PROLOGUE

Hertfordshire, Near Lynwood Manor, 1810

The only thing worse than losing a bet, was losing a bet to your younger brother.  Fifteen-year-old Arthur Kellington pondered the indignities of the situation as he trudged home from his errand in the village.  Though the incident had occurred three days earlier, the embarrassment lingered on.  To be turned down for a kiss was bad enough.  But to have his brother witness the debacle from a nearby tree had been outside of enough.  That Hal had laughed so hard he’d fallen from his branch was some consolation, but not enough to make up for the humiliating experience of having the comeliest serving girl at the Boar’s Bristle tell Arthur she thought he was a good lad and would make a fine man some day, but she was saving her kisses for the smithy’s son.

A lad!  She’d spoken to him as if he were a mere boy, instead of a man.  He could’ve told her he was already taller than his classmates at Eton.  He even thought he’d be taller than his eldest brother Liam one day.  More importantly, he didn’t feel like a lad.  And when it came to women, he certainly didn’t have the disinterest of a younger boy.  He’d admired the serving girl for months.  She was two years his senior and had a smile for everyone, accompanied by curves that would interest even someone as old as Lynwood’s steward, who had just passed his fortieth birthday.  Of course, in thinking back upon the matter, Arthur realized it was possible he might have misinterpreted her general friendliness for a specific interest in him that didn’t exist.  Whatever had possessed him to take Hal’s bet?

Part of the reason could lie in the general restlessness that came from being the middle sibling in a family of five.  It was never easy to carve out a role for yourself with so many brothers.  It was harder still when your eldest brother was a duke.  It wasn’t that he envied Liam the title.  Far from it.  Liam had taken on their late father’s ducal responsibilities a year ago at the age of nineteen and his life would never completely be his own ever again.   And since their mother had died alongside their father in the carriage accident, Liam had also taken on the task of raising his brothers and sister.  While their maternal aunt Prue and her companion Mariah helped wherever they could, Liam still faced much of the burden alone.

As much as Arthur loved his brother, he missed his parents dearly.  Sometimes he thought he’d never feel whole again.

In the meantime, he’d just have to be more judicious in his wagers.  He chafed at the serving girl’s dismissal and counted the days until he’d be back at school.  In a few years – that would no doubt drag interminably – he could leave on his Grand Tour.  He only hoped the continent would be at peace by then, but the prospects for that didn’t look good.  Perhaps he’d go to America or the Amazon or even the Orient.

It seemed his brothers and sister already had their futures planned.  Liam, Duke of Lynwood, had an infinite number of responsibilities that went along with the title.  Of course, there were also quite a few perks.  The serving girl probably wouldn’t have turned him down for a kiss.

Ned was seventeen and had stated his desire to go off to war.  He was eagerly awaiting the day when Liam would let him buy a commission.  Arthur would miss Ned terribly when he left.  He wouldn’t permit himself to think of what could happen to him on the war-torn continent.  The family couldn’t cope with any more tragedy.

Thirteen-year-old Hal’s thoughts for the future didn’t extend much beyond what practical joke he could play next.  But the brother who kept everyone laughing seemed to have had the hardest time coping with their parents’ deaths.  For weeks after the accident, he’d been unable to leave his rooms and even a year later was unable to talk about it.

Lizzie, the baby of the family at nine years of age, wanted to change the world.  She was forever telling Liam to let the servants work fewer hours.  Their butler Heskiss nearly had apoplexy when the girl suggested he take two weeks of holiday at Christmas.  The poor bewildered man had gone to Liam asking what he’d done wrong to warrant exile from the family.

Arthur wanted to travel, to go off on his quest.  In a family named for four kings and one queen of England, he felt a connection to the legendary ruler who’d commanded the Knights of the Round Table, even if it was mostly made up.   But how was Arthur going to achieve great things when he couldn’t even get a kiss from a serving girl?

It didn’t help his mood that he was now on his way back from the village with the treacle tarts he owed Hal for losing the bet.  It had been three days and Hal has been merciless in his teasing.  It mattered little that Cook could prepare tarts in the kitchen.  It was part of the bet that Arthur walk to the village every day for a week to get them, then personally serve them to Hal, who was currently back at the manor nursing a badly bruised arm caused by the fall from the tree.  Arthur planned on nudging the arm none too gently when he served today’s tarts.

It was then that he heard it.  At first he thought it was a bird, perhaps the shriek of a falcon.  It came from the woods on the other side of the meadow he was walking past.  Then the cry came again and it sounded less like a falcon and more like a person.  Arthur began walking toward the sound, then broke into a run when he heard it a third time.  As the cry came again, Arthur paused long enough to pick up a large stick then ran as fast as he could.

