The name, expelled on a puff of air through withered lips, was barely audible. Haunted eyes pled for a response, but the young girl, Nell, cringed into her father’s arms. He wept as he hugged her to him.
“Who would bring a child here?” one of the guards at the door whispered. “She’ll have nightmares seeing her mother like that.”
“Families never expect it to be this bad,” the other replied.
Could her father hear them? Nell spared an upward glance at the grief-stricken man, then shifted her attention back to her mother upon the bed. The woman’s once lovely face was now wasted, her cheeks sunken and her skin pallid. Her hair hung limp and dull around her.
She looked like a stranger, sickly and mad. The cleric who had allowed them access to this room had commanded, in firm tones, that no one was to touch her.
Those withered lips parted again, straining to speak. A skeletal hand moved from beneath the blanket in a frail attempt to caress her daughter’s freckled cheek. Nell, torn between a yearning to embrace and an urge to flee, fixed her gaze upon the pattern that entwined the wrist and fingers. The pale, silvery mark coiled up her mother’s arm and disappeared beneath the loose sleeve of her white robe.
Only four months ago, it had been a simple, star-like spot on the inside of the wrist, purple around its edges and easy to hide. Her mother had been otherwise whole and healthy then.
The feeble fingers came too close. Nell’s father, too distraught, did not notice. One of the guards interceded, jerking the pair away from the dying woman. “That’s enough,” he said. “Surely you have seen enough.”
He herded them to the door, his grasp digging into Nell’s upper arm when she dragged her heels. She managed one last look over her shoulder. Tears streamed down her mother’s hollow cheeks, and the withered mouth moved in another futile attempt to speak. She extended that diseased hand toward them still as though pleading for them to take her with them, pleading not to be left behind in the loneliness of her stark white room, where the acrid smell of death encroached.
As Nell’s vision blurred, the image burned itself on her brain, a scar she would carry for the rest of her life.
Outside, a cleric in pale ceremonial garb favored them with an expression of forced sympathy. He drummed his white-gloved fingers, palms together as though they had interrupted him in prayer. “I warned you that her condition was failing. She has only a day or two left, at most.”
Nell’s father gibbered. “But… but the treatments—”
“They are treatments only. We have no cure for the deathmark, as well you should know.”
In a sudden frenzy, he let go of Nell to grasp the man’s immaculate robe. “Find one! You are supposed to find one! This plague—you must—!” The guards pulled him away as he ranted. “You clerics are supposed to help us! You can’t just let her die!”
Once freed from her father’s grieving clutches, the cleric took a moment to straighten his rumpled clothing. “I’m sorry,” he said, adjusting the fit of his pristine gloves around his wrists. “Your wife is certainly not the first to succumb, and she won’t be the last as long as necromancers infest this land. We’re doing our best, but the cure continues to elude us.”
The words sounded rehearsed to Nell’s young ears. The plague of dark magic had afflicted Alderyth for almost a century, its outbreaks unpredictable, its victims always dead within half a year. Vaguely she supposed that the cleric had explained this to a lot of grieving families.
Her father, meanwhile, struggled against the guards who held him back. Angry accusations poured from his lips. “You’re not trying hard enough. You took her here, isolated her, and forbade us from coming until the end. Who knows, but that you left her alone to die—!”
The cleric’s patience snapped. “Get him out of here.” His cold eyes flitted toward Nell. “And check them both for the mark before you let them leave.”
Obediently the guards led Nell down the hall alongside her protesting father, away from the indifferent cleric and the stark room where her mother lay dying. A buzzing filled her ears, a sense of decay all around her.
She did not look back, terrified and ashamed of that terror. The mother she knew and loved was already gone. In her heart, Nell hoped never to return to this place.
Chapter 1: The Inn on the Highway
“Nell, I’m dying out here!” A petite blonde pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, arms laden with two trays of empty tankards.
Catcalls of “Maisy! Pretty Maisy, come back!” followed her.
At the sink, elbows-deep in suds, nineteen-year-old Nell glanced up. “I swear every man in Middlewood must be here tonight,” she muttered.
Maisy deposited her trays on the counter, consternation on her face. “We’re lucky we have anything left to serve them.”
