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  • Published: 3 August 2021
  • ISBN: 9781761041792
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 304
  • RRP: $16.99

The Wolf’s Howl: A Maven & Reeve Mystery Book 2

Extract

Chapter One

 

For a squire of noted charm and alleged cleverness, Reeve of Norwood is displaying neither of those traits today. As he rides past my window yet again, waving and grinning, flaunting his freedom and inde­pendence, it is all I can do not to stick out my tongue and cross my eyes at him.

But, of course, I do not. Ladies must be demure. And there are five other ladies squashed into this hot, airless carriage, three of whom are tittering at Reeve’s antics, one of whom is staring out the other window at her new husband, Sir Garrick Sharp, and one . . . one who sits opposite me and watches my every move from beneath dark, heavy lashes.

Anice reminds me of the sleek, ginger cat that prowls the kitchens of Rennart Castle, watching and waiting for the tiny field mice who scamper in and risk all for a skerrick of flour. Few of them ever taste it, scooped up in seconds by sharp claws and carried off by the cat to be toyed with until they die.

If anyone knew that I was comparing the Airl of Buckthorn’s daughter to a sadistic cat, my place as companion to Lady Cassandra, Anice’s own cousin, would be in jeopardy. But, as yet, only jesters and charlatans lay claim to reading minds, and so my secrets are safe.

A fortunate thing for many.

To avoid looking at Anice, however, I must look out the window, which means I must watch Reeve, prancing about on Airl Buckthorn’s enormous black destrier, his stubbly blond hair gleaming in the golden afternoon sunlight. Envy crashes through me and, in an effort to keep a blank expression on my face, I summon up my mother’s voice in my mind:

‘Maven, young ladies do not ride astride their horses.’

‘Maven, young ladies are safe inside the confines of a carriage.’

‘Maven, young ladies are not allowed to have fun.’

She would never have said the last, of course, not even at the height of her reign as haughty Lady Sybyll of Aramoor. But she thought it then and I have no doubt that even now, as plain Sybyll, genteel companion to Lady Fenlon, she thinks it still.

Thinking of my mother has had the required effect, though, and I have no desire to crack even the hint of a smile at Reeve’s antics.

Reeve, however, is determined to provoke a reaction from me, knowing better than anyone how utterly and horribly confined I feel, stuffed inside this airless carriage with Lady Cassandra, Anice and three of Anice’s interchangeable friends. Besieged and beset by a thousand whispered exchanges and giggles, I am all but buried under yards of silk and satin skirts in the colours of the rainbow.

My serviceable brown dress disappears into the carriage’s burnished leather upholstery, and I have a splitting headache, my nostrils assaulted by the aggressive wafts of lavender, rose and gardenia Anice’s coterie seems to bathe in every morning.

The only thing that has kept me sane over the long hours of travel to Harding Manor are occasional sympa­thetic looks from my Lady Cassandra, but they are few and far between – she is far too enamoured with her view of Sir Garrick to pay much attention to anyone else in the carriage.

That said, I am half grateful that Cassandra is distracted; Anice’s calculating gaze misses nothing, and I don’t want to inadvertently reveal too much. It suits me to be overlooked and for my friendship with Anice’s cousin to remain hidden beneath my role as Cassandra’s servant.

And so the hours roll on, every sway and creak of the carriage taking us further from Rennart Castle towards Harding Manor, where we will rest for tonight – and leave Anice and her friends behind when we head much further north on the morrow.

I allow myself a tiny smile at the thought.

‘I hope you have brought your warmest kirtle with you, cousin, I believe there is no such thing as a nice day in Glawn,’ Anice says, drawing Cassandra’s atten­tion from the window. ‘I am glad to be going no further than Harding.’

‘Thank you for your concern, cousin,’ Cassandra says, with a polite smile. ‘Indeed, I am well stocked with layers of warmth. I even have several pairs of fine Talleben gloves.’

‘Talleben gloves?’ Anice says, her shock evident. ‘Sir Garrick must like you a great deal to have paid for those.’

Cassandra’s gaze slides to the carriage window once more. ‘It seems he does. Maven will show you.’

I stand, bracing my feet so that I can rock back and forth in the moving carriage without falling into Anice’s lap, and retrieve the small trunk above my head. Fishing out two pairs of impossibly light and warm knitted gloves, one pair in black, one in a blue that reminds me of spring, I hand them to Cassandra. She passes one glove to each of the other girls, who immediately ooh and aah, even Anice, over the intri­cate patterns knitted into each glove.

