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It's taken a long time to get to this point, and I'm thrilled that the journey has come to an end. Not because I've tired of writing this story, but because I have actually finished something.
A real one.
For the first time.
So for anyone following this journey, thank you. I will probably continue to post character sketches and portions of the book if readers are interested.
If you have a Kindle or other device with a Kindle app then you can read the book right away, and I am working on getting this in a print-on-demand format for those who prefer their books with paper and a spine. As a special bonus for blog readers, you can download the PDF version for free for a limited time here.
Tall, elegant, with large green eyes and the smile of a particularly clever cat, Lady Mallkyn, Countess of Carrell, is a woman whose main characteristic is selfishness. She is out for number one, always has been, and always will be. If it looks like she is showing pity or interest in someone other than herself, just follow the trail of breadcrumbs and you'll find that something is in it for her.
At the same time, though, we can see some of the things in her life that have made her what she is. She lives in a hard world: the aristocracy of a medieval land where class is paramount and the only way for a woman to advance is by marriage. Her parents knew this, and married her off at a startlingly young age to an older man who happened to be an earl, as well as a drunk. At the time she thought they were unjust and hated them for it, brooding on her pain for years. Then she changed. She decided, like so many do, to turn her pain into anger, and resolved to spend the rest of her life making that strategic marriage count for something. Ambition became her first aim in life.
Her favorite tactics are blackmail and manipulation by guilt. She does a lovely job of pretending to be generous, sweet, and innocent when necessary, then she turns right around and stabs her claws into the softest flesh she can find. She holds things over her enemies' heads, things they would rather forget and have kept secret--affairs, gambling debts, family scandals--threatening what they hold most dear in return for special services.
For years she put up with her husband, asserting her superior intellect whenever possible and making him look like an incompetent buffoon to everyone, but after a decade or so she grows quite tired of the game. She isn't content with a mediocre castle on a mediocre estate in a mediocre county; she wants a larger game to play.
“Ye’ve done it, Cessy. Ye’ve done it!” Bess laughed loud then, startling the cluster of women in their blood stained aprons and damp plasters and making Rivens yelp.
It wasn’t real until Cecily saw her mother smile. She had just been claimed as property from the hand of death, and it didn’t matter that Cecily couldn’t understand it. Despite the fears, despite the grave in the churchyard, despite the gray faces and hallowed tones, despite the retching and twisting, she was here. Cecily fell back into Gracia’s arms and cried in fast tears that grew thick in her throat. They held on to each other and waited for the shock to pass, then Bess asked the question that everyone else was yearning to say. “If ye can heal her, what about the others?” At the moment Cecily’s bones felt as if they’d been scraped raw and ground between millstones. Every piece of her ached. “Let’s not talk of that now.” Gracia’s tone was adamant. “Rest, is what she needs. I think we all need it.” “I want to tell someone. It won’t take long.” Cecily pulled gently away from Gracia, brushed her hand through Alis’s hair, and skip-jumped out of the chapel. Once outside the door there were no stares to hold her back from running down the street toward the castle, boots slipping and elbows kicking the wind. It was a moment of triumph, when her fears and hopes had met and for once in her life it felt as though she had done something to be proud of.
At this hour of the day Jevan was almost certain to be in the Great Hall with the other men, smoking and drinking and perhaps enjoying some entertainment. Cecily couldn’t gain admittance there, but there was a chance at finding Jevan some other way.
She entered the castle through a side door and listened for the sounds of laughter from the Hall. They came, and she stepped through the passages, making her way to the garderobes. He would have to come along here sometime, she reasoned, and so she leaned against the cold stone wall and waited.
Three men and a sotted lady passed that way through the next half hour, and Cecily was one leg cramp away from abandoning the enterprise and returning to the chapel to see how her mother got on. Then the noise of boisterous voices rose up from an opened door and she stood straight, trying to discern if Jevan’s was among them. A pair of boots clumped on the stairs, with a slight stumble at the top, and then Jevan came up the last step and was walking down the hall toward her.
“She’s all right, she’s well again!” Cecily ran to meet him and he started, then wrapped his arms around her. He rocked her back and forth as she laughed into his velvet shirt and streaked it with tears. “Jevan, she is saved! I’ve saved her.”
She pulled away from him and looked up, shining. He smiled back at her, tucking a stray wisp of hair behind her left ear. “I’m proud of you, my Cecily. It can’t have been easy, whatever you have done.”
Cecily felt that it was the highest praise anyone had ever given her, and gave him the only thanks she could think of, a kiss full on the lips.
