Meg Langtofte is a good, god-fearing young woman, so when she gets a job as a nursemaid to the wife of the Earl of Pengraic, she is sure to thank God and keep the Earl and his wife in her prayers at night. But she finds herself liking her mistress, Adelie, who is blonde, pious and devout, much more than her Lord, who has always treated her coldly and who has an unnerving and secretive air about him.
But the news of a plague sweeping across Europe and heading for England strikes fear into not only the lowly, but the great and powerful as well. The Earl sends his wife and his family to safety in Wales, but is recalled to London by Lord Edmond, the King. It isn't just the sickness that has people worried, but the ending of it, where its sufferers burst into flame spontaneously. People whisper that it is no ordinary sickness, that it has actually been sent by the Devil.
Meg worries about her mistress, who is pregnant with the Earl's child, and whom the incessant travelling is weakening steadily. But Meg has caught the eye of the Earl's oldest son, Stephen, who lightens her days, even though she knows there is no future for them- he is the son of the Earl and must marry another noble or even royalty, but she finds happiness in his nearness nonetheless.
Arrival at Pengraic Castle is wonderful, but Adelie's weakness continues, and she withdraws into her room, with only Meg's fellow servant, Evelyn, for company. Meg keeps herself busy with other duties, spending time with Stephen when she can, but with no physical demonstrations of love between them.
Then, she discovers a horrible fact: Adelie has the Burning sickness, and she and Evelyn have been hiding it from everyone. Soon, almost everyone in the castle is either sick or dying, Meg and Stephen among them. Those who weren't sick fled, and all the rest of the Earl's children are dead. She and Stephen wait to die, knowing that their castle isn't the only one afflicted.
But when the Earl arrives, Meg is clinging to life by a thin thread, the last living soul in the castle. Somehow, the Earl is able to heal her, and saves her life, though he denies doing so. He tells her that she owes him for letting his family get sick and die, and he intends her to repay every last jot of the debt. Even as she wonders how she can repay a debt of such a vast scope, the Earl proposes marriage to her- she will replace his wife and give him children- many children, to replace those who died in the plague.
And while Meg secretly fears her husband, aside from those remarks, he is kind to her and doesn't abuse her-in bed or out. But then there are more disturbing rumors- that the plague was the Devil's attempt to find something that has been stolen from him, and that he still seeks the thief in the world. And when the sickness returns, Meg will discover that she has come to the Devil's attention. But what is it about her that makes the Prince of Darkness seek her out, and what does she have to do with the rumors of what has been stolen from the Devil? Can Meg find the object that the Devil is seeking, and what will his attention do to her life, that of a devout and God-fearing soul?
This was the first Sara Douglass book that was set in something approaching our world, and I found it much more interesting than the Axis books or the Wayfarer Redemption series, possibly because the story it told was complete in this volume. The story is sad and exciting all at once, and at the same time, mysterious, as we wonder what Meg and the Devil have to do with each other, and how her husband could save her from the plague when everyone else died.
Meg is quite suspicious of her husband, and readers come to share her suspicions, because we often feel he is lying or being less than truthful to her, and his secrets made me feel that neither Meg nor anyone else should trust him. Is he the Devil himself, or was he sent to this world by the Devil to bring back the thing he wants to Hell? Nobody can be sure, although what the Devil is searching for should be obvious from the title of the book.
An interesting, fascinating book that keeps readers guessing right up until the very last page. Meg's life was rather fantastic, but at the same time, it was easy to understand and go along with the decisions she made and to feel sorry for her- sometimes, it feels as if life has her over a barrel and any choice she makes will end badly for her, but she can't refuse to choose at the same time. Highly recommended.