I wasn’t good at cloaking. His look asked if it was worth expending the energy. If only he knew. I was desperate to shed it.
We slowed our horses to a walk. Some magic comes easy to me, some is difficult, and some is downright impossible. Hiding something big from plain sight, like two horses and three riders, usually comes in the damned difficult category, but this time I had energy to spare.
I called up that reservoir within me where my magic lies. At sea it remained barely half-full, little more than a brackish puddle. Today it churned and eddied to the brim, in danger of spilling over. I imagined that I knelt by it and plunged my hands in to the wrists, scooping out that very essence of magic and bringing it to my lips to sup and sup until I could sup no more.
Then, sated and infused, I imagined us as little more than shadows in the darkness, not invisible, but not worth noticing or remembering. In the imagining I made it so. The tingle that tells me when magic is working, mine or other people’s, coursed through my body from inside to out, and despite the fact that we were no more than a few strides from the nearest reveler, no heads turned in our direction. We walked quietly through the village and onward into the night.
Not until the inn was safely behind us did I feel David breathe out and relax. “What did you do?” he asked.
I shook my head. The buzz of power had drained now. My mouth felt dry and doughy and I didn’t want to try speaking until I had a reasonable chance of forming words without slurring.
“Back there—what happened?” David put a hand on my shoulder as if he thought I hadn’t heard, but Hookey, in an unusual show of sensitivity for someone who purports to be a hard-as-nails, barely reformed pirate, reached out and tapped his fingers.
“Leave her be.”
“She did magic, didn’t she?” There was more than a touch of excitement in his voice. “She’s a witch.”
“That kind of talk costs lives.” Hookey’s voice was low and full of menace. “If your tongue flaps loose I swear I’ll rive it from your head.”
“Who am I going to tell? The Mysterium? I swear I’ll not blab, only I sensed something.”
“She hid us from the villagers.” Hookey agreed.
“Made us invisible?”
“Not really.” I sucked on the inside of my cheeks to coax saliva to flow. “Made them not see us. There’s a difference. Invisibility is higher magic. Much more difficult.”
I heard Hookey suppress a grunt.
David had been able to feel my magic working. “What else can you do?” he asked, excitement in his voice.
“Not much.” I wasn’t used to anyone asking me directly. I played it down, as usual, but he wouldn’t let it go.
“Can you call fire?”
“What about the invisibility thing?”
“That doesn’t come as easy, nor does finding lost things.”
“You can find lost things?”
“Can you do spells?”
“I’m not really that kind of witch.”
“You don’t have a spell book?”
“I told you, I’m not that kind of witch.”
“You could, though, if you wanted to?”
I just shook my head. I’d never tried.
“I said, leave her be.” Hookey nudged his horse closer, threat implicit in his tone. “She ain’t never been comfortable wi’ landlubber magicking.”
“Sorry,” David mumbled. “It’s just . . .”
A growl from Hookey silenced him and I felt a weight lift. In truth I’d never explored the limits of my magic.
As soon as we were far enough from the village we nudged our horses into a steady trot, not wishing to tire them but needing to put as many miles as possible between us and pursuit. Intermittent moonlight from between the scudding clouds lit our path once more as we left farms behind and neared the forest. Tended fields gave way to rough grassland, broken up by gorse. The locals obviously left the common land around the Okewood well alone. Especially after dark.
My hard listening alerted me to the fast beat of hooves: a full troop of Kingsmen at least, but still a distance behind us. Neither Hookey nor David had heard them yet. They must have thrashed their mounts to catch up with us so soon, but we’d saved our horses’ strength. I nudged mine into a steady, ground-eating canter, taking the lead from Hookey.
“They’re behind us. We have to go through the Okewood!”
It was our best chance. We’d be safe there—from the Kingsmen at least. There were no guarantees. The rumors of ghosts and enchantment might be true. They might even be understated.
“Can’t you hide us again?” David’s voice came close in my ear as he pressed against my back and wrapped his arms around my waist for security.
“Not like I did before. It doesn’t work on someone who’s actually looking for you, only on people who don’t need to notice. Truly hiding us from them for five minutes would use me up for a week.” I reined my horse in. “You can get off now and disappear if you wish. The Kingsmen are after Redbeard Tremayne, not you. Go make a new life for yourself.”
“You have a ship. Where else can I go? I set the fire. If they don’t find you they’ll come looking for me.”
“Can they prove anything?”
“I’m rowankind, do they need to?”
