“…and the gods cannot behold the two-fold beauty
which I have made
for Osiris, the greatest of the gods.
I have given unto him
the region of the dead.”
— The Book of the Dead
“Show me, O LORD, my life’s end
and the number of my days;
let me know how fleeting is my life.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth;
the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Each man’s life is but a breath.
— Psalm 39:4, 5
Chapter 1: Winter’s Early Toll
Eighteen year old Charlotte Burke stared in horror at the burning cottage before her. The clanging of a fire bell in the distance and the approaching sound of hooves told her that the volunteer brigade was on its way. She was certain that little could be saved of her grandfather’s cottage. She clutched the stable blanket around her and controlled the mare, who whinnied and rolled her eyes and stomped her feet, even at this distance from the blaze.
The blond man next to her laid his hand on the blanket. He murmured soothingly in German, then a tingle ran up her leg, as if it had fallen asleep.
The mare disappeared, the snow ceased falling, and she stood surrounded by warmth, where it had once been cold.
Charlotte blinked, startled to find herself in the dim foyer of a home she didn’t recognize. Her heart began to race. She pressed back as far as she was able, the unfamiliar stone wall smooth beneath her hands.
Across the hallway, a glow of yellow light filtered from under a closed door. A shiver shook her limbs as her eyes darted around in the low light. She spied what appeared to be an entryway door stood to her right, and she started toward it.
Before she could grasp the knob, the interior door swung open. She snatched her hand back and whiled around, the saddle blanket falling from her shoulders. A man hurried toward her, no more than a dark outline whose features were hidden by the backlight of candles and fire. She wanted to run but her legs seemed frozen in place. In her mind’s eye she pictured the men who had chased her from her home, and set her grandfather’s cottage ablaze.
The man approached her; her heart pounded. She slid sideways away from him until she was in a corner. Huddled with her back to the wall, she wondered if she could make it to the door before he grabbed her.
“Miss Burke?” the man asked. “What has happened? What are you doing here?”
He knew her name? Charlotte could make out the man’s features, now that her vision had adjusted. He wasn’t overly tall but portly, wearing an indoor coat despite the late hour. His eyes were dark, perhaps brown or black, and he was clean-shaven. Round-face, long narrow nose. She didn’t recognize him.
“Who are you?” She hated that her voice shook. “Are you going to hurt me? Where am I?”
“I’m Barton Laird, and I certainly will not hurt you.” The man sounded insulted. “You are in my home. I know you don’t know me, but you’re safe here.”
She didn’t know him, and she didn’t trust anyone. Laird stepped closer to her with a hand out. She ducked his reaching arm and spun, dashing for the entry door. She had just placed a hand on it when he was suddenly there next to her. He blocked the way with his arm.
“Miss Burke! Peter Rayne, this is his estate. Please, stop!”
She hesitated. She knew Peter Rayne’s name. He was her guardian, though she hadn’t seen him in more than a year. She took two quick steps away from the door and grabbed a black umbrella from the coat rack, holding it out in front of her like a weapon. She realized too late how ridiculous she looked, but tightened her grip on it anyway, determined to defend herself if he tried to touch her again.
“You are clearly not Peter Rayne. So how do you know me?”
“Peter is my sister’s husband. Will you put down that umbrella?”
She didn’t put the umbrella down. They stood there, staring at each other, until he held up his hands in resignation. He stepped back to the wall niche where she had appeared moments earlier.
“Alright then, please, just wait here. Do not leave.”
She stood there, holding that silly umbrella, her mouth dropped open. He was a witch. Now what? She had no idea where he had gone, or when he would return. Despite his reassurances that he would not harm her, she feared that he would bring the same who had invaded and ransacked her home.
She had to escape. She had to help her mother, who remained at home to face the men alone, insisting that Charlotte flee.
Fighting tears, Charlotte lowered the umbrella and grasped the doorknob to run out. The door was locked. She dropped the umbrella on the floor, twisting the knob left and right, pushing and pulling, even hitting her shoulder hard against it, but she couldn’t get it to budge. She sniffed back a tear. She had to find a way out, and find help.
She inched back, breathing faster, and picked up the umbrella, her only weapon. Although there was no light in the foyer, by the light that filtered from the nearby room she could make out white stone walls. A tapestry hung on the wall and an abstract mosaic pattern decorated the center of the foyer’s stone floor. She crept to her right, to enter the room with the open door, when a flash of movement in front of her caught her attention.
The man, Laird, reappeared in the niche. Next to him, stood Peter Rayne.
