March 1, 1789
On the doorstep, Felicia paused and glanced back. The women were offering comfort to Lady Stavely and her beautiful, vacant daughter. Clarice clung to her mother's hand, confused by the somber faces and hushed tones around them. Soon Felicia would come back and distract her sister with cake. No need to worry that she would be frightened by her mother's tears; Lady Matilda had shed none for her husband, nor would she. After what she'd overheard in the conservatory, Felicia at last knew why.
No one had cried for him. The funeral had been dignified. Some of the men had coughed discreetly expressing what emotion an Englishman could comfortably convey. Not even Felicia herself had cried, for the long box of polished wood seemed meaningless, a toy. Her father was not in there.
Hearty voices, raised only to be guiltily dropped, drew Felicia's attention to where the men had gathered. Before long, no one would remember that they had come to Hamdry Manor to bid farewell to its master. The guests, invited to partake of a small luncheon after the funeral, had begun to talk, not of the deceased, but of the iniquities of Mr. Pitt's government and the unrest in France. The wine Felicia had ordered to accompany the cakes and savories was cheering hearts and loosening tongues.
James, Viscount Lord Stavely, was dead and buried. Soon the empty space he left behind would close, leaving no scar to mark where he had once been. Only in her heart, it seemed, did the pain of loss penetrate. She recalled the harsh metallic ring of Lady Stavely's voice as she demanded, "What did he leave me?"
Felicia, as a natural child, had only the rights of affection that her father had extended to her. But she had sat by, stiff and cold, while Mr. Ashton read the will. She did not ask, "What will become of me?" She was too shocked and grieved for selfishness--all the more so when she realized anew what the private scene between the solicitor and the widow, happened on by the merest chance, really meant.
"If you love me ..."
Felicia pushed the memory away. How many times had she exerted her strength to ward off some intolerable thought in the two and a half days since her father had died? How could a mere memory be so heavy? Was that why her head and body ached so?
"Miss Felicia ... ?" The soft voice of the family solicitor slipped under her defenses like miners digging underground to bring down a citadel's wall.
"Mr. Ashton." Her eyes felt hot beneath their dry lids as she turned toward him.
"I did not wish to go without extending again my deepest condolences on the death of your father. He will be missed ... he will be most dearly missed."
"Indeed, Mr. Ashton. Those of us in his family know full well how much."
"Ah, the love of a daughter is a very precious thing. One day, I hope to be so blessed by affection."
"You are not married yet, Mr. Ashton."
He blinked, then smiled slowly as though unused to the exercise. "No. But I have some hopes that I cherish. I shall plead a legal discretion in not saying her name."
"Put yourself to no trouble, Mr. Ashton. I am not curious."
Felicia held herself very stiffly, keeping even her skirts away from Mr. Ashton's contaminating presence. She glanced over him, his scrawny frame like that of a black heron with a long-tailed coat and spindle shanks. His lips were thin and wet, his eyes distorted by thick lids and scanty lashes, whereas his hair was both pale and coarse. How could Matilda bear to be touched by those dead-white flipperlike hands?
She had never found the solicitor to be more than mildly unappealing before. Now she found that to be near him was to court nausea. Her father not even cold in his grave! Not an hour after his funeral, his widow and his legal adviser were embracing with greedy passion in a chamber he had labored to create, the very stones of which held something of his personality!
Mr. Ashton said, "I hope you will find a few moments for me, Miss Felicia, later in the day? Your father left you a small annuity, as you heard when I read his will to you all. There are papers to be signed to see that his wishes are carried out. I also have a small proposal to put to you for your advantage."
Felicia fumbled out her handkerchief and pressed it to her lips. Every time he spoke, she caught the foulness of his breath. As it combined with the heat of the room, Felicia began to feel as though she would rather not inhale.
"Later . ..," she mumbled. "Yes, I will make a moment to see you later. Pray excuse me now."