He had a point. Rowankind were not usually lawbreakers, but any who did cross the line had no voice unless their masters spoke up for them.
“The Okewood’s dangerous.”
“And the Kingsmen aren’t?”
I nodded. “All right.”
We pushed on as fast as we dared in the moonlight until the road dropped down a long hill and turned to skirt the Okewood, a black presence in the darkness. The back of my neck prickled, and, as if to add to my apprehension, the moon fled behind a fat cloud. I pulled up my horse and stared. All the stories of my childhood came plunging back into my brain. The forest . . . the evil forest . . . full of goblins and boggarts, relics of dark magic from England’s deep past when the Fae were lords of all and God help anyone who crossed them. Even kings had respected the Fae.
But that was a long time ago.
I heard David catch his breath behind me. He could feel it, too. The forest had a personality of its own, and approaching it felt like tiptoeing toward the chair of some ancient and irascible uncle, never knowing whether you’d be met with a sweet treat and a story or a sharp crack with a cane. Hookey seemed oblivious, but I found that with every stride the air itself seemed to weigh more. My chest felt cramped as if by too-tight stays and I had to force myself to breathe.
“Have you been here before?” David’s voice was barely more than a whisper as we approached the tree line and reined in our horses.
“Want me to go first, Cap’n?” Hookey asked.
I pulled up and looked at the darkness of the trees now towering above us, hearing their voices rustling in the breeze.
“Cap’n! Behind us.”
“The Kingsmen. Dammit!” I’d been on the point of balking, but now I had no choice, “Dismount. Follow me.”
By feel alone I found a path through the trees, thankful that the horse followed without a fuss. My spine felt as if spiders were marching up and down it, and my palms were wet enough to slip on the leather reins. I hoped no one else could hear my breath rasping in my chest.
When it felt as though we were far enough from the road I stopped.
“Keep the horses quiet,” I said.
I let David take the reins of both our mounts. Cautiously I crept back the way we’d come. The ting of metal on metal behind me caused me to pause. “Hookey, if you’re coming with me, stop your damned sword hilt from clanking against your hook.”
There were no more sounds behind me. For a heavy man in seaboots, Hookey could walk like a cat when he needed to. We squatted down in a tangle of bushes. Briefly I considered that they may have brought one of the witches from the town, but the Kingsmen were, even more than most, against the use of magic. One of their jobs was to detain anyone suspected of magical crimes and to deliver them to the Mysterium for trial, and that included unlicensed practitioners of magic—any who had not registered with the Mysterium by their eighteenth birthday.
The Kingsmen sounded like an army as they clattered down the road. The moon had emerged from her cloud and gave them light. They pulled up not twenty yards from where we crouched.
The man at the front of the column was a northerner by his voice. “Sergeant, take six men and search the forest. If you find them, fire three pistol rounds and take them back to Plymouth on this road.”
“Begging your pardon, Lieutenant, but this is the Okewood.”
“I have studied a map of the area. I know perfectly well where we are.”
“I was born in Tavistock, sir. There are stories—”
“Lieutenant, your sergeant is correct. There are many local stories about the Okewood, some of them very strange.”
My eyes snapped wide open at the sound of another voice. I couldn’t be sure. It was seven years after all, but . . . My mother had thought him dead, had grieved for him, no doubt much more than she would ever have grieved for me.
I barely whispered his name, but the figure who rode close to the front of the column whipped his head in my direction. I held my breath and kept very still. Could it be? Was my brother alive after all?
My hope was tempered by the company he kept.
“What say you, Mr. Walsingham?” The lieutenant deferred to another dark-coated man riding alongside Philip.
“Mr. Goodliffe knows the area.” The voice was deep and commanding. “But if you feel you can spare the men, then I would be obliged.” He couched his request in the politest of terms, but it was clear that he intended to be obeyed.
“Very well, sir, I was told to follow your instructions in this matter. You can always rely on the cooperation of the Kingsmen, sir, and mine in partic’lar.” He turned to the hapless sergeant. “You heard, Sergeant.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll take local men, sir, if it’s all the same to you.” There was a shake in the sergeant’s voice as he called six men, and more than one muffled curse from those chosen.
“Lieutenant . . .” The man called Walsingham leaned toward the young officer.
“The fugitives must be caught. You understand how important this is?”
“I do, sir.”
“Your men failed me once at the Goodliffe house. I’ll not countenance failure again.”
He said it quietly, but my keen hearing picked up not only the words, but the tone of both his voice and the lieutenant’s. Whoever he was, this Walsingham held enough sway to make the lieutenant very unhappy about failure.
