Here’s the first chapter. Hope you enjoy!
IN THE KINGDOM OF TRAXLIN, ON THE edge of the Black Forest, there lived a young lord and his lady. Traxlin was poor, having suffered several years of terrible drought, and Nicholas and his wife, Phaidra, were the poorest of all the nobles. They were scarcely better off than the tenants who farmed the lands around their manor house and the village of Dittforth.
But Nicholas and Phaidra were an optimistic pair, and cheerfully set about restoring his family’s lands. After several years and much hard work, they succeeded in turning the tide. Dittforth was far too small and humble to ever bring them great wealth, but they had enough to keep themselves and their tenants comfortable—and pay the king his taxes.
As the years began to roll smoothly past, however, the Lord and Lady of Dittforth encountered another troubling problem: Phaidra remained childless.
“They’ve had no heir,” said the village men gravely. “His Lordship needs a son.”
“Her Ladyship still has no wee one to hold,” sighed the women.
After four years, news raced throughout Dittforth that Lady Phaidra was with child. They only had a month or two to celebrate before she lost the baby.
“It happens,” said the older women sagely. “Always a terrible thing for any mother to lose her first child, but these things happen.”
As disappointed and heartsick as he was over the baby’s loss, Nicholas did his best to console his wife. “We’ll have another, my love,” he said tenderly, holding his weeping wife in the early hours of the morning and resting his brown-bearded cheek against her glossy brown hair. “Just wait and see.”
There were other children—but not in the way either of them wanted.
Over the next eight years, Phaidra miscarried five more times.
With each baby’s loss, she gave up a little more hope of ever having a child to love and took to staring out the window with a soft, sad look in her eyes. For his part, Nicholas gradually resigned himself to the fact that he would have no child to inherit Dittforth. The Manse, the village, and the surrounding lands would pass to his younger brother’s family.
And then one day, when both of them had relinquished all hope of ever having a child of their own, a cloaked and hooded stranger appeared in the Manse’s Great Hall.
Nicholas and Phaidra sat at dinner, their usual company seated up and down the table with them. They all became aware of the stranger at approximately the same time—and a hush fell over the Great Hall. Every eye watched the man as he moved soundlessly toward the table.
He was of medium height, though his features were obscured by a long, gray cloak, slightly tattered about the edges as though it had recently seen a good bit of wear. He carried no weapons, not even a staff, yet something about the way he carried himself commanded everyone’s attention.
When he reached the table opposite the dais on which Nicholas and Phaidra sat, he bowed. “Lord Nicholas?” His voice had a strange, lilting quality, as though every word literally rolled off his tongue when he spoke.
“I am he.” Nicholas’s answer rumbled through the silent Hall.
The stranger deepened his bow. “May I request an audience with my Lord and Lady?”
Green met brown as Nicholas and his wife exchanged startled—but strangely unconcerned—glances.
“A private audience,” the stranger added, coming up from his bow. Sharp gray eyes glinted from within the depths of his hood. “It concerns a subject I believe to be dear to your Lordship’s heart.”
“Show yourself,” Nicholas commanded.
Gloved hands rose to push back his hood, revealing long, colorless hair that seemed to glow in the reflected light from sconces and torches set in regular intervals along the walls… and strange gray eyes set in a face as white as a sheet of paper.
Soft gasps echoed around the Great Hall.
The stranger was a young man, with sharp, almost hawk-like features, but he did not look like any individual anyone in the Great Hall had ever encountered.
Nicholas traded glances with Phaidra again, and then looked at his right-hand man. Sir Guyre was his age, and they were brothers in spirit and heart. They had fought together, bled together, worked the soil together, and Nicholas trusted him implicitly. “Escort him to my study. We’ll join you presently.”
With a nod, Guyre left his seat and moved around the table to flank the stranger. In a voice that brooked no disagreement, he said, “Follow me.”
With a gracious nod and another bow, the stranger departed the Great Hall with Guyre.
