There was little hope of returning to the island that night. Ominous dark clouds dimmed the sun, robbing the day of precious hours and a more gentle passage into evening. The wind picked up, rendering the waters of the channel whitecapped and choppy.
The Lady of Faire Isle struggled to keep the hood of her cloak from being tugged back, exposing her countenance to the rough salt tang of the breeze. Soft brown hair framed a face that was pale, her unblemished complexion and short stature making her seem younger than her thirty-one years. But her green eyes, always too solemn, too watchful, made her appear far older.
Picking her way carefully along the rocky shore, she peered across the channel for a last glimpse of her home, but the distant outline of Faire Isle was obscured by the shadows cast by the clouds. Margaret Wolfe hitched her breath, feeling that peculiar pressure in her chest she often had when she left the security of her island, a sense that disaster loomed just over the next horizon.
That was because the newly appointed Lady of Faire Isle had the sight, folks on the island and the mainland would whisper in awed tones. To a certain degree she did, but Margaret Wolfe attributed her tension more to her uncertain childhood. Anyone who was the daughter of a mad witch like Cassandra Lascelles was bound to face life with a high degree of apprehension. As her old nurse, Mistress Waters, had oft told Meg, “You are a wary old soul, my pet. I do declare you were born anxious.”
Meg’s present anxiety was heightened by the behavior of her traveling companion. Seraphine Beaufoy, la Comtesse de Castelnau, was a golden blond goddess of a woman, as tall as Meg was short.
The comtesse barked out orders in clipped tones, commanding the oarsmen who had rowed her and Meg from the island to drag the dinghy further up the beach and conceal it beneath a pile of driftwood and seaweed. The wind snapped at Seraphine’s cloak, revealing the masculine garb she had donned, a disguise that would have fooled no one, for her short doublet and breeches only accented her lush curves.
But Seraphine was more concerned with practicality than deception. One could not wield a sword trussed up in a corset and petticoats. And Seraphine was armed with both a pistol and a rapier strapped to her waist. Clearly she had a presentiment of possible danger, but there was one marked difference between them, Meg thought. If trouble came, Seraphine would relish it.
Seraphine strode back to Meg, looking satisfied with her disposal of the dinghy. “There. At least the boat will remain secure and we shall not be cut off from our only route of escape. I have ordered Jacques and Louis to stand guard.”
“Surely you are being a little dramatic. I have come across to the mainland many times to treat ailments and never had a need to escape.”
“There is a huge difference between delivering some peasant’s babe and trying to cure a girl who claims to be possessed of demons and well you know it, Margaret Wolfe.”
“Not the way I have heard some poor women shriek and curse when in the midst of their labor pains.”
Meg’s mild attempt at humor did little to ease the scowl on Seraphine’s face. “I will tell you again, I don’t think you should be interfering in this matter.” Her tone softened as she added, “You are not obliged to atone for all the evil your mother did while she was alive. You don’t have to ride to the rescue anytime someone breathes the word witch.”
“That is not what I am doing,” Meg started, but was stopped by a look from Seraphine, the shrewd assessment of one who had been her friend for too many years and knew her far too well.
“Well, not entirely,” Meg amended. “As the new Lady of Faire Isle, is it not my duty to be a protector of women, especially other daughters of the earth?”
“I don’t think Ariane would have wanted you meddling in the superstitious affairs of folk on the mainland. My aunt would have counseled you to be prudent.”
“Since Ariane is no longer here, we cannot ask her.” It was a source of great sorrow to Meg and she was unable to keep the quiver from her voice.
Ariane Deauville, the former Lady of Faire Isle, had been all things to Meg these last fifteen years. Friend, mother, and teacher, she had instructed Meg in all the lore of the daughters of the earth, wise women gifted in the arts of healing and white magic.
None was more gifted than the one acclaimed as the Lady of Faire Isle, a time-honored title bestowed upon the woman best suited to be the leader among the daughters of the earth in each generation. Meg had been humbled and honored beyond measure when Ariane had chosen her to be her successor.
It had been a role Meg had not expected to assume for a good many years, as the title only passed upon the death of the previous Lady. But when her health had begun to fail, Ariane Cheney had broken with tradition and abdicated in Meg’s favor.
“Call me selfish, my dear,” Ariane had told her. “But I want to spend whatever time I may have left with my husband and son, traveling to places I have only read of in books, learning the secrets of healing and lore of other countries.”