The noise brought him to a clearing in the woods.  At least half a dozen lads from the village were circled around a small woman who looked to be in her late ‘30s.  She had black hair which was unbound and hung in curls to her waist.  She appeared to be a Gypsy from her dress.   One of the sleeves on her white blouse was torn and the hem of her red skirt was hanging down, as if someone had ripped it.  She was trapped by the band of lads, all of whom were much larger than she and who were cheering each other on as they lunged at her.  She darted back and forth to avoid them, keeping a wary eye on her captors.  She slapped and kicked at them when they got too close.  Arthur could tell she was terrified, as much as she tried to hide it.

She was the bravest person he had ever seen.

“What’s going on?” he demanded as he reached the clearing and glared at the lads surrounding her.   They were sons of the local gentry.  He knew all of them, having spent his summers at Lynwood Manor.  Most were older than he by a few years.  Many were also bullies like Miles, the vicar’s son, who just the previous week had tortured a stray dog.    The dog was now recovering in the Lynwood stables, after being saved by Lizzie.  Miles was still sporting the blacked eye Ned had given him.

“Go to the devil Kellington,” sneered Miles.  “No one wants you here.”

“Right,” said Morris, the squire’s son who’d yet to have an original thought.  “No one wants you here.”  At that, the other lads joined in, telling Arthur to bugger off and other colorful terms.

Miles continued.  “We’re up for a bit of slap and tickle with this Gypsy slut.”  He tried to make a grab for the woman, but she stepped out of the way and slapped at his hands to the amusement of the other boys.  Which made Miles turn his anger on Arthur.  “I don’t see Ned here to fight your battles.  Or your little sister.”  This made the lads laugh even more, which emboldened Miles.  “You better take yourself off before we have a mind to come after you.”

Arthur eyed the other lads, most of whom outweighed him by two or three stone.  “Let the woman go,” he said, wishing he had one of his brothers to back him up.  He didn’t relish the beating that was sure to come.  “Or answer to me.”

“Let the woman go!” parroted the squire’s son, laughing at the absurdity of the request.

Miles took a menacing step closer to Arthur.  “Who do you think you are to give orders to us?  Just because your brother’s a duke, don’t mean we have to listen to you.  And it’s not like you can run home to daddy.”

That made the other lads laugh even harder.  But Arthur didn’t hear them.  He was aware only of the rage that flooded him.   Not just because of Miles’s taunts.  But because of the anger, fear and frustration he’d felt since the accident.

Without thinking, Arthur swung the stick around and hit the side of Miles’s jaw with a satisfying crack.  He then threw the stick to the Gypsy woman, who used it to fight off the two boys closest to her.

The other three attacked Arthur, cheered on by Miles, who was holding his jaw from a safe distance away.  Arthur gave a good accounting of himself, but soon fell to his knees from the kicks and blows.  He hurt like the dickens, but there was more at stake than simply his own hide.  He had to get up because he knew the woman would be getting the worst of it.  He had to protect her.

He took another blow to the head, but retaliated with a fist to Morris’s groin.  Not the most gentlemanly of moves, but fully warranted under the circumstances.  Apparently, it was quite a blow, because not only did the miscreant limp off, but the other lads ran away as well with Miles leading the way.  As Arthur shook his head to clear his vision, he looked for the woman, afraid of what he’d see.  She was there, still holding the stick, seemingly unharmed.  She was looking above him, toward the woods at his back.  Arthur turned and saw the real reason the boys had run away.

The woods were filled with Gypsy men, Romany, holding any number of knives and weapons.  One of the men, a little older than Arthur, approached the woman, obviously concerned for her well-being.  They exchanged a few words in a foreign language, then the young man approached Arthur.  He helped him to his feet then said in accented English.  “You fight well for a gadji.”

Arthur nodded, unsure if that was a compliment.  “Is the lady….”  He turned to the Gypsy woman.  “Are you all right, ma’am?”

She studied him for a moment, before smiling briefly.  “Come back to the camp.  We will tend to your wounds.”

“My wounds?”  It took a moment for Arthur to realize his hair was matted with blood.   Then the second most embarrassing moment of the week occurred as his world faded to black.

*                    *                    *

            Arthur woke to find himself lying on a palette in a covered wagon.  An entire home seemed to exist within the small conveyance, which was made entirely of wood except for a tarp at the door.  A bedroll was tucked away under a bench.  Several chests were lined up against the wall opposite him and a jar of colorful glass beads lay atop one of them.  Arthur tried to sit up, but lay back when hit by a wave of dizziness.

“Be careful, Lord Arthur,” said the woman from the woods, who was sitting on a low chair in the corner of the wagon.  She’d changed into a new dress and tucked her hair beneath a scarf.  “You fainted from the sight of blood.”  From the look of chagrin on the boy’s face, she quickly added, “A customary reaction, I assure you.”

