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Copyright ©2004 by Mercedes R. Lackey. All rights reserved.
Jacket art by Jody A. Lee DAW Books Collectors No. 1306
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To Janis Ian; amazing grace
When I needed to populate the village of Broom and Longacre Park, the denizens of the Dixon's Vixen bulletin board sprang to my aid by volunteering to be scullery maids, war-heroes, or villains as I chose. So if the names of the inhabitants are not consistent with the conventions of 1917, that is why.
Thanks to Richard and Marion van der Voort (www.atthesignofthe dragon.co.uk), who vetted my historical and colloquial accuracy.
To Melanie Dymond Harper, who, when I lost my map and pictures of Broom, went out into wretched weather to recreate them for me.
HER EYES WERE SO SORE and swollen from weeping that she thought by right she should have no tears left at all. She was so tired that she couldn't keep her mind focused on anything; it flitted from one thought to another, no matter how she tried to concentrate.
One kept recurring, in a never-ending refrain of lament. What am I doing here? I should be at Oxford.
Eleanor Robinson rested her aching head against the cold, wet glass of the tiny window in the twilight gloom of her attic bedroom. With an effort, she closed her sore, tired eyes, as her shoulders hunched inside an old woolen shawl. The bleak December weather had turned rotten and rainy, utterly un-Christmas-like. Not that she cared about Christmas.
It was worse in Flanders, or so the boys home on leave said, though the papers pretended otherwise. She knew better. The boys on leave told the truth when the papers lied. But surely Papa wouldn't be there, up to his knees in the freezing water of the trenches of the Western Front. He wasn't a young man. Surely they wouldn't put him there.
Beastly weather. Beastly war. Beastly Germans.
Surely Papa was somewhere warm, in the Rear; surely they were using his clever, organized mind at some clerking job for some big officer. She was the one who should be pitied. The worst that would happen to Papa was that he wouldn't get leave for Christmas. She wasn't likely to see anything of Christmas at all.
And she should be at Oxford, right this minute! Papa had promised, promised faithfully, that she should go to Oxford this year, and his betrayal of that promise ate like bitter acid into her heart and soul. She'd done everything that had been asked of her. She had passed every examination, even the Latin, even the Greek, and no one else had ever wanted to learn Greek in the entire village of Broom, except for little Jimmy Grimsley. The boys' schoolmaster, Michael Stone, had had to tutor her especially. She had passed her interview with the principal of Somerville College. She'd been accepted. All that had been needed was to pay the fees and go.
Well, go meant making all sorts of arrangements, but the important part had been done! Why hadn't he made the arrangements before he'd volunteered? Why hadn't he done so after?
Hadn't she had known from the time she could read, almost, that she all she really wanted was to go to Oxford to study literature? Hadn't she told Papa that, over and over, until he finally agreed? Never mind that they didn't award degrees to women now, it was the going there that was the important part—there, where you would spend all day learning amazing things, and half the night talking about them! And it wasn't as if this was a new thing. There was more than one women's college now, and someday they would give degrees, and on that day, Eleanor meant to be right there to receive hers. It wasn't as if she would be going for nothing. . . .
And it wouldn't be here. Not this closed-in place, where nothing mattered except that you somehow managed to marry a man of a higher station than yours. Or, indeed (past a certain age) married any man at all.
"Oxford? Well, it's—it's another world . . . maybe a better one."
Reggie Fenyx's eyes had shone when he'd said that. She'd seen the reflection of that world in his eyes, and she wanted it, she wanted it. ...
Even this beastly weather wouldn't be so bad if she was looking at it from inside her study in Somerville ... or perhaps going to listen to a distinguished speaker at the debating society, as Reggie Fenyx had described.
But her tired mind drifted away from the imagined delights of rooms at Somerville College or the stimulation of an erudite speaker, and obstinately towards Reggie Fenyx. Not that she should call him Reggie, or at least, not outside the walls of Oxford, where learning made all men (and women!) equals. Not that she had ever called him Reggie, except in her own mind. But there, in her mind and her memory, he was Reggie, hero-worshipped by all the boys in Broom, and probably half the grown men as well, whenever the drone of his aeroplane drew eyes involuntarily upward.
And off her mind flitted, to halcyon skies of June above a green, green field. She could still hear his drawling, cheerful voice above the howl and clatter of his aeroplane engine, out there in the fallow field he'd claimed for his own, where he "stabled" his "bird" in an old hay-barn and used to land and take off. He'd looked down at her from his superior height with a smile, but it wasn't a patronizing smile. She'd seen the aeroplane land, known that in this weather he was only going to refuel before taking off again, and pelted off to Longacre like a tomboy. She found him pouring a can of petrol into the plane, and breathlessly asked him about Oxford. He was the only person she knew who was a student there, or ever had been a student there—well, hardly a surprise that he was a student there, since he was the son of Sir Devlin Fenyx, and the field, the aeroplane, and everything as far as she could see where she stood belonged to Lord Devlin and Longacre Park. Where else but Oxford was good enough for Reggie Fenyx? Perhaps Cambridge, but—no. Not for someone from Warwickshire and Shakespeare country. "I want to go to university," she had told him, when he'd asked her why she wanted to know, as she stood looking up at him, breathless at her own daring. "I want to go to Oxford!"
"Oxford! Well, I don't know why not," he'd said, the first person to sound encouraging about her dream since her governess first put the notion in her head, and nearly the only one since, other than the Head of Somerville College. There'd been no teasing about "lady dons" or "girl-graduates." "No, I don't know why not. One of these days they'll be giving out women's degrees, you mark my words. Ought to be ashamed that they aren't, if you ask me. The girls I know—" (he pronounced it "gels," which she found fascinating) "—work harder than most of my mates. I say! If your parents think it's all bunk for a gel to go to university, you tell 'em I said it's a deuced good plan, and in ten years a gel'd be ashamed not to have gone if she's got the chance. Here," he'd said then, shoving a rope at her. "D'ye think you can take this rope-end, run over to there, and haul the chocks away when I shout?"
He hadn't waited for an answer; he'd simply assumed she would, treating her just as he would have treated any of the hero-worshipping boys who'd come to see him fly. And she hadn't acted like a silly girl, either; she'd run a little to a safe distance, waited for his signal after he swung himself up into the seat of his frail ship of canvas and sticks, and hauled on the rope with all her might, pulling the blocks of wood that kept the plane from rolling forward out from under the wheels. And the contraption had roared into life and bounced along the field, making one final leap into the air and climbing, until he was out of sight, among the white puffy clouds. And from that moment on, she'd hero-worshipped him as much as any boy.
That wasn't the only time she'd helped him; before Alison had come, she had been more out of the house than in it when she wasn't reading and studying, and she went where she wanted and did pretty much as she liked. If her mother had been alive, she'd likely have earned a scolding for such hoydenish behavior, but her mother had died too long ago for her to remember clearly, her father scarcely seemed to notice what she did, and she had only herself to please. Reggie had been amused. He'd ruffled her hair, called her a "jolly little thing," and treated her like the boys who came to help.
In fact, once after that breathless query about Oxford, he had given her papers about Somerville College, and magazines and articles about the lady dons and lecturers, and even a clipping about women who were flying aeroplanes—"aviatrixes" he called them—with the unspoken, but clearly understood implication that if anyone gave her trouble about wanting to go to Oxford, she should show them the clipping as well as give them his endorsement of the plan to show that "nice girls" did all sorts of things these days. "Women are doing great things, great things!" he'd said with enthusiasm. "Why, women are doctors—I know one, a grand gel, married to a friend of mine, works in London! Women should go exercising their brains! Makes 'em interesting! These gels that Mater keeps dragging round—" He'd made a face and hadn't finished the sentence, but Eleanor could guess at it. Not that she had any broad acquaintance with "ladies of Society," but she could read about them. And the London newspapers were full of stories about Society and the women who ornamented it. To her way of thinking, they didn't seem like the sorts that would be terribly interesting to someone like Reggie. No doubt, they could keep up a sparkling conversation on nothing whatsoever, and select a cigar, and hold a dinner party without offending anyone, and organize a country weekend to great acclaim, but as for being interesting to someone like Reggie—not likely. Even she, an insignificant village tomboy, was more interesting to him than they were ever likely to be.
Not that she was all that interesting to someone like Reggie. For all that she looked up to him, and even—yes, she admitted it—was a bit in love with him, he was as out-of-reach as Oxford was now. . . .
In fact, everything was out of reach now, and the remembered sun and warmth faded from her thoughts, replaced by the chill gloom of the drafty attic room, and the emptiness of her life.
Nothing much mattered now. The war had swallowed up Reggie, as it had swallowed up her father, as it had smothered her hopes. The bright and confident declarations of "Home by Christmas" had died in the rout at Mons, and were buried in the trenches at Ypres, as buried as her dreams.
She had thought she was through with weeping, but sobs rose in her throat again. Papa, Papa! she cried, silently, as her eyes burned anew. Papa, why did you leave me? Why did you leave me with Her?
For it wasn't the war that was keeping her from Oxford, anyway. Oh, no—her current misery was due to another cause. Surely Papa would have remembered his promise, if it hadn't been for the manipulations of Alison Robinson, Eleanor's stepmother.
Two more tears oozed out from under her closed lids, to etch their way down her sore cheeks.
She wouldn't be able to treat me like this if Papa hadn't gone. Would she?
Horrible, horrible woman. She'd stolen Papa from her, then stole her very life from her. And no one else could or would see it. Even people that should know better, who could see how Alison treated her stepdaughter, seemed to think there was nothing amiss. I’ll hear one more time how lucky I am that Papa married her and left her to care for me while he's gone, I think I shall be sick. . . .