Nicholas and Phaidra finished their meal—Phaidra with a slight loss of appetite due to a combination of concern and curiosity—and exited the Great Hall.
Slipping her arm through her husband’s, Phaidra asked, “What can he possibly want?”
Nicholas only shook his head.
They hastened through the corridors of the Manse and climbed the staircase to the second floor. Just before Nicholas opened the door, Phaidra squeezed his arm and gave him an encouraging smile. He smiled back and pushed the heavy wooden door open.
Warm air and the cheerful crackle of a fire met them as they entered the room. In addition to being Nicholas’s study, it also served as Phaidra’s sitting room. In the winter, they often sat together by the fireplace; in the summer, they sat together on the deep window seat behind Nicholas’s desk. Sometimes they took turns reading aloud. Phaidra liked that best; she loved to listen to her husband’s voice as she sewed or knitted.
Instead of finding the stranger warming himself by the fire, as they expected, they found Guyre by the fire and the stranger standing six feet away in the middle of the room. For a second, Nicholas and Phaidra both had the brief, fleeting impression that the cloaked man seemed a little wary of the flames dancing merrily before him. It passed, and Nicholas settled behind his great desk, while Phaidra curled up in her usual spot on the window seat. Guyre remained by the fire, ready to intervene should the stranger do anything unexpected… or unwelcome.
“Now, then.” Nicholas cleared his throat. “What’s this all about?”
“My lord, I did request a private audience,” the stranger said mildly, his strange gray eyes flicking to Guyre.
When the temperature in the room plummeted a few degrees as both Nicholas and Guyre just stared at him, he sighed and spread his hands. “I mean you no harm, my lord. My lady.” He nodded to Phaidra. “Believe me, however, when I say that if I had intended you ill, no mortal man could have stopped me.”
Guyre growled at this and took a step forward. “My lord—”
Nicholas held up a hand and opened his mouth to speak, but the stranger interrupted.
“I’ve come about a child.”
That brought everyone up short.
It was Phaidra who finally broke the stunned silence. “What do you mean?” she asked in a soft voice. “What child?”
Something like satisfaction shone in the stranger’s gray eyes; he devoted his attention to her. “A child I rescued from slaughter, Lady Phaidra. A child whose entire family is now dead.”
At this, Phaidra gasped, one hand flying to her throat.
Nicholas and Guyre exchanged startled, half-angry glances. “Where did this occur?” Nicholas demanded. “Who dared to do such a thing?”
“This did not happen in Dittforth, my lord.” The stranger inclined his torso in a slight bow. “Nor in the lands of anyone in your kingdom. I have journeyed far in search of you.”
This floored the men again.
Phaidra looked at her speechless husband and then back at the stranger. “Why? Where is this child now?” Despite herself, a thin thread of hope unfurled inside her. She clenched her fingers in the heavy folds of her burgundy winter gown and tried to tamp it down.
“She is safe for the moment, my lady,” said the stranger. “But not, I fear, for long.”
“She?” Nicholas echoed. For a second, an old ache filled his chest as a nascent hope he had not even realized had sprung to life quietly died.
The stranger bent his head. “She is the last of her line.”
“What happened?” Phaidra asked in horror.
“The story stretches back years, my lady, and would take far longer to tell than any of us have time. Suffice to say, her family was destroyed in an internal conflict that has wracked our…” he paused briefly, as though searching for a word, “…realm.”
Guyre spoke suddenly. “How came you to save this child, if she is not of your family?”
Pain and shadows that hinted at dark things best left unseen and unsaid filled the stranger’s eyes. “I loved her father and mother like my own family. I am her sworn godfather, but I cannot keep her.” Deep regret colored his next words. “She will never be safe with me.”
He met—and held—Phaidra’s gaze, and she nodded slowly in understanding. “So you have come here.” Hope continued to swell inside her breast; her hands began to tremble in her lap.
“So I have come here,” the stranger agreed. “Her father was—” he hesitated, then plunged ahead. “Because of her father, she is of noble blood. I have been searching for a family fit to take her and raise her as their own for some time now.”
