Authors: Maureen Driscoll
* * *
Arthur woke to find himself lying on a palette in a covered wagon.
An entire home seemed to exist within the small conveyance, which was made
entirely of wood except for a tarp at the door. A bedroll was tucked away
under a bench. Several chests were lined up against the low wall opposite him and
a jar of colorful glass beads lay atop one of them. Arthur tried to sit up,
but lay back when hit by a wave of dizziness.
“Be careful, Lord Arthur,” said the woman from the woods,
who was sitting on a stool in the corner of the wagon. She’d changed into a
clean dress and tucked her hair beneath a scarf. “You fainted from the sight
of blood.” From the look of chagrin on the boy’s face, she quickly added, “The
customary reaction, I assure you.”
“How do you know who I am?” he asked, as he gingerly felt
the bandage on his head.
“I know many things,” she said, as she gave him a small
goblet of wine. “But it is no secret who you are. We have travelled through
these parts many times before. Your father used to give us permission to camp
on his lands. Your brother did the same when we came here two days ago. It is
a shame we must leave so soon. Drink the wine. You’ll feel much better.”
As Arthur sipped the wine, he looked at the woman. She was older
than he’d first thought. There were creases at the corners of her eyes, as
well as a few light lines near her mouth. Her eyes were the darkest brown,
almost black. And there was something almost mystical when he looked into
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Sofia.” She gave him that faint smile again, then turned
away. “I owe you a great debt. You saved me.”
“You saved yourself. And your friends certainly did more
“I think not,” she said as she reached for the jar of beads.
“If you had not appeared when you did, the outcome might have been much
different. For everyone. I am in debt to you. It must be paid.”
Arthur took another sip of wine. “I assure you that I don’t
need any type of reward. Anyone would’ve done the same. And probably not
fainted at the end of it.”
“I doubt that very much. I must give you something as I
have no desire to feel obligated to someone I may never see again. We are
preparing to move on because those delightful boys from your village may come
back in greater number. We have no wish to be here if they do.” She studied
him for a moment, her dark eyes probing his. “I will tell your fortune.”
Arthur’s eyes grew bleak. “I’m not sure I want to know
what’s going to happen. Not if it’s bad. It’s….it’s been a bad year for my
Sofia considered that for a moment. “Arthur, no life can
proceed without difficulty. Some events are tragic. Others are merely
unpleasant. And sometimes, when we are very lucky, challenges lead us to great
happiness. You cannot live a life devoid of difficulty. But you can prepare
yourself to face what may come. Wouldn’t knowing be better than not?”
Arthur wasn’t sure that was true at all. But in the end, he
Sofia placed a handful of beads on a table, then reached for
a deck of cards that had colorful figures painted on them. Arthur watched her
graceful fingers shuffle the cards over and over again. Then she laid them out
on the table.
“What would you like to know?” she asked.
Arthur wasn’t quite sure what to say. He rather wanted to
know why the tavern maid hadn’t kissed him, but was too embarrassed to ask.
“My family,” he said at last. “What’s going to happen to my family?”
Sofia played with the deck some more, all the while keeping
her eyes on him. Finally, she began turning over cards and studying them.
“One of your brothers…he will travel.”
That piqued Arthur’s interest. “Perhaps you’re speaking
Sofia shook her head as she studied the cards. “No. Not
you. It is one of your brothers. He goes over the water. He’s in danger.
But it leads him to his soul mate.”
Arthur snorted. “There’s no such thing.”
She met his eyes. “You’re very wrong, Arthur. Very wrong
indeed. Your brother will tell you so, but not for many years.” She shuffled the
cards again, then laid them out and turned them over. “Your sister. Your
sister….she also finds her soul mate. She is a mother and is safely delivered
of six children, all of whom prosper. And then she…speaks before…she speaks
before your English Parliament.”
“Impossible!” said Arthur.
“Nothing is impossible,” Sofia said as she laid out the
cards again. “You have another brother…he tells people not to drink spirits.”
