The coronation of Elizabeth Tudor should have been Lady Linnet Norwood’s greatest hour. Only forty of the finest ladies in England had been chosen to accompany the new Queen from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey in her time of triumph.
Yet, as she rode bravely through the riotous streets on her shy bay mare, the new Countess of Glencross had never been more miserable.
Beneath her, the poor beast flinched at every boom of cannon fire, every explosion of cheers as the citizens roared their support for their proud young Queen. On every side, a jostling wall of onlookers in bright holiday finery hemmed her in. Hundreds more spilled from the windows of the whitewashed, dark-beamed inns and shops that lined Gracechurch Street.
To country-bred Linnet, the bewildering array of buildings seemed to blot out the sky. They leaned over the narrow cobblestone street until she feared the crowded structures would topple and crush them all like insects.
Sweet Jesus, she was as jumpy as the mare, her skin taut and twitching with nerves under her fur-lined court gown of crimson velvet.
Part of it was guilt. Her cloth-of-gold sleeves alone could have fed her modest household in their drafty castle on the Scottish march for a year.
Part of it was agonized worry over her accursed clumsiness. Blessed St. Bride, let the horse not startle, or she’d go pitching heels over head in her fine regalia from this gilded deathtrap of a sidesaddle.
But the worst part was fear.
Fearful as a witless sparrow. Ye’d start at yer own shadow! Jasper’s old taunt rang in her ears. Aye, it was true, and none knew the reason better than he.
Her brother was long dead, his bones scattered on unconsecrated ground somewhere in the ravine below Glencross. But his unquiet spirit would haunt her memory to the Judgment Day.
“Begone, ye wee demon,” she whispered to banish the thought.
She would have crossed herself, but drawing attention to her faith in this newly Protestant court was the last thing she wished for. She was a not-so-secret Catholic in a realm that despised them, her proud and ancient faith now stained with heretic blood by sad Mary Tudor—a devout Catholic—and the cruel Inquisition her Spanish King had brought to England as a bridal gift.
She whispered a prayer for the dead Queen and those poor doomed souls. But the roaring crowd swallowed up her voice, burying her secrets under the joyful discord of happy England.
Unheard as usual.
Raising her chin, Linnet reined her prancing mare into line. Before her marched the crimson ranks of Queen Elizabeth’s Gentlemen Pensioners, bristling with ceremonial pikes, behind a canopied litter draped in white satin and gold. Within, the redheaded young Queen waved and beamed at her adoring populace.
“No man in England would dare trouble ye here, ye wee bampot!” Impatient with her own timidity, Linnet chided herself, breath exploding white in the frosty air. “Ye’re one of the queen’s own ladies now, ye cloth-heid.”
On either side, the proud beauties who served as the Queen’s Maids of Honor slanted her dubious glances. One haughty young blonde edged her mare away. They’d done their level best to ignore her since the master of ceremonies—the Queen’s favorite, Lord Robert Dudley—had waved her carelessly into place, his dark gypsy eyes already turning to more important matters, dismissing her soft-spoken thanks.
Well, no matter. She hadn’t come all this weary way to London in the dead of winter to curry favor.
Amid the billowing sea of her crimson skirts, Linnet clutched her scrap of parchment—the missive thrust into her hand by a ragged boy who stank of the tanner’s trade, lost in the throng before she could question him. That scrawled note whose brief words had set her heart hammering, hard and fearful, and drained the cold sting of color from her cheeks.
If you truly wish to find the truth you seek, come alone to the Maid and Minion after the Rose Pageant on Gracechurch Street.
No doubt it was a cruel jest, one more mockery from the Protestant court that scorned her.
The Papist, the orphan, the mouse.
Now a galliard’s sprightly strains lilted over the cheering throng—another tableau to honor their new Queen. Was it the Rose Pageant Beneath her tight-laced stomacher, her belly fluttered with nerves.
She would go where bidden, as she’d always done, but steel herself not to be disappointed by the outcome. Very likely the note was but a hoax, for God knew the question of her parentage had been bruited about since she’d come to court. Her cold-eyed father and his deathbed pronouncement had seen to that. Why shouldn’t they whisper, when her own father repudiated her
Too bad for Edward Norwood that his sons were dead by violence or mischance, all three of them, and his slip of a daughter the only living heir Glencross had left.
Besides, she ought not to mind being branded a bastard. Forsooth, she preferred it to the other rumors, the ones that called her mad—the poor girl who’d vanished for two long years and reappeared from nowhere, raving she’d been kidnapped by Faeries.
