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The storm hovered in the distance, the gathering clouds like a herd of wild gray stallions about to rampage through Port Corsair and steal away the serenity of the summer afternoon. As Miri cantered her pony into the small harbor town, she straightened in the saddle, her nostrils flaring as she scented the air. The storm was one, perhaps two hours away at most by her reckoning. The rocky coast of Faire Isle usually took the brunt of the tempests hurled from the sea, but not even the heart of the small island would be immune to the force of this one.
The brisk wind blowing leeward threatened to wreak havoc with her hair, but her pale blond tresses were tightly bound in a braid that fell to the small of her back. Hair so severely confined might have left another woman’s face too harshly exposed, but it only served to emphasize the striking mold of her cheekbones. There was something a little fey in her expression, the reflection of a woman who kept mostly to herself, more comfortable with the creatures of the forest than she was with her own kind.
Tall and thin, she wore a belted, ankle-length gown, the soft gray hue adding to the ethereal illusion that she was a lady who could easily vanish in a puff of mist. Her skirts and petticoats bunched uncomfortably about her knees as she rode astride. The fashion for sidesaddles had never been adopted by the practical women of Faire Isle. Miri would as soon have dispensed with a saddle altogether and donned a comfortable pair of masculine breeches as she had been wont to do as a child. But she feared that she already created enough of a stir when she ventured into town these days.
As Miri slowed her pony to a walk, she braced herself for the familiar onslaught of faces peering at her over cottage fences. Some simply stared; others nodded their heads in uneasy recognition. An apple-cheeked woman weeding her garden ventured to wave, but as Miri went by, the woman immediately turned to whisper to her daughter.
Miri held her head high, but the whispers, the stares thrust her back through the years to another gloom-ridden summer day . . .
The drum beat out a relentless tattoo and her heart seemed to thud in tempo as she was dragged toward the town square by the grim-faced witch-hunters in their black robes. The halter they had fastened about her neck abraded her skin raw, but she tried to keep her chin up, remember who she was, the daughter of the brave Chevalier Louis Cheney and the Lady Evangeline, one of the wisest women Faire Isle had ever known. But she shrank from all those staring eyes, the faces of people she’d believed were friends and neighbors.
She was a true daughter of the earth. How could they think that she was a witch who had made an unholy pact with the devil? Why would anyone want to hurt her? She twisted her head and directed a pleading glance toward the youngest of the witch-hunters. Although he swallowed hard, his dark eyes growing moist, Simon kept marching and doggedly beat the drum . . .
Miri shuddered and thrust the memory back into the dark recesses of her past where it belonged. She was no longer that frightened and bewildered child, but a woman of six and twenty, all too familiar with the ignorance and cruelty to be found in the world. So much had changed in her life since that dark summer day she’d survived her arrest for witchcraft, except perhaps for one thing. Many still suspected her of practicing sorcery.
“Filthy little witch!”
Miri flinched in spite of herself at the shrill cry. She shifted in the saddle, glancing about her for the source of the angry outcry only to realize that the epithet had not been hurled at her.
A group of some half-dozen women was clustered near the common well, engaged in a heated conflict. Miri’s first instinct was to ride swiftly on by. She hated altercations of any sort and Ariane had warned Miri when she had returned to Faire Isle six months ago. On the morning they had parted, Ariane had cupped Miri’s face between her hands, her sister’s rich gray eyes worried and solemn.
“I know how badly you need to return home, but oh, please be careful, Miri. You were never convicted of treason and witchcraft as Gabrielle and I were. Give them no excuse to do so now. Live quietly on Faire Isle. Remember that even after all this time, our family still has powerful enemies.”
Enemies like Catherine de Medici, the dowager queen of France, but far better known as the Dark Queen and a suspected sorceress, and her son, Henry, the present king of France, an irrational and vindictive man. But the enemy uppermost in Ariane’s mind had been the one they did not speak of, the mere mention of his name enough to afford Miri pain. The witch-hunter, Aristide.
Just as Miri was no longer that innocent child, Simon was no longer that tenderhearted boy, apprenticed to the terrifying Vachel Le Vis, a fanatical witch-hunter. Over the years Simon had grown into a hardened and dangerous adversary, far more to be dreaded than his long-dead master who had first arrested Miri.
Hugging Ariane fiercely, Miri had pledged to do her best to heed her advice.
“Do nothing to draw undue attention to yourself, dearest.”
