The Lady of Faire Isle wandered through her garden, her slippered feet scarce making a sound as she followed the familiar path. Even the lark that nested in the old elm was not stirring at this early hour, the sky just beginning to lighten with the first hint of dawn.
The garden was as silent as the house that loomed behind her. With its ivy-covered walls, single square tower, and mullioned windows, Belle Haven conveyed a snug, solid appearance. The manor had been sanctuary to countless generations of wise women and home to the one heralded as the leader among them, the Lady of Faire Isle.
Ariane Deauville, the present holder of that title, was a tall, stately woman with masses of chestnut-colored hair and solemn gray eyes. Despite all of the danger and hardship she had faced during her thirty-four years, Ariane’s countenance was usually marked with a regal serenity. But at the moment, her face was pale and drawn from lack of sleep.
After tossing and turning for hours, she had finally given up. Fearing to disturb her husband’s repose, she had stolen from the warmth of their bed, flung a woolen cloak over her nightshift, and slipped outside the kitchen door.
Her gardens had always been a source of peace to her, all those well- tended beds of herbs she used in her healing arts a great comfort. But this morning her gaze turned in the same direction as so many others all across Europe—toward the sky, where that strange apparition disrupted the peace of the heavens.
Even as the sky grew lighter, the comet was still visible, lurking just beneath the pale disc of moon. Ariane stared, humbled and awed by the spectral phenomenon streaking the sky.
Since the dawn of time, folks had viewed comets as
the herald of floods, earthquakes, plagues, famines, and the deaths of emperors and kings. Ariane knew she should be above such superstitious beliefs.
But she could not suppress the chill that worked up her spine. Lowering her gaze, she chided herself for entertaining such foolishness. There was trouble brewing in the world beyond her island, but she needed no comet’s arrival to tell her that. The coven of the Rose was on the rise again, the order as mad and dangerous as the sorceress who had founded it.
Cassandra Lascelles had once attempted to assemble an army, drawing into the Sisterhood of the Silver Rose those women who had fallen victim to the cruelties of the world. And there were far too many of them, Ariane reflected sadly. Abused wives, girls pregnant out of wedlock, aging courtesans discarded by their lovers. The impoverished, the disillusioned, the desperate, the insane had all flocked to the Silver Rose’s banner.
Cassandra’s intent had been to spread chaos throughout France, bring down the house of Medici so that she could place her daughter, Megaera, on the throne. The scheme might have been dismissed as pure insanity if Cassandra had not been in possession of the dread Book of Shadows, a compendium of all the most powerful, destructive, and dark ancient science.
Ariane had been in Ireland at the time, driven into exile by false allegations of witchcraft and treason against the French king. By the time word had reached her regarding the Sisterhood of the Silver Rose, Cass’s plot had already been foiled by Ariane’s youngest sister, Miri, and the witch-hunter, Simon Aristide.
With Cassandra Lascelles dead and Megaera spirited away by Martin le Loup, the girl’s father, that had seemed to bring the dangerous matter to an end, or so everyone had hoped. But a few months ago, troubling tales had reached Ariane that the cult had a new leader and the witches were mounting a relentless search for Megaera.
Ariane was expected to possess the wisdom and strength to deal with this new threat. Unfortunately, she felt more tired, more fragile than she ever had in her life. She slipped her hand beneath her cloak, running her fingertips gently over the slight swell of her belly, the child growing there just beginning to make its presence known. A miracle after so many barren years . . .
A sound from the direction of the house interrupted Ariane’s troubled thoughts. Candlelight spilled through the kitchen windows, the creak of hinges followed by the low slam of the door. Someone was coming in search of her.
Ariane half-expected it to be her husband. Finding her absent from their bed, Justice had no doubt flung off the covers with a low curse, grumbling and growling as he shrugged into his breeches and shirt.
When he found her wandering the gardens in the crisp morning air, he would be bound to scold.
“Have you taken complete leave of your wits, woman? Even the sun has enough sense not to be up yet. There is a peculiar habit some of us indulge in. It’s called sleep and you need try it a bit more often, my wise Lady of Faire Isle.”
Ariane’s mouth quirked in a smile. Even after thirteen years of marriage, her great bear of a husband was notoriously overprotective of her. How much more so was Justice going to be when he learned about the babe? She could not conceal her condition from him much longer.