Half-Scottish, half-mad, and now a bastard to boot. Three marks against her, each worse than the last.
Firmly Linnet silenced the whispers of doubt, straightened her shoulders and gripped her reins in fingers growing numb from cold. Ahead, the Queen’s litter swayed to a halt for the Rose Pageant.
Here, before the stands where the guildsmen watched in their fur-lined gowns, costumed players re-enacted key scenes from the Tudor dynasty. Now the imposing frame of King Henry VIII and his long-dead consort Anne Boleyn, supported by Unity and Concord, proclaimed a redheaded girl with a crown and scepter their new Queen.
Linnet was too distant to hear the generous words of praise the Queen must bestow upon this pleasing spectacle. She’d been speechless with astonishment to be given any place at all.
Still, her mounted post afforded some vantage, over a bobbing sea of hats and hoods, of the painted sign that swung from a high gable—a buxom maid linking hands with a ragged urchin.
The Maid and Minion.
Her heart bumped, hard and anxious, against the whalebone cage of her corset. With her destination in sight—a possible answer to the doubts that plagued her—her mouth went dry. Suddenly the cup of warm ale she’d sipped to break her fast seemed long ago and distant, like her half-remembered dreams of Faerie. She’d never been fearful in the Summer Lands, the Faerie realm that hovered like a mirage alongside Tudor England, separated from the mortal world by a fragile curtain of mist that grew thinner each year.
But nay, that was the world she’d imagined while she wandered, lost and witless, on the Scottish moor.
Carefully, Linnet edged her mare through the ranks. The shy bay balked at passing so close to the others, a reticence her rider shared. Still, there was no help for it.
“Come, Moibeal, ye bonny sweet lass. Don’t fash.” Gently she coaxed the little mare. “They’re a noisy bunch, aye, but we’ve naught to fear from them.”
Her movement jostled the elegant blonde at her side, who shot Linnet a disdainful look. “God’s Body, where do you fancy you’re going Lord Robert directed us most expressly not to stray from the line.”
“Aye, and I beg yer pardon.” Linnet offered an apologetic smile. “My throat’s that dry, Lady Catherine. I’ll just step down for a drop of sweet wine at the inn yonder, and be back in a twinkling. Wouldn’t ye like me to fetch ye some?”
“Drink swill from that filthy inn?” The blonde made a moue of distaste. “Oh, ’tis good enough for the common sort, no doubt.”
By reflex, Linnet ducked her head at the slur, prepared to hide behind her hood as she’d always done. Then, recalling her new rank, she lifted her chin and kneed Moibeal past.
If she wished to be treated with the courtesy due a countess, she must bear herself accordingly. A fearful demeanor only invited others to abuse her.
Jasper had taught her that.
As she edged through the solid press of footmen holding back the eager throng, her anxiety mounted. The note had been most precise. If she failed to appear when bidden, her mysterious correspondent might conclude she wasn’t coming. She would have missed her chance to learn the truth she’d journeyed all the way to London to find.
Biting her lip, she took her bearings from the painted sign, then slipped from the saddle. At once the crowd swallowed her up, a wall of bodies well wrapped and buffered against the biting cold. Patiently coaxing Moibeal to follow, Linnet threaded her way past flushed goodwives and good-natured merchants, all too intent on the spectacle to heed a wayward girl. She gave a wide berth to a band of young journeymen, rowdy with drink.
She’d feared her splendid gown would excite notice, but she should have known better. Even clad in crimson velvet and cloth-of-gold, with her fire-streaked riot of mahogany curls piled high, she was still the mouse who crept along the floorboards.
Hundreds of England’s highest nobility, from the Lord Mayor of London to the Duke of Norfolk himself, paraded through the streets beside her, arrayed in pride and glittering finery. Among them, Lady Linnet Norwood was the same insignificant little nobody she’d always been.
By the time she reached the Maid and Minion, she was bruised and breathless. Thankfully she reached for the door—only to find it sealed and bolted, shutters nailed tight over the street-side windows. A pang of dismay stabbed through her.
A ragged parchment nailed to the boards, months old, informed her the inn was closed and its master seized by the Crown for heresy. One of the last heretics, the poor wretch, to burn for his faith under the last regime.
“Sweet mercy!” she exclaimed. “Is it all for naught, then?”
Having steeled herself for some outcome, whether good or bad, she found the acrid taste of disappointment hard to swallow. She’d come south for no other reason than this, to piece together the summer her mother had spent in London twenty-three years ago—the summer Linnet was conceived.