“I won’t, Ariane. I swear it.”
Recalling that promise, Miri nudged Willow away from the square, trying to blot out the sound of the furious, upraised voices. But out of the corner of her eye, she caught a glimpse of the victim of this wrath, a sandy-haired girl, who looked not much older than fourteen. She clutched the ends of a shawl about her frail shoulders, the cloth a bright weaving of many dyed hues like the biblical Joseph’s coat of many colors. Her freckled face blazed defiance although she held her other hand protectively in front of her abdomen. Miri drew rein, shocked as she realized the reason for the gesture. The girl was heavy with child, her thin frame appearing far too frail to bear the burden swelling beneath her gown.
Her chief opponent appeared to be an angular woman, sleeves shoved up to reveal red, work-roughened arms. Miri recognized Josephine Alain, the local potter’s wife. She advanced toward the girl, shrieking, “Slut! We’ve warned you for the last time. We don’t want you showing your face in our town ever again.”
Madame Alain was reinforced by an irate chorus of agreement from her neighbors, only timid little Madame Greves appearing to make an appeal for calm. The girl muttered some furious retort, her face streaked with defiant tears.
Madame Alain stepped closer, spluttering more insults, shaking her finger under the girl’s nose. The girl stumbled back a step and struck Madame Alain’s hand away. To Miri’s horror, the woman set upon the pregnant girl, slapping her and pulling her hair.
Forgetting all she had promised her sister, Miri scrambled off of Willow. Seizing the pony’s bridle, she peered directly into one of his large soft eyes.
“Wait,” she commanded, then raced toward the group of women.
By the time Miri reached the conflict, the girl had sought refuge at the base of the statue in the square. She curled herself in a protective ball with her multicolored shawl drawn over her head as Madame Alain pummeled her back. The other women crowded about, urging her on, only Madame Greves holding back, wringing her hands in her apron.
Miri charged in, shoving women out of her way. She locked her arm about Madame Alain’s neck and hauled her back from the fallen girl.
“Stop it,” Miri grated in the woman’s ear. “Have you completely lost your mind?”
Madame Alain grunted, fighting to break free of Miri’s grip. Miri spun the woman about with a strength born of desperation and hurled her away. The woman staggered and landed hard on her rump. Spitting furious curses, she fought her tangled skirts in an effort to rise.
Although her heart thudded hard in her chest, Miri stepped in front of the sandy-haired girl, clenching her fists. “Stay back. All of you. The next person who lays a hand on this child will answer to me.”
Josephine Alain regained her feet, ready to launch herself at Miri but she was restrained by two of her neighbors.
“Great heaven, Josephine. Don’t you see who that is? The Cheney woman.”
Miri’s name buzzed through the cluster of women, their faces reflecting varying amounts of fear, wariness, and awe. Although Madame Alain shrugged free of the hands restraining her, even she hung back, glaring.
Miri found the sudden silence unnerving. She was relieved when Madame Greves found enough courage to come forward to help. Taking the girl gently by the elbow, Madame Greves aided her to her feet. As soon as the girl had regained her balance, she thrust the woman’s hands away.
“Leave me alone, damn you. I’m fine.”
Madame Greves’s eyes rounded in shock and she beat a hasty retreat. The girl looked shaken, but otherwise unharmed. Miri blew out a deep breath. Having thrust herself into the middle of this situation, she was uncertain what to do next. She was painfully aware of having neither Ariane’s calming aura nor her other sister Gabrielle’s regal manner.
She was more disquieted by the prospect of addressing this crowd of hostile women than she had been battling her way through them. Folding her arms defensively in front of herself, she demanded, in what she hoped was an authoritative tone, “Would someone care to explain to me what is going on here?”
“It is no concern of yours, Miribelle Cheney.” Strands of gray hair escaped from Madame Alain’s chignon, the wind blowing them about a face that had once been pretty. Bitterness had soured her visage into a shrewish expression.
“I am afraid I must make it my concern, when grown women run mad enough to attack an innocent girl. One moreover who is far gone with child.”
“Innocent?” Madame Alain snorted. “Carole Moreau is nothing but a little whore, spreading her legs for every sailor who comes into port.”
“Oh, are you worried I won’t leave any for you?” Carole snapped.
“Why, you—you salope.” Madame Alain lunged at her again, but Miri blocked her path, stopping her with a fierce look.
Madame Alain shouted at the girl past Miri’s shoulder. “We have warned you time and again not to come around here, flaunting that bastard growing in your belly before decent women.”