She lowered the umbrella, surprised. Her mother had told her that her guardian was a witch, but to know a thing and to actually see it, were two different things. She pressed her lips together, torn between screaming and hysterical laughter.
“Miss Burke, are you well?” Rayne asked.
“Please, my mother is home alone, there were men at the door. She bade me to flee to the Lindershire cottage, but it was in flames. Please.”
She couldn’t seem to form a coherent sentence, but thankfully it didn’t matter.
Rayne nodded once, his face set. “I will go to your mother.” He placed a hand on Laird’s shoulder. “This is Barton Laird. He is my wife’s brother. You will be safe here until I return.”
He disappeared – winked out, like a candle flame snuffed – before she could ask any questions. Laird sidled toward her, reaching for the umbrella. She handed it to him without a word. Despite the pounding in her temple and the drip of blood onto her sleeping gown, she wouldn’t let him touch her, pushing his hand away. He finally pointed at the fire-lit room in exasperation and she followed him in, tiptoeing through the doorway and looking around.
“This way.” He moved toward the single dark green sofa, in front of which sat a small table painted a flat robins’ egg blue.
She didn’t follow him, but backed up near the stone fireplace on the other side of the room. The flames reminded her of the burning cottage. Her teeth chattered and she clamped them together. She had run from her house earlier wearing only her underclothes and sleeping gown, even the stable blanket insufficient to keep her from nearly freezing on the mare as they rode through the snow. Her feet were blue and her fingers stiff.
She shivered, from more than cold. “My mother…I need to go home.”
“You cannot go home, Miss Burke. What would you do?” He didn’t seem unsympathetic, but his words terrified her. “I know this is difficult, but you have to wait for Peter to return. If he can help your mother, he will.”
She growled, frustrated. She couldn’t lounge in the warmth and safety of this house, while her mother was in danger.
“No, I’m leaving. Show me how to get out,” she demanded. “Open the door, and give me a horse.”
Laird seemed unmoved. “I will not. You cannot go anywhere, in your bare feet and night clothes, with unknown men trying to harm you.” He approached her again, but she backed away from his reaching hand. “I understand your concern, but you cannot help her. Please warm yourself a little and allow me to treat the wound on your head. Peter will return as soon as he is able.”
This time, she allowed him to grasp her chin, turning her head a little to see the wound better.
“Calm down, I will not hurt you. Fortunately, your head wound is merely a scratch. It is bleeding quite a bit, but head injuries tend to do so.” He motioned to a short, thin man whom Charlotte had not noticed, standing in the doorway behind them. The man wore a butler’s uniform.
“Mr. Maugham, will you make something hot to drink and bring something to take care of this wound?”
Laird turned back to Charlotte as the butler hurried from the room. In the flickering firelight, Charlotte noted that Laird’s hair was peppered with white, his hands soft and trembly.
She backed a bit closer to the warmth of the fire. “Where am I?”
“This is my home. I live in the parsonage that sits on the grounds of the Rayne estate.” He leaned over to the low blue table, pouring honey-colored liquid into two small glasses from a crystal decanter.
Her mother told her that Peter Rayne was wealthy, though Charlotte had never been to the estate or to his home. At the thought of her mother, she clenched a fist in the folds of her sleeping gown. She didn’t know how she could wait any longer.
The sound of the door opening caught her attention, and she spun away from Laird. Peter Rayne entered the room with long strides, stopping in front of her.
“Your mother is uninjured.” He stooped to look her in the eye. She drew in a steadying breath, unable to stop a tear from falling. She brushed it away with a rough swipe of her palm.
“You are certain? Did you see her?”
“Yes. I saw her, and she is well. I suspect the men who tossed the house are Alastair Dunstan’s Raiders. Thankfully they drew the line at injuring an unarmed older woman.” He smiled, though it looked forced. “The Lindershire cottage is a loss, however. You cannot go home just yet, until I have determined it is safe. Please stay with Bart until I get back.”
“Wait, please…Raiders? I do not understand.”
“That is apparently the name they have given themselves. They are mages who seem determined to sow chaos among other mages, and local authorities have been unable to find them, much less put an end to their terrors. Over the last four months they have invaded and torched several homes across England, not caring who is inside. I believe they are looking for something.”
She frowned. “I still do not understand. If the men were these Raiders, why my house? We’re not mages, or witches. Neither my mother nor I have a scrap of magic between us.”
“I am not certain, yet, but I will endeavor to find out.” Peter tugged at his waistcoat. “You cannot return home until it is safe, however. Please remain here until I return.”
Without giving her a chance to speak again, Peter nodded at Laird. He strode from the parlor again, his black coat flapping around his legs like the wings of a bird.