She slipped away, down through the bustling kitchen and out into the garden at the side of the house. She paused a moment there by the door, gulping in fresh air. The coldness of the day was warmed by the mellow brick walls that held in what heat the March sun grudgingly offered. Though she wore no shawl or cloak, the cold breeze seemed to pass her by. The vegetable beds lay sleeping beneath a crust of snow. Felicia thought, ' There was snow mounded like that on the dirt they dug out of his grave."
Moving quickly, she headed out of the kitchen garden, pushing open the gate. Beyond lay the formal gardens, mathematically laid out around an oval lawn seventy years ago by her own great-grandfather. The great parterres bounded by low boxwood also slept beneath a white mantle, yet here the neat geometric forms possessed a still beauty even without the blaze of color that would embolden them in the spring. Here and there throughout this part of the garden were statues, brought back at great expense from the four corners of the world, or at least those parts visited on Grand Tours.
All around the edge of the garden, straight tall cedars stood like a cordon of soldiers, protecting Hamdry Manor from the great moor beyond the cultivated garden. If she continued this way, she would find herself out in the open where the wind swept away all that was irrelevant. Only the most basic and strongest things survived there--grass, water, and the stone forts and markers of a long-vanished people. Though the untamed moor frightened her, Felicia felt a powerful longing to go out there, to be buffeted by the wind until her thoughts were scoured clean.
"How could she?" Felicia whispered. "How could she do it?"
Beneath her bell-like skirt of thick black silk, her legs were exhausted, trembling, hardly able to support her. She remembered in a vague way that she had not eaten anything since attending her father's deathbed. Felicia staggered, only to be brought up short by the plinth of a statue, her father's favorite.
Lord Stavely had believed it to be equal in age with the oldest part of the garden, dating from medieval times. Various authorities had disagreed. How her father had enjoyed comparing the writings of one with another and laughing at their conclusions! An Elizabethan gentleman had claimed the statue to be a Celtic war god; a pompous Stuart collector had disdained it as a crude fraud perpetrated by a local yahoo; while a delicate dilettante not ten years ago had proclaimed it the figure of an unknown saint, sculpted by an unknown master of Gothic artistry, in a stone unknown to science.
Felicia raised her eyes. The figure stood wrapped in a cloak, only a booted toe emerging from the stone folds. His face was turned toward some distant sight. With great skill, the ancient carver had put into his face such an angry yearning that Felicia had been glad when her father had raised the statue on its plinth so that she need no longer look into those lonely, hungry eyes. Yet she remembered the expression with perfect clarity still.
Her head swimming with weakness, she noticed something now that she never had before. Though the stone cloak bore epaulets of snow, none had turned the hair white. She suddenly remembered that in the summer when the creeping moss turned the close-held cloak to green velvet, the face never changed color. Strange that she had never realized it before.
Felicia, her emotions sharpened by grief and bodily frailty, felt the sorrow of the statue strike to her heart. The tears she'd not shed for her father welled up in her eyes. She tried to force them back, blinking rapidly so that the still-crisp carving of the cloak seemed to swirl and shift before her eyes.
Felicia dropped her face into her hands, weaving from side to side. Finding the plinth at her elbow, she leaned upon it, the tears spattering down. Some dripped on the protruding toe of the statue's booted foot.
Felicia did not cry long. What folly--to weep for stone and not to shed even one tear for dear flesh. The tears left her feeling ashamed for giving way and slightly sick to her stomach. The fingers of one hand creating a grateful chill across her hot forehead, she reached out blindly with her other to push away from the statue.
Instead of frigid stone, her fingers touched smooth leather. A swirl of fabric brushed across the back of her hand. These things might have been dismissed without a second thought as passing too quickly to catch her attention had not the foot itself shifted away from her touch.
Quite against her own inclination, Felicia raised her head. The statue, no longer gray, stood above her still. The once tightly clutched cloak had opened, showing the yet-more-sculpted body of a man beneath.