“How do you know who I am?” he asked, as he gingerly felt the bandage on his head.

“I know many things,” she said, as she gave him a small goblet of wine.  “But it is no secret who you are.  We have travelled through these parts many times before.  Your father used to give us permission to camp on his lands.  Your brother did the same when we came here two days ago.  It is a shame we must leave so soon.  Drink the wine.  You’ll feel much better.”

As Arthur sipped the wine, he looked at the woman.  She was older than he’d first thought.  There were creases at the corners of her eyes, as well as a few light lines near her mouth.  Her eyes were the darkest brown, almost black.  And there was something almost mystical when he looked into them.

“What is your name?”  he asked.

“Sofia,” she gave him that faint smile again, then turned away.  “I owe you a great debt.  You saved me.”

“You saved yourself.  And your friends certainly did more than I.”

“I think not,” she said as she reached for the jaw of beads.  “If you had not appeared when you did, the outcome might have been much different.  For everyone.  I am in debt to you.  It must be paid.”

Arthur took another sip of wine.  “I assure you that I don’t need any type of reward.  Anyone would’ve done the same.  And probably not fainted at the end of it.”

“Nevertheless, I must give you something as I have no desire to feel obligated to someone I may never see again.  We are preparing to move on because those delightful boys from your village may be back in greater number.  We have no wish to be here when they do.”  She studied him for a moment, her dark eyes probing his.  “I will tell your fortune.”

Arthur’s eyes grew bleak.  “I’m not sure I want to know what’s going to happen.  Not if it’s bad.  It’s….it’s been a bad year for my family.”

Sofia considered that for a moment.  “Arthur, no life can proceed without difficulty.  Some events are tragic.  Others are merely unpleasant.  And sometimes, when we are very lucky, challenges lead us to great happiness.  You cannot live a life devoid of difficulty.  But you can prepare yourself to face what may come.  Wouldn’t knowing be better than not?”

Arthur wasn’t sure that was true at all.  But in the end, he nodded.

Sofia placed a handful of beads on a table, then reached for a deck of cards that had colorful figures painted on them.  Arthur watched her long fingers shuffle the cards over and over again.  Then she laid them out on the table.

“What would you like to know?” she asked.

Arthur wasn’t quite sure what to say.  He rather wanted to know why the tavern maid hadn’t kissed him, but was too embarrassed to ask.  “My family,” he said at last.  “What’s going to happen to my family?”

Sofia played with the deck some more, all the while keeping her eye on him.  Finally, she began turning over cards and studying them.  “One of your brothers…he will travel.”

That piqued Arthur’s interest.  “Perhaps you’re speaking about me?”

Sofia shook her head as she studied the cards.  “No.  Not you.  It is one of your brothers.  He goes over the water.  He’s in danger.  But it leads him to his soul mate.”

Arthur snorted.  “There’s no such thing.”

She met his eyes.  “You’re very wrong, Arthur.  Very wrong indeed.  Your brother will tell you so, but not for several years.”  She shuffled the cards again, then laid them out and turned them over.  “Your sister.  Your sister….she also finds her soul mate.  She is a mother and is safely delivered of six children, all of whom prosper.  And then she…speaks before…she speaks before your English Parliament.”

“Impossible!” said Arthur.

“Nothing is impossible,” Sofia said as she laid out the cards again.  “You have another brother…he tells people not to drink spirits.”

“Must be Lynwood,” said Arthur.  “He’s always telling Ned and me to stay away from his brandy.”

“No, I do not think it is his grace.  I believe it is your youngest brother.  He tells people to stay away from drink and gaming.  And there is a woman involved.”

“I’m sure there will be many women involved, but I cannot believe the rest of Hal.  Do you see anything for Liam?”

Sofia studied the cards.  “The course of true love will not run smoothly.”

“When does it ever?” asked Arthur, getting ready to ask about the tavern girl.

“And now for you,” said Sofia as she lay out the cards.  “You will explore the world, but not for many years.”   She studied the cards intently, then her expression blanked.  Something stilled in Arthur at the sight of it.

“But what happens in the meantime?” he asked.

“That is all the cards told me,” she said as she gathered up the cards and stones, avoiding meeting his eyes.

“There is more, isn’t there?” said Arthur.  He put his hand on her arm.  “Please tell me.”

She debated what to tell him, weighing her words carefully.  “The cards only tell what is likely to happen.  They’ve been wrong before.  You doubted what I said about your sister and brothers.”

He had, but Arthur wanted to know what she wasn’t telling him.  He needed to know.  “What do you see in the cards?  Please, Sofia, you must tell me.”

Sofia looked at him, the weariness of the events of the day in her eyes.  “I see the woman you love being shot by a man and you being unable to get to her in time.”