Meg would never have dreamed of calling her friend selfish. No Lady had ever served Faire Isle and the daughters of the earth more devotedly than Ariane. If she could find a measure of peace and a cure for the illness that slowly devoured her, Meg could only wish her Godspeed.
Yet that day last spring when Meg had stood upon the dock, smiling and waving until the ship had disappeared from view, she had blinked back tears. She had been overcome with grief and a panicked feeling of being left to don a pair of shoes her feet would never grow large enough to fill.
She had striven hard to do so, grateful for the encouragement and support of Seraphine. But now when her friend wielded Ariane’s presumed wishes as a weapon, she could not help telling Seraphine.
“Are you not the one who has been telling me that when any situation arises, I must stop trying to guess what Ariane would have done? I must learn to employ my own judgment.”
“Not when you are wrong.”
“You mean when I don’t agree with you.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Seraphine demanded, then laughed. “Very well. Let us go find this foolish chit who claims to be beset with demons, so you can unbewitch her. With any luck, we may yet manage to avoid the storm and return to Faire Isle before dark. Although it would have been helpful if that idiot boy who came to beg your aid had waited to show the way.”
“Poor Denys was far too anxious to return. It matters naught. Pernod is a small village and the girl’s family owns the local hostelry, the Laughing Dolphin. Mademoiselle Tillet will not be hard to find.”
“Lead on then.”
Pernod, like many of the villages on the Breton coast, was inhabited largely by fishermen. Over the years, a rough track had been worn up the rocky beach. Seraphine’s boots were far better suited to the terrain than the clumsy pattens Meg had donned to protect her shoes.
The Comtesse had acquired a reputation at the French court as a woman of grace, charmingly seductive and full of a playful indolence. Seraphine, when she was on a mission, was an entirely different creature. Meg’s shorter legs were hard-pressed to keep pace with Seraphine’s lengthy strides.
By the time they reached the point where the track widened into the lane through the village, Meg was panting a little. As she had told Seraphine, Pernod was a small place, boasting little more than a score of dwellings, a tiny church, and a hostelry. At least the stout stone walls of the cottages provided a break from the wind, allowing Meg to ease her grip on her hood.
The dusty lane was deserted, the village eerily quiet, but for the occasional banging of a shutter and the rustle of the trees. The silence rendered Meg uneasy. Given the hour, she would have expected to see fishermen returning with the day’s catch, young boys wending homeward from their toil in the common field, or distracted mothers shooing stray children inside to their supper.
“What is this, some sort of ghost village? Where is everyone?” Seraphine demanded. “Mayhap the Tillet girl’s demon has carried everyone else off as well.”
“Don’t say that! Not even in jest. It is more likely that everyone has retreated indoors for fear of the approaching storm.”
Meg sought to reassure herself as much as Seraphine, but a part of her could not believe it. These Breton coastal people were hardy folk, accustomed to dealing with rough weather. They would not be driven to bolt their doors against the mere prospect of a little rain, thunder, and blustering wind.
Meg could think of only one thing that might have sent such a redoubtable breed of people into cowering inside their cottages: the fear that a witch walked among them.
Meg prayed it was not so. She had hoped to deal quietly with the Tillet girl’s claims of bewitchment, resolve the matter before the rumors and panic had time to spread. The kind of panic that could result in innocent women being accused of witchcraft, tortured, and hung.
As she and Seraphine rounded a bend in the lane, Meg spotted the inn sign creaking in the wind. The Laughing Dolphin was a modest hostelry that seldom saw much custom beyond local travelers. But on this somber dark afternoon, a stranger lingered in the doorway.
The man looked as out of place in this rugged fishing village as a satin doublet would have appeared strung on a wash line of coarse homespun shirts. Despite the dust that clung to his boots and the short cape that hung off one shoulder, there was a quality about his garments that marked him as a gentleman.
He was of no more than medium height, his figure far from imposing, but something in his self-assured manner gave him the appearance of being taller. A fine-looking man, Meg could not help noting. Some might even have said a beautiful one, with his lean chiseled features and smooth-shaven complexion, rather pale for one traveling during the summer months. The breeze stirred the feathers of his toque set upon waves of golden brown hair. His head tipped up as he studied the darkening sky.
Seraphine let out a low whistle between her teeth. “So who is this fine young buck?”
“I would have no idea,” Meg murmured, uneasily. “It is rather unusual for such a visitor to pass through a remote village like Pernod.”
“You are afraid he might be the devil you have been summoned to exorcise? He looks far too pretty for that.”