The unlucky sergeant and his men dismounted as the rest of the troop clattered off down the road. They led their horses into the shadow of the trees, as we had done. I heard Hookey draw his knife.
“Lads!” The sergeant called his men to a halt and waited until the sound of hooves on the road had dwindled. “You all know this place and what’s said about it.” He waited for an answer.
“It’s dark, lads, don’t just nod.”
“Yes, Sergeant.” They spoke almost in unison.
The sergeant made a noncommittal grunt, but he sounded satisfied. “Good. Once Lieutenant Buckram-Britches and his mystery men from London are out of sight, we’ll clear out of this devil-cursed place and wait for the dawn up on yonder hill. And then we’ll all go back to barracks. If anyone asks, as surely they will, we thrashed around in these little old trees for hours and found nothing. Understood?”
There was a chorus of agreement.
Hookey and I waited as they departed with never a backward glance.
I heard Hookey let out a sigh of relief.
“Don’t let your guard down yet, Hookey. Everything that frightened them is still in here,” I said.
“Ghosts don’t frighten me,” Hookey said.
“There was one ghost right there I never thought to see.”
“Huh? I never saw no ghost, Cap’n.”
“Ghost?” David asked as we came upon him and the horses waiting just where we’d left him.
“One of the two gentlemen riding with the Kingsmen was my supposedly deceased brother, Philip.”
“I would say I’m glad of it, but he seemed to be helping the Kingsmen. There was another man with him, a Mr. Walsingham. He was obviously in charge.”
“I ain’t never seen no civilians riding with the Kingsmen before, Cap’n.”
“No, me neither, Hookey. Curious, isn’t it?”
I SENT A WITCHLIGHT IN FRONT OF US, low to the ground at first, but raising it up once we were far enough inside the trees that neither the sergeant nor his men would see it if they looked back. We needed to make our way through these woods and beat the Kingsmen to Bideford.
“Is this wise?” David jerked his chin toward the light.
“Whatever is in this wood doesn’t need to see a light to know we’re here, and I’d rather not lame a horse or sprain my ankle over a tree root.” Besides, the light gave me courage to continue through this strange place, even though it threw the nearest tree trunks into sharp relief and made them seem like giants of their species, with leering faces carved into their gnarled bark.
We hadn’t walked far when the forest turned unnaturally quiet, not a rustle of leaves on the breeze or the usual creature sounds of the night. The air clustered around my head and seemed so thick I had trouble sucking it into my lungs. Right then I’d have been thankful for the eerie screech of an owl or the last, terrified squeak of its prey. I shivered and rubbed my arms. Though the temperature had not dropped I was aching with cold inside.
My light flickered and died. The thread of magic snapped as total darkness descended.
A heavy dread filled my bones.
“Cap’n.” It was the first time I’d ever heard Hookey’s voice quaver. “Can ’ee make another light, Cap’n?” Hookey asked. “Quickly-like.”
“I can, but I think we should wait a while. See what’s here and what it wants.”
“Or we could just run,” Hookey said.
A wolf’s howl cut the night somewhere behind us and sent shivers up my spine. David jumped like a startled deer. Despite the cold in my bones, my palms were clammy with sweat.
Another howl answered the first, closer now.
“On the horses,” I said. There was no sense in taking chances.
I heard rather than saw Hookey scrambling into the saddle. I mounted my horse and David swung up lightly behind me.
I heard Hookey curse his horse as it fussed at the bit. Mine stood poised ready for flight, held only by the reins and my hand soothing its trembling shoulder.
A third howl, still behind us, but to our left now.
My nerve broke.
“Come on.” I flung a new witchlight into the air and sent my horse crashing through the trees, leaning low to avoid branches whipping across my face.
Yet another howl, more to our right, drove us on.
My horse stumbled on a tree root. I pitched forward, grabbed a handful of mane as he recovered, and pushed myself back into the saddle. David’s face crunched into my spine and I heard a muffled oww. Hookey, close behind, launched a stream of colorful invective at his horse, but whether it helped or not, I didn’t know. The ground opened up in front of us and we plunged down a steep bank, splashed across a rill and up the other side again. Hookey’s horse arrived at the top, riderless, and David leaned sideways to grab its rein.
“Hookey?” I shouted.
“All right, Cap’n.” He spat. “Though I ain’t been this wet on dry land since I don’t know when.” He hauled himself up the bank, grabbing exposed tree roots as he came, then clambered aboard the horse again.