He was clad in dark leather trousers, clinging close to his body, while above he wore an open-throated shirt without sleeves. She could see the muscles in his arms swell and relax as he clenched his fists. His hair was more fair than dark, caught back by a curving thong. He had a square, strong jaw, an even mouth set in firm lines, and a straight nose. In every detail he appeared to be alive, and moreover, incredibly attractive, with a charisma that beat out of him like bodily warmth.
Felicia squeezed her eyes tight and whispered, "Oh, my God in heaven, hear my plea. Do not suffer me to undergo the madness of my family. Not now."
She quite clearly heard the thud as the statue leapt down from its plinth. Had her insanity reached such a pitch so soon? Felicia knew it was possible. Clarice had gone from being a vibrant young girl on the cusp of womanhood to a seeming child of seven in the course of an afternoon's ride. Why shouldn't her illegitimate half-sister go completely mad in the course of a walk in the garden?
She'd always feared this. Now that it had happened, she felt surprisingly relieved. At least she need no longer dread the coming of the family curse.
"Who are you?" he demanded.
Still without opening her eyes, she said, "I'm sure that is what I should be asking you. So I would, were you real."
"I'm real enough," he said shortly. He had a quick, gruff voice, with a strange accent. "I would know your name, for I've seen you often in this garden."
"I'm Felicia Starret. Though I don't know why I should need to introduce myself to a figment of my deranged mind."
"Good grace to thee, then, Lady Felicia."
"No,'' she said, for she was always at pains to make her position known to save embarrassment both for herself and her family. "I am a natural child. I do not partake of my father's honors."
She opened her eyes to find the statue staring past her with a sharp frown between his strongly marked brows. Beneath them were eyes as dark a green as the tops of trees deep in a forest where no men dwell. His gaze dropped to her face.
There was not the faintest hint of compassion in those eyes. A wild beast, pausing in passing to look at her, would have worn exactly the same expression, as though asking itself, "Is this thing edible?" She expected him to sniff the air around her.
"Am I mad or only dreaming?" she asked him intently. "Am I asleep in my bed and all that is wrong will be righted with the sunrise? Or will I awake tomorrow in some Bedlam?"
He did not ask what was wrong. Instead, he returned to looking past her with an expression that might have been the beginning of a smile. As if to himself, he said, "So that is who stands there. I've often seen that statue's shadow, but could never make out what it was. Even when they moved me out to put that block of stone beneath me, they kept me facing the same direction. All the same, I was glad of it. I could not see the other side of the garden after that hedge grew. Being higher, I could, and a welcome sight it was after six hundred years and more in the same place."
The very cedars towering over them seemed to dance. Felicia felt everything going; her knees, her senses, her balance all abandoned her in the same moment. She stumbled forward, reaching out to clutch his arm for support. The moment her fingers touched his skin, she felt a shudder run through him like a shock. She'd seen the same reaction once when a spider had run over Lady Stavely's foot--a kind of anguished revulsion, as though the person were about to be ill.
After a moment or two, she felt steady enough to release her grasp and murmur some apology. She hardly noticed when he said in a cold and remote voice, "You have touched me. By our Ancient Law, you may command me to your bidding."
"I--I would like to go to the house and lie down," she whispered.
"This will I do."
He picked her up in his arms, and it was madness indeed to feel comforted. His arms were rigid around her back and under her knees. Making a great effort, Felicia opened her eyes again.
So close to him, she could see that his hair had light streaks through the brown, as if his years in the sun had brightened it. A prickle of beard caught the sunlight, a golden shadow. His mouth had lines of sorrow etched deep into the corners. His eyes held a remote expression, as though deep within him the stone still lingered.
"Who are you?'' she whispered.
"I am Blaic, Prince of the Westering Lands. My liege lord is Boadach the Eternal, King of the Living Lands and of all the Realm Beyond the World that Dies."
