Excerpt for The Sisterhood - Cathy's Kin by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.




The Sisterhood – Cathy’s Kin

By Annette Siketa


Copyright © 2017 Annette Siketa.



No part of this book may be manipulated, transmitted, or altered by any method or manner whatsoever. All rights reserved.



Distributed by Smashwords.




Author’s Note

Forward



Prologue. The Getting of Wisdom.

I. September 1682. Sybil aged Seven.

II. March 1684. Sybil aged nine.

III. March 1687. Sybil aged twelve.

IV. April 1691. Sybil aged 16.

V. May 1691. France.



Book One. May 1691.

Chapter One. The First Guest.

Chapter Two. The Wedding.

Chapter Three. The Invitation.

Chapter Four. Secrets & Lies.

Chapter Five. The Second Guest.

Chapter Six. Rude Awakenings.

Chapter Seven. The Gypsy.

Chapter Eight. Janet Blacket.

Chapter Nine. Battle Lines.

Chapter Ten. A Night to Remember.

Chapter Eleven. Broken Bond.

Chapter Twelve. Betrayed.

Chapter Thirteen. Confession.

Chapter Fourteen. Bloodbath.

Chapter Fifteen. A New Beginning.



Book Two. 1711. The Application of Wisdom.

Chapter One. History Revisited.

Chapter Two. Mr Dobson.

CHAPTER Three. The Letter.

Chapter Four. Helen.

Chapter Five. The Dinner Guest.

Chapter Six. Uncertainty.

Chapter Seven. Shot.

Chapter Eight. Subterfuge.

Chapter Nine. Trial.

Chapter Ten. Return and Banishment.

Chapter eleven. Retribution.



Book Three. 1734. The Corruption of Wisdom.

Chapter One. Possession.

Chapter Two. The Convent.

Chapter Three. David Decker.

Chapter Four. Success.

Chapter Five. Consequences.

Chapter Six. Defence & Desperation.

Chapter Seven. The Spy.

Chapter Eight. Retreat.

Chapter Nine. Death.

Epilogue.





A little something extra

Books New! Chameleon – The Death of Sherlock Holmes.

Freebies

About Me




Author’s Note.



The historical information contained in the second part of this novel was taken from ‘La Bas’, written by J. K. Huysmans, published in France in 1891. The French and indeed European attitude to open sexual relations was extremely liberal at the time, and it was not until 1928 when the conservative, almost painfully shy British opinion of permissiveness, relaxed sufficiently for an English version of the book to appear. Even then, I suspect that some of the more salubrious dialogue and narrative was either toned down or removed.

That Gilles de Rais, or Ratz as it’s sometimes spelt, was a real person, and that he lived during the time of Joan of Arc, is beyond doubt. However, that he became a satanic monster – ripping open children and wallowing in their blood, is open to conjecture.

This assertion is not due to the lack of evidence or the passage of time, but rather, that Le Bas is a thinly veiled attack against social greed – especially American influence, the plight of the poor, politics and the French government, and just about anything involving the distribution of wealth. But his biggest rant was aimed squarely at the Catholic Church, and Huysmans used the story of De Rais to highlight the church’s supposed hypocrisy and idolatry.

In its original form, La Bas is extremely difficult to read, and whilst the book is an interesting insight into 19th century French society, by about the third chapter, the constant salvo’s at the Church become predictable and annoying.

Another source was Devil Worship in France by Arthur Edward Waite, published 1898. It is unfortunate that Waite’s effort, rather than insightful, is a thinly veiled attempt to connect Freemasonry with sorcery.

I have disregarded all the radical rants and retained only the ‘good’ bits. However, readers of a sensitive or pious nature are warned that some passages and descriptions are violent, horrific, and blasphemous.




Foreword.



When Nancy Redfern escaped being burnt at the stake for witchcraft – a crime for which she was unquestionably guilty, she fled to London where she became enmeshed in the seedy and licentious underworld. Unfortunately, her short but profitable career in larceny and potion making attracted the attention of the authorities, and in danger of arrest, she took ship for France.

However, she had not, as Nicholas Faulkner had supposed, relinquished her powers. Though not as experienced in the ‘black arts’ as her grandmother, Nancy’s unusual compact with the ghost of Abbot Hewitt to destroy the Ashmore family, had been made on the proviso that she ‘put away’ her skills until the task had been completed.

Just why the devout priest chose a witch to assist him is unknown. Perhaps he recognised that Nancy had a streak of compassion, and that she was not as evil as might be supposed. But Nancy’s motive for the unusual alliance was all too clear. The chance to wreak revenge for the murder of her grandmother at the hands of Margaret Dymock – matriarch of the Ashmore clan, was an opportunity too good to miss. Though the Ashmores’ were eventually brought to the stake, there was one who, for a short time at least, avoided the flames.

Catherine Ashmore, the fourteen-year-old granddaughter of Margaret Dymock, had been born with a deformed or ‘dropped’ shoulder, and in an age where beauty was a tradeable commodity, her chances of making a prosperous marriage were virtually nil. Indeed, when her mother and brother, Elizabeth and James, were arrested for witchcraft and treason, Catherine might have garnered pity and support had it not been for her sharp tongue and lack of grace.

Opportunistic, spiteful, and at war with the world, Catherine had needed little encouragement to participate in the murder of Richard Faulkner – Nicholas’s good friend and cousin. Her mentor and co-conspirator, the evil entity Einyon Dymock - father of Margaret and the man responsible for the unjust death of Abbot Hewitt, had given Catherine a ruby ring imbibed with power to instigate Richard’s supposed heart attack. But, rather than returning the ring after the foul deed was done, she had still been wearing it at the time of her arrest.

Conveyed to Leeds Castle on charges layed by the sycophantic solicitor and would-be witch-finder, Horace Twissleton, Catherine had ‘pleaded her belly’ in order to escape immediate punishment, though whether the father was the despised Twissleton, the sexually depraved Einyon Dymock, or another man, was something she never revealed. Indeed, being a cock-teasing slut, she probably did not know the true progenitor of her daughter, whom, as was custom, was given the family names of Catherine Elizabeth Ashmore.