A wolf yip, closer now, drove us forward again, and then one on our right flank drove us left before another on our left drove us right.
“Whoa.” I pulled up. The trees here grew farther apart, and ahead was a small clearing. “We’re not being hunted, we’re being driven. If they were that close they’d have tried to pull Hookey down when he fell in the water.”
A silver tinkle of laughter arrived on a breeze.
“What do you want of us?” I shouted.
A tiny pinpoint of light ahead grew to the size of a child, then the size of a man, and bigger still until it was like the opening of a tunnel of bright silver. I heard David gasp and my blood seemed to clog my veins. A primal urge told me to turn and run again, but my horse’s feet were rooted to the forest floor, and though I nudged him with my heels, gently first, then stronger, he didn’t move.
A procession came toward us down that tunnel of light, bathed in an unearthly glow. To the fore a couple, human in shape, but at once both larger and smaller than real flesh-and-blood people. He was dressed in buckskin with the antlers of a stag upon his head. He carried a longbow; the hunter, not the hunted. She was the doe to his buck. I looked at them both. It wasn’t buckskin: they were naked, with furred hide instead of human skin. The antlers grew from the forest lord’s head as if from a stag’s, and though the rest of him was purely human in form, his gender was in no doubt, his fertility rampant. By her generously rounded belly and full breasts, the lady was with child.
On her wrist she held a yellow-beaked blackbird.
My first thought said Fae, but the Fae had not been seen in this country for more than two hundred years, to my knowledge. There were stories about them, of course, but nothing that tied in with this vision now before us. Something inside me, a race memory maybe, told me I knew this couple in both this and other forms. I was in no doubt that they were the essence of the land. The Green Man and his Lady of the Forests. By all the legends, guardians of this island’s wild places, elemental spirits who rarely showed themselves to mortals.
Behind the couple came a procession of woodland animals: buck, doe, badger, rabbits, an unruly gang of red squirrels, a fox and a vixen, and a lone silver wolf, a gorgeous specimen standing almost as big as a pony. His tongue lolled out as though he had been running.
“God’s ballocks! Bandits! That’s all we need.” I heard Hookey loosen his sword.
“Huh?” David obviously didn’t share Hookey’s illusion. He seemed to have some awareness of magic, which was highly unusual in a rowankind.
“No weapons, Hookey.”
“Aye, Cap’n.” The snick of steel betrayed his sword settling back into his scabbard.
“Stay back. David, hold the horses.”
I swung my right leg over my horse’s neck, slid to the ground and bowed low before the royal couple.
“Rossalinde.” The Lady spoke in the tones of a cool woodland stream. “I know you. It was foretold that you would come.”
She knew me? My scalp prickled.
“You come at last to our realm.” The Green Man’s voice held the dark sounds of creaking tree trunks and the slow movement of roots through earth.
“My apologies for the intrusion. I beg passage through the forest for myself and my companions.”
I looked over my shoulder instinctively, but I could neither hear nor see any pursuit.
The Lady released the blackbird from her wrist with a little upward motion and watched him fly up into the canopy of leaves. She stepped forward and peered into my eyes. I couldn’t look away while she stripped my soul bare from the inside out. A tremor passed through me, starting in my toes and running up my body to the roots of my hair. I shook with the force of it and only with considerable effort managed to blink.
She released my gaze. “I see you. You have ever been ruled by your heart. Yet that which is your downfall may also be your salvation.”
She held up her wrist and the bird flew back to it. She turned to me again. “See, the creature who is truly free returns out of choice. You are a child of the land, Rossalinde. Why have you chosen the sea?”
I probably stood with my mouth open trying to find an answer to a question I had not suspected needed asking.
“Circumstances led me to the sea, and my heart kept me there.”
The Green Man frowned. “She did it for love.” He rolled the last word around his mouth as if tasting it.
“Yes, I loved Will.” And I still do. “What of it?”
“His spirit is wind and water and yet you shackle him to the earth. Let him go. Soon.” He was used to being obeyed.
I could only nod meekly, though my heart screamed out that I’d never let Will go.
“Something else,” the Lady said. “An inheritance recently received, but not looked for. Show me!”
I reached into my pouch and offered her the box. She didn’t touch it, but a frown wrinkled her forehead. I put it on the palm of my hand and held it up for her to examine with her eyes. David dismounted behind me and stepped closer, staring at it, mesmerized.
“A family thing. I don’t know any more than that. My father’s, possibly.”