There was a moment of silence.  Arthur could hardly breathe.  Of course there was nothing to this, just card tricks by a woman who thought she was doing him a kindness.  But just the mere thought of more loss paralyzed him.  He couldn’t face it.  He’d never fall in love; he’d never risk it.

“Remember, Arthur,” said Sofia softly.  “No life is without difficulty.  But do not be afraid to live.”

At that moment, the flap to the wagon’s door was thrown open.  The Romany man who’d first spoken to Sofia looked in on them.

“I’m Michun,” he said to Arthur’s unspoken question.  “Lord Arthur, your family has come to retrieve you.  I will take you to them.”

Michun led Arthur through the camp, which was now in the process of packing up to depart.  Every member of the tribe from the eldest man to the youngest child had a task to complete to facilitate a smooth, quick departure.  All eyes were on Arthur as he passed the wagons where people lived, as well as the stalls of wares the Romany sold in villages, including one that featured intricate jewelry boxes and small chests, which Arthur paused to inspect.  He needed a distraction before he faced his family.  He’d suddenly become quite embarrassed by all the attention focused on him, not to mention the worry he must’ve caused his family.

“We have some of the best artisans in the Rom community,” said Michun proudly.  “If you see something you like, take it.  We cannot thank you enough for what you did for Sofia.”  Then he added softly.  “I personally cannot thank you enough.  She is my mother.”

Arthur looked at the man and noted the similarity to Sofia.  He didn’t know what quirk of fate had made him walk by the field at just the right moment, but he was immeasurably glad he had.

“Arthur!”

Arthur turned to see Hal grinning at him.  He was standing with a solemn Liam, Ned and Lizzie.

“Is it true you fainted?”  Hal couldn’t believe his great good luck.

“Your brother came to my assistance,” said Sofia, as she joined them and made her curtsey to Lynwood.  “He is a very brave man.”

“Arthur,” said Liam, after introductions were made, “how badly are you injured?”

“His head certainly can’t hurt as much as my arm,” said Hal.  “After all, his head is much harder.”

“Might I remind you, Henry,” said Liam, “that your arm wouldn’t hurt if you hadn’t climbed that tree to spy on your brother.”

“Well someone had to make sure he told the truth about the wager.”

“What wager?” asked Lizzie.

Liam shot a quelling look at Hal, who wisely refrained from answering.

Ned dragged his eyes away from a beautiful young woman whose décolletage had also drawn Liam’s interested gaze.  “Are you feeling all the thing, Arthur?”

“I’m fine,” said Arthur.  “Thanks to Sofia and Michun.”

“What happened?” asked Liam.

Arthur glanced at a curious Lizzie, then back at his brother.  “Some of the boys from the village – Miles and Morris and a few others – were, uh, harassing Sofia.  We were able to scare them off, although it was mostly the men from the tribe.”

“I should’ve blacked both of Miles’s eyes when I had the chance,” said Ned.  “Still not too late, I reckon.”

“Thank you for the thought,” said Sofia, “but we hope to depart before too long and with as little attention as possible.”

“I am the magistrate here,” said Liam, asserting himself as Lynwood.  “I can prosecute to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Thank you, your grace,” said Sofia.  “But the law isn’t always an impartial force, regardless of your excellent intentions.”

Liam considered the matter, then nodded.

“Did they hurt you?” Lizzie asked Sofia.  Arthur looked at his sister, who was a skinny little girl in braids, holding a doll that was almost as big as she was.  She’d rarely let go of it since their parents’ death.  And now she was asking about an issue no little girl should ever have to think about.

Sofia smiled at the girl, then smoothed one of her braids.  “Your brother was very brave and took care of me.”

Lizzie looked at Sofia, but made no response.

Michun watched the young duke appraisingly.  “You are much like your father.  Please accept our sincerest sympathy at his passing.”

Liam gave the briefest of nods.  Ned looked off into the horizon.  Hal put his arm around Lizzie, as she leaned into him.  Arthur took little solace in his family’s company.  His thoughts were on the future.

Michun continued.  “The road beckons and it is time for us to go.”

Sofia kissed Arthur’s cheek, then he and his brothers and sister turned to walk back to Lynwood Manor.  Arthur was suddenly anxious to leave the encampment, to go home and try to put his troubling future behind him.  It was best to get his mind off it.  Perhaps a hand of cards when he returned.  That would occupy his thoughts.

Suddenly Lizzie turned and ran back to Sofia.  She held up the doll that meant so much to her.

“Here!” said Lizzie as she thrust the doll into Sofia’s hands.   “I don’t want you to be sad.”   Lizzie looked at the doll one last time, perhaps considering whether to snatch it back again.  Then she ran to her brothers and took Arthur’s hand.

Bravery, thought Arthur, took many different forms.

 

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