North Yorkshire Dales, 1819
Stella shifted the overstuffed burlap sack from her right shoulder to her left and winced as it found new territory to torture. Woolen undergarments under a woolen dress under a woolen cape were no protection, not with breads and cold meats and tins of biscuits, nuts and cheeses juggling around the bag and pressing the holly prickles into her back.
Where were Magi with camels when she needed them?
Nowhere to be seen this night. But there were sheep, chomping a few last bites of grass or hunkering down against the storm sweeping in from the southwest. A bank of clouds lay dead ahead and was moving fast. It would surely beat her to the house.
She’d make faster time without the Christmas supplies, but they were sorely needed. Bertha’s knees were paining her, and the packets of food meant less work for her in the kitchen. When she asked, Mrs. Rondale added a bagful of medicinal salts for soaking Bertha’s arthritic hands and creating hot compresses for John’s knee. There was something for Annie as well. Stella didn’t know what it was, but Mrs. Rondale had smiled and winked when she slipped it into the sack. Leaving anything behind was unthinkable. If she abandoned so much as the holly on Rondale land, they might discover it and be offended that their generosity had meant so little.
Stella picked up her pace, dodging sheep as she sped by, until the burst of speed fizzled out. Panting, she dropped the sack and sucked in long breaths of icy air. Overhead, stars blazed against the clear black sky. Her last chance to see them for several nights, most like, if the storm settled in. With her luck, it would last until April.
Lifting her head, she traced the winter constellations as her father had taught her. Orion. Gemini. Taurus. Perseus. Casseopeia. She loved Papa’s stories about the constellations. They brimmed over with violence and passion, vengeance and sacrifice and heartbreak. Gods and goddesses were invariably up to no good in the myths, but at least they had adventures. Challenges. Excitement.
“If ever you wander astray,” Papa always said, “look to the golden star. It will guide you where you need to go.” She knew where to find Capella, the goat star, far to the north, but because she’d never had an adventure that could possibly have led her astray, she’d had no need of a guiding star.
Sometimes she’d longed for a different life, though, one with fewer sheep, closer neighbors, and friends her own age. If she sold the property, she could rent a small townhouse in York, where there were museums and musical evenings and dancing. Perhaps meet a gentleman who would see something fine in her. But that was only an air dream. Years of isolated country living and making do had worn her to a nub and ground her girlhood hopes to powder. She had obligations as well, and was glad of them. Nothing would change. Not here in the moorlands. Nor would she abandon the loyal servants who had helped care for her father and seen her through her darkest days. They were her family now, and she loved them.
Papa had also assured her that stars could grant wishes if they chose, and if they got around to it. They needed to be regularly reminded. And sometimes, they didn’t quite understand what you meant. “Choose a star carefully,” he’d told her. “Kiss the wish onto your fingertip and point it at the star. Then speak your wish three times in simple words, and imagine you have pinned it to the star. Someday, when you’re not expecting it, your wish will come true.”
From experience, she knew better. For a long time, she’d wished for enough money to escape the moors and set up a townhouse large enough for all of them, until she realized they loved the country life and would be unhappy there. So she wished instead to provide Bertha and John a fortnight in Buxton or Bath to take the waters. But life shuffled on, and not even her smallest wishes were granted. She’d long ago given up on the stars, except to delight in their beauty.
Still, it was Christmas Eve, and in the absence of angels announcing good news to shepherds, she might as well send a holiday message of her own. Maybe some of the sheep had magical powers. Scanning Orion, the doomed hunter, she found the pale star at the tip of his sword and pinned her wish to it. “Don’t let her come home,” she called three times, imagining Orion slashing his sword into action. “You know who I mean.”
Just thinking about her stepmother made her want to stomp on something. Instead, she hoisted up the burlap sack, muttering un-Christmassy oaths as the holly had at her again, and set her feet into a steady lope. In her experience, anger was reliably energizing.
Almost immediately, the first white flakes wafted down. Clouds scudded overhead, grey and black, roiling as they smothered the stars. By the time she reached the low stone wall and located the stile, the snow was falling in earnest, encrusting her lashes and numbing her lips. She clambered to the other side and wiped her eyes, seeking lights from the house to guide her.
A narrow path led from the stile to the barn and from there to the scraggly kitchen garden, two small sheds, the chicken house, and a carriage house leased to the Rondales for storage. Beyond it sprawled Moor Mansion, her name for the creaky old building, part stone, part wood, all in need of repair. Built two centuries earlier, it had served as a rich sheep farmer’s residence, a school, a makeshift orphanage, a poor man’s home, and was now become a refuge for four lost souls.
To save oil and wood and coal, no lights or fire showed at the rear of the house. Grumbling, she trudged along the carriage road, head down against the blowing snow, hoping John would see her from a window and come out to help her with the sack.
No such luck. But as she drew closer to the front corner, a glimmer of light—no, two lights—caught her attention. They were about six feet apart and high off the ground, taller than any man. Lanterns, perhaps, attached to poles. And they were moving in her direction.
Then a dark shadow, large and swaying, passed through ambient light from the windows at the front of the house.
A driverless carriage.
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