She shook her head. “No. From your mother’s family, of course.”
“My mother had no magic.”
“How little you know.” The Lady pursed her lips. “Your mother could have been the greatest witch of her generation, but she rejected her obligations out of fear. Now the task is certainly yours, but it’s not for you alone.”
A task? What task? My head swam, though I didn’t know if it was from her power or from the casual words that turned my world and all I knew of my mother on its head. My mother could have been the greatest witch of her generation? The small phrase, slipped between the rest, suddenly impinged on my consciousness.
“Why was she afraid, Lady?”
“The Mad King’s hounds would stop at nothing to rid the country of your family for what they did, and for what you might yet do. They almost had you in their net tonight.”
“You must not let them prevent you from doing that which your ancestor could not.” The Green Man’s voice was a rough creak. “It is time.”
I took a breath to ask more questions, but the Lady held up her hand to silence me and closed her eyes as if searching for something inside her head. At length she looked at me with piercing green eyes that I could have sworn were brown a second ago. “You stand on the brink between the old world and the new, Rossalinde. Between Magic and Reason. You hold the key to that which is all but lost and have within your grasp the chance to right a great and terrible wrong. You hold a new future in your hands, if you are brave enough to take up the challenge. But know that the hounds are out and they have your scent.” She turned to David. “And his. Search, Rossalinde. Find your family. Gather together that which was sundered.”
“Besides my brother Philip, if that was truly him and not some illusion, I don’t have any family.”
“Yes, you do.” She turned to look at David. “Starting with this one.”
“He’s my brother?” I felt dizzy.
I looked at David. Rowankind were generally smaller and slighter than us, with refined, delicate features, upswept eyebrows, and pale gray skin like polished rowan wood that showed faint grain lines. David had the features, but his skin was less gray, creamy and more translucent, and he was taller than most rowankind, though just as slender. At this age he was as beautiful as a girl without being feminine in any way. I thought that, given a few years, he would make a handsome young man. I searched his face for any hint of my mother. Maybe he had her mouth.
I swallowed hard. To lose one brother and find another all in the same day, well, shock hardly described the emotion. I had come close to seeing Hookey tear David’s throat out. My scalp prickled. I felt slightly light-headed. Everything clicked into place. His age, my mother’s dalliance with Larien, her long absence one year. It would have been a dreadful scandal, of course, so she’d covered it up, even from family.
I wondered if she’d told Larien.
And the consequence?
David was both rowankind and witchkind.
“But . . .” David’s face had turned moon-pale.
I didn’t know whether I could ever grow to love this strange half-rowankind child, but I felt sorry for him. This was as big a shock for him as it was for me. I could see the confusion written on his face.
I turned and put my hand on his arm. “My mother—our mother—took your father to her bed while my father was away at sea. He made her happy, I believe, as she had not been in a long time.”
“A scapegoat to hide her infidelity.”
The Lady reached out and touched all the fingers of her right hand to the center of David’s chest. “He is strangely dark with old magic, and that should not be. You say his father was rowankind? You’re sure?”
I nodded. “Our bondservant.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. Long gone.”
She pursed her lips. “We shall see. All is not as it seems.”
David focused on her face. He would have spoken, but the Lady shook her head and dropped her hand to her side. “All will be made clear in the fullness of time, young man. For now, remain with your sister.”
She turned back to me, her intensity making my scalp prickle. “Search for your family, Rossalinde—your mother’s family—all of them. Open the box. But remember the Mad King’s hounds. Always remember the hounds.”
A tremor ran through me. Not just the Kingsmen, but the king himself. Why should Mad King George be interested in me?
“It is time and past time. The world turns. If this thing is to be done, it’s best done now while the world of men can still bear it. That which was and which should have been might yet be again.”
I blinked, wishing she’d not talk in mystic riddles. Why should I take up some quest that wasn’t mine? If my mother successfully hid her magic all her life, couldn’t I do the same? I was quite happy as captain of the Heart, and it was much more difficult for anyone to sneak up on me on the open ocean. As far as I was concerned, the winterwood box could go to the bottom of my sea chest, or even to the bottom of the sea itself.
She leaned slightly forward, and her gaze locked with mine. The force of it chilled me to the bone. I found myself choking on frosted air.
Then she was speaking again, and I could breathe freely. “You lose your magic on the sea. You must come to the land, to the forest, to gain your full power.” She stepped back and her shoulders rose in the smallest of shrugs. “And you must come to this quest, by yourself. Or not—as your conscience dictates—for you retain your free will in all things.” Free will. I held on to that thought. “But one thing I will lay on you: you must keep your half-brother with you, for he is part of this.”