How much longer must she live beneath this stigma of bastardy she could neither confirm nor refute How much longer must she flounder like an insect trapped in amber before the court’s unfriendly eyes—neither usurper nor madwoman, just the dutiful Catholic lady she’d always striven to be How much longer must she wait, unable to secure the strong husband she’d reluctantly concluded her troubled lands must have No respectable man would take her with the double stigma of bastardy and lunacy overshadowing her prospects.
To say nothing of her faith.
Tears of frustration blurred her vision. Impatient with her own weakness, she dashed them away.
“Ye mustn’t lose hope so easy,” she muttered, indulging her childhood habit of talking to herself, since there was never anyone to listen. “Pretend ye’re a knight on crusade, a Knight of the Round Table, like Lancelot-”
Nay, not him. Not Lancelot. Ansgar the divine spear, they called him in the Summer Lands. The land of Faerie.
Her mind veered away from that dangerous terrain. She’d pretend to be Sir Galahad, one of King Arthur’s knights from the Faerie tales she’d read to her brother Colin, the ones the wee lad had loved so much.
Aye, she was Sir Galahad, on a quest for the Holy Grail, and not to be thwarted so easily. No doubt she’d find another entrance in back.
Squaring her shoulders, she set herself to press through the thinning crowd toward the narrow alley. Now the royal procession had passed, her path was easier. She led Moibeal into the alley and circled the inn. More shuttered windows, but there!
“The gate to the castle,” she whispered.
And the Grail is the Cup of Truth.
Here was the postern where riders had once entered the walled courtyard, and it swung ajar. Heart lifting, hope quickening her steps, she tethered Moibeal to the gatepost. The bay shifted uneasily, hooves striking the cobbles in a way that made Linnet wince. With the high buildings to muffle the distant din, this narrow alley was unnervingly quiet.
“There now, hush,” she whispered. Surely even Sir Galahad had relied upon stealth betimes. “Ye can bide here, quiet and safe. Hush now.”
Leaving the mare prancing, still unsettled, Linnet touched nervous fingers to her hair and smoothed back the wayward ringlets forever springing loose from her chignon. Did she even look respectable, after being wind-whipped and jostled by that drunken mob
The skin between her shoulders itched, as though someone were watching her—the way Jasper had watched her that day, the last day of her sanity. The last day of his wretched life.
The day the Faeries came for her.
But that was just a dream, the sick fancies of a mind led astray by the Devil. Or so the nuns at Glencross Abbey had told her.
Snow was swirling down now, thick and white, from leaden skies. Through the flurries, she glimpsed naught but a few distant forms hurrying toward shelter. The Queen’s procession was well past, the festivities over for them.
Swallowing the hard lump of trepidation rising in her throat, she slipped through the gate. A cobblestone tunnel wound before her, dark and narrow as a serpent, lit at the end with the pearly light of day. She crept along, heeled pumps tapping softly on the stone, cold-numbed feet clumsy on the uneven footing.
Of course, she was always clumsy, and never more so than when she feared.
But Sir Galahad would be fearless. Carefully she steadied her footing on the ice-rimed cobbles and pressed on.
At last, the courtyard opened around her, high and narrow, ranks of shuttered windows frowning down from the second-floor gallery that circled the yard. Across the way, where the innkeeper would have welcomed his guests, this entrance too was hammered shut like a rejection, the death of hope. She saw no one and nothing, save a pile of moldering straw and the sinister hulk of a wagon leaning crazily over a broken axel.
Sick with disappointment, she felt her heart plunge to her belly.
Nonetheless, she steeled herself to violate a lifetime of caution and do what she hated most—draw attention to herself.
“Good morrow?” Though muted, her voice rang against the bare stone. “Is anyone here?”
Something scuffed against the stone behind her. She whirled, heart pounding in her throat, fighting an absurd impulse to hide.
“Ye’re Sir Galahad on the Grail Quest,” she whispered, to remind herself. And Jasper was dead.
The dark tunnel yawned before her, obscured by swirling snow. She opened her mouth to call again, but the words stuck in her throat.
Another Faerie tale reared up in her mind, a dragon exploding from its den to pour flame over the brave maiden who’d ventured forth on trembling legs to confront it, armed only with a magical shield-
Impatient with her hampering fears, she shook her head. Clearly, she’d come on a fool’s errand. After all, she was the Countess of Glencross—she was—not some silly moon-girl running errands for her betters. She’d rejoin the procession in Cornhill at the next pageant, something about the Four Virtues-
From the tunnel, a shadow slipped into the courtyard. A gaunt man, features obscured by grime and graying stubble, incongruously clad in a fool’s tattered motley.
A fool’s errand indeed, she thought dryly, with a fool to summon me.
Hesitant, she started forward, but a flicker of movement elsewhere drew her gaze. A second figure lurched from behind the broken wagon.
His size made her gasp. Nearly a giant, this one, with a smith’s hulking shoulders and thick arms, shirt and breeches smeared with pitch as though he’d issued from the mouth of Hell.
Her nebulous misgivings coalesced into hideous shape. Why had the man not shown himself when she hailed
Fore and aft, the two mismatched figures closed in, the giant with his lumbering gait, the tattered fool with his nimble, hopping stride. Uneasily she shifted to keep them both in view, placing solid wall at her back.
Every instinct she had clamored a warning. Thanks to her brother, she knew what it was to be hunted.
Showing fear would be the worst thing she could do. Thus she nerved herself for speech.
“God save ye, master. Was it ye who wrote me?”
Like a bright bird, the fool hopped toward her. “Are you Lady Linnet Norwood?”
His falsetto voice unnerved her more than the giant’s hulking silence.
She thought about lying, claiming she was someone else, but it was too late to pretend ignorance now. She wore the finery of a queen’s lady, and she’d come alone to this isolated meeting place as bidden. Who else could she be What other lady in all the vast court would be mad enough to risk it?
“Who are ye?” she countered. “Who sent ye?”
“A friend.” The fool hopped closer. “A dear friend of your fine family, to sing a pretty song for a little linnet-bird.”
“A friend of my family?” she echoed, with a pang. “Do ye speak of my father, then?”
The fool giggled. “Not your father, little bird.”
At the endearment, grief closed her throat. Her mother used to call her that, but surely he couldn’t speak of her. Lady Catriona Norwood, the late Countess of Glencross, had abandoned her five-year-old daughter to her husband’s cold custody and never looked back.
The old bitterness squeezed her lungs in a burning fist, but she’d no time for that old sorrow now.
Looming on her left, the voiceless giant seemed to fill half the courtyard. The vacant stare on his slab of a face made her edge away.
“Keep yer distance,” she cried, voice wavering despite her best effort. “Tell me who sent ye!”
“Someone who loves you, little bird. I carry a message from him.”
Not her mother then, of course not. Not that she’d been fool enough to hope for that. And the endearment was hardly surprising. Little bird. Anyone who knew her, named for the brown finch that sang so sweetly, might call her thus.
While her mind worked frantically to disentangle the threads of this mystery, the fool had drawn close enough to smell. Over the fresh powdery scent of falling snow, the sour reek of sweat wrinkled her nose. A regular rogue, this one—and rancid with fear beneath his ragged motley. No one sweated like that in January.
Surely she could elude the poor wretch if she must, dart back through the tunnel to the relative safety of the road. Let them continue this unorthodox discussion there, and damn the risk to her tattered reputation.
Gentle Mother, she needed answers! She’d speak to the Devil himself if she must.
A flicker of movement in the tunnel snared her gaze. Fragile hope flickered in her heart. Someone else was coming—a proper goodwife, soberly cloaked and gowned. A chance-come savior, or one with the answers she sought
Yet the woman hung back, blocking the narrow passage, shoulders hunched and steps crabbed with age. Just a crone, with a basket over her arm.
Linnet circled away from the fool and hurried toward her, a cry of welcome springing to her lips. It died unvoiced as she glimpsed the crone’s gnarled fist, half-hidden in the dark spill of her skirts, and the cold gleam of the knife.
With sickening certainty, Linnet realized none of this odd company had come here to aid her. They knew who she was, aye, but cared naught for her desperate quest—save to end it. She’d been a fool indeed.
A heavy footfall sent her spinning away, heart fluttering in panic, barely in time to elude the giant’s grasp.
“Stay away from me!” she cried, vainly scanning closed shutters and high walls. No escape, and no point pretending all was well. “Help!”
“No one will help you, little bird,” the fool sang softly. From his fluttering rags, he produced a hatchet and whirled it in a careless arc. “Come here, little Linnet, and sing your song for me.”
She broke and ran—away from the giant and the giggling fool, deeper into the courtyard, though the place was a deathtrap now. She cast about wildly for a weapon, anything she could use to defend herself.
A barnyard implement lay against the broken wagon, a rusted pitchfork with broken tines. With both hands, she snatched it up.
The rush of footsteps made her whirl, pitchfork slicing sideways through the air. Effortlessly the fool danced aside, hatchet whistling overhead. She was terrified he’d hurl it at her, frozen with the cold white terror she knew so well. A cloud of memory fogged her mind.