After her mother was burnt at the stake, the younger Catherine was given over to a Puritan family, who tried to raise her with all the manners and piety her mother had lacked. Katie, as she came to be called, was not kept in ignorance of her origin, and she did her best to conform to a simple and humble life. But as she grew older, the rebelliousness she had inherited from her mother gradually exerted itself, and her misdeeds and cruelty, especially in regards to rivals and women she did not like, became fodder for gossip.

With their reputation virtually in tatters, the family moved from the then rural Leeds to the rapidly expanding metropolis of Manchester. This was done in the hope that exposure to the seemingly limitless opportunities for advancement in business and social etiquette, would be beneficial. But the well-intended experiment proved an abject failure, and at the age of twenty, after being harangued by her stepfather for smiling enticingly at a young man, Katie snapped.

It is debatable whether her crime is attributable to pure evil or years of constant and forced piety. In either event, she was conveyed to an asylum after murdering and dismembering her stepparents. She was released some ten years later and died giving birth to a son. The father is unknown, and Katie’s only legacies for her pretty, red-haired son, Oscar, were a sinister heritage and a small ruby ring. Oscar spent his first thirteen years in a workhouse. He went out one day and never returned.

Nancy Redfern had no such problem in identifying the father of her children. Upon arriving in Paris, she soon fell-in with others of her ‘kind’, and within a year, had established herself as trustworthy and discreet. Her skill as a seer was well known in aristocratic circles, and though constantly showered with invitations to parties and the opera, she was rarely seen in public. Moreover, she never saw anyone privately without an appointment.

Though not previously promiscuous, she was advised early in her career to learn how to flirt like a high-class whore, or as the profession was more tactfully called, a courtesan. Her flaming red hair eventually attracted the attention of a wealthy English peer, who indoctrinated her into the pleasures of the flesh.

Despite taking precautions – both natural and unnatural, she fell pregnant with twin boys. It was with a sense of irony and a love for the mythical that she named them Romulus and Remus.

Their father the knight was already married, and he made the usual avowals of love to Nancy whilst at the same time, promising to divorce his wife.

Blinded by love, Nancy believed him, but as time passed, she came to realise that his promise was as empty as his purse, for as it transpired, it was his wife to whom the wealth belonged.

Incensed, Nancy then employed one of her old ‘tricks’ to reek revenge, namely, an image of him fashioned from wax.

The peer died slowly and painfully. He went blind in one eye, lost the use of his right arm, and contracted gangrene in his left foot. Then, one evening, Nancy buried the wax doll near an apiary. The knight was soon driven mad by a constant ‘buzzing’ noise in his ears, and one evening, unable to stand the torment, he went to his study and blew his brains out. A figure in a long black cloak was seen fleeing the scene. This person was never identified.




Prologue. The Getting of Wisdom.



I. September 1682. Sybil aged Seven.





“It’s time.”

Fronwyn looked up. “Oh? How do you know?”

Sybil smiled as she turned away from the window. “Because the wind told me so, just like you said it would. You’re always right.”

Fronwyn put down her needlework and held out her arms. “Come here, child, I want to tell you a story.”

Sybil climbed onto the nursemaid’s knee. Fronwyn looked into the child’s green eyes. It never ceased to amaze her how much they resembled those of a cat. According to the horoscope cast at her birth, Sybil was destined for greatness, and being superstitious as her master, Fronwyn had often wondered when the child would feel the ‘stirring of her blood’.

“This is a special story,” she began, “one with a hidden meaning.”

“Will I find it?”

“Ah, my darling, that is up to you. I can only say the words.”

Sybil snuggled closer and prepared to listen. Her nursemaid was the only mother figure she had ever known, and she trusted the craggy-faced spinster implicitly.

“Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom, there was a very deep pit in the middle of a field. Now, this pit was supposed to be a bad place and everyone was afraid to go near it. But one day, a very poor girl who was gathering wood for the fire, tripped on a tree root and fell into the pit. When she climbed out again she started to laugh, for she had seen nothing strange except lush green grass, red and white stones, and pretty yellow flowers.

“Soon afterwards, everyone saw that she was wearing a beautiful pair of emerald earrings. When they asked how she had obtained them, for she and her mother were very poor, the girl laughed and said that the earrings were only made from grass.

“The next day, she wore a brooch of the reddest ruby anyone had ever seen. It was as big as a hen’s egg and glowed like a hot coal. When they asked how she obtained it, she laughed and said it was not a ruby but only a dull red stone.

“And then she appeared wearing the most stupendous glittering necklace. It was made from hundreds of diamonds, and was more lovely than anything the Queen possessed. Once again the people asked how she had obtained it, but she laughed and said it was not diamonds but little white stones.

“Now, news of these fabulous jewels reached the Queen, who was very jealous of anyone prettier than she, and so the girl was invited to Court. This time, in addition to her jewels, she wore a crown of pure gold. It shone like the sun at midday, and was more splendid than the Queen’s own crown.

“A courtier asked the girl if she was a Princess, but she laughed and said it wasn’t a gold crown, but only some yellow flowers she had put in her hair.

“She was so lovely that everyone fell in love with her, including the Queen’s only son, who said that her eyes were greener than the emeralds, that her lips were redder than the ruby, that her skin was whiter than the diamonds, and that her hair was brighter than the crown.

“And so they were married. There was a great feast, and afterwards, the Prince went to his wife’s bedchamber. But, no sooner had he placed his hand on the door when a dreadful voice said, ‘Venture not inside, for this is mine own wife’.

“The Prince fell down in a swoon, and when the guards came, they heard howls of laughter behind the door. They broke it down. The room was filled with a yellowish smoke, and on the bed was a clump of dried grass, a pile of worthless red and white stones, and a bunch of faded yellow flowers.

“Now, what do you think it all meant?” but Sybil was sound asleep, her rosebud mouth curved in a smile.



II. March 1684. Sybil aged nine.




Oscar Ashmore had never made any secret of his hatred for religion. It was his opinion that Christ was an ordinary man, and that it was only through ignorance and superstition that the church wielded power.