“What’s in the box?” I asked.
She shook her head as if unsure. “The mistake of a foolish man. The sin of a nation,” she replied. “The fate of the world. Everything, and nothing. The contents are yours to discover.”
More riddles. Did magic folk always speak in frustrating riddles?
“If you would beat the soldiers on the road, you need to be swift.” The Green Man said. “I feel their hooves shaking my land.”
“Are they the hounds you speak of?” I asked.
The Lady shook her head and gave me a look that said plainly I was asking stupid questions. “Go now. Take your brother and your pirate. I will send Silverwolf as your watch-wolf and guide.”
She called the huge wolf to her and rested her hand on his head, speaking in tones so low that I couldn’t catch them.
He nodded his head, a curious gesture for a wolf.
“Be swift.” She turned back to me. “He will not wait for stragglers. When you need me again, you will find me here.”
The wolf, silver-coated and gray-eyed, stood a little way ahead of us. As we turned, he put his head on one side and regarded us with a steady gaze, almost human in its intensity and understanding. Then he turned and loped into the forest.
I needed no excuse to flee the royal couple and their entourage. My mind churned so much that I was thankful to lose myself in action. I flung myself into the saddle again and David scrambled up behind. Now that I knew he was my brother the burden felt different—more personal. With Hookey behind us, we followed the wolf at a lumbering canter. The carriage horses were neither fleet nor flexible, and whipping around trees and crashing through undergrowth was hard on them.
“Slow down, wolf,” I called.
On the next rise he paused, seeming to smile at me through sharp white fangs, then loped away again.
I swore under my breath. “He’s making sport of us.”
My horse pounded on, and David clung to my waist for dear life as we cleared a fallen tree trunk and slithered down a steep hill, across a shallow river strewn with boulders and up the other side.
A yell behind me and a riderless horse galloping alongside announced that Hookey’s rough horsemanship had failed him again. Damn the wolf. I’d rather lose the wolf than Hookey. I pulled up sharp and we slithered to a stop. The other horse stopped with us and David caught its bridle.
“Coming, Cap’n. Damn horse!” Hookey’s language trailed off into a line of seamanlike expletives. I smiled. I’d seen Hookey seriously hurt. He didn’t talk or yell. He limped up beside us, took the horse’s reins and gave it a mouthful of verbal abuse before flinging himself back aboard with grim determination.
“Have we lost yon wolf?” Hookey asked.
I looked around, surprised to find that he did wait for stragglers. “No, he’s still here.”
The wolf sat watching Hookey’s horsemanship. I swear he was laughing.
“Mind your manners,” I told him. “It’s no good escaping the Kingsmen if we all end up with our necks broken.”
He gave a little yip and set off once again, this time at a slightly steadier pace. We followed him as the sky lightened past dawn. At the edge of the forest he melted away into the undergrowth and was gone, but I could see the Bideford road down in the valley and no Kingsmen either behind or before us.
“I think we’re in the clear.” I’d been listening hard for sounds of pursuit along the road and heard nothing.
“You’re sure?” David asked.
Hookey laughed. “He hasn’t got your hearing, Cap’n.”
“He knows I’m your brother?” David looked from me to Hookey and back again.
“It weren’t exactly difficult to guess.” Hookey bunched his reins up in one hand and scratched his beard. “Besides, you’re already taller than most rowankind, though you got the looks, I’ll grant you that. But you and she got a resemblance—something around the mouth—an’ I know you got magic, ’cos you could feel hers working an’ I never can.”
“About that,” David said.
“All in good time. Hush,” I hissed between my teeth.
We dismounted, slipped out the bits, and let the horses graze on roadside grass for an hour that we could ill afford, but better to have them refreshed in case of pursuit. When we set off again, we did so at a sedate pace, alternating walking and steady jog-trotting, so as not to lather them unnecessarily. All the time I listened for pursuers, but the early morning remained peaceful. The road rolled across farmland. A lone ploughman turning winter-worn fields to straight dark lines pulled up his horse at the end of a furrow and looked in our direction. I gathered my magic and he gazed through us. In similar fashion I hid us from a shepherd and his dog.
David was obviously wrestling with questions. In truth, I didn’t know what I could say. To be brought up disenfranchised and then to discover you’re the mistress’s bastard son is one thing, but to also discover that you’ve inherited magic that has the potential to be dark and dangerous added a new twist.