Acrid smoke billowed around the windowless room from the peat fire smoldering sullenly in the hearth. The old crone stirring a pot over the fire coughed intermittently, the harsh racking the only sound. Outside, the snow lay thick on a dead white world, heavy flakes drifting steadily from the iron gray sky.
A bundle of rags, huddled beneath a moth-eaten blanket, groaned, shifted with a rustle of the straw beneath the sticklike frame. "Brandy, woman!"
The crone glanced over her shoulder at the hump in the corner, then she spat into the fire. The spittle sizzled on the peat. "Girl's gone fer it. Altho' what she's usin' to pay fer it, the good Lord knows."
The bundle groaned again. A wasted arm pushed feebly at the blanket, and Jack Worth struggled onto his elbow. He peered through slitted eyes into the smoke-shrouded room. Nothing had improved since he'd last looked, and he sank back into the straw again. The earth floor was hard and cold beneath the thin and foul-smelling straw, pressing painfully into his emaciated body.
Jack wanted to die, but the flicker of life was persistent. And if he couldn't die, he wanted brandy. Portia had gone for brandy. His enfeebled brain could hold that thought. But where in the name of Lucifer was she? He couldn't remember what time she'd gone out into the storm. The blizzard obliterated all signs of time passing, and it could as well be midnight as dawn.
His pain-racked limbs were on fire, his eyes burned in their sockets, every inch of his skin ached, and the dreadful craving consumed him so that he cried out, a sound so feeble that the crone didn't even turn from the fire.
The door opened. Frigid air blasted the fug, and the smoke swirled like dervishes. The girl who kicked the door shut behind her was wire thin yet exuded a nervous energy that somehow enlivened the reeking squalor of the hovel.
"Brandy, Jack." She came to the mattress and knelt, drawing a small leather flask from inside her threadbare cloak. Her nose wrinkled at the sour stench of old brandy and decaying flesh exuding from the man and his sickbed, but she pushed an arm beneath his scrawny neck and lifted him, pulling off the stopper of the flagon with her teeth. Her father was shaking so hard she could barely manage to hold the flask to his lips. His teeth rattled, his lifeless eyes stared up at her from his gaunt face, where the bones of his skull were clearly defined.
He managed to swallow a mouthful of the fiery spirit, and as it slid down his gullet his aches diminished a little, the shivers died, and he was able to hold the flask in one clawlike hand and keep it to his lips himself until the last drop was gone.
"Goddamn it, but it's never enough!" he cursed. "Why d'ye not bring enough, girl!"
Portia sat back on her heels, regarding her father with a mixture of distaste and pity. "It's all I could afford. It's been a long time, in case you've forgotten, since you contributed to the family coffers."
"Insolence!" he growled, but his eyes closed and he became so still that for a moment Portia thought that finally death would bring him peace, but after a minute his eyes flickered open. Saliva flecked his lips amid his thick uncombed gray beard; sweat stood out against the greenish waxen pallor of his forehead and trickled down his sunken cheeks.
Portia wiped his face with the corner of her cloak. Her stomach was so empty it was cleaving to her backbone, and the familiar nausea of hunger made her dizzy. She stood up and went over to the noisome fire. "Is that porridge?"
"Aye. What else'd it be?"
"What else indeed," she said, squatting on the floor beside the cauldron. She had learned early the lesson that beggars could not be choosers, and ladled the watery gruel into a wooden bowl with as much enthusiasm as if it was the finest delicacy from the king's table.
But it was a thin ungrateful pap and left her hunger barely appeased. Images of bread and cheese danced tantalizingly before her internal vision, making her juices run, but what little she could earn in the taproom of the Rising Sun, drawing ale, answering ribaldry with its kind, and turning a blind eye to the groping hands on her body so long as they pushed a coin into her meager bosom, went for brandy to still her father's all-consuming addiction. The addiction that was killing him by inches.
"Port . . . Portia!" He gasped out her name and she came quickly over to him. "In my box . . . a letter . . . find it . . . quickly." Every word was wrenched from him as if with red-hot pincers.
She went to the small leather box, the only possession they had apart from the rags on their backs. She brought it over, opening it without much curiosity. She knew the contents by heart. Anything of worth had been sold off long ago to pay for brandy.