The thought caused her smile to fade. She was ashamedly relieved when she realized it was not her tall, strapping husband tramping down the garden path, although the diminutive warrior maiden who approached moved with Justice’s same determined stride.
“Cat,” Ariane murmured, the breath she released a mingling of trepidation and joy, glad to see the woman returning to her unharmed, apprehensive of what tidings Cat might bring.
Cat hesitated at the place where the path came to a fork, one way leading off in the direction of the orchards and stables.
“Ariane?” she called softly.
“Over here.” Ariane stepped out of the shadows cast by the towering elm trees. As Cat headed toward her, Ariane moved eagerly forward to embrace her friend.
Before Ariane could prevent her, Cat dropped to one knee and carried Ariane’s hand reverently to her lips.
“Hail to you, my Lady of Faire Isle. All honor and glory attend thee.”
“Cat,” Ariane chided, gently trying to disengage her hand from Catriona’s calloused grip. “How many times must I beg you not to greet me thus? I am not a queen.”
“You are to me.” Cat tipped back her head. The sky had lightened just enough for Ariane to make out the smooth curve of her cheek, the fierce light burning in Cat’s blue eyes.
“Ever and always, my lady, my queen, my chieftain.”
Tugging at Cat’s arm, Ariane urged the younger woman to her feet. “I would far rather you think of me as your sister and friend.”
She enveloped Cat in a warm hug, an embrace that Cat returned awkwardly. Even though their friendship spanned a decade, Cat was still not comfortable with such tender displays. That was only to be expected, Ariane thought sadly. During the stormy course of her life, Cat had received little by way of love or gentleness. Even from her mother.
Drawing back, Cat regarded Ariane with gruff affection. “So how fares my chieftain?”
“Better, now that I see my gallowglass safe returned to me,” Ariane replied with a smile, but she took worried note of her friend’s appearance, the smudge of dirt on her cheek, the dust that coated her jerkin. The garment was torn at the shoulder and was that a burn mark on the sleeve?
“Oh, Cat, never tell me you have been fighting.”
“Nay! Did I not promise you? I have not so much as had my sword drawn from its scabbard.” Some of Cat’s wounded indignation faded as she scratched her chin and confessed. “Well, only for a moment or two, but I sheathed it straightaway without so much as pricking anyone. As soon as I found those witches, I hastened back to make my report to you.”
“Then you did find the coven?”
Cat drew herself up. “Did you ever doubt that I would?”
“No.” Ariane had more hoped that Cat wouldn’t, that all the rumors that had carried to Faire Isle would prove to be just wild tales and nothing more.
“And . . . and so?” she faltered.
“And so everything you feared is true. The Sisterhood of the Silver Rose still exists. Although there are not as many of them as before, they are recruiting new members. Unfortunately, I was interrupted before I could ascertain who leads them.” Cat bit her lip, looking chagrined and frustrated by her failure. “The witches wear masks to their gatherings, but they’ve all taken to marking themselves, searing the emblem of a tiny rose onto their right forearms. They are as fanatically devoted to Megaera as ever and determined to recover her. Somehow, they have discovered she was taken out of France. It may be only a matter of time before they find her. Or someone worse does.”
Ariane paled at hearing her worst dread confirmed. She closed her eyes, swaying a little as her head swam.
“My lady!” Cat cried. She slipped her arm about Ariane’s waist, bracing her. She guided Ariane toward one of the garden benches, easing her down onto the cold stone.
Ariane bent forward, lowering her head, taking in long slow breaths until the garden began to stop spinning. Cat hunkered down in front of her, chafing her wrist, her voice full of concern.
“What shall I do? Can I get you some water? Or should I summon milord to carry you into the house?”
Ariane shook her head, straightening up as she recovered, feeling foolish over her display of weakness.
“No, it’s nothing,” she insisted. “I occasionally get these spells of lightheadedness. Quite normal for a woman in my condition.”
Cat scowled, looking far from convinced. “ ’Tis clear to me you have not been taking proper care of yourself. What were you doing out of your bed at such an hour? I am surprised himself would have allowed it, especially you being with child and all.”
Ariane said nothing, but the guilty way she averted her face must have told Cat all she needed to know. The Irishwoman rocked back on her heels, groaning.