If Nicholas had not been sitting down, his knees would have given way beneath him. “You mean you came expressly to Dittforth to give this child to us?”
“I did.” The stranger inclined his head again. “There are… other… considerations, but I shall come to them in a moment. If I may?” He looked from Nicholas to Guyre and indicated his cloak.
Guyre granted him permission with a nod.
“What is your name?” Nicholas asked belatedly.
The stranger was reaching into the folds of his cloak, but he paused long enough to offer Nicholas and Phaidra a grim smile. “My name is not important. Indeed, you will all be better off without it.”
At this, Nicholas and Guyre both looked wary, but Phaidra asked, “What is the child’s name?”
In lieu of an answer, the stranger produced a piece of paper, which he laid gently down upon the polished wooden surface of Nicholas’s desk.
Phaidra pressed a hand to her mouth, tears springing to her eyes. “She’s beautiful.”
On the snowy paper, a sketch of a baby girl had been inked with delicate strokes. Tendrils of black hair fell over her forehead; her rosebud mouth was pursed in sleep. One tiny hand was curled in a fist.
“Will you keep her, my lord and lady?” The stranger’s eyes glinted. “Will you love her and cherish her, and raise her as your own blood?” His words had an odd, heavy cadence to them.
Nicholas looked at his wife; Phaidra stared back at him with imploring eyes. “I would like to see the child,” he said at last.
The stranger hesitated for only an instant. “Very well, my lord. I will fetch her.”
Instead of turning to the door, however, he stepped closer to the desk—and the ink drawing that lay upon it. To Nicholas, Phaidra, and Guyre’s complete and utter astonishment, the stranger then proceeded to sink his hands into the drawing.
Before they had time to gasp, the stranger lifted a squirming little bundle wrapped in a slate gray blanket from the sheet of paper. “Here she is.” He sounded just the slightest bit wary himself, as though he was suddenly unsure of their reaction.
As Nicholas and Phaidra got a good look at the child, they understood. She looked just like the stranger. Her lips were the palest shade of gray imaginable, and her fuzzy hair was indeed black as a raven’s wing, but her skin…
Phaidra touched one tiny fist in sheer amazement. The baby’s skin was as white as the very paper from which the stranger had somehow conjured her. “Incredible,” she breathed.
Nicholas’s green eyes dropped from the baby to the piece of paper… which was now blank. He found his voice with an effort. “How—how did you—”
“That does not matter.” The stranger brushed Nicholas’s stumbling words aside and looked down at the baby cradled in his arms. “She is… different. Like me. Like her family. That is why I have taken such care in searching out a home for her.” Raising his head, he pinned Nicholas and Phaidra both in turn with a steely, penetrating look. “What is your answer? Will you raise her as your own?”
Nicholas looked at his wife again. He saw her answer—it was written all over her face—but the ultimate responsibility was his own. He glanced at Guyre, whose expression held wary confusion, but no repulsion. The child, though different in her complexion, was just a child. A helpless little orphan, who likely had no idea her real parents were dead. How can she? he thought.
Straightening his spine, Nicholas reached for Phaidra’s hand. “We will raise her as our own blood.”
A gleam of hope mixed with triumph shone in the stranger’s eyes. “Will you love, cherish, and protect her?”
“We will,” answered Nicholas and Phaidra together.
“Then I give her to you gladly.” Bowing his head, the stranger kissed the sleeping child’s forehead and held her out to Phaidra. “My lady.”
Phaidra took the child from him with trembling hands and cradled her in her arms. She marveled at how light the child felt. Biting her lower lip, she touched one downy cheek with a finger and felt tears well up in her eyes. She looked up at her husband and gave him a watery smile. “We have a daughter, my love.”
Nicholas smoothed a gentle hand over the baby’s dark head. For a moment, he and his wife stood together, looking down at this new, amazing addition to their family. Then Nicholas thought to turn back to the stranger, who was watching them almost wistfully. “What shall we call her?”