Jevan threw his head back and laughed, then picked Cecily up as if she weighed nothing, whirling her around and around in middle of the corridor.
Cecily jumped out of the swing and ran toward the chapel, her eye flicking in the only direction she strained to avoid, toward the fresh turned earth of Widow Dincrawe’s grave.
Shooting through the maze of beds, she fell at Alis’s side. Her mother looked worse than ever, her livid face twitching and stiffening in pulses as she moaned. Gracia came up beside them, touching Alis's wrists, chest, and forehead, muttering under her breath. No one called on her for a verdict, but they waited. Gracia’s eyes lifted to meet Cecily’s, and they understood. “Call on yourself, child. Nothing else is going to save her.” Alis’s body twisted and deformed with pain. The muscles grew slack, then convulsed, and it was all the bystanders could do to not cover their ears to shut out her shrieking.
“Can’t you do it?” Cecily’s voice sounded small and fraught. “You’ve got the power, Gracia, you can heal her.” “I think your strength will avail more in this instance. I’ve been working on the others all this time, and I’m all but spent. Even that hasn’t been enough to save them all.” “But I don’t think—” “Don’t think! You know what you want, now take it.” A darkness grew in Cecily’s mind. A darkness with no name but longing. The little group that had gathered around Alis’s pallet dissipated and Cecily stumbled to her feet, pacing to the front of the chapel and back, biting her nails. “I believe that you are more in need of me than your mother.” Cecily looked up to see the vicar. “Thank you, but I do not think I need your help.” “I have not come with platitudes—” “Please leave me, vicar.” “—only to say that God’s ways are not our ways. Do not despair of his love and mercy, child.” She turned on him. “Are you saying that God wants my mother to die?” “No, only that if it is his will then it is for the best.” “Thank you for your condolences. I would like to be left alone.” Cecily returned to Alis’s bed just as Rivens arrived. “Is it true, girlie? Is yer mother really failing?” She only had to point. Alis lay still now, the only movement in her fitful rising chest. “Is she very bad?” Cecily wondered if he really wanted to hear the truth. “She’s been weak for months, losing her strength and never gaining any of it back.” His arm slipped around her shoulders and she leaned her dry face against him. It was too late for tears, the quiet torture of days had wrung her eyes stiff and empty. “Is there nought ye can do?” “Oh, there’s plenty we can do.” She jabbed at a bag of fresh cut herbs. “We can make poultices and mix ointments and smear oils all night but none of it does a bit of good. There’s only one thing I can think of that might help.” “An’ what’s that?” “Gracia’s power.” She watched his expression, but saw no change. “She told me that I’m the only one who can save her.” “That’s a risk.” “I know, you told me to be careful. The vicar told me as much this evening. Do you think I should just stand by and watch her die?” They both turned to Alis, lying slack and pale beneath them. “Do whatever ye can, Cessy. Only don’t blame yerself if it doesn’t work.” “I hardly believe that it will. I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t know if it won’t do more harm than good.” A low, purring hum had started unnoticed in the back of Cecily’s mind. She only noticed it as it grew louder. In a few moments it was filling both her ears, and in another moment it had drowned out the sounds of coughing and crying. Alis’s eyes snapped open. “Cessy?” “Yes, Mum! It’s me. I’m here.” “I’m sorry, dearest, I’m so…sorry.” “Don’t be. You can’t help it, none of us can.” “It’s happened again, and I’m just…too…weak to fight. Can’t fight, Cessy.” Her body shook and juddered, wrenching upward and then collapsing with a moan. Her eyes stared wild in Rivens’s direction. “Colyn? Colyn is that you?” Cecily froze at her father’s name and Rivens ducked his head between his knees, rocking back and forth. Cecily gripped her mother’s chapped fingers. “Then I’ll fight for you.” She closed her eyes and tried to put herself back in the forest, back to the moment when she had imagined wind, whipping and shaking. She tried to remember what it felt like, sounded like, tasted like. Then it snapped into place. “Mum, you’re going to get better. You’re going to be well. Listen to me, come back. This is not the end.” She imagined it with as much strength as she could muster—Mum, well again. She pictured the healthy glow of her skin, no more tired lines, an end to the screams and twitches. In an hour—no, in a minute—there would be a smile on that face. Peace. A sense of surety built in her, and a warm thing spread through Cecily’s veins. She could beat this horrific thing. She could force back fate and turn death itself backwards. Soon there was no thinking or willing, only feeling and hearing the power work its way through her fingers. Speak to me. Oh please, say something. Her ears strained to the brink of breaking and her legs went numb against the stone floor. She couldn’t see them, but everyone in the chapel had their eyes fixed on Alis’ pallet and the kneeling girl. A few gathered around her. Gracia put her fingertips to Alis’s temples and spoke low words. If their eyes weren’t imagining things, Alis’s chest had begun to rise in a steadier rhythm. Cecily clutched her mother’s hand and leaned over her body, every inch of her tense. A mouse scuttled in the loft and they all heard the patter of each tiny feet.
