A young woman regains consciousness to find herself alone on a moorland road at dead of night, with no memory but for two facts. One: her name is Sefira. And two: she has committed murder.
She is rescued by Grendon, a high official at the royal court, who recognizes the horror locked away in her damaged mind and offers her protection. But Grendon, too, has secrets, and an agenda of his own. He means to use Sefira as bait in a deadly game. For the supernatural power that lurks within her could topple a kingdom—if it can be controlled.
And that is the greatest gamble of all...
May 29, 1952 -- October 21, 2009
Louise Cooper was born in Hertfordshire in 1952. She began writing stories when she was at school to entertain her friends. She hated school so much, in fact—spending most lessons clandestinely writing stories—that she persuaded her parents to let her abandon her education at the age of fifteen and has never regretted it.
She continued to write and her first full-length novel was published when she was only twenty years old. She moved to London in 1975 and worked in publishing before becoming a full-time writer in 1977. Since then she has become a prolific writer of fantasy, renowned for her bestselling Time Master trilogy. She has published more than eighty fantasy and supernatural novels, both for adults and children. She also wrote occasional short stories for anthologies, and has co-written a comedy play that was produced for her local school.
Louise Cooper lived in Cornwall with her husband, Cas Sandall, and their black cat, Simba. She gained a great deal of writing inspiration from the coast and scenery, and her other interests included music, folklore, cooking, gardening and "messing about on the beach." Just to make sure she keeps busy, she was also treasurer of her local Lifeboat station.
Louise passed away suddenly in October 2009. She was a wonderful and talented lady and will be greatly missed.
Prologue: Before the War
The labour had been protracted and difficult, but at last the travail was over. The midwife, heavy-eyed from nearly a day and a half without sleep, took the newborn infant, and with a practised but fond hand wrapped it in the shawl set ready, noting with satisfaction that its limbs moved easily and its breathing was sound. Then she glanced towards the narrow embrasure of the bedchamber window, where a dim, green-blue glow filtered through the darkness.
"Past midnight, if I judge the moon correctly," she said to her apprentice, keeping her voice low. "Go you downstairs; tell the good master that his first-born is safely in the world and he can come now and see for himself that all's well."
The apprentice, who was only fifteen but had potential, said, "Yes'm" and hurried from the room. In the bed the mother stirred, and though her voice was weak, it was suffused with hope and the beginnings of pride.
"Is my child healthy?"
The midwife looked at her sweat-soaked hair and drawn face, but saw from her eyes that, for her, the suffering had been worthwhile. She smiled. "Healthy and strong, madam, and perfect in every way."
The mother sighed with relief. "A son, or a daughter?"
The midwife opened her mouth to answer. But before she could speak she was pre-empted by a sudden, sharp cry.
"Ahh"! The woman in the bed tensed violently, then her body twisted into a contortion and her face became rigid with shock.
Hastily the midwife laid the child down on a folded blanket and started towards the bed. "What is it? What's amiss?"
"P… pain…" The word choked out through violently clenched teeth. "Not like before—this is worse, it is worse!" Another convulsion shot through the woman, as though someone had stabbed her. "Ah, no, no—help me, oh, help me-"
The words swelled into a throat-tearing scream. In all her fifty years the midwife had never heard a sound of such raw agony. The woman was writhing, arms and legs thrashing as she strove to escape from something that her body couldn't endure. Footsteps in the corridor outside; they quickened abruptly and a man's voice was raised in alarm, counterpointed by the apprentice's shrill tones. The door smacked open as the midwife managed to get a grip on her shrieking patient's wrists and struggled to stop her from hurling herself from the bed in a frenzy of pain.
"Kessie!" the midwife shouted. "The quiet-leaf, girl, quickly!"
With commendable self-possession the apprentice ran for her mistress's scrip and snatched out one of the calming leaves which the stricken woman had been given to chew on through her ordeal. But as she ran towards the bed with it the mother went suddenly and violently into a new contraction, and her wild expression changed to a look of bewildered astonishment that under other circumstances might almost have been comical.
"Preserve me from all evil!" The midwife's eyes widened as she stared. "There's a second child in her!"
The patient's husband, who had frozen on the threshold unable to do anything more than stare in horror at the scene, said, "What? But there were no omens—"
"Omens or none, sir, your lady has another life to bring forth! You'd best leave me to—" She stopped.
One final contraction had racked the woman, and the child had emerged. It lay on the stained sheet, not moving. But it was alive. Against all justice, it was alive.
The mother made a sound halfway between a gasp and a moan, and fainted. Which, the midwife thought as she continued to stare at the second newborn, was a powerful blessing. Her mouth worked but no sound would come, for the words in her mind could not, must not be spoken.
Kessie said softly, "Oh, ma'am, what is it…?"
A violent gesture silenced her, and the midwife steeled herself to look up at the father.
He knew. She saw it in his eyes as their gazes met, and realised that he understood all too well the nature of the curse that had fallen, without rhyme or reason, on himself and his wife.
The second-born child was no normal infant, but as translucent as a ghost. It had hair, a spider-web white nimbus about its skull, and its body too was white, like fresh snow. Only its eyes displayed colour; a hard, unnatural blue. Its gaze was so steady, and there was such an abominable, calculating intelligence in the look it gave to the world around it, that the midwife felt nausea rise from the pit of her stomach.
Then, as they all watched, the child's form began to fade. Like the ghost which it so resembled, it shimmered, evaporated…and vanished. A cold breath skittered across the room, brushing icily against the midwife's face, ruffling Kessie's hair; the curtain at the window stirred briefly and then the small disturbance was gone. There was a sound, a faint echo, as though a fine wineglass had cracked and rung a small discord. Then nothing.
For a long time they were all silent. Kessie had pushed a clenched fist against her mouth and was too shocked and frightened to utter a sound; her glance darted nervously from her mistress to the unconscious woman in the bed and back again. The woman's husband stood with head bowed and both hands covering his face.
At last the midwife broke the thrall and moved slowly to where the first child—the natural child—lay on its blanket. Healthy and strong, a fine infant which, but for this, would have brought its parents great joy. It waved its limbs vaguely at her as she approached; its tiny mouth seemed to be trying to smile, and her heart constricted with grief.
"Drowning," she said very softly, "is the kindest way. And no other living soul need ever know."
The man's hands fell away from his face. "No," he said. "I won't countenance it. I won't countenance murder."
"I said, no." He moved with sudden energy, as though some paralysis within him had abruptly snapped. A glance at his wife to ensure that she was still unconscious and could not overhear, and he continued, "I know you mean it for the best, midwife, but murder is what it would be. The infant can't be held to blame for its own misfortune and should not be forced to suffer. This is a random and senseless stroke. Besides. . ." He sighed heavily. "It is my child. It is our child."
Kessie was listening, face stricken, and for a moment the midwife thought to send her out of the room. But the damage had been done now; and besides, she thought, lessons learned young tended to take deeper root. She had learned that from bitter experience.
"But sir," she said gently, "you cannot keep it. Your Fellowship…your business…it would be impossible to bring up such a child in accordance with the life you must lead. If the secret were ever to be discovered—and that is far more likely than not—it would mean your ruin," she glanced sadly at the bed, "and that of your lady."
He sighed again, but now he sounded calmer, resigned. "I know that. But I still won't stand by and see the infant die." A pause; he seemed to be steeling himself to say what was in his mind. Then: "Take it away. Find a good, respectable household in a more fitting Fellowship. A man and wife who can have no children of their own, and who will love and care for this little one."
The midwife nodded. There were many such couples and the search would not be difficult.
"I will provide generously for the child's every need," the man continued. "It will want for nothing, and neither will its new parents. But they must not be told the truth." He glanced at the midwife, a look that hovered uneasily between hope and doubt. "It is possible that the curse will never awaken and that the child will live a natural life. I shall hope with all my heart that that is so."
The midwife cast her own gaze down. "Yes, sir," she said. "As will I."
"And my wife…" He turned towards the bed. "I shall tell her that she did indeed bear twins. The second child was stillborn, and the first died in a sudden convulsion after appearing at first to be healthy. I'll break the news to her gently. She will recover from the loss in time. And if fate is not too unkind, we shall have other children."
The midwife and her apprentice left the room a few minutes later. Kessie carried the scrip; while the midwife held the child, carefully and warmly wrapped, under the folds of her voluminous cloak. Outside in the passage Kessie opened her mouth to speak, but the midwife shook her head. This was not the time for words. Later she would tell Kessie the whole truth of what she had witnessed tonight; but not now. The shock of it was too strong and too sharp as yet, and she wanted time to shake off the memory that it had brought to mind, an incident years in the past now but one which she still relived in her dreams. Another birth, another horror, another spiteful turn of chance. She didn't know what had become of that other child; whether it had thrived or died, whether the plague that invaded its soul had ever stirred from dormancy. There had been a certain rumour, but that was long ago and, cowardly though it might be, she had never sought to discover the truth. This child, too, she would put out of her mind as best she could. She would tell Kessie, then that would be an end to it and they would both try to forget.
But tomorrow, she thought, it would be a kindness, not to mention the smallest charity, to go to a hallowed place and say a luck-blessing for this little one and its uncertain future.