"At the back . . . behind the silk."
She slipped her fingers behind the shabby lining, encountering the crackling crispness of parchment. She pulled it out, handing it to her father.
"When I'm gone, you're to s . . . se . . ." A violent coughing fit interrupted him, and when it subsided he lay back too exhausted to continue. But after a minute, as Portia watched his agonizing efforts, he began again. "Send it to Lammermuir, to Castle Granville. Read the direction."
Portia turned the sealed parchment over in her hand. "What is it? What does it say?"
"Read the direction!"
"Castle Granville, Lammermuir, Yorkshire."
"Send it by the mail. When I'm gone." His voice faded, but his hand reached for her and she gave him her own. "It's all I can do for you now, Portia," he said, his fingers squeezing hers with a strength she hadn't known he still possessed; then, as if defeated by the effort, his hand opened and fell from hers.
An hour later, Jack Worth, half brother to Cato, Marquis of Granville, died much as he had lived, in a brandy stupor and without a penny to his name.
Portia closed her father's eyes. "I must bury him."
"Ground's iron hard," the crone declared unhelpfully.
Portia's lips thinned. "I'll manage."
"Ye've no money for a burial."
"I'll dig the grave and bury him myself."
The old woman shrugged. The man and his daughter had been lodging in her cottage for close on a month, and she'd formed a pretty good idea of the girl's character. Not one to be easily defeated.
Portia turned the sealed parchment over in her hand. She had no money for postage, knew no one who could frank it for her. She didn't even know if the mail services still operated between Edinburgh and York now that civil war raged across the northern lands beyond the Scottish border. But she could not ignore her father's dying instructions. He wanted the letter delivered to his half brother, and she must find a way to do so.
And then what was she to do? She looked around the bleak hovel. She could stay here throughout the winter. There was a living of sorts to be made in the tavern, and the old woman wouldn't throw her out so long as she could pay for the straw palliasse and a daily bowl of gruel. And without Jack's addiction to supply, she might be able to save a little. In the spring, she would move on . . . somewhere.
But first she had to bury her father.
"My lord . . . my lord . . . Beggin' yer pardon, my lord . . ."
Cato, Marquis of Granville, looked up at the voice, ragged for lack of breath, gasping behind him in the stable courtyard of Castle Granville. He turned, his hand still on the smooth black neck of the charger he was examining.
"Well?" He raised an eyebrow at the lad, who, unable to catch his breath for further speech, wordlessly held out a sealed parchment, then hugged his frozen hands under his armpits against the vicious January wind blowing off the Lammermuir hills.
Cato took it. The untidy scrawl was unknown to him. The letters wandered all over the paper as if the hand that had penned them had had little strength to hold the quill.
He turned the parchment over and inhaled sharply. The seal was his half brother's. "I'll not ride out this morning, after all, Jebediah."
"Aye, m'lord." The groom took the charger's halter and led him back in the direction of his stall.
"Oh, you, lad." The marquis paused, glancing over his shoulder at the abandoned messenger, who stood, his recaptured breath steaming in the bitter air, his nose scarlet with cold. "You're from the mail office in York?"
The lad nodded vigorously.
"I didn't realize the mails were still running."
"They don't always gets through, m'lord. But the carrier what brought the bag that this come in took safe passage from Lord Leven when 'is lordship crossed the border."
Cato's nod of understanding was somber. "Go to the kitchen. They'll look after you there before you return to the city."
The marquis continued on his way, crossing the inner bailey to the great donjon, where the family resided. The blast of a trumpet came over the frosty air from the fields beyond the castle moat. It was followed by the carrying voice of a drill sergeant, the roll of a drum. But the marching footsteps of the drilling militia were muffled in the snow of the parade ground that had once been a peaceful wheat field.
The marquis entered the building through the narrow door. Pitch torches in sconces flickered over the ancient stone walls, lit the heavy slabs beneath his feet. Despite the tapestries hung upon the walls in the great hall, it was hard to soften the military, defensive nature of this inner keep that for centuries had protected the families of the house of Granville from the marauders and moss-troopers who menaced the border between Scotland and England, and from the lawless armies who had periodically ravaged the land since the Conqueror.