Slow, achingly slow, but perceptible, came a relaxation. One of Alis’s hands, help up tight and twisted like a claw, drifted down to lay upon the blanket. Her taut tendons eased, and the sense-starved eyes closed together.
The chapel door squeaked open and Bess tiptoed in. Two second’s sight of Alis and she stifled a laugh of joy, then ran to the pallet. Gracia gave her a small smile without stopping her quiet speech. Bess watched Cecily—whose eyes were still closed—and waited for the miracle to be complete. Five minutes passed, and the flesh which had been burning and bitten was now mellow and cool. Five minutes more and Alis looked more alive than dead. Cecily felt wet patches of sweat under her arms and tasted blood on her lips for the first time as the pounding hum retreated from her mind and left it aching. Her mum’s eyes opened without effort, and Cecily saw and recognized.
For the next three days Whitcrowe marinated in terror and confusion. As more cotters fell ill—the vicar’s wife, Hana Fairdam, another Cobbler child, and two old widow women—rumors spun themselves in dark corners and rolled from doorstep to doorstep, spreading pain and distrust. Had someone poisoned the well? Was God judging the sinful members of the community? Was this a plot to ruin Lord Geoffrey and Lady Mallkyn, or were they the ones who were trying to ruin the cotters? Why? The surgeon gave no answers to their questions, only a few self-important nods and brief platitudes. It would all be quite all right, he assured them. He wanted to take one of the patients to Camberton to treat them in his own surgery, but no one would hear of that. They would all stay in the chapel where they could be watched by friends and family. Pale faces watched the sufferers by day and night. No service was held that Sculpsday; the vicar was too exhausted to perform the service, even if the chapel hadn’t not been occupied by writhing, screaming people and the smell of herb concoctions.
Men and women drifted in and out of the echoing room, taking time from their work to bring food and whatever homemade remedies they could create. A few women were told that they need not work if they would stay with the sick, and so Gracia, Matild, Bess, Cecily and a few others took turns sitting by the beds, fetching water, bathing hot foreheads, piling on covers, and trying to stay awake through the long night watches. Cecily didn’t see Jevan for several days. Lord Geoffrey was no doubt keeping him busy, and she was almost always in the chapel so there was no possibility of a chance meeting. Alis showed little change, only her flailing grew weaker. At noon on the second day, Widow Dincrawe died. She was a frail old thing, with cloudy blue eyes and skin worn thin like a well-loved doll. Everyone knew her, everyone shuddered with grief when they pulled a sheet over her face. If Alis had known, she would have wept. They buried the widow among the faithful. The surgeon was obviously helpless. No one knew the ways of holy fire. Theda Spichfat told everyone who would listen that this was the work of witches. Why witches would choose to afflict a few weak women and children she couldn’t explain, but it sounded right to her frazzled brain. The vicar feared that it was God’s judgment for some hidden sin, Gracia made it clear that she blamed the old grain that everyone had been eating for months. On her third night of duty Cecily sat beside a boy with a shrunken white face, quietly telling him the tale of the three sailors and the pearl. Gracia passed by with a basket of ointments. “Here, Cessy, won’t you put this balm on her chest? Hana’s doing a little better with it.” Cecily’s muscles felt like very heavy gelatin, but she reached up to take the bottle. Something rustled over her shoulder as she bent to apply the ointment and she felt Bess’s hand on her arm. “Don’t do it, Cessy. You need to rest. Go on outside and taste some fresh air.” “But I’ve slept all day…” “A few hours of napping in the corner is hardly sleeping all day. Now, give me that and I’ll finish the story. You go.” There was nothing more to be said when Bess got that look on her face. Cecily handed over the bottle with guilty gratitude, glanced back at Alis to make certain she was sleeping, and slipped out a side door into the chapel garden. A wall of cool evening air struck her face and she drank it in. The stars were already out, though the sunset was not quite gone. One rattling cart and some distant conversations were the sounds, and Cecily breathed in the quiet with the air. She went to her swing and swayed back and forth until she was too tired to move her legs. For the first time in so long she had leisure to think, to consider what had been happening. This was the same plague that had seized Whitcrowe twelve years before. That sickness had passed, leaving many families broken, bodies weakened, hearts torn. No one knew why it had claimed the lives it did, or why it had disappeared within a couple of weeks. Cecily could barely remember her father now, and what memories she had were confused with the stories her mother had told her. Hearing him spin his tales in the dark, bouncing on his knee, looking way, way up to see his face. Snatched away before I could show him my garden or ask him any questions.
