Familiar passions on display in Merrie old England--but described with all the sharp edges of a modern sensibility--in this first US appearance for agreeable British writer Birch. The setting is medieval England, where lords hunt with pet hawks and carouse nightly in their drafty castles, but Birch's England is more dull sepia than bright technicolor. An underlying sense of menace pervades the landscape as the mysterious Bayardine and his band rob the rich, witches weave spells, and rumors of a landless multitude on the move frighten the gentry. Young Belle, betrothed since childhood to a wealthy neighboring noble's son, the effete William, escapes nightly from her home--where her father is dying and where ambitious brother Hugh suffers from terrifying nightmares--to tryst with handsome peasant John Herron. In love with what she knows to be the ``utterly forbidden,'' Belle is discovered by Hugh, who lures Herron into the forest, where he brutally cuts his throat but not fatally, for Herron is rescued by an old soothsayer who lives with Bayardine and his band. Forced to marry William and move to his father's castle, Belle mourns Herron's absence, but when her jealous father-in-law, suspecting his wife of having an affair with Bayardine, has Hugh kill him, Belle learns just what happened to Herron. There is a happy ending of sorts as Herron appears and claims Belle, but this is a story infused with contemporary attitudes of realism, not romance; as the lovers flee the castle, a hawk seizes Belle's beloved parrot. Notice is served that the world out there continues to be a dark and nasty place. With all the verve and freshness of a natural storyteller, Birch transforms what could have been a ho-hum gothic romance into a very contemporary love story. A fine debut.