Listening to this blasphemy over dinner was the pious Claude Zachary. The sumptuous fare and excellent wine having loosened his tongue, he attempted to argue the point. “Sir, what of all the Christians and Martyrs who have sold their possessions and given the money to the poor?"

Oscar grunted. “If they were not preachers for gain, then they were fools.”

“But sir,” Claude went on, ignoring a warning look from his brother, James, “the apostles were philosophers. Man differs from the brute not through understanding but by faith. That animals have intelligence is beyond doubt, but as yet, no trace of faith has ever been discovered in them. You tell us to allow only reason to dictate the truth, but in my opinion, a man who only believes what his senses tell him, might as well graze with the cows in the fields.”

Interpreting the latter as a personal insult, Oscar jumped to his feet. "You insolent knave! Do you compare me to a beast?" and before anyone could intervene, he drew his dagger and stabbed the pious man in the heart.

Claude fell on the floor, his face and legs quivering in agony. Everyone except Oscar was struck dumb. "Ha! You base-born son of a whore, I’ll teach you not to compare me to a beast," and bending low, spat in the face of the dying man.

All the guests rapidly departed, none venturing to pick a quarrel with the well-connected, ruthless businessman. Indeed, his fiery red hair, which admittedly had turned darker over the years, was a match for his temper.

Oscar was not the least perturbed. Justice, as he well knew, was easily blinded by gold, and there were more than enough sycophants willing to grace his table. Indeed, a few weeks later during yet another evening of drinking and revelry, rather than remorse, Oscar made sport of Claude’s death. He also used the occasion to indulge his favourite child.

Oscar had mixed feelings about his children, though he supposed he loved them in his own way. At 12, Laura was the eldest. She was prissy and matronly and preferred to read or make garments for the poor, rather than ride or hunt. She wasn’t a difficult person, just bland and thoroughly boring.

Walter was 11, and in looks and temperament was his father in miniature, being moody, reckless, and greedy. As yet, the lad had not discovered the advantages of being handsome, but if the smiles and glances he received from young maidens were any guide, it would not be long before he did.

Sybil was only 9, and yet she was already vain and haughty. With her flaming red hair and large green eyes, she was destined to become a beauty, and as she entered the hall to say ‘goodnight’ to her father, she bowed with a grace that would have charmed a king.

"And who is this fine, beautiful child?" asked her father playfully.

Sybil had been taught her position only too well. "I am a maiden endowed with riches and expectations.”

"And how should you treat an enemy?"

“Like this.” Sybil straightened a finger and pretended to stab him in the heart. She then lay on the floor, twisted her face, and jerked her legs in a parody of dying.

Oscar lifted her up and swung her above his head. “You are truly my daughter,” he cried. “Take note, gentlemen, she only turned nine on the 1st of March, and yet her heart is already hard.” He set her on her feet. “And what did you learn today?”

The question was not as innocent as it seemed. Oscar had selected a learned tutor for his daughters, but he was only to teach them to read and write. Walter however, faced no such impediment. As heir, he was receiving a full education, but unfortunately, as his expensive tutors often reported, he was not given to ‘much absorption’.

Sybil, always conscious of her appearance, straightened a sleeve before answering, “He tried to teach me the Ten Commandments but I told him they were wrong.”

“Is that so?” said Oscar, a flash of anger appearing in his eyes. “And what did you say to him?”

“I told him they were nonsense and that there was only one ‘heavenly’ father. I told him that everyone should believe and trust in you, that you were a distinguished and loyal gentleman of England, and that you always help your friends but trample your enemies into dust."

”Exactly so!” Oscar beamed with pride. “Now, look at all these fine gentlemen and tell them what kind of a husband you want."

"One of legitimate and noble birth.”

Oscar ruffled her hair. “And you shall, my dove, you shall. Now, run along and I’ll send a platter of sweetmeats to your room.”

Sybil hesitated and then whispered, “May I try it?”

Oscar dropped to his haunches, and reaching under his cravat, brought out a small ruby ring suspended on a gold chain. Sybil slipped the ring on her little finger, but was not concerned when it fell off.

“It will fit one day,” she murmured. Despite its plain style, she had always been attracted to it.

Oscar exhibited an unusual degree of tenderness as he said, “And on that day, my love, your great-grandmother’s ring shall be yours.”

Sybil kissed his cheek. “Good night, father. I love you, and nothing will ever separate us.”



III. March 1687. Sybil aged twelve.




“I had the strangest dream last night.”

“You probably ate too many cakes at your birthday feast.” Fronwyn’s voice was rather weak. She was getting old, and she knew she could count her remaining years on one hand.

“Would you like to hear about it?” asked Sybil, her slender hands entwined in her thick red hair. Men were always admiring her hair. Indeed, several had tried to steal a lock of it, but the ever-present nursemaid had boxed their ears and sent them away.

“Of course, but come a little closer. My eyes and ears are not what they used to be.”

Sybil sat on a footstool in front of the fire. “There was a man. He looked horrible because his face was scarred and his mouth was crooked, and yet he had the kindest voice and the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.”

“Did he have a name?”

“Yes, and that too was strange because I’d never heard it before – Einyon.”

Fronwyn kept her expression impassive. Though barely out of leading strings at the time, she had grown up listening to stories of the evil feud between the Dymocks, the Redferns, and the Ashmores, and as Sybil was a direct descendent of the notorious witch and murderess, Catherine Ashmore, the old maid was not surprised that her charge should have ‘strange’ dreams.

“Go on.”

“I was in bed and then I was awake. Someone had called my name. I was suddenly restless, so I climbed out of bed, donned a dress, and threw an old hooded cloak around my shoulders.

“The next thing I knew, I was outside and standing in a forest. The air was very cold, and I could smell leaf mould and rotting wood. I shivered and looked through the trees at a gathering mist. I remember feeling that I ought to turn back, but then I saw a flash of blue, possibly a kingfisher.

“I pulled the cloak tighter and walked a little further. All the time the mist was getting thicker. It seemed to be following me, curling around the bushes and the vegetation. And then I couldn’t breathe. The mist was all around me, touching my face and my hair like fingers.