Crouching in the depths of the castle cellar or the spider-infested hayloft while Jasper’s singsong voice taunted her, raged at her, crooned promises that iced her blood-
She thrust the hateful images aside. The giant came at her in a lurching run. Viciously she swung her pitchfork in a wide arc, holding both men at bay.
“Sweet Jesus, why are ye doing this Is it my purse ye’re wanting Or these bloody gold sleeves?” But she knew it wasn’t. She raised her voice to the uncaring heavens. “Someone help me!”
“No one will come, little bird,” the fool whispered.
Aye, she knew it. No one ever came. Nor would help come today, with the entire city following the twin lure of free wine and the spectacle of their fetching new Queen.
With a despairing cry she fled deeper into the trap, dragging heavy skirts and petticoats around her knees, the wire cage of her farthingale swaying as she scrambled into the slanting wagon. This vantage raised her above her attackers. The high sides offered some protection, forcing them to come at her from the low front.
Now the fool had fallen back, waving the giant forward. Clumsily the smith climbed over the traces and swung a meaty leg over the seat.
Trapped, just like old times. Next would come the fist smashing like a hammer of fire against her ear to stun her, because he never liked to mark her face. Then the hail of blows and kicks to subdue her when she clawed and fought him, the panting curses in her ear-the eager hands fumbling at her, crushing her tender breasts-
Unexpectedly, a red tide of rage poured through her. Hunted again, trapped again, hurt again. Through blurred eyes she saw the man looming over her. Brother, blacksmith, butcher, their faces blurred together.
Screaming defiance, she gripped the pitchfork in both hands and swung it with all her strength.
The tines raked across his cavernous chest.
The giant bellowed, a wordless howl of agony, mouth gaping to reveal the red stub where his tongue had been torn out. Nearly mindless with terror, Linnet screamed too, watching crimson spread across his filthy shirt.
Still bellowing, the giant lurched toward her. Fired with the madness of the cornered animal that turns on its tormentors, teeth bared, she lunged forward and plunged her pitchfork into his massive thigh.
Now he, too, screamed like a stricken animal, making her stomach pitch. When she yanked the pitchfork free, two rusted tines snapped off and fell to the straw.
The lone tine that remained made a poor weapon, but she gripped the handle so hard her fingers throbbed. Surely none of this was real, no more real than the fevered fancies of a madwoman who thought herself kidnapped by Faeries, while in truth she wandered witless through the wild. Surely she must waken, just as she’d woken from that dream, her brain swimming with confusion, the nuns’ murmured prayers in her ear.
The giant’s leather breeches were slick with blood, gushing from the deep punctures, dripping into the straw. The high animal scream had died in his lungs, and she prayed never again to hear such a sound.
But somehow, as in a nightmare, her attacker was still coming.
Through teeth that chattered with cold and terror, she scrambled back into the wagon and gasped out the Lord’s Prayer.
“Pater noster, qui es in caelis-”
A short cry from somewhere pierced her words. From her elevated position, her gaze swept the courtyard, seeking the fool and not finding him. But there, near the tunnel, lay the crone’s lifeless form, dark skirts spilled like ink around her.
Uncomprehending, Linnet searched the courtyard. Where was the fool
But the figure who strode into view was no fool in motley. Someone else now commanded the courtyard—a lithe shadow clad in jet and glittering jewels. God love her, could this be rescue
This was no ragged vagabond, not with a nobleman’s short cape slung fashionably over one shoulder and pinned with a starburst ruby the size of her fist, or the wicked rapier like a streak of silver fire that swung at his lean hip. A spill of raven hair poured around his shoulders beneath a dashing plumed hat as he stalked toward her, silent and graceful as a cat on the icy stone. Silhouetted against the swirling snow, his slender frame seemed almost to glow with a nimbus of pearly light.
Before her, the giant groaned and fell to one knee, ham-like hands clutching his wounded thigh. Ribbons of blood snaked through his dirty fingers. His vacant eyes stared up at her, uncomprehending and somehow tragic.
Suddenly the fool was there—so close!—hopping into the wagon. Linnet cried out and swung toward him, raising her blood-daubed pitchfork with its lone tine. But the fool was staring at his fallen comrade in dismay.
“What’s this, little bird What have you done to my poor Burl?”
Silent as a spirit, the glittering nobleman materialized before the wagon, cape rippling like ebony wings around his shoulders. Close enough now to glimpse the face beneath his fashionable brim—all slanted cheekbones and angular jaw and a mouth to make any woman blush. Beneath a dramatic sweep of jet-black brows, his long lashes were lowered, eyes hidden as he gazed down on the fallen Burl.