Nell’s mouth thinned. The sink already brimmed with dishes, too full to add more. She dunked several soapy cups into the rinse water before transferring them to the drain board. Meanwhile, Maisy pulled ale from the nearest keg, but she kept shifting her attention toward the washing station.
She needed help, and she was contemplating how best to ask.
In resignation, Nell sighed. “Are Lara and Sue both busy?” The other two serving girls had been in and out all evening, but they had collected meals along with their drinks. Maisy confirmed her suspicions.
“They’re tending the private parlors. Three traveling parties stopped in this afternoon, and all of them are famished at the same time. Every room is full to the brim.”
Nell uttered a mild oath under her breath.
Baker’s Inn and Tavern had, some three decades ago, hosted the Earl of Essemere for a stop on his honeymoon tour. This brief encounter with nobility—with the so-called “kingmaker,” no less—made it the most reputable such establishment for fifty miles along Alderyth’s Capital Highway. Tonight’s traffic, travelers and the local community alike, represented the downside of its popularity. The Bakers were too penny-pinching to retain extra staff for such nights. Three barmaids plus Nell—whose primary domain was supposed to be the kitchen—could hardly keep up.
She rubbed the sweat from her forehead, careful of the soap on her hand. She hated crowds, and she hated working the common room even more. “Give me a minute to rinse these and I’ll be out to help.”
“Where’s Mr. Baker?” Maisy asked as she loaded drinks on a tray.
Nell shrugged. He had retreated to the wine cellar half an hour ago, and to parts unknown from there. He wouldn’t appear again tonight. But then, he’d been scarce for most of the day, too.
Understanding dawned on Maisy’s pretty face, followed by disgust. “That lout. I don’t know how you’ve kept up with everything in here all by yourself.”
“If you’re behind in the common room, I haven’t kept up.” Nell saw no point in complaining about Mr. Baker or his binges, however frequent they had become. Instead, she wiped her hands dry on a dish towel and crossed to the big oven, where she traded out a pan of freshly baked meat pies for another set of raw ones.
Maisy disappeared out the swinging door again. A hail of cheers greeted her. Everyone loved the flirtatious blonde. Nell, drab and reserved in comparison, dreaded following, but she couldn’t delay forever. Maisy was a hired girl. Nell was indentured. Her failure to work would result in a beating.
She loaded a fresh tray with drinks. Maisy swooped back in again.
“I can’t keep up! It’s like they’ve taken a vow to see who can get drunk the quickest.”
“I’ll be out soon,” Nell said as she placed one last pint on the tray.
Maisy hefted it. “I hate to add to your work.”
“If you don’t, Mrs. Baker surely will.”
The blonde frowned, but she couldn’t refute this. She returned to the common room, and Nell quickly rotated the dishes in the sink.
From afar, the bell at the inn’s entrance jangled. A cry of welcome rose from the crowd.
The swinging door opened again. Lara hurried in, with Sue on her heels. She surveyed the chaos of the kitchen. “Ooh, Mr. Baker chose an awful night to scare off.”
Sue slapped some hot meat pies onto plates. “He scares off every night. He’s just earlier than usual—maybe he knew what we were in for. Nell, you have more of these pies at the ready?”
“They’re in the oven,” she said, preparing another set of drinks.
“Better have more after that. Those who aren’t thirsty are ravenous, among the travelers, at least.”
To Nell’s dismay, Lara confiscated the drinks she had just poured.
“Quality gets ’em before the common room,” the woman said unapologetically. “Same goes for the food.” The pair sailed back out the door.
Nell pulled another set of glasses. She had rolled out all the pies that afternoon and had only two batches left to bake. When they were gone, that was the end of it. If Mr. Baker were around, he could throw together something more, but Nell couldn’t split herself three ways to cover cooking, dishes, and serving all at once.
Maisy returned to trade more empty glasses for full ones. On her heels came the plump, pinch-faced Mrs. Baker. “Nell! What are you doing in here, you lazy bag of bones?”
No questions about her husband’s whereabouts. No offers to help. Only insults and censure ever fell from the woman’s tight little mouth.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Baker,” Nell murmured as she prepared more drinks. Shame still ate at her so readily, even after nearly a decade under the woman’s command.
Maisy, halfway back to the swinging door, stopped and stared. “Mrs. Baker—”
“Our patrons are waiting, Maisy,” the woman said. In a snide voice, she added, “They certainly haven’t come to leer at Nell.”