“I have as much right to be here as anyone else,” Carole blazed, but her lip quivered.
“You ought to stay at home, keep your shame hidden away.”
“I would say the shame belongs more to the men who took advantage of such a young girl,” Miri said icily.
“Oh, no, Mistress Cheney,” another woman piped up, a buxom blonde. “Carole truly is a wicked creature. Always muttering curses against us. She made my milk curdle the other day. Her eyes radiate pure evil.”
Several of the other women nodded in agreement and crossed themselves.
Miri shook her head at them incredulously. “Since when did the women of Faire Isle start believing in such nonsense as evil eyes? My God! I have seen my share of folly and cruelty in the rest of the world. But this island was once a place of refuge, especially for women who met with misunderstanding and abuse elsewhere. We were wont to treat each other with respect. What has happened to your kindness, your compassion?”
Miri appealed to each woman in turn, peering deep into their eyes. Most hung their heads or looked away. Only Madame Alain spoke up.
“You have been gone a long time, Miri Cheney. Nothing has gone right for this island since the raids of Le Balafre and his witch-hunters. People from the mainland fear to come here anymore, our trade has fallen off to nothing. My own family has been particularly hard hit, our pottery business failed, and my husband dead of grief, leaving me six children to keep from starving. And it is all the fault of your sisters for bringing the wrath of that accursed witch-hunter and the French king down upon our heads.”
Miri felt the heat rise in her cheeks, but she replied calmly, “My sisters are neither traitors nor witches. I am deeply sorry for your troubles, madame, but if you want to blame anyone, blame me. It was my fault for placing too much faith in the wrong man, for not stopping Le Balafre when I had the chance.”
Although Miri despised herself for it, even now she could not think of him as the dreaded Le Balafre, but only as Simon . . . Simon Aristide.
“Oh, I do blame you,” Madame Alain said. Although the other women stole wary looks at Miri, and Madame Greves tried to hush her friend, Madame Alain stepped closer. Miri could feel the animosity pouring off the woman like a hot, dark wave.
“Though no one else here has the courage to tell you this, you are no more welcome on this island than that little slut you are protecting.”
“I regret that you feel that way, madame. But Faire Isle is my home as it is Mademoiselle Moreau’s. Neither of us is going anywhere.” Miri met the woman’s glare without flinching.
Madame Alain was the first to look away, muttering. “We’ll see about that.” She stalked off across the green, the other women trailing after her.
Only Madame Greves lingered. Tugging at her kerchief strings, she gazed earnestly up at Miri. “You must not mind Josephine, milady. She has had a hard time of it and she often says things she doesn’t mean.”
“Madame Alain only said what everyone else is thinking.”
“Not everyone.” Madame Greves ventured to touch Miri’s sleeve. “You probably believe that we have all forgotten the good that your family once brought to Faire Isle. But many of us remember the old days and we rejoice to have our lady back amongst us.”
“Oh, no, madame,” Miri cried. “I am not the Lady of Faire Isle. That was my sister, Ariane.”
“I know that, my dear. Such a kind and wise woman, the Lady Ariane, a true healer. I pray she might someday be restored to us. But your gift for curing the poor beasts is just as great as hers for helping ailing folk. We have all heard how you brought the Pomfreys’ cow back from the dead.”
“No, no! It wasn’t dead, only very ill. It—it was—”
“A miracle!” Madame Greves beamed at her. “You have a very powerful magic. Your reputation is spreading even as far as the mainland.” The little woman whispered in a conspiratorial tone. “We have taken to calling you our Lady of the Wood.”
Miri’s heart sank in dismay. The Lady of the Wood? Oh, wonderful. So much for her promise to Ariane to draw no attention to herself and she’d barely been home six months. Before she could attempt to convince Madame Greves that her curing of the cow had been nothing more than sensible animal husbandry, they were interrupted by Madame Alain’s shrill voice ringing across the green.
Having noticed her friend’s defection, she beckoned imperiously. Madame Greves drew back from Miri, sketching a deep curtsy. “Well, I—I just wanted you to know all that, milady.”
“Thank you, madame. But I am not milady. I am only—”
But Madame Greves was already gone, scurrying after the other women. Miri sighed. Despite Laurette Greves’s kindness, she was not sorry to see her go, as uncomfort- able with the woman’s adoration as she had been with Madame Alain’s hostility.