As I drop back into my seat, the trunk on my lap, I am reminded of a late night in my father’s solar, me on one side of the desk, he leaning in from the other as he told me, in hushed tones, stories from the last Kingdom Wars. For a moment, I can hear again the note of admiration in my father’s voice as he explained the different ways in which the rebels had sent coded messages to each other. One way was to use different patterns of knitting, adding rows to scarves that had crisscrossed the kingdom wrapped around the throats of innocent-looking women and children, right under the noses of the other side.

Looking at Cassandra’s gloves, I wonder whether my father, or anyone else for that matter, even remembers that story. Not that it would be of any use to me – knitting is not a skill I’ve ever acquired.

Perhaps because he knew I had not the patience to learn handicrafts, my father had also shown me how a book code works, and we had used it to send messages to each other, before . . .

A sudden wave of homesickness washes over me and I swallow it down, surprised by the pain even after five years. Every time I think I am finished with the horror of my father’s betrayal and my mother’s rejection, a tiny reminder shows up to needle me once more.

To stave it off, I focus on remembering the book code, a simple but effective way in which to hide a message. All it took was two people, one book and a lot of patience. The person sending the message nominated the book and then a page number. The message was created by choosing the words one needed from that page. Every word was given a number and the chosen numbers listed in order to create the message.

Simple, but such fun when you’re ten years old and exchanging secret messages with the person you love best in the whole world . . .

A sudden jolt pricks my reverie with a bang, and Anice and her friends all shriek as one. Ignoring them, I focus on Reeve, who is no longer looking so carefree. His huge horse has spooked at the sound of the carriage wheel hitting a deep pothole, and the sight of Reeve fighting to bring the skittish beast under control widens my tiny smile into a full-fledged grin.

The grin lasts only until another jolt rocks the carriage and I hear the coachman swear in a most ungenteel fashion that carries over the ear-piercing scraping sound rising from beneath my feet. As the carriage shudders to a halt, thundering hooves rocket past, and the coachman swears again as the four horses hauling us all stamp and neigh.

‘We’re going to die!’ Anice’s friend Honora looks as though she’s about to swoon.

‘Why would we die now?’ Cassandra asks, her voice low and calm as though dealing with a panicked hound. ‘We’re at a stop.’

‘It must be a bandit!’ Honora quavers, big blue eyes full of tears, as she twists a blonde ringlet around and around her finger. I can’t look away as the finger­tip turns pink from the pressure, and I wonder if it’s possible it might fall off with enough time.

‘It’s not a bandit,’ Cassandra says, reaching over to pat the girl’s other hand. ‘Sir Garrick is talking to the coachman, just over there – he’d hardly be doing that if we were under attack.’

‘He might,’ Anice’s sly voice inserts, ‘if he’s in on the hold-up.’

I daren’t look at Cassandra, knowing that I am the lowliest person in this carriage, but I can feel her stiffen beside me.

‘Cousin, you jest,’ Cassandra says with a tight smile, but I can see her nails digging into her palms as she forces herself to remain calm. Anice is the daughter of the Airl of Buckthorn, and Cassandra merely the fourth daughter of the Airl’s brother-in-law and married to a knight in his service.

It will not help Cassandra to get on the bad side of Anice.

And, from what I have witnessed, there are few good sides to Anice.

We all turn to Anice to see where the exchange will go next.

One beat, then two go by, before Anice tosses one long, coppery braid over her shoulder and takes Honora’s hand.

‘Indeed, I jest,’ Anice says with a brittle giggle. ‘How could anyone imagine that the Knight Protector of Rennart Castle would ever consort with bandits?’

But as she says this, her eyes find mine and her gaze holds just a fraction too long.

Fortunately, a light rap on the carriage door breaks the polite deadlock, and the door swings open to reveal Sir Garrick.

‘My ladies,’ he says, bowing to us all, though in reality his attention is fixed on Cassandra, who blushes a fetching shade of rose pink. ‘It seems the carriage wheel has been damaged and is unfit for further travel. I must ask you to alight now.’

‘Ladies, give Maven the gloves and then we’ll get out,’ says Cassandra. Anice and her friends reluctantly peel off the gloves and I fold them back into the trunk, buckling it up.

I gather my skirts, preparing to step down from the carriage, but Anice sticks out one delicate foot, almost tripping me over.

‘I will not alight and ruin my new shoes,’ she says, showing Sir Garrick the pale pink kid slipper, laced up her ankle with a velvet ribbon a shade or two darker.

A tiny wrinkle appears between Sir Garrick’s dark brows, but he is not Airl Buckthorn’s Knight Protector for nothing.

‘My lady’s slipper is quite lovely,’ he says, and I can almost see his mind whirring behind his polite expression. ‘But the coachman will be unable to fix the carriage unless we unpack it.’

Anice straightens, staring down her fine nose at Sir Garrick. ‘I am not baggage to be unpacked.’ She sniffs, placing her hands just so in her lap with haughty precision. ‘I am the Airl of Buckthorn’s only daughter and I will not be discarded on the side of a dusty road at the pleasure of a mere coachman.’

I want to roll my eyes as she spits out the last word, thinking that baggage is exactly what she is. But, over the past week, Anice has taken it upon herself to ensure that I know my place in the hierarchy at Rennart Castle.

My quiet, lowly place.

Reeve still cannot understand Anice’s malevolence towards me.

‘But you saved her from a disastrous marriage – and asked nothing in return,’ he repeats, bewildered, almost daily. ‘She should be grateful!’

Repeating does not make a thing so, as I have explained to him over and over. Anice is embarrassed and I am a constant reminder of that weak, silly moment when she almost found herself betrothed to the oppor­tunistic never-will-be-a-knight Brantley.

She wants me gone.

But to get me gone, she has to get past Cassandra, and I am secure in my lady’s affection.

‘How long must we wait for the wheel?’ Cassandra intervenes now.

‘An hour or two, perhaps more,’ Sir Garrick answers, appearing to brace himself for Anice’s response.

‘Then I’ll not move,’ Anice hisses. ‘My complexion will be quite ruined by all that sunshine.’

I study her face, which, it has to be said, is lovely. Even at sixteen, her pale skin is not marred by a single freckle, though her copper hair marks her as one prone to the kiss of the sun.

Cassandra sighs. ‘It does seem a long time to stand about in the dust,’ she says to Sir Garrick, reaching over me to place a hand on his arm. ‘Is there no other way?’

As Sir Garrick considers her request, weighing up the pros and cons of insisting that the ladies alight, a windswept Reeve rides up behind him, his horse blowing hard.

‘It’s not far to Harding Manor from here,’ Reeve says. ‘No more than twenty minutes’ ride without the carriage. Could we not each take a lady up on our horses? They’ll arrive in time for a late luncheon and we can send help to fix the wheel?’

Reeve’s sensible suggestion is greeted with shrieks from Honora and her friends. ‘We could never do that!’ Honora breathes, while the other two – I do wish I had been properly introduced so that I could remember their names – giggle.

‘Imagine what people would say.'

But Anice looks at Reeve, and then at me, before responding. ‘I would rather a few minutes on horse­back than hours standing in the sun,’ she says, before pausing theatrically. ‘But, Sir Garrick, there are only five horses, and six of us.’

Sir Garrick is so surprised by her acquiescence to Reeve’s suggestion that he says nothing, so Anice speaks again.

‘So, you would take my cousin Cassandra, your beloved, I would need to ride with Reeve, your trusted squire. And Honora, Faith and Thora would have to arrive at the same time as me, to ensure I am properly chaperoned and looking my best for Mama.’

So I am to be dumped on the side of the road with the ancient coachman, to wait who knows how long for help. Cassandra can hardly protest – after all, which of the delicate flowers that surround Anice would she sacrifice to include me?

Would I even want her to do so?

‘I am happy to stay behind, Sir Garrick,’ I say, keeping my voice even to avoid revealing my thoughts to Anice. ‘Give me a moment or two to fix my Lady Cassandra’s hair for riding, and then I will join you all later once the carriage is mended.’

‘Oh, don’t worry about that,’ says Anice, moving to alight from the carriage, all her concern for her kid slippers apparently forgotten in her rush to get up on that horse with Reeve and gloat. ‘Mama has any number of maids capable of fixing my cousin’s hair once we arrive.’

I suck in a deep breath at the slight.

‘Maven will do it,’ says Cassandra, her hand once again on my arm to calm me. ‘She has many gifts, hair being just one of them.’

Anice wrinkles her nose, but I am mollified by the words. My position as Cassandra’s companion has been a saviour to me, and I treasure our special bond. I have told Reeve on more than one occasion that I am careful never to forget my place, knowing that I remain a servant, and to most people one maid is interchange­able with another.

But the truth is that there are times, when it is just Cassandra and I, that I can imagine us to be friends.

Anice, I fear, knows it, and takes every opportu­nity to remind me that while I was once Lady Maven of Aramoor, those days are gone – and companions can be replaced while cousins are for life.


The Wolf’s Howl: A Maven & Reeve Mystery Book 2 A.L. Tait

Bestselling author A. L. Tait is back with the next Maven and Reeve Mystery.

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