The words raked across Nell’s sensitive soul. She didn’t want patrons leering at her, but neither did she need a reminder of her physical shortcomings—mud-brown hair, mud-brown eyes, a pointed face that was far too plain beneath its excessive spray of freckles.
Maisy reluctantly passed into the common room. Nell kept working, intent upon pouring ale even as Mrs. Baker’s sharp gaze pierced her back. The woman sidled up behind her and, with stubby fingers, viciously tweaked a lock of her hair.
Nell bit back her instinctive yelp.
“It’s getting too long. We’ll shear it off tonight, after closing time. Wouldn’t want anyone to mistake your station in life, would we?”
“No, Mrs. Baker.” She suppressed the urge to cry. Her hair was kept short as a sign of her indenture, in a ridiculous, ugly bowl cut. After weeks of growth it had finally reached her chin. Of course Mrs. Baker would want to cut it all off again.
“Come find me after the cleaning’s done.”
“Yes, Mrs. Baker.”
“And stop dawdling, you stupid girl. Patrons don’t pay until you’ve served them.” She slapped the side of Nell’s head and left the kitchen in superior disdain.
It was no worse a rebuke than Nell had received a dozen times this week.
Were it not for Mr. and Mrs. Baker, she would have spent half her childhood in the dreary, rundown orphanage they had bought her from. Without their patronage, she would have been free at eighteen instead of indentured until twenty-one, but the orphanage had had a scarcity of food and plenty of children older and stronger than her. Here at least she had regular meals to go along with the roof over her head.
Still, as often as she repeated this to herself, she couldn’t help wishing the unhappy pair had chosen a different victim to receive their dubious charity.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Maisy whispered as they passed each other in the doorway. “That far table’s been waiting longest.”
Nell reluctantly approached the group of rowdy young men. Most were farmers and plowmen who had lived in and around Middlewood all of their lives. Some were near her age. It was only logical to serve the table that had waited longest, but this group had obviously come to ogle Maisy while they drank. Nell would have much rather served some of the older men, who had merely come to quench their thirst after a busy day.
Sure enough, “Oh, no!” exclaimed one man as Nell quietly set the first mug on the table. “We wanted Maisy! Pretty Maisy!”
She ignored the embarrassment that crept up her neck, shoulders tense and senses alert for how their disappointment might escalate.
A hand rose to take the second mug from her before she could set it down. “I don’t mind Nell as long as she comes bearing grog,” said the owner of that hand, and he grinned up at her. “Even she might start to look good after I’ve tossed back a few swigs.”
Nell instinctively scowled, and the whole table roared with laughter. Her fingers itched to pour the rest of her load over their heads, but she simply completed her task, never saying a word. When Maisy reappeared, the group let up a holler of appreciation, and Nell escaped to the kitchen for another round.
She didn’t want them to treat her like they treated Maisy. She wouldn’t know how to react, for she certainly couldn’t affect the blonde’s coquettish expressions, nor could she banter with the customers. It wasn’t for a lack of wits, but an utter lack of daring. Nell was too timid to say aloud what she thought in secret.
Even so, she was still human and still a girl. While she didn’t want undue notice, it hurt to be treated like an insignificant speck.
It had always been such in Middlewood, though. From the moment she arrived, Mr. and Mrs. Baker had spread her story, alienating her from the whole town. Everyone knew that her mother had contracted the deathmark and her father had gone insane with grief. No one pitied her for losing both parents within a year of each other. Rather, they praised the Bakers’ generosity for taking such a wretched creature under their care.
Contempt was more familiar to her than kindness, but it helped her not to form attachments here. The very day she turned twenty-one, she vowed, she would abandon this awful inn and this awful town and never look back.
Thank you for reading! I’m both excited and terrified to release this fantasy novel into the world. It owes its inspiration to THE BLUE CASTLE by LM Montgomery, but for any fans of that work, I’ll warn that the similarities might be more subtle than overt. In truth, I can’t actually gauge how alike they are. Just, the inspiration is unquestionably there.
Also, while the plague backdrop might seem on-the-nose for the times we live in, I wrote my first draft back in 2010. Thus life imitates art, or something like that.
DEATHMARK releases on March 1, 2023. The ebook is available for pre-order on Amazon.