Then that mobile mouth curled upward, as though he mocked the death spilling into the straw at his elegantly booted feet.
A heavy gauntlet, stitched in silver, hung crushed from a careless hand. As he watched, he slapped the glove idly against his thigh. Under other circumstances, she would have said he looked bored, a jaded playgoer enduring a familiar script performed by mediocre players.
The quality of light under these pewter skies lent his fair skin a pearlescent gleam, as though he glowed. His cloak unfurled in the air behind him, and that lush banner of hair rippled around his shoulders—even when there was no wind.
Both she and the fool were riveted.
The fool recovered first.
“Who are you? Some friend of the little bird’s?”
The stranger never lifted his gaze from the crippled giant, huddled in a spreading pool of crimson. But his sullen, exquisite face seemed to brood.
“I’m no man’s friend, and no woman’s. Mine is the face you see when it’s time for you to die.”
Linnet’s breath caught in her throat. At odds with the terrifying words, the music of his voice enchanted her. A silken tenor that caressed the ear, finer than any troubadour’s, flavored with a foreign accent. He spoke as though he sang, more beautifully than the Queen’s own choir.
The rippling magick of that voice sent chills down her spine and gooseflesh across her skin. Like the Merlin in the Summer Lands, he could sing the very stones into dancing-
But nay, she’d only dreamed that. There were no Fae and no Merlins in the world anymore. Any other belief led straight back to madness.
The fool shifted, as though he too sensed this strange enchantment. “If you’re no friend of hers, then you’ve no interest in this business. Forget what you’ve seen here, and my master may well forgive whatever you’ve done to that old witch Maisie.”
“Forgiveness,” the stranger mused, “is a vastly overrated virtue. Ask any soul in Hell. I care naught for forgiveness, Master Rune, son of Rudyard.”
The fool stiffened. “How do you-I’ve spoken my father’s name to no man since-”
“Since the night you drew the blade across his throat as he slept, and sent him to Hell with his own skinning knife?” the stranger murmured. “Yes, I know.”
“Curse you!” the fool exploded. His hand shook as he extended the hatchet to point, though the stranger never lifted his gaze from the dying Burl. “Curse you and begone!”
“Save your breath. I’m thoroughly cursed already.” The stranger’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile.
At his feet, the giant convulsed. Sweeping his cape behind him with a practiced flourish, he laid his bare hand on Burl’s shaven head—a gesture that looked strangely like benediction. Blood-colored rubies glittered on his graceful fingers.
Before Linnet’s astonished gaze, the stranger glowed as though the moon were rising behind his pale skin.
“Be at ease, Burl, son of Grufydd,” he whispered. “For you suffered greatly in life, and killed without malice to feed your ailing mother. Someone will make a case for you.” He paused. “If I were you, I’d ask for Gabriele. Avoid Michael like the smallpox.”
Even at such a moment, with the man himself speaking nonsense, he flashed a grin that was pure mischief.
A novel sensation fluttered low in her belly. For no earthly reason, her heart lifted. For one mad instant, she nearly smiled herself.
Beneath the light touch, the man called Burl heaved a breath and stilled. She could almost see the life leaving the giant’s body, a coincidence as well timed as though the stranger had planned it.
Despite her fascination with the scene playing out before her, the shock of that death hit her.
She had killed a man. Again.
Never mind that she’d acted in self-defense. How many misdeeds could she hide behind that fig leaf Murder was a mortal sin. When she confessed for Jasper, the nuns at Glencross Abbey had feared for her soul.
“Sweet blessed Bride.” Wretched, she shifted her pitchfork to cross herself. “I’m going straight to Hell for certain.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Looking thoughtful, the stranger quirked a brow. “Not at my hand.”
Unexpectedly, his eyes lifted. She realized she’d been waiting for that, for him to look at her and see her, since the moment he’d arrived. Her breath rushed out in an audible gasp.
She’d never seen such eyes. Bright as candles, they glowed with violet light, spilling lavender fire over the snow-cloaked courtyard.
“Gentle Mother,” she whispered, staring into those glowing orbs. “What are ye?”
Something flickered in his face, as though the answer that sprang to mind was not one he wished to share. Then an impish brow arched over his purple gaze. He leaned forward as though they were confidantes, as though he confessed a naughty secret.
“I’m the rebel, the rabble-rouser, the anarchist and the outcast. And for your sake, I dare say, I’m going to be in quite a bit of trouble.” His mouth curved in a wicked smile, and the sight stole her breath. “I’m Zamiel.”
