P R O L O G U E
Blaken Keep near Ayr, Scotland
The nights in Ayr felt longer than they had ever felt in London. Elizabeth Kendall had not slept well since coming north, and close to dawn, she gave up sleeping at all. She rose from her bed, ignoring the cold flagstones under her feet, and walked the long halls of Blaken Keep, not sure what she was looking for, but knowing she would not find it in her own cold bed.
Her mind was still a blank most days, a tangle of grief and sorrow and anger at the circumstances that had taken her family from her. She felt like a ghost, but then, just as she was coming to a corner, she overheard two women talking, and it changed everything.
“Go on wit’ you, Gwen. Surely not!”
“As I live and breathe, it’s the truth! He’s already sent for a dispensation from the king himself in Londontown, hasn’t he?”
“Oh, but he can’t, not with that little mouse.”
Elizabeth froze. Instinctively, she stepped a little closer to the wall.
Elizabeth knew how they spoke of her in Blaken Keep, and when she heard the word mouse, there was only one person that they could be speaking of.
She was the Southern girl, too delicate for the Northern winters, too pale for prettiness, and too quiet to be a favorite. In her mourning black, she was as washed out as a ghost, an unattractive one at that, with the tip of her nose always pink from the cold drafts that swept the castle from north to south and a cool damp to the air that left her hands and feet stiff.
She didn’t mind it, and there was even a part of her that liked it. There was a kind of justice to it, after all. Her mother and father and baby brother were all dead from the plague that had swept through London, and it seemed a frightful injustice that she should be left behind, still healthy though pale and thin as a stick of sugar.
“True as I am alive! Sally had it from Tom that all his lordship was waiting on was the king’s yes, and then he’ll take Little Miss Mouse to wife,” continued the one named Gwen.
“I don’t believe it. There’s no way the church would stand for it. She’s his own niece, his sister’s girl. It isn’t right!”
“Of course, it ain’t right, that’s why he sent a fat purse of gold with the letter, didn’t he? And poor old Longshanks, fighting the barbarians in the North, he’ll let a lord marry a goat if it puts some money in his war coffers, won’t he?”
“Augh, you’ve got a filthy turn of mind, girl, and no mistake!”
The voices faded away, and Elizabeth pressed her hand over her heart, which was surely beating too fast.
No, there’s no way. He cannot think to marry me...
As the idea sunk in, however, Elizabeth could feel the pieces that had heretofore been left cluttering her mind locking together like links in a chain. It made all too much sense.
Why else would her uncle, Lord William Blaken, the coldly formidable Earl of Wessex, appear after her family’s burial, preventing her from entering the convent as she had intended? Why else would he bring her to Blaken Keep, so close to the border and so far away from her father’s family?
Elizabeth had never met the Earl of Wessex before he arrived two days after the funeral. He appeared out of the January storm like some kind of fairy out of a legend, and the next morning, she found herself packed up like a load of luggage on a rather ill-tempered gelding, wrapped up in a wool cloak that barely kept out the chill, surrounded by grim-faced guards and following her uncle north.
She hadn’t had a great deal of time to question much of anything as they traveled through the freezing temperatures, and when she arrived at Blaken Keep, she had fallen into a fever so deep she’d thought she would die.
Elizabeth didn’t like to remember the dreams that she had during those times. She dreamed often that she was lying in an oven, the hot flames rising up around her. Outside the iron slats, she could see twisted and demonic faces laughing at her as gnarled hands pumped the bellows. That was when her fever had grown so great that they had thought she might die, and a priest had been brought in to administer her last rites. Those dreams were terrible, but worse were the dreams where she was still in the house in London, the one her mother kept so sweet and her father protected so well.
In those dreams, she was still herself, Elizabeth Kendall, Mary and Paul’s daughter, Peter’s loving older sister. She sang and laughed and spun and danced, and she was more than a narrow girl in black who sometimes could not speak because her grief was so great it sat in a lump in her throat. In her dreams, she helped her mother manage the house, and she helped little Peter with his letters. In her dreams, she was properly living rather than being a shade who couldn’t decide whether she should stay or follow the rest of her beloved family.
On the night before her fever broke, Elizabeth remembered her mother standing beside her bed. Mary Kendall looked not as Elizabeth had seen her last, pale and sunken, her face marred with pox, but smiling and plump as Christmas.
“Now, darling,” her mother had said with a voice that sounded as if it came from far away. “You must not linger here. This is not your place yet. We will be together again, but not for a very long time. Right now, you have other work to see to, my girl, and I know you are no slug-a-bed.”
“Mother... Mother, I miss you so. It’s so hard, and I am so tired...”
Her mother had leaned in to kiss her, and the press of her mother’s lips against her forehead brought a refreshing cool to Elizabeth’s entire body.
“I know you are, my pet. And I’m sorry to say that you will be more tired and more ill-used still. But take heart. Go north and find the answers that you need. Go north.”
“Mother, what’s in the North? I don’t understand.”
“North. Remember it, my baby, my most precious girl. Go north.”
The instructions had echoed in her head, whether she wanted them or not, for the next two months. In the end, that was why when Elizabeth Kendall fled her uncle’s house in a maid’s stolen dress. With nothing more than a bag of food, some pilfered money, and a few pieces of her mother’s jewelry, she went north.