“My skin began to prickle and I wanted to run, and then he was there - Einyon. He was tall and lean and his piercing eyes were seemingly illuminated from the inside.

“A wind suddenly sprang up, rustling and bending the trees but not disturbing the mist. Einyon put his arms around me as though for protection and said, ‘You are the child the Master has chosen. Will you come with me of your own free-will?’

“I said ‘yes’, and then we were near a waterfall. The roar of the water was all around me. Einyon took my hand and we walked out into the deep pool at the foot of the fall, stepping from stone to stone like gazelles. He let go of my hand, and as he moved away, I stood still on a stone, the icy water tumbling over my feet.

“Einyon raised his arms. Moonlight touched his skin where the sleeves of his mantel had fallen back. I copied him and felt a warm breeze touch my skin. It was no longer cold, and I was also unaccountably naked.”

Sybil broke off and blushed. Fronwyn smiled. “Child, you are nearly thirteen. Your body is awakening to sensations that, as yet, your mind doesn’t have a name for. Did he touch you? Do not be shy. I am an old woman and there is nothing that can shock me now.”

Her words were comforting, and Sybil felt emboldened to continue, “I followed him to the grassy bank. My back was against an old oak tree. I could feel the bark against my skin. Einyon removed his clothes and then held a silver chalice to my lips. The wine was blood red. I drank, and then he dipped his fingers in it and drew signs upon my forehead, my breasts, my stomach, and with the lightest of touches, between my legs. He then pointed to the waterfall and asked if I could see anything.”

“And could you?”

“Yes, men and women, their bodies half hidden by the spray. I seemed to feel love and death, fear and joy, laughter and tears.”

When Sybil paused Fronwyn prompted, “And then?”

“And nothing. The dream ended and I woke up.”

“Are you sure?”

Sybil hesitated. “Well, there is something else, but I don’t know where it fits in.”

Fronwyn sat back and folded her hands. “Just tell it in your own words.”

“I seem to remember shouting, ‘no, I don’t believe you. Leave me alone. I don’t want to know’. And then Einyon said, ‘Oh but you will’. He pointed behind me and said, ‘Ask her. She knows. She knows everything’.”

“She?”

Sybil looked at the old woman earnestly. “I turned around. Fronwyn, it was…you.”



IV. April 1691. Sybil aged 16.


The room was dim and stuffy. There was complete silence save for the ragged breathing coming from the bed in the corner. Sybil sat by the old woman and took her hand. “You’re not going to die. I won’t let you.”

“Don’t be silly. My time has almost ended, but yours is just beginning.”

A solitary tear slid down Sybil’s cheek. She hadn’t cried in years. “But what will I do without you?”

“You will do exactly what you’re destined to do. Just let things happen as they will. You will know. Now, I have one more story for you.”

Sybil pressed the dying woman’s hand. “No, you must save your strength.”

“Be quiet and listen. This is perhaps the most important story I’ve ever told you. There was once a young lady who lived in a stately manor. She was so beautiful that many men wanted to marry her. But, although she was polite and kind to her suitors, she would not choose one. She declared she could not make up her mind, and besides, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to marry at all.

“Her father, who was a great lord, was very angry, and kept insisting that she make a choice. But she refused, saying that she didn’t love any of them and that she wanted to wait, and if the men kept pressing their suit, she would retire to a convent. So, amidst much grumbling and protestations, the suitors agreed to wait for a year.

“This made the young lady very happy, and on nights when the moon was full, she would leave her room by a secret passage and go to a nearby forest. But she wasn’t just being disobedient. You see, she knew how to do many secret things. She knew how to use her feminine charm to influence men. Indeed, she could get them to do almost anything she liked. She also knew how to cast curses, so that bad or good would befall whomsoever she chose.

“In the forest, she danced with many strange creatures. She was much taller than all of them, and when she danced, her eyes shone in the dark like burning coals. She also sang songs that her friends could not understand. Even so, they fell at her feet and worshipped her.

“The lady sometimes went to a secluded place in the forest, where she lay down under an Ash tree and sang a particular song. Great serpents came out of the ground, hissing and gliding through the trees, shooting out their forked tongues as they crawled towards her. They twisted around her body till only her head could be seen, whereupon she would begin to writhe and moan in ecstasy.

“Now, there were three knights desperate to marry her - Sir John, Sir Richard, and Sir Rowland. But a fourth knight, Sir Simon, thought that she was deceiving them, and so he set out to watch her closely. He cut off his golden locks, roughed his handsome face, and obtained a position in the kitchen.

“He waited and watched and listened. Then, one night, just before the lady retired to bed, Sir Simon hid in her room behind the curtains, and knowing that his life would be forfeit if he was discovered, he stayed as still as a statue.

“Presently the lady arrived. She locked the door, reached under her bed, and withdrew a waxen image from a casket. Her eyes were like rubies as she held the figure to her breast. She kissed the doll and murmured, ‘Happy am I that begat the man, who married the wife, that kept the hive, that harboured the bees, that gathered the wax that my own true love was made from’.

“She then unlocked a chest and brought out a golden bowl and a jar of red liquid. She poured the liquid into the bowl and lay the doll in it, washing and caressing it like a babe. She dried it with a soft cloth and held it to her breast again.

“And then a young man appeared, with hair the colour of fire and eyes green as emeralds. He kissed her passionately and did things to her body that only a husband should do. Afterwards, the lady drank some of the liquid and poured the remainder over her body. The man used his tongue to remove it.

“Sir Simon kept the secret to himself, and when the year was nearly up he hid behind the curtains again. He saw her make four waxed dolls. She secreted three under her bed and put the fourth into the golden bowl. This time however, it was filled with water. She immersed the doll completely and chanted, ‘Sir Richard, Sir Richard, your time is almost done, tomorrow you shall die in water and to save you they’ll be none’. Two days later, news reached the manor that Sir Richard had drowned in a moat.

“The following night, she tied a black cord around the neck of another doll and dangled it between her fingers. ‘Sir Rowland, Sir Roland, choke thy last breath, for the wench you next bed will cause your death’. And sure enough, he was hanged by a jealous lover.