"Prince Blaic?" Her head was aching fiercely. His titles sounded like nonsense. Perhaps it was not she who was mad but him. That was it. During her momentary weakness, a madman had sprung from the bushes. It was only her dazed state that led her to think a statue had come alive.
She glanced over his shoulder as he began walking toward the house. Behind them, the top of the Dartmoor granite plinth stood as bare as one of the ancient stone dolmens that dotted the moor like so many giant tables. There was not even an unweathered patch to show where the statue had once stood.
He went on speaking, but there was a roaring in her ears as the tide of her blood rose dizzyingly. Making a great effort, she caught at one word. "Fairies?"
"So the ignorant title us. 'Fairies, 'elves,' 'sprites' ... tchah! Such folly sickens me. I am of the People. Call us the 'Old Ones' if you must have a name, but 'tis better that you do not, for any such is an insult."
He sounded as though he'd given this point much thought. Felicia couldn't be bothered to argue it with him. Her head seemed almost too heavy for her neck. She let it sag against his broad shoulder. She could feel the heat of his body against hers and she shivered, but not with the cold. Then she looked again behind them, down toward the snow.
All along the path, the smooth crust of snow sparkled in the sunlight as though someone had carelessly scattered diamonds like birdseed. She had not come this way, so she had left no footprints in the snow. But neither had Blaic.
His boots left no mark at all on the pristine crust.
This fact took a moment to penetrate the fog of grief and confusion that swirled through Felicia's mind. Then it forced itself on her attention. He was a big man. She weighed at least nine stone. He should have been able to carry her, but the footprints left behind should have been sunk deep into the snow. Even when William the Footman brought in the firewood, his shoes sank into the mud or snow to a greater depth than when he went unburdened. Perhaps the crust was frozen hard.... Felicia dismissed this notion in the next instant.
Looking forward, Felicia realized they were approaching the house by most unorthodox means. The sun shone brightly on the windows of the house, which blazed as though fires had been set in all the rooms. It dazzled her eyes as Blaic paused to open a window and carry her into her room, a full story up.
Blaic stood over the unconscious girl. Though human women did not attract him in the least, he owed this one a debt of gratitude for her tears. Her face was thin, with shadows under her blue eyes like finger marks. Surely nature had never meant her cheekbones to be so sharp. Yet it was the shadows at her temples, there where the mortal life beat so near the surface, that spoke most eloquently of her pain.
He owed her a debt which he could never adequately repay. That rankled. He did not wish to be beholden to a slip of a mortal creature. It was like a tiny chain on his freedom, nowhere near enough to hold him, yet galling.
She moved restlessly on the bed. Her hair, a deep, rich brown, was no longer smoothly bound back from her brow. She called out a meaningless jumble of syllables and Blaic noticed that her lips were dry.
A white jug of water stood by a basin. He pressed a cloth into the water, then wrung it out. Laying it over her forehead, Blaic was careful not to touch her face with his fingers. He did not like her pallor. This was more than illness. Pain and grief racked this young mortal. He judged her to be no more than twenty years old. Too young, he thought, to look so!
Curious, he started to reach for her thoughts. Yet his quick ear caught the sound of people coming up the stairs on the other side of the door. He extended his consciousness to see them. Middle-aged, plainly dressed, those floppy caps on their heads ... maids?
"So I zay, 'If be not yer plaizure, why I'll please my own self, Mr. Mann."
"You dared not!"
"Did I not? Aye, and snapped my fingers beneath his long nose, zo I did." She demonstrated, to her friend's openmouthed amazement.
Blaic sent a mental image of Felicia, restless and sick, into the mind of the sharper of the two maids. He faded his body away as the door swung open a moment later. "Oh, the poor miss. Her ladyship'll niver be happy 'bout this. Best to tell 'un quick."
"Oh, Mary! I could not...."
"You mind Miss Felicia, then, Rose. I'll be tellin' the old besom. An' if Miss Felicia don't have what took away his lordship, I'll turn harlot, zo I will."