She heard a door close behind her and someone crossing the garden. Perhaps it was only someone coming to the well for water. The rustling steps continued and Cecily winced, cupping her face in her hands and trying not to cry from frustration. She could not have two minutes together. Someone was coming for her. “Cessy, it’s your mum.”
Matild the cobbler’s wife stood in the torchlight of the courtyard, face red and sweaty, frizzy corkscrews of hair escaping her wimple. She was the screamer. Men with pitchforks and lanterns had already gathered, as well as a string of squealing maids. The lord and lady had not yet come—presumably they were still eating in great hall—and they were all powerless to quiet the shrieking and find the reason for it. Jevan and Cecily stood separate in the shadows, neither thinking of the other, as they watched the chaos and heard the screams increase. One of the pitchfork men coughed and Matild collapsed in a heap of sobs and skirts. Jevan stepped forward and pushed through the growing crowd. “Who is this woman? What has been done to her?” Woman, why are making this ungodly racket?”
Matild shut her mouth and stared up at the man, then took a hard gulp and gasped out a few words. “It’s my boy, Elstan. And the Spichfat girl. They’re twistin’ and writhin’, and sayin’ dreadful things, and my boy,” she ground her fingers into her eyes. One old hag said, “Oh, aye, I’ve seen this afore. It’s the holy fire, sure enough. Evil stuff. I had three cousins all come down wid it when I were but a girl. Nearly got me it did.” Then in a loud whisper, “If it don’t kill you it leaves you half-witted, often as not.” Master Auvray knelt and pried away Matild’s hands, waiting until she could look him in the face to ask, “What about your boy?”
“He tried to strangle me. He’s gone mad, sire. Elstan would never do that—he’s a good boy, a good boy. Somethin’s the matter the matter with him sire. I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do!” “Is there anyone else? Just this boy and girl?” “Oh, there may be others by now. I thought I heard summat over at the Lockton’s cottage.” Jevan saw Cecily stiffen and he rose to face the crowd. “Something is plaguing the village. Perhaps a kind of illness. Someone—no. I will ride for the surgeon in Camberton. Man, get my horse. Would someone,” his eyes flicked toward Cecily, “bring this woman to wherever the sick will be? The men parted to make a path and Cecily ran to Matild, gathering her up in her arms and guiding her toward the gate while Jevan left for the stables.
“Where’s Cessy? Does anyone know where she is? Cessy!” “I’m here, Gracia.” Cecily entered the chapel half carrying Matild, going slow with her burden. Gracia ran to pull the woman onto one of the low beds that had been set up in a makeshift infirmary. “Cessy. They’ve just brought your mother in.” They both heard the painful sound of retching. “Mum? Mum!” Cecily saw a neighbor cover Alis with a blanket and wipe the spittle from her mouth. Two seconds later she was beside her mother’s bed, holding her and smoothing her sweaty hair. “Mum, it’s me, me, Cessy. Come, have a drink, there. You’ll be all right. There are people, herbs, medicine here to help you. We’ll help you. Don’t worry about a thing. It’ll be over soon, don’t worry.” Alis cried out that she was being bitten, burned, and scratched, then moaned and turned over on her side. The room blurred into just so many dark splotches and Cecily buried her face in her apron. No no. Not now. Not today. It can’t be happening. God why? “Come, lass, give your mother a drink.” The vicar put one hand on Cecily’s shoulder and with the other offered her a cup of ale. She fumbled for the cup and held it to her mother’s lips. That was the first night. Sleepless, painful, sharp in memory forever like the stab of a cramp in the ribs. Two beds were set up in the chapel for Elstan and the Olive Spichfat, another for Alis, and two more for the rest who were sure to come. Matild, Olive’s parents, Cecily, Gracia, Bess, and the vicar were the first vigil, watching the victims as they struggled under their covers, convulsing and crying out horrible things—they were being cut, pinched, burned, frozen, and drowning in blood. Bess kept one hand on the girl’s forehead and that seemed to keep her calm, but Matild and her husband had to tie Elstan to the bed with cords after he jumped up and almost broke a window. His mother finally exhausted her tears and sat rocking in her seat, deaf to everything. Cecily tried to speak with her mother, asking if she had gone anywhere or done anything strange. Perhaps she and the children had discovered some kind of poison, a dangerous plant she’d never heard of, or maybe something had frightened them out of their wits. “Mum? Can you hear me? Do you know who’s speaking to you? What’s gone wrong? Mum, can you tell me what you did today?” Alis only shuddered and lifted