Meg glared up at her friend, but stopped as a sudden thought struck her. “Good lord, ’Phine. You don’t think your husband might have sent him?”
Seraphine looked taken aback by the notion before giving a derisive laugh. “What! Monsieur le Comte engage someone to find his errant wife and drag her back to Castelnau by the hair of her head? Gerard would not have the spine. And I doubt my dear husband wants me back any more than I desire to return to him.”
Meg could not agree with that, but she knew it would be of little use to argue the point. She had tried ever since Seraphine had arrived on Faire Isle five months ago.
“Moreover, that man isn’t even French,” Seraphine continued. “Very likely he is English.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
“Only look at the square cut of his doublet. No self-respecting French gallant would venture abroad wearing a garment so lacking in style.”
She and Meg had been speaking in low tones as they neared the inn, but the stranger’s attention riveted upon them. He straightened from the doorway and he stared. Meg felt the full weight of his gaze, hard, assessing, and far too intimate.
Meg shrank deeper inside her hood, her cheeks burning. “What business would an English gentleman have here in Pernod? And why does he stare so?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps I should ask him and give him a lesson in manners.”
To Meg’s dismay, Seraphine halted, staring back at the stranger. With a challenging lift of her chin, she drew back her cloak, resting her hand upon the hilt of the rapier strapped to her side.
“Seraphine! Stop it,” Meg hissed. “I hate it when you do this.”
“Do what? Honor my father by wearing the sword he gave me?”
“I don’t object to you wearing it, so much as you itching to stick it in somebody.”
Meg held her breath as she awaited the man’s reaction to Seraphine’s aggressive gesture. The moment stretched out before he lowered his gaze. He bent in a grave bow and disappeared into the inn. Meg’s relief was so keen, a tremor coursed through her. But Seraphine—damn the woman—actually looked disappointed.
She eased her cloak back over her sword. “That’s that. Both of us are a little too much on edge, getting into a fret over nothing. Just some fool Englishman who has doubtless lost his way and seeks shelter from the incoming storm. He likely hoped to pass his time with some local wench.” Sera- phine’s eyes danced with mischief as she added, “Just a hint, my dear. Next time you venture off your island, you really should try not to attract so much attention.”
Meg choked between a laugh and a vexed oath. “Wretch! If men are of a mind to stare, it is always at you.”
“But you are the one they never forget. I daresay it is those fey green eyes of yours. One look into them and a man is lost forever.” Seraphine teased, but there was a wistful note to her voice as well.
Meg shook her head, dismissing Seraphine’s words as nonsense or wanting to because she had striven most of her life to be forgettable, to be invisible, hidden by the mists of Faire Isle.
Perhaps she had overreacted to the stranger, her irrational fear just another part of the bleak legacy left her by her mother. For most of her childhood and youth, she had every cause to fear, to know what it was to be hunted. Every stray glance, every stare that lingered too long, every stranger that crossed her path could herald danger.
But surely those days were long behind her now. Her great enemy, the Dark Queen, Catherine de Medici was dead these fifteen years and more. Meg’s witch of a mother, Cassandra Lascelles, was gone longer still, swallowed up by the waters of the Seine. Likewise Cassandra’s coven of fanatic devotees had all been destroyed, slain by witch-hunters or imprisoned, tried, and put to death.
There was no one left to menace Meg’s peace anymore, no one to come after her. So why should the encounter with this stranger cause the back of her neck to prickle? Some voice inside her whispered that his coming here, his interest in her was no mere chance.
When she was younger, she would have heeded that voice. As she grew older, she became less attuned to the fey side of her nature, more inclined to question her instincts, to dismiss her extraordinary senses as folly.
Her pulse tripped nervously as she and Seraphine crossed the yard and approached the archway where the stranger had vanished. Meg wished that Bridget Tillet was a fisherman’s daughter, dwelling in some remote cottage far up the beach. More than anything, she wished herself back on her island.
When Seraphine shoved open the inn door, they were beset by a cacophony of noise and overpowering scents, the odor of strong spirits and cooked meats mingling with the stench of unwashed bodies.
At least the mystery of the absent villagers was solved. Meg’s heart sank as she entered the crowded taproom. Most of Pernod appeared crammed inside, every vacant stool and bench filled. Others leaned upon the bar counter, gesturing and arguing, the sound like the buzzing of a wasp’s nest that had been disturbed. Meg could make out little of what was being said, but the tone was unmistakable, angry and frightened.
Excerpted from The Lady of Secrets by Susan Carroll. Copyright © 2012 by Susan Carroll. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.