Table of Contents
“A WONDERFUL STORYTELLER—I WILL
PICK UP ANY BOOK WITH HER
NAME ON THE COVER.”
Praise for Lisa Jackson’s
Dark Jewels Trilogy
“Lisa Jackson . . . fills the pages with intrigue and passion.” —
“A complex medieval romance. . . . Moves forward on several levels that ultimately tie together in an exciting finish. The lead characters are a passionate duo while the secondary players strengthen the entire novel. Ms. Jackson has struck a gemstone mine.”
Painted Rock Reviews
“Lisa Jackson . . . snares the reader in an intricate plot and holds them until the very end.”—
“A true gem—a medieval masterpiece. Wonderfully compelling, filled with adventure and intrigue, sizzling sexual tension and a to-die-for hero, this one has it all.”—Samantha James
“Rich, mysterious, passionate. It’s a winner.”
“Fast-paced and fun from the start . . . a high-action adventure that will keep you turning the pages.”
“A rich, unforgettable tale.”—Stella Cameron
Published by New American Library, a division of
Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson Street,
New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand,
London WC2R 0RL, England
Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood,
Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2
Penguin Books (N.Z.) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road,
Auckland 10, New Zealand
Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices:
Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published by Signet, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.
First Printing, February 2002
Copyright © Susan Lisa Jackson, 2002
eISBN : 978-1-440-60073-9
copyright © Susan Lisa Jackson, 2002 All rights reserved
REGISTERED TRADEMARK—MARCA REGISTRADA
Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT QUANTITY DISCOUNTS WHEN USED TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE WRITE TO PREMIUM MARKETING DIVISION, PENGUIN PUTNAM INC., 375 HUDSON STREET, NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10014.
This book is dedicated to my editor, Cecilia Oh,
not only because of the title, though that may
be appropriate, but because she’s hung in there
with me and helped me stay the course,
being my champion as well as my conscience.
November 1283 Castle Serennog
“You ask the impossible!” Apryll stared at her brother as if he’d gone mad. She slapped the reins of her listless mare into a stable boy’s hand and frowned as she glanced up at the foreboding sky. Dark winter clouds, swollen with rain, moved slowly across the heavens as a keening wind tore through the outer bailey of the castle she’d called home for all of her twenty-two years.
Mud spackled her skirts and gusts of the blasted wind snatched at her hair as she strode toward the great hall. Payton, her half brother, marched at her side and she was certain he’d gone daft. “I cannot sneak into Black Thorn Castle and dupe the lord with my . . . charms—is that what you said—you want me to . . . ‘charm’ the beast of Black Thorn while you . . . you . . . what? Steal his jewels and his horses? “Tis madness.”
“You will not need to sneak. During the Christmas Revels the portcullis is raised and the doors of Black Thorn are thrown wide,” Payton assured her, his jaw set, determination etched in his bladed features. He took a quick step in front of her and, grabbing both her arms, forced her to stop just as the first drops of rain began to fall. “Look around you,” he ordered, desperation and a need for revenge carved into his features as he insisted she take a harder look at the once-beautiful castle now falling deep into ruin. Thatching had blown from the roofs of some of the huts in the bailey, beams had rotted, even the mortar in the thick curtain wall surrounding the keep was giving way, pebbles littering the dead grass. Winter apples hanging on leafless trees were shriveled and wormy. Sheep were huddled against the wind, their coats black with mud and dung, their bleats pathetic.
“You can’t be so blind as not to see that there is not enough wood in all of the forest to get us through the winter, the stock is sickly, the grain supply infested with rats, the horses already showing bones. The stores of wheat and spices are nearly empty, the wool to make new clothes in scant supply as the sheep are dying. You’re the lady here,” he reminded her roughly as she threw off his hands and began walking again, hurrying through the inner bailey where chickens scattered, their tattered feathers flying into the puddles that had collected in the rutted pathways. “’Tis your obligation to help those who serve you.”
“Aye, Payton, I must do something,” she admitted with a heavy sigh. Few hammers were banging as carpenters labored against impossible repairs and though the blacksmith’s forge was glowing bright, the bellows hissing, ’twould only be a short time before the castle was depleted of steel. Boys ran carrying sacks of acorns they’d gathered for the pigs, but soon what meager stores of feed that had been harvested and gathered would be drained. Gripping her cloak more tightly around her, Apryll bit her lip and hurried up the chipped steps to the keep.
A rail-thin guard with a pockmarked complexion and sad eyes opened the door. “M’lady,” he said with only a shadow of a smile.
“Geoffrey.” She paused before entering and felt rain seep under her hood to run through her hair and down her face. “How is your wife?”
He glanced to the ground and clamped his lips together, then cleared his throat. “Mary—she be fine. As soon as the babes—twins they be, the midwife says—arrive, she’ll be back on her feet, mark my words. A strong lass Mary is.” But his gaze belied the courage in his words.
“I’ll see that the physician stops to see her and that Cook makes her best soup. I’ll bring it to your hut myself.”
“’Tis kind ye be, m’lady.” Geoffrey nodded, managing a grateful, snaggletoothed smile as he shut the door behind them. Apryll felt cold to the bottom of her soul.
“His wife will be dead within a week,” Payton predicted. The tables within the great hall had been pushed against the aging walls. He rubbed his gloved hands together. “As for Mary’s unborn babes . . .” He clucked his tongue and shook his head in dire prediction. “’Tis a pity.”
“They’re not yet born, for the love of God. Mary has already birthed two fine, strong sons, so don’t be placing the twins in their graves already.” She refused to believe there was a grain of truth in his words. Mary, with her flaming hair and wide smile, was a big-boned, strong woman. The twins would survive. Somehow.
But the gloom of the castle with its cracked walls and cobweb-dusted rafters couldn’t be ignored.
And if those babes die, and other children as well, who will be to blame?
A fire burned within the grate and yet the cavernous room was as chilled as if a ghost had passed behind the ragged curtains. There had been a time when the whitewashed walls had been covered by colorful tapestries, the rushes had been fresh and sweet smelling, the enticing aromas from the kitchen had been ever present. Apryll remembered the smell of roasting pork as it turned on the spit, fat dripping into the coals, or the sweet scent of fruit tarts, or the smoky tang of charring eel flesh. Delicious scents had mingled and swept through the corridors and tunnels, sweeping through the great hall and filling the secret nooks and crannies where Apryll had played with the castle dogs or other children. But that had been long ago in a time when it had never seemed to grow cold, a time of laughter and songs and freedom. A time when her mother had been alive. Apryll had been her father’s pet, a spoiled child who had easily weaseled sweet tidbits before dinner from Cook, or been allowed to play seek-and-hide in the hay stored for the winter, or who had been dressed like a small princess for every festive occasion. She’d sat on her father’s knee and tugged on his thick reddish beard. It had been long ago, of course.
Before the curse of Black Thorn had been cast upon us.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she rubbed her sleeves, as if warding off a chill.
Payton had never known the happiness that had once spilled like sunshine through this very hall.
“The treasury be nearly empty,” he reminded her as Apryll tore off her riding gloves and, ignoring the hole in one finger, stuffed them into her pocket. Tossing off her hood, she warmed her palms by the fire. Piled high with ashes, the iron dogs supporting the burning logs seemed to glower up at her with their tarnished and blackened eyes. “The stores of feed are lower than they have been in years.”
She bit her lip and braced herself, for she knew what was to come. Always, after Payton prophecied doom and disaster for the keep, he came up with suggestions on how to improve things. She wasn’t disappointed this afternoon.