The bolder of the two girls went out. Indistinguishable from the paint on the wall, Blaic watched as the more timid one put her fingers on the back of Felicia's hand to test her temperature. What must it be like to be able to touch without paying a price? he wondered.
"There now, Miss Felicia," she said in answer to a mutter. "Mary and Rose'll watch over you. If they'd let us care for your blessed father instead of that old ... she'd not be a widow today. Shh, shh."
Satisfied that the girl was in capable hands, Blaic stepped out the window. Since the world still spun on its axis, the nearest door into the Living Lands would still serve. He'd pay his respects to the high-king, showing him that the curse he'd laid so long ago was broken. Then he'd away to his own lands and his own king, Morgain his father.
Once upon a time, he'd seen many of his own kind, slipping across the Hamdry lawn with revelry in mind. Not for years, though, had he heard the wild music playing on the high hill behind the manor. How long had it been?
He'd had no need to ask the human woman for the date. He had kept an accurate count of every bitter year. Six hundred and forty-eight years of weary mortal time had passed since he had last known the bliss of those who dwelt in the Living Lands.
In the beginning, he'd wondered if his semi-awareness had been the final refinement of cruelty on the part of the king that had cursed him. If he'd been nothing more than a statue, he would not have known grief for his loss. Yet as it was, the slow roll of years had brought their torment.
Sira, his once-love, and the mortal mate she'd chosen had been kind to him. They'd placed him in the garden where the sun and moon could shine on him, their beauty the same in both worlds. The tiny daily changes of season had been entertainment when not blasted and destroyed by the folly of man.
Sira would come at times to speak to him, to show him her children. They had cared for him too after she had taken the way that all mortals must, sooner or later, tread. After she came no more, he had lost all interest for a long, long time. When he took notice again, even the children's children of those who had known his story were all dead and the tale had lost much in the telling.
Nothing he had seen in all the years since had improved his poor opinion of the human kind. Their lives were so brief and seemed so pointless, filled up with racing hither and yon to no purpose. He watched them when he could, bitterly envying even their limited opportunities and, at the same time, scoffing at the way they wasted their lives. Sometimes children under a benevolent tutor or governess would learn their lessons in the garden. Under the hot summer sky, Blaic learned some of what went on in the outside world--wars, great and small; kings and cardinals; and the rise and fall of this house of Hamdry.
He stepped through the portal without a backward glance.
Even nearly seven centuries meant little in the Living Lands. Here, nothing changed. The long houses, their roofs bright with the dropped feathers of countless birds, were havens of peace and beauty. The very grass glowed a welcome while the great pavilions of brilliant silk hummed in the cool breeze that bore scents of both sea and meadow.
The vast white silk tent, all oversewn with jewels, dazzled no eyes but his own. The People were not crowded there to hear the words of Boadach.
Nearby, the Gathering Pavilion was laid for a banquet of two hundred, every wooden plate smooth as glass after centuries of being washed by the strong arms of the wyrcan maids. Yet where were the guests? Where were the wyrcan? If there was to be a feast, the cheerful workers of the People should be at their labors, singing and laughing as they created their homely magic.
His heart beating hard, Blaic ran out into the center of the wide field. Perhaps they had all gathered in the Great Hall to hear the harp masters play and sing. How many times had he stood there, listening to the music yet knowing nothing of its shimmering beauty, for before his eyes stood the yet more glorious beauty of Sira, daughter of the king?
"Depend on it," he said, and the sound of his own voice was startlingly loud in the reverberating silence. "They are all there."
Yet when he arrived, it was to the same feeling of having come to a feast only after all was over. The Fire of Assembly leapt and danced in the stone-surrounded pit, making the intricate carving on chairs and stone walls seem to writhe with life. But it was no more than a mockery.
Blaic sank down into a chair. He rubbed his face and tried to think. For nearly six hundred and fifty years he had been alone. Was he now to be even more alone?
