Larkspur’s Quest

A Novella

about the book | excerpt

Larkspur Miller’s sister is lame and nothing short of a Faerie wish will cure her—but Larkspur knows how to earn a wish.

It won’t be easy, and it will require a man.

Larkspur has chosen her man: Cadoc Ironfist, liegeman to the Lord Warder of Dapple Vale. But Cadoc is reluctant, and the task is more dangerous than Larkspur realized.

A dark and magical tale of courage, love, and loyalty.

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Excerpt

ONCE UPON A TIME . . .

IN THE NORTHERN reaches of England lay a long and gentle valley, with villages and meadows and wooded hills. Dapple Vale was the valley’s name, and the woods were known as Glade Forest, for many sunlit glades lay within their cool, green reaches. Glade Forest was surrounded by royal forest on all sides, but neither it nor Dapple Vale were on any map, and the Norman king and his foresters and tax collectors and huntsmen knew nothing of their existence.

Within the green, leafy expanse of Glade Forest lay the border with the Faerie realm, where the Fey dwelled. The boundary was invisible to the human eye; nothing marked it but a tingle, a lifting of hair on the back of one’s neck. Wise men turned back when they felt the tingle, and unwise men continued and were never seen again.

Despite its proximity to Faerie—or perhaps because of it—the sun shone more often in Dapple Vale than elsewhere in England, and the winters were less harsh. The Great Plague bypassed Dapple Vale, and the Great Famine, too. Crops flourished, animals were fat and sleek, and the vale’s folk were hale and long-lived.

One road led to the vale, but few travelers discovered it. No Romans found Dapple Vale, nor Vikings, and England’s latest invaders, the Normans, hadn’t found it either. Even folk born and bred in the vale had been known to leave and never find their way back, so well hidden was Glade Forest.

The folk of Dapple Vale didn’t take their good fortune for granted. They had heard of plagues and famines, heard of marauding soldiers and starving serfs and murderous outlaws. Each was careful to respect the forest that sheltered them, and most careful of all was the Lord Warder of Dapple Vale, who went by the name Dappleward. Dappleward and his sons and his liegemen, the Ironfists, knew the location of rings of standing stones where the Fey had danced in olden times. They knew where to find the great stone barrow that held the grave of a banished Faerie prince, and they knew of the dark and narrow crevice wherein lay a hoard of abandoned Faerie gold. They knew these places, and guarded them carefully.

ALL TALES MUST have a beginning, and our tale begins in Dapple Bend, in the crook of Dapple Vale, where there once lived a miller’s widow and her three beautiful daughters. The widow was half-blind and half-lame, but she had whole-hearted courage, and when she came upon a Faerie babe drowning in a deep, dark pool in the forest, she flung herself into the water to save it.

Now the Fey are dangerous and capricious and cruel, and the folk of Dapple Vale know better than to attract their attention, but Widow Miller went searching for the border with Faerie and called the babe’s mother to her.

The Fey dislike humans, and dislike even more being indebted to them, and the babe’s mother was deeply in Widow Miller’s debt, so she granted the widow a wish, and each of her daughters a wish, too, and their daughters in turn.

Widow Miller entered Glade Forest half-lame and half-blind; she left it supple-limbed and clear-eyed and with a joyful heart, and two weeks later she married the blacksmith she had secretly loved for years.

Her three daughters received their wishes on their birthdays. First to wish was the widow’s middle daughter, and she asked for the gift of finding people and things, and with that gift to guide her, she embarked on a hazardous journey, where she met Dappleward’s youngest son and won his love.

Second to wish was the youngest daughter, and alas, she let the Faerie trick her into a wish that almost sent her mad. But if her wish brought harm, it also brought good, for Dappleward’s eldest son had been cruelly bespelled, and it was she who learned how to break the spell that bound him.

Third to wish was the eldest daughter, who was the wisest of the widow’s daughters, and who was lame, and she used her wish to restore her youngest sister to health, and she won the love of Dappleward’s eldest son, but she was still lame.

The marriages were to be celebrated in Dapple Meadow, in the lower reaches of Dapple Vale, where the River Dapple meandered gently and the pastures were wide and fertile, and where the Lord Warder made his home. The widow’s youngest daughter wanted more than anything for her sister to walk freely, but she had no Faerie wish to wish away her sister’s lameness.

However, she did know how to earn one.

Thus begins our story . . .

CHAPTER ONE

CADOC IRONFIST STROLLED across the hillside paddock. Two mares grazed with their foals: one filly, one colt. He inhaled the meadow scents—clover, ryegrass, wildflowers, horse dung—and squinted up at the sun riding high in a sky the color of robin’s eggs. Two days short of midsummer.

Cadoc dug a couple of last year’s withered, sweet apples from his pocket and gave a whistle. The mares lifted their heads and ambled in his direction. He gave them the apples and looked them over while they crunched happily. Both well.

The foals let him examine them, too. He’d been present for their births, more than two months ago, and spent time with them whenever he could, getting them used to being handled. They stood quietly now while he touched them from head to tail, picked up each leg, tapped the bottom of each hoof. Next came the soft halter, and a turn being led around the paddock. Neither foal balked.

Lastly, he picked the foals up. Prove to them you’re bigger than them, and they’ll always believe it, even when they stand taller than you, Dappleward’s old horse master had told him. It was a practice he continued, now that he was horse master himself.

“Won’t be able to do this with you much longer,” Cadoc told the young colt. “You’re getting heavy.” The stab wound in his right biceps twinged slightly. He bent, set the colt carefully down, and rubbed his arm. Memory of last week’s events came flooding back: the darkened chamber, Aleyn’s frenzied hatred, Hugh Dappleward’s agonized screams as his body changed from human to roebuck to human repeatedly.

Cadoc grimaced, pushed the memories aside, and bent his attention to the colt. It was a dark bay, large-boned and gangly. Not many horses could carry his weight comfortably at a gallop, but this one looked like he might be able to when he was fully grown. “Keep eating. You need to grow a barrel chest, if I’m to ride you.” He scratched between the colt’s ears, then headed for the stables.

He whistled as he walked, enjoying the sunshine, the blue sky, the sense that everything was right in the world. The Dappleward manor was spread before him: stables and smithy and kennels, kitchen and bakehouse, storerooms, the great hall where everyone gathered for meals. Upwards of fifty people lived here: Guy Dappleward’s family, his retainers, his retainers’ families. The manor was almost a village in itself, buildings and courtyards laid out on the hillside, basking in the sun—and half a mile distant, nestled in the curve of the valley, was the village proper, Dapple Meadow, largest settlement in Dapple Vale, home to nearly a thousand souls.

In the meadow between orchard and river, people were digging fire pits for the upcoming celebrations: midsummer, and the weddings of Dappleward’s two sons. And up on the slope behind the orchard was the quiet, sunny graveyard where the Dapplewards and the Ironfists buried their dead. His mother rested there, and Guy Dappleward’s wife.

Cadoc stopped whistling, and touched two fingers to his brow in a gesture of respect. Salute, Mother. Salute, m’lady.

The clash of wood on wood brought his gaze back to the sprawling manor. In the nearest courtyard, two men trained with wooden staves. One was a hulking bear of a man with grizzled hair: his father, Dappleward’s weapon master. Cadoc halted for half a minute, watching. Rauf Ironfist was fifty now, but age hadn’t shrunk him yet, nor slowed him; he was still light on his feet, still fast. His opponent was half his age, strong and lean—and struggling to hold his own.

Cadoc winced in sympathy as his father disarmed Dappleward’s younger son, Tam. He could sense Tam’s frustration from here, fifty yards away. Give over, Tam, you’ll never beat him. Even I only manage one time out of three. Rauf Ironfist had been the best warrior in Dapple Vale for the past thirty years, and would probably remain so for another ten.

Cadoc grinned and shook his head and entered the stables. He paused just inside the wide door, letting his eyes adjust to the dimness. The stables were cool and shadowy and fragrant. Cadoc inhaled deeply. He loved this smell: horse, straw, dung. Loved it far more than the metal-and-wood smell of weapons. Horses were vibrant and warm and alive; weapons were hard and cold and brought death.

He had a flash of memory: Aleyn Fairborn lying dead on the floor. Killed by my father.

Cadoc touched the dagger belted at his waist, half unsheathed it, felt the sharp coolness of the blade. Aleyn had been worse than a murderer. He’d dared to harness Faerie magic to serve his own twisted purpose, had planned death upon death, driven by nothing more than his own greed for power. He’d deserved to die.

Cadoc grimaced. Yes, Aleyn Fairborn had deserved to die. But even so . . .

Ironfists were warriors, sworn to guard the peace. They were the shoulder the Lord Warder leaned on. Wherever there was a Dappleward, an Ironfist wasn’t far away.

But even so . . . I do not like killing.

Cadoc slid the dagger back into its sheath and strode between the horse stalls. He was an Ironfist, he’d fight if he had to—kill if it was necessary—but this was what he preferred: horses.

“Cadoc?” a female voice said.

He jerked around, blinked, and saw a woman standing shyly in the shadows. A young woman, too slender, with hair as pale as moonbeams and a face that was luminously beautiful.

Recognition was like a physical blow. Larkspur Miller.

His lungs seemed to tighten. The muscles in his belly definitely did tighten.

Cadoc tried to look as if he weren’t helplessly attracted to her. He gave her a courteous nod. “I give you good day, Larkspur.”

“And you.”

Five days, she would be here at Dappleward Manor. Five days only. Was that enough time to court her? Would she even want him to?

He knew Larkspur was wary of men, and he knew she’d been afraid of him the first time they’d met. She’d stayed as far from him as possible, unnerved by his size or his face or his reputation as a warrior, or all three. But she wasn’t afraid of him now.

So, court her. He was twenty-five, past time for marrying. And Larkspur was the wife he wanted. Beneath her quiet shyness, she was strong and courageous. She had risked her sanity to help save Hugh Dappleward.

“Would you like to look around the stables?” Cadoc asked politely. No, better to show her the foals. She’d like that.

“No, thank you.” Larkspur stepped closer. Her hands were clasped, her gaze intent on his face. The light was too dim to clearly see the color of her eyes, but he knew they were blue, a blue as vivid as the flower she was named after. “Cadoc, may I talk privately with you, please?”

“Of course. Uh . . . there’s no one here—the grooms are helping build the midsummer bonfires—or we can go outside—”

“Here’s fine.”

Cadoc nodded, and studied Larkspur’s face. She was still far too thin, not fully recovered from the Faerie gift that had nearly driven her mad. For two long weeks she’d had the ability to read people’s minds—two weeks when every thought, memory, and emotion her companions experienced had pushed relentlessly and overwhelmingly into her head. That gift was gone now, and Larkspur was privy to only her own thoughts, but something was still clearly wrong; there was a sharp crease between her eyebrows, anxiety in her eyes, and her lovely mouth was tightly compressed.

“What’s wrong?” Cadoc said gently. “If I can help, I will.”

“I know,” Larkspur said, and she smiled at him, suddenly and blindingly. “That’s why I came to you.”

Cadoc’s lungs became even tighter. Gods. He swallowed, and found his voice. “Then tell me.”

Larkspur looked away from him. She moistened her lips. “Cadoc . . . that night we all met to find a way to help Hugh . . . there were two ways to save him. One was killing Aleyn Fairborn, and the other was something to do with a Faerie prince buried in a barrow.”

“Yes,” Cadoc said cautiously. That Faerie prince, that barrow, were the most secret of secrets. What did Larkspur know about them? Everything, a voice said in his head. She could read your thoughts then, remember?

Larkspur took a deep breath. “Ivy shouldn’t be lame. She deserves not to be lame!”

“Yes,” Cadoc said again, even more cautiously. Where was Larkspur going with this?

Larkspur clenched her hands more tightly together. “Will you please go to the barrow with me and help me earn a wish for Ivy?”

“What?” Cadoc recoiled. “Gods, Larkspur! Of course I can’t!”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m sworn to Guy Dappleward! I gave my word never to approach that barrow, let alone enter it and . . . and . . .”

“Please,” Larkspur begged.

“Larkspur, I can’t!”

“Ivy’s still lame because of me.” Tears glistened in Larkspur’s eyes. “She gave up her wish for me. I have to find a way to give it back to her!”

“You can’t,” Cadoc said gently. “You have to accept that.”

“No!” Larkspur’s voice was fierce. “I know where that barrow is, and I know what I have to do to . . . to earn a wish. And if you won’t go with me, I’ll find a man who will!”

Cadoc blenched. “Larkspur . . . do you know what the Faerie prince demands in return for his gifts?”

Larkspur flushed, and raised her chin. “Yes. You all thought of it, all three of you. Tam even thought that maybe Hazel would go with him. And you . . .”

Cadoc wanted to shut his eyes in a wince.

“You thought it was dangerous, but doable. And that it was most likely to succeed with a virgin, because the prince is said to prefer virgins.”

Cadoc did shut his eyes in a wince.

I’m a virgin, and I’m prepared to do it. But I need a man to do it with.”

Cadoc cautiously opened his eyes. Larkspur’s stare impaled him. “You’re my first choice,” she said. “I trust you. But if you say no . . . I’ll find someone else.”

“Larkspur, I’m loyal to Dappleward,” Cadoc said desperately.

“And I am loyal to Ivy.”

“You can’t tell me she asked you to do this!”

“Of course not. She’s resigned to being lame for the rest of her life. But I’m not resigned to it!”

“I gave Dappleward my word never to enter that barrow,” Cadoc said helplessly. Fidelity had been bred into him. He couldn’t alter it if he tried. Ironfists were loyal to the Lord Warder. They were always loyal.

“You gave me your word, too. Last week. You said that you owed me for Hugh’s life. That if I ever needed anything, all I had to do was ask.”

They’d all said it: Guy Dappleward, Tam, Hugh, he and his father. But he’d never imagined this request.

“If you won’t do it for me or Ivy, then do it for Hugh. I know you love him as a brother. Think how much joy it would give him if Ivy were to walk freely again!”

Cadoc hesitated.

Larkspur stepped closer. “You would have done it for Hugh. You thought of doing it.”

“He’s a Dappleward,” Cadoc said lamely.

“Ivy will be, too, the day after tomorrow!”

“Larkspur . . .” He couldn’t bear the sight of her face any more, the sight of those unshed tears in her eyes, her desperation. He turned away from her. “Larkspur, I can’t. I gave Guy Dappleward my word.”

There was a long moment of silence. Cadoc stared at the nearest horse stall, feeling sick.

“Very well,” Larkspur said quietly. “Be loyal to Dappleward. I shall find another man to help me, someone who doesn’t have your scruples. And he’ll learn about the barrow and what may be earned there.”

Cadoc turned around and stared at her. “That’s blackmail.”

Larkspur’s gaze fell. “I don’t intend it to be.” And then, to his horror, she dropped to her knees in front of him. “Cadoc, please.”

“Gods,” Cadoc said, appalled. “Get up. Get up!”

He hauled her to her feet, but as soon as he released her, Larkspur knelt again. “Please, Cadoc.”

Cadoc’s throat tightened until breathing was impossible. He stared down at Larkspur’s thin, beseeching face. Her desperation and determination were clear to see. If he refused, she would ask someone else. She would ask until she found a man who would go with her, and that man would defile her in the darkness of the Faerie prince’s barrow.

His hands clenched into fists. Helpless rage choked in his chest.

“Please.” Larkspur begged again.

If Larkspur went with another man, they’d get into the barrow, but there was no guarantee they’d ever get out. People had died in there.

And if they did get out . . .

Someone other than the Dapplewards and the Ironfists would know about the Faerie prince’s barrow—and unlike a Dappleward or Ironfist, that man wouldn’t be sworn to serve the best interests of Dapple Vale. He’d serve himself. And that was dangerous. Very dangerous.

“Larkspur . . .” As Cadoc uttered her name, he knew he’d surrendered. Gods help me. He slowly knelt. On his knees, he was almost eye to eye with her. “I’ll do it.”

“You will?” Relief transformed her face.

Cadoc nodded. Shame sat heavily in his belly. Whose interests am I serving now? The vale’s or my own?

“Thank you,” Larkspur said, and she flung her arms around his neck and hugged him.

Cadoc froze. She was so feminine, so slender. He wanted to wrap his arms around her and hold her tightly to him, wanted to kiss her silky hair, kiss her soft lips. He held himself very still.

Larkspur released him and sat back on her heels. “Thank you,” she said again. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She brushed them impatiently aside.

Cadoc nodded dumbly.

“Can we go today, please? This afternoon?”

He nodded again.

Larkspur climbed to her feet. “In half an hour. I need to find my sisters. I’ll tell them I’m going riding with you. They won’t worry until dusk, and by then it will be too late for them to come after us!” She bent and shyly kissed his cheek. “Thank you.”

A blush suffused Cadoc’s face. Larkspur didn’t see it; she was already heading for the door, almost running. Her hair shone like silver in the sunlight, and then she was gone.

Cadoc touched his cheek where Larkspur had kissed him. Gods, what am I doing? And then he pushed to his feet and went to saddle two horses.