She’d forgotten the fool completely until he cried out, the hoarse cry of a man who finds a cockroach swimming in his porridge. Clearly, the sight of those burning eyes had driven her attacker beyond restraint. Startled, she fell back as he stumbled toward the stranger, his hatchet raised.
Linnet screamed, her brain swimming with horrific images of the newcomer’s graceful, reed-slim body cloven by a butcher’s axe.
But the fool tripped over the body of his fallen comrade and fell to his knees in the bloody straw.
Leisurely, as though he had all of eternity to do it, the man called Zamiel bent forward. A sleek curtain of ebony hair, smooth as ink, poured over one shoulder as his head tilted. Hands clasped behind his back, scrupulous not to touch the man, he whispered in his ear.
For a breath, the fool listened. Then, violently, he pushed away, sprawling on his backside in the snow.
“Damn you, keep away!” The fool scrambled to his feet, pointed shoes sliding on the treacherous ice. “Damn you to Hell.”
The man called Zamiel observed this frantic flight with a look of polite interest. But something darker stirred in his violet gaze.
“From your lips to God’s ear, my friend,” he murmured. “I am trying.”
Babbling incoherently, the fool skidded across the courtyard, giving the crone’s huddled figure a wide berth. His footsteps echoed as he plunged into the tunnel and fled.
Silence returned to the courtyard. Slowly, Linnet’s blind terror eased its grip.
God be thanked, I may survive this day after all.
Trembling and weak-kneed, she dropped the bloodstained pitchfork with a grimace of distaste. Gripping the wagon for support before she fainted in the straw, she scrambled from the box, away from the scene of carnage. Her free hand shook as she wrestled with her farthingale, frantic to keep the heavy sweep of her skirts from the red-daubed snow.
Red snow, red gown, what difference does it make Ye’re a murderess and a madwoman. Ye deserved to be locked up with the nuns, just where they sent ye.
Sweet Jesus, they should never have turned me loose.
Linnet drew a shuddering breath and groped after her scattered wits. That way true madness lay. She’d sworn never to think those thoughts.
Although most would have rushed forward to assist, the man named Zamiel stepped back to give her space. Indeed, he seemed as careful to avoid contact with her as he’d been with the fool.
But how he stared, his gaze rising slowly from her rich crimson skirts, pausing over the tiny jeweled Bible that hung from her girdle. Upward over her bodice, lingering there in a way that made Linnet suddenly conscious of all her flaws—her breasts too lush for a proper maid, the rest of her too slender. Tall as a beanpole, Jasper had always taunted. And skinny as a lad, forever tripping over her long legs.
Slow heat climbed into her cheeks beneath this leisurely appraisal. Self-conscious, she touched the rebellious ringlets that had sprung free again to devil her, dark tendrils curling around her face and neck. His gaze followed her movement. Nervously she twined her fingers through the loose curls and tucked them beneath her hood.
“Curls rich as mahogany, streaked with bronze and chestnut,” he said in that musical voice. The very angels must weep with envy to hear him. “Skin like new cream, like moonlight, like damask. And shy, beguiling eyes like Sumerian gold-not like a little brown bird at all, no matter what your Master Rune would say. You could pass for mortal, but for those eyes.
“Your eyes make it a certainty. I shouldn’t have intervened.” He sighed. “Metatron will have my head for this. Let’s hope he won’t prove too tiresome.”
What have my eyes to do with anything Are ye daft, man
But that, of course, she would never say. Nor would she reproach him for mocking her odd looks as others had done. He’d just saved her life, when any other nobleman would have kept walking.
She offered a shaky smile. “Some might say ye ought to have minded yer own business, a man of yer rank. But I’m that thankful ye didn’t, my lord. If ye hadn’t come along, and stopped when ye heard the ruckus, I don’t think I’d be home to supper.”
“Once I’d seen you, I could hardly turn away.” His violet eyes glimmered. “So fierce and brave and burning with determination, clinging tight to that precious gift called life. It wasn’t your time to die, daughter of kings. Trust me to know.”
“Kings?” she blurted, so surprised she nearly laughed. Linnet the bastard. “Oh, but I’m not—”
“Who knows?” He made a playful moue. “I get away with murder on a daily basis, after all—and that, my dear, is tiresome. I do believe I’m searching for a reason to make Him punish me.”
Uncomprehending, she shook her head, though the careless way he’d uttered the word murder made her scalp prickle. “Who’d punish ye for saving a lass’s life Ye don’t look as though ye’d want a financial reward, though it’s yers if ye do. I may not look the part, all disheveled and tossed about, but I’m a countess.”