He ascended the stone stairs running off the hall, and the atmosphere changed, became more domestic. Windows had been widened and glassed, to let in both light and air, carpets softened the flagstones, and the tapestries were thick and plentiful. He turned down a corridor and entered his own sanctum in the bastion.
He threw off his thick cloak and drew off his leather gauntlets. A log fire blazed in the hearth and he bent to warm his hands, before straightening, turning slowly before the fire's heat like a lamb on a spit, and breaking the seal on the parchment as he opened his half brother's missive.
St. Stephen's Street, Edinburgh
My dear brother,
When you read this, you may be certain that I have gone to my just reward. The pits of hell, I have no doubt! But I willingly pay the price for such a life as I have had. (Ah, I can see your pained frown, Cato. Such an upright soul as you could never understand the pleasures of excess.) But know that I am now paying for my sins, such as they are, and grant me one boon out of the goodness of your heart and the charity that I know flows so sweetly in your veins! My daughter, Portia. She has suffered with me but should not suffer without me. Will you take her in and treat her kindly? She has no family claims upon you--poor little bastard--and yet I ask this favor of the only person who could grant it.
Ever your degenerate brother,
Cato scrunched up the parchment. He could hear Jack's ironical, mocking tone in every word. No doubt the man was now stoking the fires of hell, as unrepentant as ever.
He bent to throw the missive into the flames, then paused. With a sigh, he smoothed out the sheet, laying it upon the oak table, flattening the creases with his palm. When had Jack died? The letter was dated the previous month. It would have taken anything up to three weeks to reach Granville. Was the girl still in Edinburgh? Still to be found on St. Stephen's Street? And how in the name of grace was he to find her with the border in an uproar?
He had known that sunny afternoon of his wedding two and a half years ago that civil war had become inevitable. King Charles had pushed his country too far in his pursuit of absolute rule. The worm, as embodied in Parliament, had turned. For two years now the country had been torn apart, with families divided brother against brother, father against son. There had been battles, many of them, and yet out of the hideous slaughter had come no decisive victory for either side. Winter had brought an end to pitched battle, and in the cold new year of 1643, the king's supporters held the north of England. But they faced a new challenge now. The Scots army had raised its standard for Parliament and with Lord Leven at its head had just crossed the border into Yorkshire, bringing reinforcement against the king's military strength in the north.
Cato walked to the narrow window in the turret. From here he could see his own militia drilling. A militia he had originally raised in the king's name. The soldiers believed they were armed and ready to fight for King Charles at their lord's command, little knowing that their lord's loyalties were no longer a simple matter.
At the very beginning of this civil strife, Cato had seen no alternative to supporting his king and the royalist cause. It had seemed then morally unthinkable for a Granville to do otherwise than support his king in the face of civil insurrection.
He had raised men and money in the king's name and continued to hold his border castle for his sovereign. But slowly, inexorably, the conviction had grown that the king's cause was wrong . . . that the king was destroying the lives and liberties of his subjects. He was led astray by advisors who were mistaken if not downright evil, and no man who truly loved his country could support a sovereign so wrongheaded. So blind to the needs and rights of his people. Now, in the second year of war, Cato Granville was ready to turn his back on his king and raise his standard for Parliament and the cause of liberty.
And yet to oppose his sovereign went against every tenet of his heritage, and he had not yet spoken of his change of allegiance within his own walls, let alone declared himself publicly for Parliament.
But the time when he would have no choice was imminent, and each day he prepared himself anew.
Cato turned back from the window with a brusque impatient shake of his head and once more picked up Jack's letter.
He'd seen the child but once, at his own wedding, the day they had beheaded Strafford on Tower Hill. He had only a vague memory of her. Thin, dirty, freckles, startling red hair, and Jack's eyes, green and slanted like a cat's, with the same sharp, mocking glitter as her father's. She'd had the same insolent tone too, he recalled, his lip curling with remembered distaste.
He had enough to deal with at the moment without taking in an abandoned waif with neither family nor fortune to recommend her. He scrunched the letter again in his hand, prepared to toss it into the fire. And then again he paused. He could not refuse his brother's dying request. A dying request had all the force of moral imperative, and however disinclined he was, he had to do something for the girl.
He left the bastion room and made his way down the corridor to the square di
From the Paperback edition.