“The third doll was placed before a fire until it melted. ‘Man of lechery, devour your last ox, for your blood, Sir John, will burn of the pox’. He died a week later completely insane.”

Fronwyn stopped speaking and closed her eyes, and there was a long silence before Sybil asked impatiently, “What happened to the lady and Sir Simon?”

Fronwyn turned her head away. “I know not.”

Sybil leaned closer, her voice little more than a hiss. “Oh yes you do. I demand to know what happened next.” When Fronwyn didn’t answer, Sybil put her hands around the old woman’s neck. “You have taught me well, old friend. Now tell me what happened or your next breath will be your last.” Still no answer. There was a sigh, a gurgle, and then silence. Only one person in the room was breathing, and it was not the old woman.



V. May 1691. France.




The sun had not long risen when the ship slipped its moorings. The vessel soon cleared the harbour, the blue sky and calm sea auguring a smooth crossing. Other than to tell Penrose that they must return to England, Radcliffe Faulkner had barely spoken in twenty-four hours. Even discounting the fact that he’d eaten very little, he still looked gravely ill.

There were few passengers on deck, which was neatly packed with cargo and animals. A young lady standing by the starboard bulwark was looking at Radcliffe with such compassion, that Penrose thought they must be acquainted.

"Do you know her?" he asked.

Radcliffe barely glanced in her direction. "No.” He sighed with weary indifference. “Please, my friend, don't trouble me with trifles. I would rather be alone.”

Penrose nodded in understanding and moved further down the ship, and as he absently watched the French coast recede, he shook his head sadly. Though their acquaintance was only of a few weeks duration, he longed to give his friend, as he now thought of Radcliffe, the spiritual comfort he richly deserved. And yet to have offered religious consolation beyond what might have been expected would have been dangerous. Not only would it have revealed his, Penrose’s, true faith, but it would have contradicted the instructions of his mentor and fellow priest, Father David Twissleton. In addition, there had not been time to send letters. Consequently, their early return to England was not likely to be treated with joy.

Still deep in thought, Penrose started when a hand gently touched his arm. It was the young lady. "Excuse me for disturbing you, but I think your friend is…erm…ill.”

Her modesty and self-possession were charming, and her slight blush of embarrassment at having to speak of an unsavoury subject, added to her delicate beauty.

Penrose thanked her and hastened back to Radcliffe, who was leaning over the side in an unbecoming manner. Then, when he stood upright again, his eyes were wild and searching. Assassin! Murderer!

“What is it?” asked Penrose, greatly alarmed.

Radcliffe pointed a shaky finger at the sails. "What do you hear?"

Penrose listened for a moment. “Nothing except the wind.”

“Are you sure?"

"Yes. Why, what do you hear?"

Assassin! Murderer!

Radcliffe summoned a weak smile. “Nothing. Forgive me. I am being fanciful.”

Penrose was not altogether convinced. And then an idea suggested itself, which although borne from genuine concern, would afford him time to send a letter. “You’re awfully pale and weak. I think we should spend a few days in London so you can recuperate before the long journey north. I also think you’re in need of a drop of rum. No doubt the Captain or the ship’s Doctor – assuming there’s one onboard, will have a bottle in his cabin,” and as he walked away in search of the restorative, the young lady who had spoken to him earlier, produced a small notebook and began to draw.



Arriving in London, the hotel they entered was classy and discrete. Radcliffe was so pale that the concierge asked if a doctor was required. “Just good food and plenty of rest,” responded Penrose. But not even a bath, a barber, and a clean set of clothes, could raise Radcliffe’s flagging spirit.

"For God's sake, Penrose, don't leave me. If ever I needed a friend, it is now.”

“I shall always be your friend. Wait until you’re home and you’ll feel much better.”

Radcliffe sighed heavily. “Perhaps you’re right, but for the time being, I don’t want anyone to know we’ve returned.” He closed his eyes, but even under his eyelids he could still see the boy kneeling beside the body. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life.”

“Then I suggest we both retire. A good night’s sleep wouldn’t hurt me either. I’ll leave the communicating door open in case you should need me.”



Penrose was awakened by moans & groans three times during the night, and standing by Radcliffe’s bed, he watched his friend’s tormented sleep. The young novitiate risked making the sign of the cross and then returned to his own bed. By rights, he should have dispatched a letter to Father Twissleton, but he had not. An anguished soul was in his care and nothing superseded salvation. Besides, Radcliffe had requested anonymity, and he, Penrose, was under strict instructions to obey every command.


Book One. May 1691.



Chapter One. The First Guest.




Holton Abbey was more or less the same structure since the foppish Howarth Faulkner, inherited it from his part-time lover, Henry Stoddard. The abbey was still a solid, rambling edifice built around an internal courtyard, and the Holton River still flowed just beyond the rear of the property.

Of the few changes to the abbey, only two were of significance. The original church, which had been rendered derelict when it was struck by lightening on the anniversary of the murder of fathers’ Hewitt, Eastgate, and Haydock, and which subsequently became the meeting place of a covenant, had finally been demolished by Howarth James Richard Faulkner, father of the present Duke, Frederick.

It was a caprice of the original Howarth Faulkner that every male who inherited the abbey must style himself Howarth, no matter the baptism name. Failure to do so would result in forfeiture of the property. It never occurred to the selfish benefactor that a woman might become the inheritor. Nor could he have foreseen that after the burning of Alice Nash, a distant relation in the Faulkner clan, the holdings would grow to include the vast estate of Barkham Manor.

In 1647, James Faulkner tried to right the wrong of his ancestor by donating Barkham Manor to the Church. But his generosity was not quite what it seemed. Like Stoddard, James had been very superstitious, and the prospect of having three murdered monks on his property had filled him with dread. He therefore made it a proviso of the gift that the monks be disinterred and moved to the manor, irrespective of its future religious designation.

The Church had been quick to react, for it was not often that a valuable property and huge tracts of land fell into the sacred lap. The manor was re-designated St. Hilda’s convent, and the monks reburied in the private graveyard therein.