“A mortal title.” He shrugged, unimpressed as though she’d proudly proclaimed herself a ragpicker’s daughter. “Tell me your name, my tawny-eyed beauty, so I can craft a song to worship you. I’ll claim that for my prize.”
“A song?” Fighting for her life, she hadn’t noticed the elegant pouch slung across his back. Now, by its shape, she guessed it held a musical instrument of some kind, probably a lute. A childish excitement fluttered in her belly, the familiar thrill at the prospect of a new tale.
“Are ye a minstrel then A spinner of dreams and tales?”
“In a way,” he said cautiously. “I sing the Lord’s praises, though it’s not really what I’m known for. Tell me your name, sweet.”
Now she was blushing, heat warming her cheeks and setting her foolish maid’s heart aflutter. Surely he meant no malice by this graceful flattery, baseless though it was. Minstrel or master, it made no difference to her, not when a man did her such courtesy. She mustn’t let herself grow flustered by these casual endearments.
Summoning her manners, she spread her skirts and sank into a low curtsey. “I’m Linnet. That is, Lady Linnet Norwood, the Countess of Glencross. And ye, my lord?”
She was looking for a title, because of course he was no mere minstrel. He wore pride and nobility as carelessly as he sported his silk-and-velvet cloak or that fortune in jewels, blazing like a comet on his brooch.
“Just Zamiel.” Still he kept his distance, though any other lord would have made an elegant leg and bent over her hand. “In this realm.”
Perversely determined to untangle the mystery he presented, she took a bold step toward him. Quick as a cat, he stepped back, wariness flickering in his indigo eyes.
She gazed into his perfect face—flawless as a courtesan’s. High-bridged nose delicate as a woman’s, jaw smooth as silk, winged black brows expressive as poetry swooping against his white skin.
Surely he could be no more than twenty. Younger than she, untouched even lightly by the hand of time. Yet what of the brooding bitterness that lingered in his gaze, leavened by those sudden flashes of mischief and the utter stillness of his bearing Beneath night-black hose and high boots, his lithe frame was supple with a mature man’s strength.
Her curious gaze paused on the medallion nestled in the hollow of his throat, Hebrew runes stamped in silver. Scholar though she was, she hadn’t studied enough of that tongue to decipher it.
Whatever else he was, the man was an imp, saint and sorcerer mixed together. The conundrum of his appearance drew her like a will o’ the wisp, like the forbidden glimmer of Faerie magick.
Unable to resist his allure, she drifted toward him step by step. His eyes widened, dark pupils dilating. With eyes alone, she held him as he shifted, poised on the edge of flight.
He’d been utterly relaxed in the teeth of danger, yet he seemed to find her approach unsettling. Any swift move on her part, and he’d startle like a wild thing. The oddest premonition seized her that if he fled, she’d never find him again.
“Zamiel the rebel,” she said, on a scrap of breath. “I have to know. ‘Tis a debt of honor between us, aye Ye’ve saved my life. Who are ye?”
Now she’d drawn almost close enough to touch him. The rich smoky darkness of his scent seeped into her. The heady fragrance rising from his garments reminded her of the weed the Queen’s explorers had started bringing back from the New World, the one the sailors smoked in their pipes. Perhaps he was an explorer himself, with that hint of accent she couldn’t place.
Slowly, irresistibly, her hand lifted, drawn toward the proud line of his cheek. She repeated her question, like a spell.
“Who are ye?”
In another breath, she’d be touching him. He blinked, that dark fringe of lashes sweeping down. Quick as a sparrow, his gauntleted hand swept up to catch hers. The warm black leather of his glove engulfed her.
“I am death,” he whispered, the sweet smoke of his fragrance filling her head. “It’s death to touch me. Fly back to your mountain aerie, Linnet Norwood, and forget you ever saw me.”
His scent was making her dizzy. The snow swirling through the air was thickening, whiting out the world around her, until she saw and felt nothing but the tensile heat of his hand gripping hers.
She shook her head to clear it, but the movement made it worse. She tried to say something, blurt out a question, but the words blurred together in her mouth.
Oh, this was powerful magick. She was no stranger to enchantment, fiercely though she sought for sanity’s sake to deny it, to dismiss her fever-dreams as the delusions of a lost child wandering through the wilderness. This was sorcery, and she was powerless in its grip.
She was floating-drifting-falling through a sea of fog.
Nay, she was flying. With the last flicker of conscious thought, she heard the swift flutter of wings.