“Ah, by all the saints. You haven’t told him yet. But isn’t that a bit daft? Milord is bound to notice soon. I am surprised he hasn’t already, himself being such a deep and clever one.”
A half smile escaped Ariane at Cat’s description of Justice. Himself, as Cat so quaintly called him, was indeed clever. Ariane was highly skilled in reading eyes, those
windows to the soul. With her steadfast gaze, she could take the measure of someone’s character and often read thoughts as well. But Justice was even better at it than she was, her husband having been schooled in the ancient art of mind reading by Melusine, his wicked old witch of a grandmother.
Ariane and Justice were as close as man and wife could be, but she could shield her thoughts from him if she had to, although she’d had little cause to do so until recently. Justice had to be aware that she was closing him out, but he hadn’t pressed her, waiting for her to confide whatever secret she guarded so closely, trusting that she would.
Ariane sighed. “It has been very wrong of me to conceal the babe from Justice. But, oh, Cat! You know I had given up hope of ever conceiving again. Is it so selfish of me to want to quietly savor my joy awhile longer? Because I know Justice won’t be able to share my happiness no matter how hard he will try to pretend. He’s going to be so afraid for me.”
“You’ll pardon me saying so, but doesn’t he have a right to be afraid?” Cat softened the reminder by pressing Ariane’s hand, the woman’s palm rough and calloused, but her touch comfortingly warm. “He almost lost you once.”
“I suppose so,” Ariane murmured, but after all these years all that she recalled of that time was not her own near death, but the face of her stillborn child. The devastating sorrow of gazing upon the small, wizened body of her daughter. The babe she had so longed for, a girl child to teach all the old wise ways, passing on the healing arts that Ariane had learned from her own mother, a daughter who might one day succeed her as Lady of Faire Isle.
The old pain of loss and grief threatened to engulf Ariane, along with her terror for the child she now carried, but she stemmed the dark emotions. She had resolved early on during her pregnancy that this babe would be nourished only by her life’s blood and breath, her calm and strength. It would not be poisoned by its mother’s apprehensions and fears.
“I will tell Justice soon, I promise you. But it’s going to be different, this time, I know it.” Ariane splayed her hand over her womb. “This babe is strong. I can sense that. This child will survive. You must believe me.”
“If you say ’tis so, then ’tis so,” Cat responded gravely. “But—”
Ariane squeezed Cat’s hand firmly, anxious to bring the subject to a close. “Please finish what you were telling me. You said something about fearing that someone far worse might be hunting Megaera?”
“Did I?” Still looking worried, Cat straightened to her feet. Averting her face, she scuffed the toe of her well-worn boot against a thick tree root. “Well, you—you know me. Sometimes I get carried away, tend to exaggerate my tales. I daresay it is the Irish in me and—”
The command in Ariane’s voice obliged Cat to look
Ariane continued, “I know what you are doing. My brief spell of weakness alarmed you and now you seek to spare me. As much as I appreciate your solicitude, I need you to make a full and honest report to me. Trust me. Whatever you have learned, I am strong enough to deal with it.”
I have to be, Ariane thought grimly.
Cat blew out a gusty sigh. She withdrew the flask she kept tucked in her belt and fortified herself with a gulp of usquebaugh. How Cat could swallow such a potent whiskey before she had even breakfasted, Ariane had no idea. Her own stomach roiled at the very thought of it.
Cat corked the flask and hitched it back in her belt. She paced the garden path as she regaled Ariane with the rest of her story, her tale punctuated by many gestures and sweeping waves of her arms. Ariane had often reflected with some amusement that it would not be necessary to gag Catriona O’Hanlon to silence her. One would only have to bind her hands.
But she was not even tempted to smile as she listened to the rest of Cat’s report. She did not want Cat fretting over her, but it was hard for Ariane to maintain a calm façade as Cat described the soldiers who had charged the cliff top.
“. . . I recognized Gautier almost at once, which left little doubt who had sent him.”
“The Dark Queen,” Ariane whispered. As if this matter did not promise to be difficult and dangerous enough without the threat of Catherine de Medici’s involvement. A shudder coursed through Ariane. She gripped her hands tightly in her lap to conceal the depths of her dismay from Cat.
Excerpted from The Huntress by Susan Carroll. Copyright © 2007 by Susan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.