But if the abbey had changed little in the intervening decades, the same could not be said for Holton itself. A series of good roads and paths now criss-crossed the landscape, and the once sedate village had blossomed into a town. There was work to be done and work to be had, and for the main part, the residents were friendly, cheerful, and helpful.

The cottage that had once housed Elizabeth, James, and Catherine Ashmore – grandmother of Oscar, had long been demolished, as had the ramshackle hut of their bitter enemy, Fanny Craddock - grandmother of Nancy Redfern. The legacy of these warring families were their progeny, a smattering of sinister stories, and the official records pertaining to the execution of twelve people in 1620, including the three Ashmores, for witchcraft.

There was a fourth legacy, though not many knew it existed. This was the journal of Nicholas Faulkner, who through no fault of his own, became directly involved in many of the turbulent events.

The main instigator of the witch-hunt was a solicitor named Horace Twissleton. Sycophantic, scheming, and a lover of ‘little girls’, he also did not escape retribution. On the day the witches died at the stake in Leeds, he was literally ‘fucked’ to death in his office in London, an event that many of his subsequent relatives tried to ‘sweep under the carpet’.

But none of these facts were known to Stella when she arrived at the abbey. At first, she was tempted to use the main door, but seeing how she was about to take up residence under somewhat unusual, not to say lowly circumstances, she entered via the kitchen instead.

She had not seen her uncle, Ulrich Redfern, the chamberlain of the abbey, in many years, and her main memories of him were those formed through the eyes of a child. This, coupled with tiredness and hunger, made her greet him rather clumsily.

“Dear, Uncle,” she gushed, “I can’t thank you enough for your help.”

Ulrich quickly glanced around. “Not here,” he whispered, eyeing several female servants who were kneading dough on a table. He raised his voice. “Everyone, this is my niece, Miss Redfern. Masie, would you like to take care of her?”

The servant gaped at him. “What? Me, a ladies maid?”

“Well, if you don’t want to better your position, I can always…”

There was a ripple of laughter as Masie shrieked, “No!” She hurried around the table, straightening her cap and wiping her flour-covered hands on her apron. “Please to meet you, Miss Redfern. Anything you want, you just ask. Do you prefer tea or chocolate of a morning?”

Stella smiled encouragingly. “Tea please.”

“She could probably do with a bit o’ supper,” said Ulrich. “She’s had a long journey.”

Masie curtseyed. “Yes, Mister Ulrich. Which will be her room?”

“The first on the left at the top of the stairs.”

Masie looked at Stella inquiringly. “Will cold ham and pickles suit?”

“That would be very nice, thank you.”



As Ulrich led Stella through what seemed like a maze of corridors, she could smell beeswax and wood smoke. Unlike the cold and stiff boarding school back in France, the abbey had an ambience of ‘homeliness’, and she wondered if it had been the same during the time of the monks. Yes there was formality, but the distinct feminine décor seemed to imply gracious living and happy spirits.

Stella’s new bedroom had a history. As part of his ‘purge’, James Faulkner had consigned Abbot Hewitt’s old cumbersome bed to a bonfire. If the former duke had known that this was the room where Dorothy Faulkner, wife of Nicholas, had first seen the ghost of the abbot, he might have stripped the room bare. As it was, Stella found the modest furnishings charming and comfortable.

“Are all the rooms like this?” she asked.

“The ones for the trainees are, it’s part of her ladyships regime. Simple is as simple does.”

Stella laughed. “Is that a quote?”

“Yes, and she has plenty of them.”

“How many trainees are there?”

“Three at the moment. Bridget and Sarah, who are two of the silliest girls who ever drew breath, and Emily Dorset. You’ll like her, she’s a good girl and quite sensible. We also have five gentlemen, none of them worth the fee their fathers’ are paying.”

Stella suddenly looked uncomfortable. “Speaking of fees, who is paying…”

“I am. It’s the least I can do. Your father – and there’s no point hiding the fact, was not a pleasant man.” His voice became morose. “I always felt sorry for you. I wrote to him often, asking him to let you come to me, but he always refused. Poor child, I cannot imagine what it was like growing up in that den of iniquity. Little wonder your mother took to her heels.”

Stella lay a hand on his arm. “Please do not be afraid of offending me. I barely remember my mother. I suppose with the benefit of hindsight, my father’s decision to send me away to school when I was 10 was a blessing in disguise.”

Ulrich patted her hand. “In my opinion, it was the only sensible thing he ever did.” He pointed to a trunk in the corner. “It arrived yesterday. Now, unpack your things while I give you some basic instructions.”



The following morning, Masie escorted Stella to the breakfast room. Before opening the door, the maid whispered a word of warning. “Her ladyship can be a tartar when she wants, but she means well.”

Bridget, Sarah, and Emily, had deliberately departed earlier than usual for their morning ride, thereby leaving Lady Pamela Faulkner to scrutinise her latest trainee. Of mature age, her ladyship might have been a handsome woman had not perpetual mourning hardened her features. If she was envious of Stella’s dark brown eyes and auburn hair, of her flawless complexion, of her stately figure and graceful demeanour, the aristocrat hid it well.

Ulrich entered with the morning post. He neither acknowledged or glanced at his niece. Stella was not offended. She understood that as head chamberlain, his loyalty and responsibility lay solely with his mistress.

Lady Pamela quickly dealt with her correspondence and then poured another cup of tea. “So, like Ulrich, you are related to the infamous Nancy Redfern.”

Stella kept her face impassive. Ulrich had warned her not to take Pamela’s forthright manner personally. “Yes, m’lady, thought I know little about her.”

“That is completely irrelevant. You share the same blood. I only agreed to take you on because Ulrich vouched for your character, and although I trust his judgement, only time will tell if you’ve inherited your ancestor’s abomination.”

“I’m quite sure I haven’t,” responded Stella sweetly.

“As I said, time will tell. We attend church every Sunday and hold recitations most evenings. Only by learning the bible and adhering to the Lord’s commands can your soul be saved.”

Stella wondered whether her ladyship was making a general comment or a snide remark. “I already know my bible,” she answered coolly.

“Really?” said Pamela sceptically. “Then you won’t mind if I put your claim to the test.”

She began quoting passages and dogma with such perfection that even a bishop would have struggled, and although Stella recognised many of the quotations, she could not state the requested chapter & verse. At the conclusion, she had the good sense to respond demurely.

“Clearly I do not know the bible as well as I thought. I’m sure under your ladyship’s tutelage, I shall do better. May I continue with my drawings and my books?”

“Provided the content of each is not disagreeable, then yes.” Lady Pamela paused, and then displayed a rare moment of tact. “Forgive me, my dear, but I perceive that the shadows under your eyes speak more of worry than your long journey from France. Is something troubling you?”

"Well…I…” and to her own surprise, Stella’s eyes filled with tears. Being so accustomed to harsh treatment, the kindness she had thus received had finally overwhelmed her. Not wishing to seem foolish, she scrambled for an excuse. "I barely knew my mother. I was sent to boarding school when I was 10, and whenever I was troubled, one of the older girls would let me cry on her shoulder. I’ve just realised that this comfort and close contact is no more.”

“I see,” said Pamela uncomfortably. She did not believe in showing too much affection, not even to her own children. “Perhaps if you were to tell me the problem, I might be able to offer a solution.”

"I met a man while crossing the Channel, or rather, I saw him. There were few travellers on the ship, otherwise I might never have noticed him. He was leaning over the bow, weak and worn and wasted. And yet there was something about his face that impressed me.

“I last saw him on the quay at Folkston. He was being helped off the ship by a friend. I hope you don’t mind me confiding in you. It’s just that I can’t get his image out of my head.”

“My dear Miss Redfern, you may confide in me about anything.” And then Lady Pamela did something that very few people had seen her do in years – she smiled. "Was he a gentleman?"

"I think so. He was rather tall and plainly dressed, though in good taste. His eyes were a divine violet blue, so uncommon amongst men, and his hair was light brown. I don’t think he looked at me once, and yet I would like to know if he recovered from his illness.”

Lady Pamela paused for a moment. On the surface, here was a sweet girl who had simply fallen in love at first sight. In fact, the circumstances were very similar to when she’d first met Philip. But was she being deceived? Given the girl’s infamous antecedence, she might be capable of anything. But a second point was more immediate, namely, that the man’s description had a familiar ring to it. Was the latter just coincidence, or did she, Pamela Faulkner, wife of the much lamented Philip, now have a viper in her nest?

“Perfectly understandable and reasonable. I wish I could help you find him, but even the best description often falls short of the reality. You only have to look at the paintings that are being produced nowadays. They are flat and lifeless, and the true features of a person are usually different to those portrayed.”

Stella was just considering whether to fetch the sketch, when Ulrich entered and bowed. “Excuse me, m’lady, but the Duke has arrived.”

“He’s probably already eaten, but ask him if he’d like some breakfast. God knows the man has an iron stomach.”

“Pardon me, m’lady, but I don’t think his is a social call. I believe he’s here to see the priest.”

“Oh well, in that case they’ll be closeted for hours,” remarked her ladyship, and Stella thought she discerned a note of disapproval. “No doubt I’ll see him later. You may go.” Ulrich bowed again and exited the room. “Now, what were we talking about? Oh yes, your mysterious young man. I don’t suppose you know his name?”

“No, nor did I see any initials on his handkerchief when he wiped his mouth after he…erm…”

Pamela had the good grace to save the girl from embarrassment. “How very disagreeable,” she said quickly. She paused and then went on, “I believe you said there were not many passengers on the ship.”

“Correct.”

“Well it occurs to me that the Duke could make enquiries with the shipping company. It should be an easy enough list to sift.”

Stella sat upright, her face flushed with alarm. "No. I don’t want anyone to know about this. I feel foolish enough as it is."

"My dear child, I am perfectly capable of conducting discreet enquiries. Of course, if you want to be kept in the dark, you have only to say so and the matter will never be spoken of again. The decision is yours.”

Stella instantly capitulated. Once again she thought of producing the sketch, but then decided against it. In her opinion, her talent as an artist was amateur at best. Besides, as Lady Pamela had rightly pointed out, the true features of a person in a picture were usually different to those portrayed.



Amongst other treasures, the Faulkner estate included a large library of old books and manuscripts, and an extensive collection of paintings, most of which had not been seen in years. This was not due to inferior quality or subject matter, but rather, that there was not enough wall space to display them in one place. As a consequence, many of the works were in the attics of Foxbury Chase and Craxton Hall, and the duke had often made the comment that he would ‘send for an expert to sort them all out’.

Partly by circumstance and partly by the ‘saucy’ influence of Katrina Welsley, the duke had been persuaded to hire a scholar and supposed expert for the slow, arguably painstaking task of cataloguing the collections.

The ‘circumstance’ was that the local vicar, who would have exerted far more effort and enthusiasm for the task than the current incumbent, had met with a terrible accident and broken both his legs. He was now convalescing on the Isle of Wight. As to Katrina Welsley’s influence, her involvement amounted to a nasty case of blackmail.

She had not seen her uncle, the Reverend David Twissleton, for many years. This was partially due to the fact that he lived in London, but more particularly because he was a priest. Then one evening, upon leaving a private party, she had been astonished to find him waiting for her in a private carriage. For the sake of appearances, and thinking him ignorant of her nocturnal activities, Katrina had willingly climbed inside the carriage. Moment’s later, tears and mucus and a trickle of blood had run down her face.

“You,” he had panted, slapping her face while trying to ram his skinny cock down her throat, “will do exactly what I tell you, otherwise I will expose you for the debased whore you are.”

Terrified by his anger and cruelty, Katrina had followed his instructions to the letter, though he had not explained how he was aware of the duke’s cataloguing plan. Later, her sluttish mind had considered seducing him to full congress in revenge for his treatment, but in a rare flash of sensibility, she had abandoned the idea. To expose him as a corrupt priest would inexorably lead to the probing of her own life, and as she was secretly determined to snare a rich husband - preferably Walter Ashmore, any enquiries into her private affairs would not stand up to scrutiny.



Dressed in his usual black coat and surrounded by piles of books, Father Twissleton was writing a letter when the library door suddenly opened.

"I beg your pardon," said Lady Pamela. "I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

Calmly, as though he had been expecting the interruption, Twissleton rose to his feet, moved away from the desk, and bowed. "Not in the slightest,” he said, his craggy face creasing into a smile. “Can I be of assistance?"

"Have you heard from Master Penrose or seen the Duke today?”

"As to the former – no, as to the latter, his lordship was here a few minutes ago. I believe he is now in the long gallery.”

Pamela turned to leave, and with a remarkably light step for a man of his age, Twissleton darted forward and opened the door. He could have added that his lordship’s visit was only brief as he was due at a wedding, but vanity prevented it.

“All women are sluts,” he murmured, and returning to his desk, finished the letter he’d been writing.

‘I therefore decided to entrust part of the plan to Arthur Penrose, though he is unaware of its full purpose. Yes he is young, but he has incorruptible honesty and true religious zeal.

‘When the current Duke dies, which pray God will be soon, Radcliffe will take the title. Unfortunately, he will become the target of men who would seek to win his favour, and even worse, of sluttish women who would trick him into marriage. Consequently, I must, without his knowledge, guide him judiciously.

‘To this end, Penrose is now in France with Radcliffe. His brother, Harvey, in pursuit of his historical studies, sent for him, and the chance to throw Penrose into Radcliffe’s orbit was too good to miss.

Since his departure, ‘I have only received one letter from Penrose, but I am not overly concerned. Her ladyship will soon attain the age of sixty, and I have little doubt that all the family will gather to celebrate the milestone’.

He signed the letter, added a Latin superscription, and addressed the envelope to a hotel in Rome.




Chapter Two. The Wedding.




Wolfdene’s once sinister reputation had finally been eradicated. Fine furniture, polished wood panelling, exquisite tapestries and many other elegant appointments had made it respectable. The circular tower was now the centrepiece of the magnificent mansion, and the hideous cellar where Lavinia Ashmore had been held prisoner, bore nothing more evil than racks of potent wine.

Today the mansion looked a little more resplendent than usual. Banners and flags wafted gently in the breeze, the lawns and gardens had been clipped and pruned to perfection, and the long gravel driveway had literally been picked clean. The occasion was the marriage of nineteen-year-old Laura Ashmore to the handsome if rather stiff Victor de Burgh.

By ten o'clock, all the guests were assembled in the Great Hall. There was a collective gasp and a round of applause as the couple made their entrance. Laura was dressed in a gown of the palest blue, with a wreath of myrtle on her head and a circuit of diamonds round her neck.

She was followed by Sybil, whose gown of crimson silk trimmed with lace, looked all the more fetching for its simplicity. She too could have sparkled with jewels, but on this occasion she had graciously condescended not to ‘out shine’ her sister. Indeed, the lack of adornments, rather than relegating her to the ranks of the dowdy, only enhanced her striking beauty – and she knew it.

Her only concession to the expected standard of dress was a small ruby ring. Earlier that morning, when she had presented herself to her father for inspection, she had tried on the ring as she had done many times in the past. This time, rather than falling off her finger, the fit was so perfect that the ring might have been made to order.

She had always been attracted to the ring, and returning to her room, she had removed it and examined it as though seeing it for the first time. Then, when she’d slipped it onto her finger again, she had experienced a strange feeling of reckless abandonment.

And then she had remembered Fronwyn. This too was curious, for she had not thought of her former nursemaid since she’d died. Standing there with the ring glittering on her finger, she recalled many of the old woman’s wild, enchanting, sometimes brutal tales of witchcraft and magic, and somehow knew they had been told for a purpose.

Fronwyn had been her guide and mentor for over ten years, and as Sybil followed her sister into the Hall, something the old woman said on her deathbed came back to her. “You will do exactly what you’re destined to do. Just let things happen as they will. You will know.”

Distracted by her thoughts, Sybil inadvertently stood on the back of Laura’s gown, almost causing her to trip. Though the action had been accidental, a smile of satisfaction momentarily touched her lips, for the strange feeling she had experienced earlier was coursing through her veins again. Indeed, so strong was the urge to do mischief, that she barely restrained herself from stepping on the gown again.


Oscar Ashmore was also deep in thought, but rather than wallowing in the pride of a father, his mood was sullen and grim. To begin with, his guest of honour and occasional business partner, Frederick Faulkner, the Duke of Leeds, was late, and protocol dictated that the ceremony could not begin until he arrived. The company had now been waiting almost an hour, and Oscar had been despatching servants every few minutes to watch for the errant guest.

Secondly, his belly was tender and sore. Over the previous weeks, and unbeknownst to anyone except his doctor, he had been bled, leeched, and swallowed a plethora of hermetics. But the only result to date was to reduce the intermittent pain to a dull ache, and as Oscar surreptitiously wiped his sweaty forehead, rather than dance and gorge on food, all he wanted to do was wretch.

A platform had been erected at the far end of the hall, where an exquisitely carved 16th century oak chair had been placed for the Duke. Oscar, dressed in green velvet and plumed black hat, sat in the chair and drummed his fingers on the arm.

“Where is the randy bastard?” he muttered angrily. "No doubt he’s stopped to entertain a wench. God’s teeth but I want to go back to bed."

His mood changed when a servant ran into the hall and announced that the duke and his entourage were approaching. Most of the guests went outside, some with indecent haste, for the middle-aged duke was renowned for his support of young ladies and gentlemen, and it was always worthwhile to note the current favourites.

Much to the duke’s chagrin, he had not inherited the imposing stature of his Faulkner ancestors. He therefore created the illusion of height by keeping his beard unfashionably long. He tossed it over his shoulder as he was helped out of the carriage by his Chief Steward, Edmund Blenkinsop, who unlike his master, was tall, arrogant, and covertly homosexual.

Oscar came forward and bowed. As this was an ‘official’ visit, he was compelled to show deference to his friend. “On formal occasions, I never know whether to address you as Lord Frederick or Lord Howarth.”


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-34 show above.)