“Anything you like.” One corner of the stranger’s mouth curved up in a sad smile. “She is yours now, my lord. Her real name would prove too dangerous, I fear.”
All eyes turned to the child in Phaidra’s arms again. She raised the bundle in her arms and pressed a gentle kiss to each cheek. The baby stirred in her sleep, but did not wake. “I think we should call her Ink.”
For a second, neither Nicholas nor Sir Guyre thought they had heard her correctly. “Pardon, my love,” Nicholas said slowly, “but did you say you wanted to name her Ink?”
Phaidra nodded serenely. “It’s unusual, true, but I think it suits her, don’t you?” She smiled at her husband, her expression as radiant as the dawn breaking over the morning sky. “She came from an ink drawing, after all.”
The stranger coughed, though it could have been a smothered laugh.
“Ink.” Nicholas let the name roll off his tongue. “Our daughter, Lady Ink.” His brow furrowed in thought. “I must admit, Phaidra, it has a ring to it.” He glanced at his best friend, who could only nod in bewilderment.
“Lady Ink.” The stranger lingered over the words. “I believe you have chosen well.” Drawing himself up to his full height, he inclined his torso forward in a graceful bow. “My lord, my lady, I must bid you farewell.”
Startled, Nicholas looked up from the pretty picture his wife made with the baby in her arms. “You may spend the night here, if you like.”
The stranger shook his head, his colorless hair glinting in the firelight with the movement. “I thank you for the invitation, Lord Nicholas, but I must most respectfully decline. My task here is finished; I must return to my own people.”
“Will you visit her?” Phaidra asked.
“If only I could, my lady.” The stranger shook his head again. “It is impossible. My presence will only place her in danger.”
Guyre now stepped forward. “I’ll show him out, my lord.” This was something within the realm of the things he could do.
“Very well.” Nicholas nodded to Guyre, imparting with that one look an injunction against breathing a word about this child.
Guyre bowed and turned to usher the stranger out of the study.
“Wait!” Phaidra called softly. She glanced from the child in her arms to the stranger. Ink was clearly not a newborn, but she was too small to be a year old. “When was she born?”
Again, shadows flickered through the stranger’s eyes. “I cannot tell you the exact day, my lady, but I can tell you she was born when flowers bloom.”
“Thank you,” Phaidra breathed. It was better than nothing.
The door closed behind the two men, leaving the new parents alone. Later—much later, after he’d had a drink or two to help him wrap his mind around how a man could pull a baby from an ink drawing in the first place—Guyre would tell Nicholas that as far as he could determine, no one in the village had seen the stranger once he left the Manse. The man seemed to have vanished into the thin air from whence he came.
Inside Nicholas’s study, Phaidra still cradled the little girl. Tears of joy continued to stream down her cheeks. “I know she’s not a son, Nicholas, but we have a child.”
Ink finally stirred, coming slowly awake. She began to whimper, and Phaidra bent over her, whispering soothingly. It did little to help. Ink’s whimpers turned to squalls, and no amount of rocking or hushing on Phaidra’s part could comfort her.
After a few moments, Phaidra thrust the child toward her husband. “Perhaps she needs to hear a man’s voice. She’s been traveling with her godfather, after all.” She bit her lip. “Perhaps his voice carried through the—through the paper.”
They shared a look; neither of them had any idea how to explain what had just happened.
Nicholas held the child against his chest awkwardly; he, too, noted how very light she felt in his arms. “Here now, Ink,” he said softly, his voice rumbling in his chest. “No need to fret. We’re your new parents.”
The rumbling in his chest did exactly what Phaidra had hoped for; Ink quieted. She blinked up at Nicholas and waved a tiny fist. She had soulful black eyes, framed by gorgeously long eyelashes that fluttered adorably when she blinked. He smiled down at her, feeling something in his chest expand, and said tenderly, “Welcome to our family, little one.”
Ink Realm: Lady Ink is available at: