Claiming Joanna

The Refugee’s Song

An Aegean Immortals Prequel

Chapter 1

1648, Canterbury, England

The lingering heat of smoke and ash was as gentle as a lover’s touch when it brushed Joanna LeClair Holt’s face. She recoiled and doubled over in the forest, gagging as her stomach heaved. There was nothing there to vomit — only the sharp taste of bile and spit as it crossed her lips. Her scarred fingers jumped to shield her nose from the scent as she turned to squint toward its source.

Toward her shelter.

Pulling the tattered remains of her dress over her mouth, the woman swallowed back on the panic that threatened to rise with another heave and ran. Joanna stumbled through the sun-dappled underbrush with thorns grabbing at her clothing as if to stop her. The basket of woven reeds she wore at her back for gathering herbs smacked against a tree trunk, and she heard a crack.

She whispered a plea in her native French, all but choking as the smoke grew thicker.

The woman crashed through the undergrowth, tumbling out of the tree line to fall to the ground of the clearing where she had made her second home.

“Maman!” The voice of her daughter, her Marjolaine, wailed from the cloud of smoke.

J’arrive!” She called in answer. Digging into the mud, she clawed her way to a stand.

The child’s wails became a fit of coughing muffled by debris and ash.

But her daughter’s cries were made of the same spirits as the scorching fires of Joanna’s memories. This was not the farm. There were no timbers to pull aside and scald her hands on, and no limp body to carry from Marjolaine’s room out into the fields.

There was only the home she had built after the first had burned to the ground — only ghosts that haunted her in the face of her shelter’s ruins. Only a charred skeleton remained of the fallen tree she had used for her roof. Beneath it, the old pot she had found in the rubbish of Canterbury laid amidst the ashes. Soot covered the vegetable garden she had been tending since the early days of spring and torn roots laid amid the freshly disturbed earth.

She stared at the boot prints that had replaced her promised crop.

Thoughtlessly, the woman stepped forward, only for the scorched scent to roll across the clearing again. Biting down on the threat of illness, she turned from the scene to stumble back toward the depths of the forest.

Gone. Gone again. Alone again.

Joanna fell three times before she made it to the stream, and gasping, she reached her fingers into the waters to splash it into her face and mouth. She hadn’t left a fire burning. She never left a fire. But then, she hadn’t stomped her garden, either.

Joanna straightened and winced. Someone had found her shelter. Not the Watch, who would have waited to take her to a workhouse, or prison for squatting in the King’s forest, or to deport her to France. Someone else. She eased to a sit and drew her damaged basket from over her shoulders. Reaching inside, the French woman dug uselessly through the roots and herbs she had gathered.

It wouldn’t make a meal. The meager coin she had earned from begging in the streets was hidden away in the remnants of the fire — if someone had not stolen it. Laying back on the muddy bank, she breathed a shuddering exhale and pressed her hand atop her bonnet.

“Oh, je t’en prie. Pardonne-moi…” She whispered the words as soft as a prayer and closed her eyes against the sunlight. A selfish part of her wanted to just lay and the let the mud swallow her — the more selfish part knew that she could not. Giving up was forbidden. If she wanted to see Marjolaine and Jakob again, she could not choose the escape that beckoned. She needed to survive.

It meant going to town and begging again. Her hand slipped from her bonnet to pluck at the tattered ribbon she wore around her throat — Marjolaine’s ribbon. The only thing that survived of the girl. The ribbon, and the scars. Lifting her hand away from her neck, the woman stared at the mottled, seared markings across her skin and fingers.

“Je suis si désolée.” The apology passed her lips. Whether it was to her daughter or to God, she did not know. It did not feel genuine enough, and in silence, she eased herself back into a stand.

Survive.