The day she first appeared had been, had Eleanor only known it, the blackest day of Eleanor's life.
She pounded an impotent fist against her thigh as she stifled her sobs, lest She should hear. . . .
Papa had gone on business; it had seemed just like any other of dozens of such absences. Eleanor was accustomed to Father being absent to tend to his business from time to time; most fathers in Broom didn't do that, but Charles Robinson was different, for he was in trade, and his business interests all lay outside Broom, even outside of Warwickshire. He was a man of business, he often told her when she was old enough to understand, and business didn't tend to itself.
Although her father never flaunted the fact, she had always known that they lived well. She'd had a governess, when most children in the village just went to the local school. Miss Severn had been a good governess, one, in fact, who had put the idea of Oxford into her head in the first place, and good, highly educated governesses were (she knew now) quite difficult to find, and expensive.
Besides that, they had maids and a cook—well, there were others in Broom who had "help," but not many had maids that lived in, or a cook at all. And they lived in one of the nicest houses in Broom. "The Arrows," a Tudor building, was supposed to have been there at the time Shakespeare passed through the village after a poaching expedition, got drunk and fell asleep under the oak tree in front of the tavern.
But her papa hadn't made much of their prosperity, so neither had she. He socialized with the village, not the gentry, and other than visits to Longacre to see Reggie fly, so had she. They weren't members of the hunt, they weren't invited to dinners or balls or even to tea as the vicar was. The governess, the special tutoring later—this was, to her, not much different from the piano lessons the butcher's and baker's daughters got.
In fact, she hadn't really known how prosperous they were. Papa's business was hardly glamorous—he made sacks, or rather, his factories made sacks. All sorts of sacks, from grain-bags to the rough sailcloth duffels that sailors hauled their personal gear in. Well, someone had to make them, she supposed. And from time to time, Papa would visit one or another of his factories, making sure that everything was operating properly, and look over the books. His trips always happened the same way; he'd tell her and Cook when he was going and when he would be back and they'd plan on simple meals till he returned. He would drive their automobile, chugging and rattling, to catch the train, and at the appointed time, drive home again.
But last June something different had happened.
He'd gone off—then sent a telegram that something had happened, not to worry, and he would be back a week later than he had planned and he'd be bringing a grand surprise.
She, more fool, hadn't thought any more of it—except, perhaps, that he was buying a new automobile. That was what he had done when he'd gotten the first one, after all, come back a week later, driving it, all bundled up in goggles and hat and driving-coat, and full of the adventure of bringing it all the way from London.
And he came back, as she had half expected, not in the old rattle-bang auto, but in a sleek, long-bonneted thing that purred up the street.
The problem was, he hadn't been alone.
She had been with him. And right behind them, in their own car, They had come.
She had come arrayed in an enormous scarlet hat with yards and yards of scarlet scarves and veils, and a startling scarlet coat of dramatic cut. Father had handed her out as if she was a queen, and as she raised a scarlet-gloved hand to remove her goggles, he had said, beaming with pride, "And here's my surprise! This is your new mother—" he hadn't said "stepmother," but Eleanor would never, ever call that horrible woman "Mother" "—Alison, this is my daughter. And look, Eleanor, here are two new sisters to keep you company! Lauralee, Carolyn, this is your sister Eleanor! I'm sure you're going to be the best of friends in no time!"
Two elegant, languid creatures descended from the rear of the second automobile, wearing pastel blue and lavender versions of her getup, and removed their goggles to regard her with stares as blank and unreadable as the goggles had been.
Broom had never seen anything quite like them. They looked as if they had come directly from the pages of some London quarterly. Only she smiled, a knowing little smile, a condescending smile that immediately made Eleanor aware of her untidy hair that was loosely tied with a ribbon like a child's, her very plain linen day-dress, not in vogue and not new, of her uncorseted figure, and her thick, clumsy walking shoes. The two girls raised their heads just a trifle, and gave her little patronizing smirks of their own. Then all three had sailed into the house without so much as a word spoken.
And with a shock, Eleanor had found herself sharing the house and her papa with a stepmother and two stepsisters.
Except—from the moment they entered the door, there wasn't a great deal of "sharing" going on.
The first sign of trouble came immediately, when the girls inspected the house and the elder, Lauralee, claimed the second-best bedroom—Eleanor's room—as her own. And before Eleanor could protest, she found herself and her things bundled up the stairs to an untenanted attic room that had been used until that moment as a lumber room, with the excuse, "Well, you'll be at Oxford in the autumn, and you won't need such a big room, now, will you?" Followed by a whispered "Don't be ungracious, Eleanor—jealousy is a very ugly thing!" and a frown on her papa's face that shocked her into silence.
The thing that still baffled her was the speed with which it had all happened. There'd been not a hint of any such thing as a romance, much less a marriage, ever! Papa had always said that after Mama, no woman could ever claim his heart—he'd gone a dozen times to Stoke-on-Trent before, and he'd never said a word about anything but the factory, and she thought that surely she would have noticed something about a woman before this.
Especially a woman like this one.
Oh, she was beautiful, no question about that: lean and elegant as a greyhound, sleek dark hair, a red-lipped face to rival anything Eleanor had seen in the newspapers and magazines, and the grace of a cat. The daughters, Lauralee and Carolyn, were like her in every regard, lacking only the depth of experience in Alison's eyes and her ability to keep their facade of graciousness intact in private.
Eleanor only noticed that later. At first, they were all bright smiles and simpers.
Alison and her daughters turned the house upside down within a week. They wore gowns—no simple "dresses" for them—like nothing anyone in Broom had seen, except in glimpses of the country weekends held up at Longacre. They changed two and three times a day, for no other occasion than a meal or a walk. They made incessant demands on the maids that those poor country-bred girls didn't understand, and had them in tears at least once a day. They made equally incredible demands on Cook, who threw up her hands and gave notice after being ordered to produce a dinner full of things she couldn't even pronounce, much less make. A new cook, one Mrs. Bennet, and maids, including a lady's maid just for Alison called Howse, came from London, at length, brought in a charabanc with all their boxes and trunks. Money poured out of the house and returned in the form of tea-gowns from London and enormous hats with elegantly scrolled names on the boxes, delicate shoes from Italy, and gloves from France.
And amid all of this upheaval and confusion, Papa beamed and beamed on "his elegant fillies" and seemed to have forgotten Eleanor even existed. There were no tea-gowns from London for Eleanor. . . .
Not that she made any great show against them. She looked like a maid herself, in her plain dresses and sensible walking shoes. They didn't have to bully her, not then, when they could simply overawe her and bewilder her and drown her out with their incessant chattering and tinkling laughter. And when she tried to get Papa alone to voice a timid protest, he would just pat her cheek, ask if she wasn't being a jealous little wench, and advise her that she would get on better if she was more like them!
She might have been able to rally herself after the first shock— might have been able to fight back. Except that all those far-off things in the newspapers about assassinations and Balkan uprisings that could never possibly have anything to do with the British Empire and England and Broom—suddenly did.
In August, the world suddenly went mad. In some incomprehensible way, Austria declared war on Serbia, and Prussia joined in, and so did Germany, which apparently declared war on everybody. There were Austrian and Prussian and German troops overrunning France and England was at war too, rushing to send men to stop the flood. And though among the country-folk in Broom there was a certain level of skepticism about all this "foreign nonsense," according to the papers, there was a sudden patriotic rush of volunteers signing up to go to France to fight.
And Papa, who was certainly old enough to know better, and never mind that he already had been in the army as a young man, volunteered to go with his regiment. And the next thing she knew, he was a sergeant again, and was gone.
Somehow Oxford never materialized. "Your dear father didn't make any arrangements, child," Stepmother said, sounding surprised, her eyes glittering. "But never mind! This will all be over by Christmas, and surely you would rather be here to greet him when he comes home, wouldn't you? You can go to Oxford in the Hilary term."
But it wasn't over by Christmas, and somehow Papa didn't manage to make arrangements for the Hilary term, either. And now here she was, feeling and being treated as a stranger, an interloper in her own house, subtly bullied by glamour and not understanding how it had happened, sent around on errands like a servant, scarcely an hour she could call her own, and at the end of the day, retreating to this cold, cheerless closet that scarcely had room for her bed and her wardrobe and desk. And Papa never wrote, and every day the papers were full of horrible things covered over with patriotic bombast, and everything was wrong with the world and she couldn't see an end to it.
Two more tears burned their way down her cheeks. Her head pounded, she felt ill and feverish, she was exhausted, but somehow too tired to sleep.
Today had been the day of the Red Cross bazaar and tea dance. Organized by Stepmother, of course—"You have such a genius for such things, Alison!"—at the behest of the Colonel's wife. Though what that meant was that Eleanor and the maids got the dubious privilege of doing all of the actual work while Stepmother and "her girls" stood about in their pretty tea-gowns and accepted congratulations. Eleanor had been on her feet from dawn until well past teatime, serving cup after cup of tea, tending any booth whose owner decided she required a rest, watching with raw envy as her stepsisters and other girls her age flirted with the handsome young officers as they danced to the band Stepmother had hired for the occasion. Dances she didn't know— dances to jaunty melodies that caused raised, but indulgent eyebrows among the village ladies. "Ragtime"—that's what they called it, and perhaps it was more than a little "fast," but this was wartime, and beneath the frenetic music was an unspoken undercurrent that some of these handsome young men wouldn't be coming back, so let them have their fun. . . .
Eleanor had cherished some small hope that at last someone who knew her would see what Alison was doing and the tide of public opinion would rise up to save her. Alison, after all, was the interloper here, and with her ostentatious ways and extravagance, she had surely been providing more than a little fodder for the village cats. But just when she was handing the vicar's wife, Theresa Hinshaw, a cup of tea, the woman abruptly shook her head a little, and finally looked at her, and frowned, and started to say something in a concerned tone of voice, out of the corner of her eye she saw Alison raise her head like a ferret sniffing a mouse on the wind, and suddenly there she was at the woman's elbow.
"Mrs. Hinshaw, how are you?" she purred, and steered Eleanor's hope away into a little knot of other women.
"I was wondering why we haven't seen Eleanor about," the vicar's wife began.
"Yes, she used to run wild all about the village, didn't she, poor thing," replied Alison, in a sweetly reasonable tone of voice. "A firm hand was certainly wanted there, to be sure. You'd never guess to look at them both that she's the same age as my Carolyn, would you?"
Eleanor saw Mrs. Hinshaw make a startled glance from the elegant Carolyn, revolving in the arms of a young subaltern, to Eleanor in her plain frock and apron and ribbon-tied hair, and with a sinking heart, saw herself come off second best.
"No, indeed," murmured Mrs. Sutherland, the doctor's wife.
Alison sighed heavily. "One does one's poor best at establishing discipline, but no child is going to care for a tight rein when she's been accustomed to no curb at all. Keep her busy, seems to be the best answer. And of course, with dear Charles gone—"
The vicar's wife cast a look with more sympathy in it at Eleanor, but her attention was swiftly recaptured by Lauralee, who simpered, "And poor Mama, not even a proper honeymoon!" which remark utterly turned the tide in Alison's favor.
From there it was all downhill, with little hints about Eleanor's supposed "jealousy" and "sullenness" and refusal to "act her age"—all uttered in a tone of weary bravery with soft sighs.
By the time Alison was finished, there wasn't a woman there who would have read her exhaustion and despair as anything other than sulks and pouting.
The music jangled in her ears and made her head ache, and by the time the car came for Alison and her daughters ("Dear little Eleanor, so practical to wear things that won't be hurt by a little wet!") and Eleanor was finished with the cleaning up and could trudge home again, she felt utterly beaten down. Her aching legs and feet were an agony by the time she reached an unwelcoming home and unfriendly servants. Alison and the girls held high celebration in the parlor, their shrill laughter ringing through the house as they made fun of the very people they had just been socializing with.
She got plain bread-and-butter and cooling tea for supper in the kitchen—not even a single bite of the dainty sandwiches that she had served the ladies had she eaten, and of the glorious high tea that the cook had prepared for Alison and her daughters there was not a scrap to be seen. And by the time she went up all those stairs to her freezing-cold room, she'd had no strength for anything except hopeless weeping.
What does she want from me? The question echoed dully in Eleanor's mind, and there seemed no logical answer. She had no doubt that Alison had married Papa for the money—for her all her airs at the tea, there was nothing in the way that Alison behaved in private that made Eleanor think that her stepmother found Papa's absence anything other than a relief. But why did she seem to take such pleasure in tormenting Eleanor?
There didn't seem to be an answer.
Unless she was hoping that Eleanor would be driven to run away from home.
Oh, I would, but how far would I get? If that was what Alison was hoping, the very nature of this area—and, ironically, the very picture that Alison had painted of her stepdaughter today!—would conspire to thwart her. Eleanor wouldn't get more than a mile before someone would recognize her, and after that carefully constructed fiction of a sullen and rebellious child that Alison had created, that same someone would assume she was running away and make sure she was caught and brought back!
And if Alison had wanted to be rid of her by sending her away, surely she would have done so by now.
She'll never let me go, she thought bitterly. Not when she can make up lies about me to get more sympathy. And who believes in wicked stepmothers, anyway?
She must have dozed off a little, because the faint, far-off sound of the door knocker made her start. At the sound of voices below, she glanced out the window to see the automobile belonging to Alison's solicitor, Warrick Locke, standing at the gate, gleaming wetly in the lamplight. He looked like something out of a Dickens novel, all wire-rimmed glasses, sleek black suits and sleek black hair and too-knowing face.
Oh. Him again. He seemed to call at least once a week since Papa had gone. Not that she cared why he came. It was odd for him to come so late, but not unheard-of.
Someone uttered an exclamation of anger. It sounded like Alison. Eleanor leaned her forehead against the cold glass again; she felt feverish now, and the glass felt good against her aching head. And anyway, the window-seat was more comfortable than the lumpy mattress of her bed.
Her door was thrust open and banged into the foot of the bed. She jerked herself up, and stared at the door.
Lauralee stood in the doorway with the light behind her. "Mother wants you, Eleanor," she said in an expressionless voice. "Now."
Eleanor cringed, trying to think of what she could have done wrong. "I was just going to bed—" she began.
"Now," Lauralee repeated, this time with force. And then she did something she had never done before. She took two steps into the room, seized Eleanor's wrist, and dragged her to her feet. Then, without another word, she continued to pull Eleanor out the door, down the hall, and down the narrow servants' stair.
The stair came out in the kitchen, which at this hour was empty of servants—but not of people. Alison was there, and Carolyn, and Warrick Locke. The only light in the kitchen was from the fire on the hearth, and in it, the solicitor looked positively satanic. His dark eyes glittered, cold and hard behind the lenses of his spectacles; his dark hair was slicked back, showing the pointed widow's peak in the center of his forehead, and his long thin face with its high cheekbones betrayed no more emotion than Lauralee's or Carolyn's. He regarded Eleanor as he might have looked at a black beetle he was about to step on.
But Alison gave her a look full of such hatred that Eleanor quailed before it. "I—" she faltered.
Alison thrust a piece of yellow paper at her. She took it dumbly. She read the words, but they didn't seem to make any sense. Regret to inform you, Sergeant Charles Robinson perished of wounds received in combat—
Papa? What was this about Papa? But he was safe, in Headquarters, tending paperwork—
She shook her head violently, half in denial, half in bewilderment. "Papa—" she began.
But Alison had already turned her attention away towards her solicitor. "I still say—"
But Locke shook his head. "She's protected," he said. "You can't make her deathly ill—you've tried today, haven't you? And as I warned you, she's got nothing worse than a bit of a headache. That proves that you can't touch her directly with magic, and if she had an—accident— so soon, there would be talk. It isn't the sort of thing that could be covered up."
"But I can bind her; when I am finished she will never be able to leave the house and grounds," Alison snarled, her beautiful face contorted with rage, and before Eleanor could make any sense of the words, "you can't touch her directly with magic" her stepmother had crossed the room and grabbed her by one wrist. "Hold her!" she barked, and in an instant, the solicitor was beside her, pinioning Eleanor's arms.
That is, she opened her mouth to scream, but quick as a ferret, and with an expression of great glee on her face, Carolyn darted across the room to stuff a rag in Eleanor's open mouth and bind it in place with another.
Terror flooded through her, and she struggled against Locke's grip, as he pulled her over to the hearth, then kicked her feet out from underneath her so that she fell to the floor beside the fire.
Beside a gap where one of the hearthstones had been rooted up and laid to one side—
Locke shoved her flat, face-down on the flagstone floor, and held her there with one hand between her shoulder blades, the other holding her right arm, while Alison made a grab for the left and caught it by the wrist. Eleanor's head was twisted to the left, so it was Alison she saw—Alison, with a butcher's cleaver and a terrible expression on her face. Alison who held her left hand flat on the floor and raised the cleaver over her head.
Eleanor began screaming again, through the gag. She was literally petrified with fear—
And the blade came down, severing the smallest finger of her left hand completely.
For a moment she felt nothing—then the pain struck.
It was like nothing she had ever felt before. She thrashed in agony, but Locke was kneeling on her other arm, with all his weight on her back and she couldn't move.
Blood was everywhere, black in the firelight, and through a red haze of pain she wondered if Alison was going to let her bleed to death. Alison seized the severed finger, and stood up. Lauralee took her place, holding a red-hot poker in hands incongruously swallowed up in oven-mitts. And a moment later she shoved that poker against the wound, and the pain that Eleanor had felt up until that moment was as nothing.
And mercifully, she fainted.
She woke again in the empty kitchen, her hand a throbbing sun of pain.
Like a dumb animal, she followed her instincts, which forced her to crawl to the kitchen door, open it on the darkness outside, on rain that had turned to snow, and plunge her hand into the barrel of rainwater that stood there, a thin skin of ice forming atop it. She gasped at the cold, then wept for the pain, and kept weeping as the icy-cold water cooled the hurt and numbed it.
How long she stood there, she could not have said. Only that at some point her hand was numb enough to take out of the water, that she found the strength to look for the medicine chest in the pantry and bandage it. Then she found the laudanum and drank down a recklessly large dose, and finally took the bottle of laudanum with her, stumbling back up the stairs to her room in the eerily silent house.
There she stayed, wracked with pain and fever, tormented by nightmare, and unable to muster a single coherent thought.
Except for one, which had more force for grief than all her own pain.
Papa was dead.
And she was alone.
March 10, 1917
THE SCRUB-BRUSH RASPED BACK AND forth against the cold flagstones. Eleanor's knees ached from kneeling on the hard flagstones. Her shoulders ached too, and the muscles of her neck and lower back. You would think that after three years of nothing but working like a charwoman, I would have gotten used to it.
The kitchen door and window stood open to the breeze, airing the empty kitchen out. Outside, it was a rare, warm March day, and the air full of tantalizing hints of spring. Tomorrow it might turn nasty again, but today had been lovely.
Not that Eleanor could get any further than the kitchen garden. But if she could leave her scrubbing, at least she could go outside, in the sun—
But Alison had ordered her to scrub, and scrub she must, until Alison came to give her a different order, or rang the servants' bell. And if Alison "forgot," as on occasion she did, then Eleanor would be scrubbing until she fainted from exhaustion, and when she woke, she would scrub again. . . .
The nightmare that her life was now had begun on the eighteenth of December, three years, two months, and a handful of days ago, when Alison Robinson hacked off the little finger of her left hand, and buried it with spells and incantations beneath the third hearthstone from the left here in the kitchen. Thus, Alison Robinson, nee Danbridge, had bound Eleanor into what amounted to slavery with her black magic.
Magic. . . .
Who would believe in such a thing?
Eleanor had wondered how Alison could have bewitched her father—and it had turned out that "bewitched" was the right word for what had happened. That night and the nights and days that followed had given her the answer, which only posed more questions. And if she told anyone—not that she ever saw anyone to tell them—they'd think her mad.
For it was madness, to believe in magic in these days of Zepps and gasworks and machine guns.
Nevertheless, Alison was a witch, or something like one, and Warrick Locke was a man-witch, and Lauralee and Carolyn were little witch's apprentices (although they weren't very good at anything except what Alison called "sex magic" and Eleanor would have called "vamping"). Alison's secret was safe enough, and Eleanor was bound to the kitchen hearth of her own home and the orders of her stepmother by the severed finger of her left hand, buried under a piece of flagstone.
She dipped the brush in the soapy water and moved over to the next stone. Early, fruitless trials had proved that she could not go past the walls of the kitchen garden nor the step of the front door. She could get that far, and no farther, for her feet would stick to the ground as if nailed there, and her voice turn mute in her throat so that she could not call for help. And when Alison gave her an order reinforced by a little twiddle of fingers and a burst of sickly yellow light, she might as well be an automaton, because her body followed that order until Alison came to set her free.
When her hand had healed, but while she was still a bit lightheaded and weak, Alison had made her one and only appearance in Eleanor's room. Before Eleanor had been able to say anything, she had made that gesture, and Eleanor had found herself frozen and mute. Alison, smirking with pleasure, explained the new situation to her.
Her stepdaughter had not been in the least inclined to take that explanation at face value.
Eleanor sighed and brushed limp strands of hair out of her eyes, sitting back on her heels to rest for a moment. Under the circumstances, you would have thought that the moment would have been branded into her memory, but all she could really remember was her rage and fear, warring with each other, and Alison lording it over her. And then a word, and her body, no longer her own, marching down to the kitchen to become Mrs. Bennett's scullery maid and tweenie.
Perhaps the eeriest and most frightening part of that was that Mrs. Bennett and all the help acted, from that moment on, as if that was the way things had always been. They seemed to have forgotten her last name, forgotten who she really was. She became "Ellie" to them, lowest in the household hierarchy, the one to whom all the most disagreeable jobs were given.
The next days and weeks and months were swallowed up in anger and despair, in fruitless attempts to break free, until her spirit was worn down to nothing, the anger a dull ache, and the despair something she rose up with in the morning and lay down with at night.
She even knew why Alison had done this—not that the knowledge helped her any.
She, and not Alison, was the true owner of The Arrows, the business, and fourteen manufactories that were making a great deal of profit now, turning out sacks for sandbags to make trench-walls, and barricades, and ramparts along the beaches . . . for in all of her plotting and planning, Alison had made one tiny mistake. She had bewitched Charles Robinson into marrying her, she had bespelled him into running off to be killed at Ypres, but she had forgotten to get him to change his will. And not even Warrick Locke could do anything about that, for the will had been locked up in the safe at the Robinsons' solicitor's office and it was the solicitor, not Alison, who was the executor of the will. There was no changing it, and only because Eleanor was underage was Alison permitted to act as her guardian and enjoy all the benefits of the estate. That was why she had been so angry, the night that the death notice came.
And after Warrick Locke investigated further, that was why she was forced to keep Eleanor alive and enslaved. Because if Eleanor died, the property went to some impoverished cousin in the North Country, and not Alison at all. Periodically, Eleanor was called into the parlor and given paper and pen, and wrote a letter under Alison's sorcerous dictation to the solicitor, directing him to give Alison money for this or that luxury beyond the household allowance. Alison fumed the entire time she was dictating these letters, but Eleanor was far, far angrier.
There were times when Eleanor wished she could die, just out of spite. . . .
She had eavesdropped on as many conversations as she could, which wasn't as difficult as it sounded, because Alison and Locke discussed such matters as if she wasn't present even when she was in the same room. She knew that her stepmother was something called an "Elemental Master" and that her power was over earth. What that meant, she had no real notion, but that was probably why Alison had buried Eleanor's severed finger. She knew that Warrick Locke was an "Elemental Mage," and that his power was also over earth, and that he was nothing near as powerful as Alison was. Lauralee and Carolyn were one rank below Warrick, evidently.
That Alison had far more power even than she had demonstrated against Eleanor was not in doubt. Eleanor had overheard plenty in the last three years, more than enough to be sure that the two of them were up to a great deal of no good. But of course, they wouldn't care what she heard; even if she could get out of the house, who would believe her wild tales about magicians?
For that matter, she hardly knew anything of what was going on in the world outside this house—just what she could glean from the occasional newspaper she saw. In the early part of the war, she had been able to get more information by listening to the servants, but—well, that was one way in which the war had affected her. There had been nine servants in the Robinson household—three more than the six that Eleanor and her father had thought sufficient—at the time when her father was killed. A man-of-all-work, a gardener, a parlormaid, three house maids, the cook Mrs. Bennett, and two ladies' maids, one (Howse) for Alison herself, one shared by Carolyn and Lauralee. Now there were two, Eric Whitcomb from the village who had returned from the war with a scar across the front of his head from some unspecified wound, and rather less than half his wits, and who did the gardening, the rough work and heavy hauling, and Alison's maid Howse. All the rest of the work was done by Eleanor. No one outside the house knew this, of course. Alison's status would have dropped considerably.
The man-of-all work had gone first, not so much out of patriotism (for after March of 1915 as the true nature of the slaughter in the trenches became known, it became more and more difficult to find volunteers) than because he had caught wind of conscription in the offing, and at the same time, was given the opportunity to join up with a regiment that was going somewhere other than France. "I'm off to the Suez, lovey," he'd told the downstairs house maid, Miranda Reed. "I'll bring you back a camel. I'll still be FBI, but at least my feet'll be dry."
Miranda had wept steadily for two months, then turned in her notice to go and train as a VAD nurse ("It can't be more work than this, and I'll surely get more thanks," she'd said tartly on departing]. The next to go had been the parlormaid, Patricia Sheller, after her brothers were conscripted, leaving no one to help at her aged parents' London shop, and it wasn't long before Katy Feely, the stepsisters' maid, followed, when the work of the upstairs maid was added to her own load—she claimed she too was going to be a VAD nurse, but it wasn't true. "I've had enough of those cats, Mrs. Bennett," Katy had whispered to the cook in Eleanor's hearing. "And enough of this grubby little village. I'm off! There's heaps of better positions in London going begging now!"
By then, even married men were being conscripted, and Mrs. Bennett's son had been killed, leaving a wife and two tiny children with a third baby on the way; Mrs. Bennett turned in her notice to go and help care for them.
The result had been a sea change in how meals were dealt with in this household. Alison could compel Eleanor to cook—but she couldn't compel Eleanor to cook well. And it appeared that no matter how great Alison's powers were, they weren't enough to put the knowledge of an expert cook into Eleanor's mind, nor the skill of that cook into her hands. Eleanor hadn't done more than boil an egg and make toast in her life, and cooking was an undisclosed mystery to her. So for one week, Eleanor labored her way through the instructions in the cookery books, but the resulting meals were anything but edible. After that week, Alison gave up; the White Swan had supplied most of the components of luncheon and dinner to the household from that time on, while Brown's Bakery provided bread, crumpets, scones, muffins, cake and pie for afternoon tea.
The rest of the help had followed when Alison proved disinclined to pay for their meals from the pub as well as hers. Kent Adkins the gardener and Mary Chance the other maid vanished without bothering to give notice.
Eleanor still wasn't more than an adequate plain cook, and she took a certain amount of grim satisfaction in the fact that no more dishes with fancy French names graced Alison's table unless they came ready-made out of a tin. She could not bake much of anything—her bread never seemed to rise, and her pie crust was always sodden. She could make ordinary soup, most eggy things, toast, tea, and boil veg. She could make pancakes and fry most things that required frying. Anything that took a lot of practice and preparation came from the Swan or out of hampers from Harrods and Fortnum and Mason, things that only required heating up before they were presented at table.
There was rationing now—sugar, according to complaints Eleanor overheard or saw in the newspaper, was impossible to get, and the authorities were urging meatless days. There were rumors in the newspapers that other things would soon be rationed—but none of that touched this household as privation. However it happened, and Eleanor strongly suspected black-marketeering, there were plenty of good things stocked away in the pantry and the cellar, including enough sugar to see them through another two or three years, and plenty of tinned and potted meats, jams and jellies, honey, tinned cream, white flour, and other scarce commodities, enough to feed a much larger household than this one. Not that Eleanor ever saw any of that on her plate. Rye and barley-bread was her lot, a great many potatoes roasted in the ashes or boiled and served with nothing but salt and perhaps a bit of dripping, and whatever was left over from the night before put into the ever-cooking soup-pot, sugarless tea made with yesterday's leaves, and a great deal of sugarless porridge. In fact, the only time she tasted sweets now was when an empty jam jar came her way, and she made a little syrup from the near-invisible leavings to pour over her porridge or into her tea.
She glanced at the light coming in through the door; almost teatime. This, of course, was Howse's purview, not hers. There was a spirit-kettle in the parlor; Howse would make the tea, lay out the fancy tinned biscuits, bread, scones, crumpets, tea-cakes, butter and jam. If toast was wanted, Howse would make it over the fire in the parlor. And then Howse would share in the bounty, sitting down with her employers as if she were their equal. Thus had the war affected even Alison, who, Eleanor suspected, had learned at least one lesson and would have done more than merely sharing meals in order to avoid losing this last servant. A lady's maid was a necessity to someone like Alison, who would have no more idea of how to put up her own hair or tend to her wardrobe than how to fly an aeroplane. The laundry could be sent out, prepared foodstuffs brought in, and Eleanor's strength was adequate to the rest of the needs of the household, but if Alison and her daughters were to keep up their appearances, and to have a chance at ascending to the social rank they aspired to, Howse must be kept satisfied. And silent, where the true state of the household was concerned.
Eleanor sighed, and stared into the flames on the kitchen hearth. There was a patent range here too on which most of the actual cooking was done, with a boiler and geyser in back of it that supplied hot water for baths and washing, both upstairs and down, but Eleanor liked having an open fire, and wood was the one thing that Alison didn't keep her from using. Since the spell that bound her was somehow tied to the kitchen hearth, it would have seemed more natural for Eleanor to hate that fireplace, but when she was all alone in the kitchen at night, that little fire was her only friend. In the winter, she often slept down here now, when her room was too cold for slumber, drifting off beside the warmth of that fire, watching the glowing coals. Now and again, it seemed to her she saw things in the flames—little dancing creatures, or solemn eyes that stared back at her, unblinking. The truth also was that no matter what she did around the fires, she never got burned. Leaping embers leapt away from her, smoke always went up the chimney properly, even when the north wind drove smoke down into the parlor or Alison's room. No fire ever burned out for her, and even that ever-cooking soup-pot never scorched. Her fare might be scant and poor, but it was never burned. Which could not always be said of Alison's food, particularly not when she or Howse undertook to prepare or warm it themselves, at the parlor hearth . . . and though Eleanor kept her thoughts to herself, she could not help but be glad when hard, dry, inedible food and burned crusts came back on the plates to the kitchen.
Sometimes Eleanor wondered why her stepmother hadn't simply done to Howse what she had done to Eleanor and turn her into a slave, but even after three years, she didn't know a great deal more about magic than she'd learned on that December night. Alison clearly used it, but she had never again performed a spell or rite where Eleanor could see her. Perhaps the reason was no more complicated than that while crude, unskilled work could be compelled, skilled work required cooperation. . . .
And even as she thought that, Eleanor realized with a start that she had been sitting on her heels, idle, staring into the flames on the hearth, for at least fifteen minutes.
The thought hit her with the force of a hammer blow. Could Alison's magic be losing its strength?
With a mingling of hope and fear, and quietly, so as not to draw any attention to herself, Eleanor climbed carefully to her feet and tiptoed to the kitchen door. The high stone wall around the garden prevented her from seeing anything but the roofs of the other buildings around her and the tops of the trees. There was a wood-pigeon in the big oak on the other side of the east wall, and the cooing mingled with the sharp metallic cries of the jackdaws. She stood quietly in the late afternoon sunshine, closing her eyes and letting it bathe her face.
Then she stepped right outside onto the path between the raised herb beds, and had to bite her lower lip and clasp her hands tightly together to avoid shouting in glee. She was outside. She was not scrubbing the floor—
But as she made a trial of approaching the garden gate, she found, with a surge of disappointment, that she could not get nearer than five feet to true freedom. The closer she got to the big blue wooden gate, the harder it was to walk, as if the air itself had turned solid and she could not push her way through it. This phenomena was not new— unless Alison was there and "permitted" her to approach the gate, the same thing had always happened before.
Still, to be able to break free from the spell at all was a triumph, and Eleanor was not going to allow disappointment to ruin her small victory. And after a quick, breathless, skipping run around the dormant garden, she was not going to allow discovery to take that victory from her, either. She went back to her scrubbing. Except that she wasn't scrubbing at all. She was sitting on her heels where she could quickly resume the task when she heard footsteps and simply enjoying the breathing space.
The sound of high-pitched voices in the parlor told her that the ladies were having their tea. Just outside the door, starlings had returned to the garden and were singing with all their might. The kitchen was very quiet now, only the fire on the hearth crackling while the stove heated for dinner. Alison's mania for forcing her to clean meant that the kitchen was spotless, from the shining copper pots hanging on the spotless white plaster walls to the flagstone floor, to the heavy black beams of the ceiling overhead. It looked very pretty, like a model kitchen on show. But of course, no one looking at a model kitchen ever thought about the amount of work it took to make a kitchen look like that.
She stared into the fire, and thought, carefully. If this glimpse of limited freedom wasn't some fluke, if incomprehensible fate had at last elected to smile on her—well, her life was about to undergo a profound change for the better.
Her stomach growled, and she smiled grimly. Yes, there would be changes, starting with her diet. Because one of the things that the spell on her did was that it prevented her from going into the pantry late at night to steal food.
In many households, the food was kept under lock and key, but Eleanor's father had never seen the need for that. He felt that if the servants needed to eat, they should feel free to help themselves.
Alison hadn't felt that way, but the pantry still had no lock on it, and while Mrs. Bennett had lived her, it hadn't needed one. The cook had kept a strict accounting of foodstuffs, but that wasn't why there was no pilferage. Mrs. Bennett had kept everyone so well fed that none of the other servants had seen the need to raid the stores.
With Mrs. Bennett gone, however, Alison had changed the spell that bound Eleanor to keep her from the stores. Howse, of course, never appeared in the kitchen, and wasn't going short either, since she shared Alison's meals.
But Eleanor had heard all the servants' gossip, before they'd given notice, and she knew all the tricks for stealing food now that she hadn't known back before Alison came. So if she had even one chance at the pantry—well, she knew how and what to purloin so that even if Alison inspected, it would not be apparent that anyone had been into the stores.
What a thought! No more going to bed hungry—or feeling sick from eating food that had "gone off" and been rejected by Alison because that was all that there was for her to eat. Or at least, there would be none of that if she could bend the spell enough to get into the pantry at least once.
And suddenly, with a great leap of her heart, she realized that within a few days or a week at most, she would have the house to herself, as she always did in spring and fall. The annual pilgrimage to London was coming, when Alison and her daughters went to obtain their spring and summer wardrobes. Always before this, she had found herself restricted to the kitchen and her own room entirely for those few days. But perhaps this spring—
The sound of fashionable shoes with high heels clicking on hard stone broke into her reverie, and she quickly bent to her scrubbing. When Alison appeared in the doorway, striking a languid pose, Eleanor looked up, stony-faced, but did not stop her scrubbing. But she was much more conscious of the fire on the hearth than usual, and to keep her face still, she concentrated on it. The warmth felt—supportive. As if there was a friend here in the room with her. She concentrated on that.
Alison wore a lovely purple velvet tea-gown with ornaments of a cobwebby gray lace, with sleeves caught into cuffs at the wrist. As usual, her every dark hair was in place—and there was a tiny smile on her ageless face. She made a tiny gesture towards her stepdaughter, and Eleanor fought to keep her expression unchanging, as she saw, more clearly than she ever had before, a lance of muddy yellow light shoot from the tip of that finger towards her, and briefly illuminate her.
But she also saw, with a sense of shock, something entirely new. As that light struck her, there appeared a kind of cage of twisted and tangled, darkly glowing cords that pent her in. The cords absorbed the light, writhed into a new configuration, then faded away, and Eleanor sat up straighter, just as she would have if she had felt the compulsion to scrub ebbing.
"That's enough, Ellie," Alison said. "The laundry's been left at the tradesman's entrance. Go get it and put the linens away, then leave the rest for Howse."
"Yes, ma'am," Eleanor said, casting her eyes down, and thinking, wishing with all her might, Tell me you're going to London! Go to London! Stay for a long time, a fortnight, or morel Go to London!
And she bit her lip again to stifle the impulse to giggle, when Alison added thoughtfully, "I believe we'll be going on our London trip in two days, if the weather hold fine. You'll be a good girl while we're gone, and do all your work, won't you, Ellie."
"Yes, ma'am," she replied, getting to her feet, slowly, and brushing off her apron, using both actions as an excuse to keep her head down.
"Go tend the laundry." And once again, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a lance of grayish yellow light strike that tangle of "cords" and make it visible for a moment, saw the cords writhe into a new configuration. But this time she felt something, the faint ghost of the sort of compulsion she usually experienced, driving her towards the hall and the tradesmen's entrance. She allowed it to direct her, because the last thing she wanted was for Alison to guess that her magic was no longer controlling her stepdaughter completely.
As she folded and put away the linens, though, she wondered— what had happened? And why now?
I'd better take advantage of it while I have the chance, she decided, finally. Who knows how long this respite will last?
The usual chores occupied her until dinner, more floor-scrubbing, bath-drawing, tidying and dusting and dishwashing, while Howse tended to her own duties, and Alison and her daughters went out to pay calls or do their "work." It wasn't what Eleanor would have called work—sitting in meetings debating over what sort of parcels should be sent to "our boys in the trenches," or paying visits to the recovering wounded officers in the hospital to "help" them by writing letters for them or reading to them. Alison and her daughters did not deign to "help" mere unranked soldiers.
Eleanor heard them return and go upstairs to change for dinner. That was when she prepared what she was able to cook, then laid the table and waited in the kitchen until summoned by the bell. Then she served the four courses to the four diners in the candlelit dining room with a fresh, white apron over her plain dress. It was ham tonight, from the Swan, preceded by a delicate consomme from a tin, a beetroot salad, and ending with a fine tart from the Browns' bakery. Though this was one of the more difficult times of the day, as she served food she was not allowed to touch and watched the girls deliberately spoil what they left on their plates with slatherings of salt and pepper so that she could not even salvage it for herself, tonight she comforted herself with the knowledge that her dinner was not going to be as meager as it had been for far too long—
While Alison and the girls were lingering over their tart, she went upstairs and turned down the beds, picked up the scattered garments that they had left on the floor and laid them ready for Howse to put away. She swept out the rooms for the last time today, then went back down to the kitchen to wait for them to leave the table. When she heard them going back up to their rooms for the evening, she went into the dining room again to clear the table and return the ham and a few other items to the pantry. But she smiled as she did so, because once she had closed the pantry door, she made a little test of opening the door again—and found that she could.
It was her turn to linger now, and she did so over the dishes, over cleaning the kitchen, until she heard all four sets of heels going up the stairs to their rooms. Then she waited, staring into the fire, until the house quieted. Oddly, tonight there seemed to be more than a suggestion of creatures dancing in the flames—once or twice she blinked and shook her head, sure she had also seen eyes where no eyes could be.
And then she stole to the pantry, and opened it again. There was a faint feeling of resistance, but nothing more. And the culinary Aladdin's cave was open to her plundering.
Now, she knew this house as no one else did, and she knew where all of the hiding places in it were. One, in particular, was secure to herself alone. There was a hidden hatch under the servants' stair that for some reason her father had never shown Alison. Perhaps it was because Eleanor had been the one to discover it, and as a child had used it to store her secret treasures, and sometimes even hid in it when she had been frightened by storms. The hatch disclosed a set of narrow stone stairs that led down into a tiny stone cellar that he thought was a priest's hole, perhaps because of the little wooden crucifix, about the size to fit on the end of a rosary, they had found on the floor of the place. Eleanor had always thought it was a place where Royalist spies had hidden; perhaps it had served both functions.
Here Eleanor kept those few things she didn't want to fall into Alison's hands, such as most of the books that she had been using to study for the Oxford entrance examinations, other volumes she managed to purloin in the course of cleaning, and her mother's jewelry. Alison and her daughters didn't know about the jewelry, and never missed the books, which didn't much surprise Eleanor, as they seemed singularly uninterested in reading. Now the place was going to serve another purpose, as the repository for her stolen bounty of food, in case Alison managed to strengthen her magic, and there was not another chance for a while.
For the next hour or so she went back and forth between the pantry and the closet, never carrying much at a time, so that if she heard Alison or the girls coming, she could hide what she had. Jam, jelly, and marmalade, two bags of caster-sugar, some tinned meats and bacon, tinned cream and condensed milk, and many more imperishable things went into that cellar that night. She was very careful not to take the last of anything, and in fact to take nothing that was not present in abundance, removing items from the back of the shelf rather than the front. By the time she was finished, she had a small wealth of foodstuffs hidden away that made her giddy with pleasure.
Then she cut herself a generous slice of ham and a piece of buttered white bread to go with her soup, cut a little slice of the tart, and added milk and sugar to tea made with fresh leaves. And she had the first filling meal she had gotten since Mrs. Bennett left. She felt so good, and so sleepy with content, in fact, that she didn't bother to go up to her own room. Instead, she cleaned up every last trace of her illicit meal, and pulled the pallet she used in cold weather out of its cupboard, spreading it out in front of the fire.
And as she fell asleep, she smiled to think she saw sleepy eyes blinking with contented satisfaction back at her from the coals.
March 10, 1917
First London General Hospital
AT THIS TIME OF DAY, the ward was full of people; relatives hovering over their boys—though some of the boys were almost old enough to be Reggie's father, had Devlin Fenyx still been alive. Reggie was in the officer's wards, which meant that he had the luxury of being in the hospital building, and not outside in a tent as the enlisted men were. He usually didn't have any visitors, since his mother was afraid to travel alone and to her, "with a servant" qualified as "alone." Today, however, was different. Two of the men from 11 Squadron were on leave and had come to visit.
"Dashed handsome young fillies they've got hovering about you, Reg," said Lt. Steven Stewart, enviously. One of the "handsome young fillies"—a VAD called Ivy Grove—clearly overheard him. She blushed, bit her lip, and hurried off. Small wonder; almost any pilot got the hero-treatment from the women, and Steven was an infernally handsome fellow, who still hadn't shaken the "Oxford manner."
Reginald Fenyx could not have cared what the VAD nurses—or any others—looked like. All he cared about was that they were there, they talked to him, kept his mind on other things during the day—that they noticed when he was about to "go off," and came over on any pretext to keep the shakes away. Because when they were gone—
Tommy Arnolds, Reggie's flight mechanic and a wizard with the Bristol aircraft, wasn't nearly as subtle as Steven was; he stared after Ivy's trim figure with raw longing. He was a short, bandy-legged bloke, but what he could do with a plane was enough to make the pilot lucky enough to get him weep with joy when he took a bird that had been in Tommy's hands up. "Blimey," Tommy said contemplatively. "Wish they'd send a trim bit like that over, 'stead of those old 'orses—"
"They do send the trim bits over, Tommy," Steven said, fingering his trim moustache with a laugh. "But the old horses keep them out of your way. Your reputation precedes you, old man!"
Reggie managed a real smile, as Tommy preened a little, but his heart wasn't in it. They'd generously spent five hours of leave time here with him, but there was a limit to their generosity.
"And speaking of trim bits—" Steven tweaked the hem of his already perfect tunic. Steven, like Reggie, did not have to rely on the fifty-pound uniform allowance for his outfitting, and like Reggie had been before the crash, he was never less than impeccably turned out. "If Tommy and I are going to find ourselves a bit of company on this leave, we'd better push off. Can't have the PBIs showing up the Flying Corps, what?"
"Thanks for turning up, fellows," Reggie said, fervently. "Give my best to the rest of the lads. But not too soon."
"You can bet on that!" Steven laughed, and he and Tommy sketched salutes and sauntered out of the ward, winking at Ivy, the VAD girl, as they passed her, making her blush furiously.
Reggie lay back against his pillows, feeling exhausted by the effort to keep up the charade that he was perfectly all right, aside from being knocked about a bit. It was grand seeing the fellows, but—it was easier when people he knew weren't here and he didn't have to pretend. He had more in common with the lad in the next bed over, a mere second lieutenant by the name of William West, for all that West was FBI and Reggie was—had been—a pilot, a captain, and an ace at that. All the shellshock victims were in this end of the ward, together. Sometimes Reggie thought, cynically, it was so that their screaming in nightmares and their shaking fits by day wouldn't bother anyone else.
There weren't many shellshock cases in the Royal Flying Corps, anyway. The pilots and their support crew were well behind the lines, out of reach of the guns and the gas. That was the lot of the FBI—the "Poor Bloody Infantry," upon whose lines in the trenches the pilots looked down in remote pity, chattering and clattering through the sky.
Or we do just before Archie gets us, or the Huns shoot us down— Reggie amended, and then the first sight of that azure-winged Fokker interposed itself between him and the ward, and the shaking began—
He clawed at his bedside table for a glass of water, the paper the lads had brought him, anything to distract himself. But then, before he could go into a full-blown attack, something altogether out of the ordinary distracted him. Because, coming towards him down the aisle between the beds, accompanied by his usual medico, Dr. Walter Boyes, was another doctor, but this time it was someone he recognized.
"Captain Fenyx—" Boyes began, quietly, so as not to disturb West, who had subsided into a morphine-assisted sleep,"—I believe you already know my colleague."
"I should say so!" he exclaimed, sitting up straight. He had never been so pathetically glad to see anyone in his life. "Doctor Scott! Maya! I had no idea you were on the military wards!"
"I'm not," the handsome, dark-haired, dark-eyed woman said, with a smile. Her exotic beauty was more than enough to make even the stark white hospital coat and severe black skirt look out-of-the-ordinary. "Good heavens, Reggie, can you see the War Department unbending enough for that? Now, if I were unmarried and prepared to volunteer for Malta, they would take me, and they might even allow me to practice in Belgium or France, but here? Oh, they would accept me as a VAD aide, of course. But because I'm married, they won't take me any other way. Heaven forfend that Peter might have to supervise the household once in a while."
"Well—when you put it that way—" He shrugged. The War Department was full of idiots, everyone knew that. Unfortunately, they were the idiots in charge. Maya Scott and her fellow female doctors, few though they were, would have made a big difference to the wounded. And if they were worried about the morals of the patients being corrupted, or even those of the other military doctors, wouldn't a married doctor be "safer" rather than more dangerous? "But why are you here, then? Surely not just for me?"
"Entirely just for you; I've been sent by a higher power." A little smile curved her lips, suggesting that this was a joke. "Walter is a friend of mine; he worked in our charity clinics before the war," she continued. "I didn't know you were here until Lady Virginia got hold of me two days ago; she gave me your doctor's name, and that was when I went hunting for him and you."
Ah, that explained "higher power." His godmother was a force of nature.
"I would have been here sooner, but until I got hold of Walter, I wouldn't have been allowed near you." It was her turn to shrug. "I'm a female, not your relative, your fiancee, nor a nurse, you see. Never mind that I'm a doctor; evidently it is expected that you would immediately corrupt my morals, or I yours. Fortunately, Walter has made all smooth. He is allowed to bring in anyone he likes as a consulting physician, so long as I don't expect to be paid."
In the course of that exchange, Reggie and Maya communicated something more, wordlessly. A lift of an eyebrow on Reggie's part towards Dr. Boyes—does he know? The tiniest shake of the head from Maya, confirming his initial impression—no. So, Doctor Walter was neither an Elemental Mage himself, nor was he among the few who were not Mages that nevertheless knew of the existence of Mages and magic.
Doctor Maya, however, was an Elemental Mage. In fact, she was an Earth Master.
"Walter, can the patient leave his bed?" she asked in the next moment. "I'd like to talk to him privately."
"I don't want him to put weight on that leg yet, but yes," Doctor Walter replied, and sent the VAD girl for a wheelchair. Then he added, in a hushed voice Reggie was sure he was not meant to overhear, "If you can get something out of him about his experience—"
"That's what I'm here for," Maya said soothingly. "I haven't seen a great many shellshock cases myself, but I've gotten some. Nurses are coming back to us in sad condition, particularly the ones who've been on transports that were torpedoed, or shelled while working near the lines or riding with the ambulances. His grandmother and Lady Virginia DeMarce, his godmother, thought he might be more willing to unburden himself to someone he knows."
Reggie almost laughed with pent-up hysteria. Someone he knew! Good God, if that was all it was! If they only knew, all those medicos— if they only knew!
But the chair arrived, and he levered himself into it, wanting nothing more than to be out of this ward, quickly, where he could finally talk to someone who would at least understand. Because he was not "just" a victim of shellshock. Oh no. That was only the smallest of his problems. . . .
It was an unseasonably warm day, he discovered, as Maya wheeled him briskly and efficiently out into the hospital garden. That was a relief, for she was able to find a little alcove where they could be quite private, and park him with his "back to a wall. He blessed her exquisite sensitivity, but she was an Earth Master, after all, and a Healer to boot, and sensitivity came with that description.
"Well, Reggie," she said, the moment she settled down across from him, with their knees practically touching. She took out a bit of paper from her pocket and consulted it. "I'm going to make this easier and more difficult for you. I have been studying Doctors Freud and Jung's works, and as you heard, I have already seen several normal cases of shellshock. I did my studying of your case before I arrived, so let me tell you quickly what I know, then we'll get to what I don't know. I know you were shot down, your observer was killed—" she looked at the paper in her hand "—Erik Kittlesen, wasn't it?"
He nodded, numbly, both desperately grateful that he wasn't actually having to tell all this himself, and appallingly afraid of what he was going to have to say when she started asking questions.
"You came down close to the Hun side in No-Man's Land. Some of the Huns came to get you out of the wreckage, and a barrage hit, killing everyone but you. Then one of our parties got you out, dragged you to a bunker, and another barrage hit, burying you in the bunker for two days until another rescue party dug you out. Is that the long and the short of it?"
He nodded. His mouth felt horrible dry, and when he licked his lips, he fancied he could still taste that horrible substance that passed for air in the trenches and the bunkers—a fetid murk tainted with the smell of past gas attacks, and thick with the stench of death, of blood and rotting flesh, rats and foul water.
"Now comes the hard part," she said, and reached over to take his unresisting hand. "Now I ask you questions. And Reggie, you must answer them. I can't help you if you don't, or won't."
Once again, he nodded, feeling his throat closing up with panic, and the sting of helpless tears behind his eyelids.
"Why did you get shot down?" she asked implacably. "You are an Air Master, one of the most skilled I know. We both know it wasn't luck that was keeping you in the sky, particularly not given the horrid old rattletraps you were often given. So what happened?"
"I went up," he croaked. "And—Maya, this is a damned wretched thing to say, but—look, the only way I was ever able to face what I was doing was to never, ever think about the Hun as anything other than a target." He made a sound like a laugh. "Actually, I was Erik's only chance to go up at all, which was why I was in a two-seater instead of flying solo as usual. Everyone knew that even though Erik crashed more birds than he flew, anything he aimed at, he hit—he even took down a Hun with a half-brick, once! He'd crashed his plane as usual; the only things available were my usual bird, which was having a wonky engine anyway, and the two-seater. They knew if he was in the observer's seat, I could concentrate on flying the bird and he could concentrate on what he was good at. But if it hadn't been for me, he wouldn't even have been up there that day."
Maya nodded. "I see why you feel doubly responsible." Pilots were not in such plentiful supply that Erik would not have been up on his own. He knew that; he'd been told that too many times. She didn't say it, because she must have known that he'd been told it and didn't believe it, and he was grateful that she didn't say it aloud again because she understood it wouldn't help. There were a great many things in this war that people understood, but didn't say aloud. It was probably the only way most people kept from going mad.
But of course, I'm already mad . . . or getting there. . . .
"But why were you shot down?" she persisted, as if she knew that this was where the first crack had appeared in his armor. Maybe she did.
"Because—" he swallowed. "Because this time, when I went up, there was someone I'd never seen before up there to stop me. Bright blue Fokker. Maya, he was one of us. He was an Air Master too. And—" he shook his head, "and I felt something. From him. Not his thoughts, more like what he was feeling. He was—he was in mourning." He closed his eyes for a moment, to fight down his own tears. Words were totally inadequate to what he had felt in that single moment. Mourning? It was deeper than mourning. It had been self-revulsion, hatred for what the man had been doing, and a terrible, terrible sense of loss.
The Hun hadn't only been mourning what he had to do—he was in mourning for the loss of everything he cared for. "He was—" Reggie groped for words, "flying with sorrow, the deepest, blackest sorrow I ever felt in my life. And it was because by doing his duty, which was the honorable thing to do, he was being forced to kill us, who should have been his comrades. Because his beautiful blue heavens were filled with a rain of blood, and his beautiful blue wings belonged to the Angel of Death. He knew he would never, for however long he lived, fly in skies free of blood. His world was shattered, and he'd never really feel happiness again."
Maya's fingers tightened on his. "Vishnu preserve us," she replied, her voice full of the shocked understanding he had hoped to hear.
"I—couldn't shoot him. He couldn't help but shoot me. I—" he shook his head. "I didn't evade. He got Erik first, then my tank, and then my engine. He got Erik, and I felt him die, and it was my fault— my fault—"
Once again her fingers tightened on his, but she did not say, as so many fools had, that it wasn't his fault. "You made a mistake," she said instead. "At some point, Reggie, you have to stop paying for it, and forgive yourself. But only you can decide how much payment is enough." Then her voice strengthened. "You were shot down. Your collarbone and your knee were both shattered, your ribs were cracked, and I think only your Mastery saved you from worse. Then the Huns came to get you out before your plane went up in flames. Something happened then, too, didn't it?"
"A Hun came to get me out," Reggie corrected. "A young fellow came pelting out regardless—I suppose our boys must have seen what he was doing, because they held their fire. He came pelting out, into No-Man's Land, over the wire, and hauled me out while the bird was burning. And he went back for Erik, and—" he swallowed "that was when the shell hit. Young fellow, he couldn't have been sixteen. Maybe less." He felt his throat closing again at the thought of that earnest young face, at the young voice that told him "Stille, stille, bitte. Ja, das ist gut, stille." "The boys that came after me found some bits of his things, a letter from home, a picture of his mother. His name was Wilhelm, that's Hun for William, like West in the next bed over from me in the ward. FBI, like young Willie, too. Wilhelm Katzel. That's two fellows that died because of me, in less than five minutes."
She nodded, but said nothing for a moment. "I think," she finally said, "When this is over—you should tell his mother how brave he was."
That was not what he was expecting to hear. "How will that help?" he asked angrily.
"I don't know," she replied, not reacting to his anger at all. "But I do know that it won't hurt. It will let her know he hadn't lost his decency or his honor in this vile slaughter, and that's something for her to hold onto. This war has made beasts of so many—perhaps it will comfort her to know that her Wilhelm was still a man."
It was not the answer he had been expecting, and he flushed a little. But she was right. She was very right.
But of course, the worst was yet to come.
"That isn't where the real trouble lies, though, is it?" she continued. "Oh, it's horrible, and you are burdened terribly with guilt, but that isn't the worst." She tugged a little on his hand, forcing him to look up, into her eyes. "The worst came when you were safe, didn't it? In the bunker. Buried alive."
He almost jerked his hand out of hers, and began to shake uncontrollably. "How did you—"
"Reggie, I'm an Earth Master. The ground in France and Belgium is saturated with blood," she said, with a thin veneer of calm over her words. "I know what that attracts. There are monsters in the earth of France, Reggie, and they are fattening and thriving on that slaughter—and when that shell hit that bunker, they had a tidbit of the sort they could only crave and dream about in their power. Air and Earth are natural enemies, and they had you in their territory, in their grasp, to do with what they wanted." His vision began to film over as panic rose in his chest; he clutched her hands, as though clutching a lifeline, as she put into words what he could not. "They had you, Reggie, their greatest enemy, a Master of Air and a Master of the Light, helpless, on their ground." He couldn't see, now, as all the memories came flooding back. He heard his breath rasping in his throat, his heart pounding, and could not move for the fear. Dimly, through the roaring in his ears, he heard her ask the question he did not want to answer.
"What did they do to you, Reggie? What did they do?"
Maya Scott sat with her husband in a place in the Exeter Club where—before her marriage to Peter Scott—no woman had ever been before. It was a lovely day outside, still; the windows stood wide open to the warm air, and the sun streamed down onto old Persian rugs, caressed brown leather upholstery, and touched the contents of brandy bottles with gold.
"So," said the Lord Alderscroft, often called the Old Lion—older now than when she had first met him, and aged by more than years. "You've seen the boy."
Lord Alderscroft sat like the King on his throne, in his wingback chair in his own sitting room in his private suite on the top floor of the Exeter Club, and raised a heavy eyebrow at Maya. "Your report, please, Doctor Scott?"
Maya never sat here without feeling a distant sense of triumph. It had been her doing that had broken down the last three barriers of the White Lodge housed here in the Exeter Club—of gender, lineage, and race. She would have failed the Edwardian tests on all three counts; female, common, and of mixed Indian and British blood. But King Edward was gone, and King George was on the throne, and after the defeat of her aunt, there was not a man on the Council who felt capable of objecting to her presence. And truth to tell, they needed her. They had needed her before the war. She was one of a handful of Earth Masters who could bear to live and work in the heart of a great city.
