Lady Allith closed her eyes as she eased a knee-length coat of mail over her head and onto her shoulders. Despite their weight, Castle Askerton’s mistress was skeptical about how much protection the interwoven metal links would afford her against swords, battle-axes or pikes. Nonetheless, Allith knew the silvery mail symbolized to the people her willingness to lead them in battle, should Lord Creswel follow through on his many threats.
The uncomfortable task completed, Lady Allith crossed the room to a tiny cabinet. Mounted on the wall, close by the fireplace, decades of wood smoke had rendered the cabinet invisible. She unlocked it with a heavy brass key.
It was months after Lord Askerton’s death that Allith first came across the cabinet. He had never mentioned it: apparently neither M’Blaine nor her personal servants knew of its existence.
The only thing the cabinet contained was a cobwebbed book shoved into its recesses. Who put it there? The volume fit Allith’s palm perfectly, as though custom-made. A cracked leather binding and cheap, sewn vellum pages marked it as an article beneath her attention. Despite the latter she was drawn to the book from the moment she opened it, for several reasons.
First, the volume’s text set it apart from anything in Allith’s experience. The jet-black, uniform letters marched across the pages with the precision of soldiers. She reckoned that few monastic scribes were capable of such skill.
Then there was the tale within the vellum pages. It concerned someone very like her: an unnamed, highborn woman facing grave danger. The character worried that, despite putting on a brave face, it would be impossible to withstand her foe’s strength. The safety of her people hung in precarious balance, yet the course she should take to deliver them was far from certain.
The curious progression of the narrative puzzled Lady Allith more than deeply anything else. Whenever she opened the book, several more pages had been added to it. The vellum and text of the new sections exactly matched those that were already there. The catgut binding the pages to the cover looked to be of the same vintage, too.
Despite an uneasy feeling that the small book was the product of witchcraft, Allith fought the temptation to just toss it onto the fire. The story it told—was telling, actually—had gripped her imagination. Did it portend her fate? Would the volume reach its conclusion in time for Lady Allith to save Castle Askerton?
At a knock on the chamber door Allith returned the book to its hiding place. M’Blaine entered, his fingers drumming on his broadsword’s pommel in impatience. The old warrior’s armor might have been tarnished and dented, but his mistress knew that the blade within his leather scabbard was polished and sharp.
Creaking hinges accompanied M’Blaine’s bow. “My lady, your people are still awaiting your appearance.”
* * *
At first Semple anticipated that Wrenna would invite him to accompany her and Algeberta on a shopping trip or picnic. Worse yet, his daughter might insist on grilling him about what he knew about Miss H-V. Therefore, he was relieved when the young women left the house without breakfast, let alone informing him of their plans for the day.
Semple booted the laptop and opened his manuscript’s file. He was thunderstruck to realize that there were 17 more pages to Allith, Mountain Flower Dragoness than at the end of the previous day. He scrolled back and forth, looking for the “seam” separating what he’d written from the invisible co-author’s contribution. All he could determine was that, by and large, he was in agreement with how the work was developing!
Calming his agitation, Semple typed until it was time to retrieve his midmorning tea and biscuit. Faint noises came from the kitchen and he was tempted to go see what Miss H-V was up to, in the way of dishes for his meal with Tacy Bronwell. He quickly decided that nothing good would come of that.
Semple banged away on the keyboard until the alarm on his mobile chimed, alerting him to prepare for the evening. He shut things down, pleasant anticipation welling up within his chest.