“Must be Lynwood,” said Arthur. “He’s always telling Ned
and me to stay away from his brandy.”
“No, I do not think it is his grace. I believe it is your
youngest brother. He tells people to stay away from drink and gaming. And
there is a woman involved.”
“I’m sure there will be many women involved, but I cannot
believe the rest of Hal. Do you see anything for Liam?”
Sofia studied the cards. “The course of true love will not
“When does it ever?” asked Arthur, getting ready to ask
about the tavern girl.
“And now for you,” said Sofia as she laid out the cards.
“You will explore the world, but not for many years.” She studied the cards
intently, then her expression blanked. Something stilled in Arthur at the
sight of it.
“But what happens in the meantime?” he asked.
“That is all the cards told me,” she said as she gathered up
the cards and beads, avoiding meeting his eyes.
“There is more, isn’t there?” said Arthur. He put his hand
on her arm. “Please tell me.”
She debated what to tell him, weighing her words carefully.
“The cards only tell what is likely to happen. They’ve been wrong before. You
doubted what I said about your sister and brothers.”
He had, but Arthur wanted to know what she wasn’t telling
him. He needed to know. “What do you see in the cards? Please, Sofia, you
must tell me.”
Sofia looked at him, the weariness of the day’s events in
her eyes. “I see the woman you love being shot and you are unable to get to
her in time.”
There was a moment of silence. Arthur could hardly
breathe. Of course there was nothing to this, just card tricks by a woman who
thought she was doing him a kindness. But just the thought of more loss
paralyzed him. He couldn’t face it. He’d never fall in love; he’d never risk
“Remember, Arthur,” said Sofia softly. “No life is without
difficulty. But do not be afraid to live.”
At that moment, the flap to the wagon’s door was thrown
man who’d first spoken to Sofia looked in on them.
“I’m Michun,” he said to Arthur’s unspoken question. “Lord
Arthur, your family has come to retrieve you. I will take you to them.”
Michun led Arthur through the camp, which was now in the
process of packing up to leave. Every member of the tribe from the eldest man to
the youngest child had a task to complete to facilitate a smooth, quick departure.
All eyes were on Arthur as he passed the wagons where people lived, as well as
the stalls of wares the
sold in villages, including one that featured
intricate jewelry boxes and small chests, which Arthur paused to inspect. He
needed a distraction before he faced his family. He’d suddenly become quite
embarrassed by all the attention focused on him, not to mention the worry he
must’ve caused his family.
“We have some of the best artisans in the
community,” said Michun proudly. “If you see something you like, take it. We
cannot thank you enough for what you did for Sofia.” Then he added softly. “I
personally cannot thank you enough. She is my mother.”
Arthur looked at the man and noted the similarity to Sofia.
He didn’t know what quirk of fate had made him walk by the field at just the
right moment, but he was immeasurably glad he had.
Arthur turned to see Hal grinning at him. He was standing
with a solemn Liam, Ned and Lizzie.
“Is it true you fainted?” Hal couldn’t believe his great
“Your brother came to my assistance,” said Sofia, as she joined
them and made her curtsey to Lynwood. “He is a very brave man.”
“Arthur,” said Liam, after introductions were made, “how
badly are you injured?”
“His head certainly can’t hurt as much as my arm,” said
Hal. “After all, his head is much harder.”
“Might I remind you, Henry,” said Liam, “that your arm
wouldn’t hurt if you hadn’t climbed that tree to spy on your brother.”
“Well, someone had to make sure he told the truth about the
“What wager?” asked Lizzie.
Liam shot a quelling look at Hal, who wisely refrained from
Ned dragged his eyes away from a beautiful young woman whose
décolletage had also drawn Liam’s interested gaze. “Are you feeling all the
“I’m fine,” said Arthur. “Thanks to Sofia and Michun.”
“What happened?” asked Liam.
Arthur glanced at a curious Lizzie, then back at his
brother. “Some of the boys from the village – Miles and Morris and a few
others – were, uh, harassing Sofia. We were able to scare them off, although
it was mostly the men from the tribe.”