her hands in the air, twisting them as if an invisible person were bending and cracking the fingers. Cecily grabbed her hands and her mother let out a shriek. “Cold! Cold! Help! They’re coming.” Everyone counted the minutes, then the hours, until the surgeon’s arrival. They couldn’t be sure that he would even come. A few cotters might not be enough to get him away from his supper table, or out of his warm bed, but they all helped that the persuasion of an earl’s heir would put speed to his feet. Gracia came back from her house carrying a vial of brown liquid that she said would calm the sufferers. She moistened towels and dabbed their foreheads (eliciting cries of “Mum! The water, I’m drowning...”), then poured the noxious potion down their throats. An hour later they were no calmer, and neither did Gracia. Everyone had a painful, unacknowledged anxiety—perhaps even the Camberton surgeon would be of no help. It might be what the old hag said: holy fire. A plague with no cause and no cure, striking in random spots like a blind old man trying to whip a horse. The night grew longer, still without a surgeon. Men and women came through the chapel to see the strange sight and worry the watchers. Cecily fought off the idle spectators (“Give them some peace! Give them quiet!”), but was unable to drive away the clusters of friends and family weeping noisily around the beds.
After midnight another victim came to the chapel: Madge Surlaf. She was bent double from a pain in her stomach and complained that her fingers and toes had gone numb. Alis readied a bed and Gracia prepared a strong-smelling poultice. Cecily fell asleep in her chair several hours later, waking only when the chapel doors banged open and Jevan Auvray entered, leading a hunched old man she guessed was the surgeon. The whole company watched as the surgeon examined the four, conferred with Gracia, and spoke to Jevan in low tones. Jevan’s shoulders looked squarer, his back straighter, and his chin higher than they ever had. He beckoned this one and sent away that one, inquired and advised. Cecily watched him as much as she dared without drawing attention to herself, but imagined that he looked at her once or twice. Just before leaving, he came close by Alis’s bed as if on inspection. “How is she?” he murmured. “Very bad. Does the surgeon not know what the matter is?” “That will take some time, I’m afraid. I’ll let you know If I find out anything.” She smiled and touched his hand ever so briefly, then turned to soothe her mother’s restless twitching.
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Three days later, Jevan Auvray reined in his sweat-streaked horse at the crest of a small hill above Granton Castle. He gave Grane the slightest pressure of the knees and they flew down the hill, one last sprint before arriving in a frothy stumble at the gates. Grane headed to the stables where a drink and food awaited him, and Jevan stroked his neck. “No hart of ten today, my lad, but we have had a fine day of riding, haven’t we?”
He entrusted Grane to a pimply stableboy, then strode across the courtyard toward his own supper when Lady Letitia appeared at his elbow. “Jevan! Where have you been? We are all missing you so dreadfully.”
Jevan started away from the wide eyes and upturned chin. “Forgive me, milady, I meant to tell my aunt that I was riding.”
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter really. You are always riding. Your Uncle Geoffrey was rather upset that you didn’t come into the library this afternoon; he had to sit by himself for hours.”
“I’m sure his ale kept him company enough. No, don’t repeat that.”
She crossed her arms beneath her insubstantial bosom and was about to reply when Jevan caught sight of a figure across the courtyard—Cecily, walking in the direction of the gardens. He stood motionless for a moment, then patted Letitia’s shoulder and walked toward Cecily, leaving the lady gawping behind him.
She nearly dropped her mattock. “Forgive me, milord—Jevan, I have been working in the gardens all week. It’s a busy time of year and I am one of the few whom Rivens will allow to tend to certain jobs—”
“And I have not taken the trouble to visit the gardens. I see, you condemn me for my negligence.” He laughed as she opened her mouth to deny it. “Ah Cecily, you should know me by now. I was only jesting. Let us take a short walk around the gardens now and enjoy the sunlight while it lasts.”
She had been examining the pavement beneath her feet, but now glanced up at Jevan’s face. All she saw was a look of quiet interest. A slight touch of his hand to hers and they were going out the courtyard gates and down the path toward a garden entrance.
They walked the curving pathways between neat-clipped hedges, noted the already monstrous salvigia bushes, and approached the Balcony—a sort of folly made of two curving staircases that joined to create an overlook.