He heard a scraping sound and looked up eagerly. A small table inched its way over the stone flags to his side. When it reached him, he touched it and felt it shake as though someone had just let go of it.
A red pottery jug flew out of the shadowed distance and landed on the table, a splash of beer leaping over the edge as it came to rest, followed at once by a wooden tankard.
"Many thanks," Blaic said as he poured himself a drink. The beer had the indescribable flavor that only the wyrcan could brew. Was his invisible helper some maid whose cheek he'd patted long ago?
Before he'd lowered the tankard, a plate with a loaf of bread and a ramekin of cheese came to rest beside the jug. When he broke the loaf, the steam rose from the soft white bread, for it was that fresh. The scent made Blaic dizzy. No exotic fare could have been a more welcome first meal than that fair loaf.
After he'd eaten, he found his way to the rooms that had been his when, as a visiting prince, he had stayed in Boadach's palace. As he walked through the corridors, he believed he heard a few voices, muffled and far-off. Though he hastened on, calling, they never came near.
His rooms were also unchanged. He put off his clothing and bathed, standing for a long time under the hot waterfall. He washed his hair five times, knowing that he'd left the bird-slime behind when he changed back to flesh, yet it was a long time before he felt rid of it. Slowly the stiffness left his limbs and the last of the fog cleared from his mind.
He lay down and slept. He dreamed of the past.
Blaic watched with mingled pleasure and bitterness as Sira declared her everlasting love for Conn and the human world. Then a cold thrill told him that he was no longer alone. Knowing fear for the first time in his long, long life, Blaic turned his head with infinite care.
"You have betrayed me,'' King Boadach said. He stood there in mortal form, burly and strong. Yet his eyes held the yellow gleam of the hungry wolf and Blaic knew himself to be the prey. Beyond him stood the others of the People who were first and eldest. Cuar the Harpist, Forgall the Wily, and Anat, companion to Sira. Her face was wet with tears, but there was no more mercy in her than in a stone statue wet with rain.
Useless to deny anything. '' Yes, I have betrayed you. But I have done what was right for her.''
"That was not for you to decide!'' The beastlike growl became shriller. Then the king caught the tail end of his control. "You betrayed not only me but your People. For that, punishment must be meted out.''
"You cannot kill me," Blaic reminded the king. "You can banish me back to the Westering Lands--no more.''
"Kill you? Nay. You will keep your immortality. Much good may it do you.''
Blaic felt it first in his feet. A heaviness, as though he could not move them if he tried. There was no sensation of cold, only of unbearable weight. It moved up his legs, slowly at first but gaining speed moment to moment. Blaic looked down, saw the gray stone spreading, and knew in moments he 'd never move again. He wrenched his head up as his spine solidified. Let his last sight be of Sira's happiness!
Then it was done. Within the stone, Blaic's consciousness was but a flicker, like a candle flame that burned on despite every wind that blew. Boadach laughed cruelly with a coldness greater than the north wind's. "There let him stay forever!''
Behind the king, Anat spoke in a soft, soft voice. "Is it not against the Law to condemn with magic and not to leave a loophole?"
"What?" The king swung about on her.
Forgall stepped in front of Anat. "She is entirely right. The Law is clear.''
Boadach breathed heavily. "Very well. Forgall, cleverest of all my People. Think of a loophole. Something unlikely. "
The second-eldest of the People thought, rubbing his chin. "Very well. Speak these words, o king. " He conjured a scroll, complete in every detail, from the wax seal to the small red tassel.
Boadach laughed as he read the words aloud. "Nevermore be flesh until a woman weeps over you as Anat weeps. Nevermore return to your home until you betray her as you have done your king. Nevermore be with your people until you are wise as Forgall. Nevermore be free until you sing like Cuar.'' The king laughed as he vanished in a great swirling wind, followed by the others.
Blaic awoke, the king's last words still ringing in his ears. "Nevermore,'' he whispered, and shivered.