“I should’ve blacked both of Miles’s eyes when I had the
chance,” said Ned. “Still not too late, I reckon.”
“Thank you for the thought,” said Sofia, “but we hope to
depart before too long and with as little attention as possible.”
“I am the magistrate here,” said Liam, asserting himself as
Lynwood. “I can prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”
“Thank you, your grace,” said Sofia. “But the law isn’t
always an impartial force, regardless of your excellent intentions.”
Liam considered the matter, then nodded.
“Did they hurt you?” Lizzie asked Sofia.
Arthur looked at his sister, who was a skinny little girl in
braids, holding a doll that was almost as big as she was. She’d rarely let go
of it since their parents’ death. And now she was asking about an issue no little
girl should ever have to think about.
Sofia smiled at the girl, then smoothed one of her braids.
“Your brother was very brave and took care of me.”
Lizzie looked at Sofia, but made no response.
Michun watched the young duke appraisingly. “You are much
like your father. Please accept our sincerest sympathy at his passing.”
Liam gave the barest of nods. Ned looked off into the
horizon. Hal put his arm around Lizzie, as she leaned into him. As always, Arthur
felt his parents’ loss profoundly, but his thoughts were on the future.
Michun continued. “The road beckons and it is time for us
Sofia kissed Arthur’s cheek, then he and his brothers and
sister turned to walk back to Lynwood Manor. Arthur was suddenly anxious to
leave the encampment, to go home and try to put his troubling future behind him.
It was best to get his mind off it. Perhaps a hand of cards when he returned.
That would occupy his thoughts.
Suddenly Lizzie turned and ran back to Sofia. She held up
the doll that meant so much to her.
“Here!” said Lizzie as she thrust the doll into Sofia’s hands.
“I don’t want you to be sad.” Lizzie looked at the doll one last time,
perhaps considering whether to snatch it back again. Then she ran to her
brothers and took Arthur’s hand.
, thought Arthur,
took many different forms
Kent, September 1822
Vanessa Gans, most recently known as Tara Rennard, had
learned many lessons in the day and a half she’d spent on the road since
leaving the Riverton house party. She’d discovered that autumn came early in
the Kentish countryside, making her wish she’d packed warmer clothes before
leaving the house in the pre-dawn hours. Not that she would’ve had much room
to carry them. All she had were her saddlebags, and they were already well
stocked with pistols, knives and various other weapons. Given the lack of
space, it was a good thing she’d chosen to dress like a lad. She couldn’t have
fit even one of her petticoats into the bag without leaving a pistol behind. And
given her current pursuit, she’d much rather have the weapons.
But the biggest lesson she’d learned was if you must steal a
horse, and she’d really had very little choice in the matter, it was better to
choose one that was lazy but obedient, rather than one that never tired but
only rarely heeded its master. Or mistress in this case. Vanessa was hardly
surprised by the stubborn nature of the beast, given the intractable,
irritating and grudgingly irresistible traits of its owner, Lord Arthur
Vanessa was an agent for the Home Office. Recruited at the
age of twenty, she’d spent the last four years on various assignments hiding in
plain sight by posing as maids, shop girls and seamstresses. The peerage
rarely noticed when servants were in a room. They spoke freely and revealed
much. Vanessa was amazed by the information she’d collected simply by standing
in a room and being ignored by its occupants. Some of what she’d heard had
been quite helpful to the Crown. She’d also heard more
even the most well-connected society matron. She had very little taste for
it. But given her exposure to the scandalous
, she’d have been
one of the most sought after guests at any
If only she were a lady.
Not that she couldn’t pass for one. Despite her birth,
she’d become adept at acting like a lady when it was required. She’d been
exposed to the manners and idiosyncrasies of the aristocracy through her missions
with the Home Office. And she’d been given a close-up look at their many faults
in the years before that. She had very little use for toffs, although her most
recent assignment was an unsettling reminder that there were worthy souls even
among the peerage.