Now they needed her—and the other women they had admitted to the White Lodge—more than ever. The war had been no easier on the ranks of the Elemental Masters than it was on the common man.
Today, however, triumph was not even in the agenda. "He's in wretched shape, my lord," she said slowly. "It is not helping that so many physicians and most officers, all of whom should know better, are convinced that shellshock is just another name for malingering. Even as he, himself, acknowledges that he is not well, there is the subconscious conviction that if he only had an ounce more willpower, he would get over it and back to the fight. I can tell him differently until I turn as blue as Rama; until he believes it in his heart, he will continue to berate himself even as he suffers."
Lord Alderscroft—who, not that long ago, would have agreed with those physicians and officers—sighed heavily. He knew better now. All Elemental Masters knew better; the war was hellish, but it was worse on the minds and nerves of Elemental Masters. The truth was, most of the Masters that had gone into the trenches, if they survived the senseless, mindless way in which the War Department threw away their lives, were there for less than six months before their minds broke. "So he is in no fit state, as Doctor Boyes reports, with a ripe case of shell-shock as well as physical injuries. And as if that were not enough, then there is what he faced, in the earth."
She shook her head, and swallowed, as her husband closed his hand over hers. She had closed herself off as much as she had dared, but as a Healer and a physician, she had needed to know something of what he had experienced.
She had been ready for it, and of course, it had come at second hand, but it had been too horrific for anyone to really understand without sharing it.
She gave Peter a faint smile of thanks. "You do not wish to know the details, my lord. Horrors. That is enough, I think. The inimical forces of all four Elements can terrify, but I think that those of Earth are most particularly apt at destroying the mind with fear. They swarmed him and tormented him from the moment the earth was shattered around him to the moment that the rescue party broke through and got him out. The records say he was more dead than alive. I am not at all surprised. What I am surprised at is that he has a mind left at all, much less a rational one."
"Well," Alderscroft rumbled, his face creased and re-creased with lines of care, "We humans have taught them about torment and horror all too well, have we not?" He sighed again.
"Do not lay too much upon the shoulders of mere mortals, my lord," Maya replied, grimly. "Recall that it is Healing that is in the Gift of the Earth Mages and Elementals. The converse is harm, and it is naturally true of the dark side of that Element." She thought with pity of the poor fellow, who she last recalled seeing as a bright young Oxford scholar, utterly shattered and weeping his heart out, bent over her knees. It was a state she had wanted to bring him to—for without that initial purging, he could not even begin to heal—but it had been painful for her to do so, and only the fact that she had done it before, to others, even made it possible for her to carry it through. But she was a surgeon, and surgeons became hardened to necessity after a time. You could not cleanse a wound without releasing the infection. You could not heal the mind without letting some of the pressure off. "The larger consequence for us, my lord, is that he has cut himself off from any use of his powers."
Lord Alderscroft closed his eyes. "I feared as much. And we cannot afford that. Too many of us are gone—"
"Nevertheless, he has closed off his mind to his power," she replied. "And it is of no use trying to get him to open it now. He tells me that the things that attacked him destroyed his Gifts, and he believes it with every iota of his being."
"And that isn't true?" A second figure stepped away from the shadows beside the fireplace; another nobleman, Peter Almsley, lean and blond, nervously highbred, and the Scotts' best friend. He was in a uniform, but he was on some sort of special duty with the War Department that kept him off the Front. She suspected that special duty was coordinating the magical defense of the realm. Certainly Alderscroft wasn't young enough anymore to do so.
She closed her eyes for a moment. Even if Fenyx never flew again, he could be put to doing what Almsley was doing—with more effectiveness. The Air Elementals actually controlled winds and weather to some extent, and if an Air Master could see to the physical defenses of the country—
She did not shudder, she had endured worse than bombardment by Zepps and Hun aeroplanes, but—it was hard, hard, to hear the drone of those motors in the sky, in the dark, and look up helplessly at the ceiling and wait for the first explosions and wonder if you were sitting on the target, or if you would be able to scramble away to somewhere safer when you knew where the bombs were falling. And if the latter—who, of your friends, was sitting on the target. If Reggie could be persuaded—
She shook her head. "There is nothing wrong at all with his Gifts," she said, decidedly. "But I think that, in those dreadful two days underground, he understood instinctively that his very power was what attracted the Earth creatures to him, and that if he closed that power off, they would cease to torment him. At some level deeper than thought—Doctor Freud would have called it the id—in the most basic of his instincts, he walled that part of himself away. And now he truly does not believe it exists anymore."
"So you can get him back—" Alderscroft began, eagerly, looking optimistic for the first time this interview began.
But she shook her head emphatically. "Not I. This is too complicated a case for me. Doctor Andrew Pike in Devon is the man you need—"
But Almsley groaned. "Not a chance of a look-in there, Maya. Not now, not ever. It's one thing to unburden his weary soul to you, my heart—but if you call in the good Doctor Pike, or worse, send the boy to him, our Reggie will have to admit that he's gone balmy, and that he can never do."
Maya looked from Almsley to Alderscroft and back again, and felt like stamping her feet with frustration at what she read there. Men! Why did they have to be so stubborn about such things?
"Maya, think," her husband said, quietly. "If he's sick with guilt over the idea that he's malingering, what do you think the mere sight of Andrew Pike at his bedside do to his feelings about himself?"
Defeated, she could only shake her head.
"Going 'round the bend is just not the done thing, my heart," Almsley said sadly. "It's what your dotty Uncle Algernon does, not an officer and a gentleman. Andrew could probably have him right and tight in months, but that doesn't matter. If he saw Andrew, he'd be certain that we all think he's mad, and if he's mad, he's broken and useless, and worse, he's a disgrace to the old strawberry leaves and escutcheon. If he's gone mad, he might just as well die and avoid embarrassing the family."
She leveled her gaze at Alderscroft. "Then you had better hope he can get well and work his way through his troubles on his own," she said, doing her best to keep accusation out of her tone. "But I don't think that he will. Not without a powerful incentive to break through that wall of fear that keeps him away from his power, and I can tell you right now that duty, honor, and pride are not powerful enough. Duty, honor, and pride aren't enough to get him through the shell-shock, much less break through to his Gifts again. Furthermore—"
Should she tell them?
She was a physician; she had to.
"Furthermore, I consider that without Doctor Pike's help, there is a real possibility that he may do away with himself if he can't manage to get himself through. Because I am not sure he can live with the pain, the fear, and the conflicts inside himself as he is now."
There. She'd said it.
She expected them to look shocked, to protest. They didn't; they only looked saddened and resigned.
"It won't be the first one we've lost that way," Almsley said softly, revealing the reason for their reaction. He turned to Alderscroft. "What do you think, send him home on recovery leave?"
Almsley hadn't asked her, but she answered anyway. 'At least if he is at home, he will be in familiar surroundings and far away from anything military. It might help."
Alderscroft nodded his massive head, slowly. "Get his grandmother to keep an eye on him; I think it's the best we can do. I'll talk to some people, and get him leave to recover at home." He turned back to Maya. "Thank you, doctor. You have been of immense help; more than you know. I only wish it were possible to take more of your advice. I promise, we will see to it that everything that can be done, will be. And it will not be for lack of—flexibility—on our part."
That was a dismissal if ever she had heard one, and reluctantly, she allowed her husband to assist her to her feet and took her leave.
But it did nothing to end her anger—which was the only way she could keep her own profound depression at bay. I hate this bloody, senseless, useless, stupid war.
March 14, 1917
THE ROBINSONS HAD TAKEN THE first train to London, set themselves up at the Savoy Hotel, and gone straight out to take care of the most urgent need for all three of them—new wardrobes. But their visits to the first three fashion houses—their usual haunts—were less than a success.
"Have you ever seen such ugly colors?" Carolyn complained (rather too loudly) to her mother, as she and her sister followed hard on their mother's heels out to the pavement in front of the third. "Drab brown, drab olive, drab navy and drab cream. Khaki, khaki, khaki! And nothing but tweeds and linens! And for spring and summer! What about silk? What about muslin? Do they think we're all Land Girls?"
Her mother shrugged. "We'll try another atelier, dear," she said, with a glance up the street, looking for a taxi. "Someone who isn't trying so hard to be patriotic and dress us all in uniforms."
"I don't see why one has to be plain to be patriotic," Lauralee pouted. Her sister sniffed.
"Plain? Made up like a Guy, more like!" Carolyn exclaimed. "I don't want to look like I'm in uniform and I don't want to look like a—a suffragette! I want—"
"Leave it to me, girls; I have some notions," Alison replied, and spied a free taxi in the same moment. Taxis were thin on the ground in London now, but Alison had no intention of subjecting herself to the Underground or the 'buses. It didn't take much more than a lifted finger and a spark of magic to summon it, as it passed by five other people trying to hail it, including one disgruntled cavalry officer.
She leaned over and gave the driver—a very old man indeed—an address that made him look at her in surprise. But he said nothing, and she took her place beside her daughters. It was pleasantly warm; unpleasantly enough, they were all three wearing last year's spring gowns. This would never do.
To the surprise of her daughters, the establishment that the taxi left them at was not any of the usual fashion houses Alison patronized. She ignored their surprise, for it was painfully clear to her that the usual establishments would not do this year. There was probably a good reason why all the houses that she could afford to patronize were using domestically produced fabrics this spring, and it was a reason she should have anticipated, given the start of rationing.
She would have to resort to another ploy—though the rather grubby theater district was not a place one would normally go to find one's wardrobe. She opened a door with the cryptic words Keplans Haberdashery painted on the frosted glass. The girls followed her up a narrow, rather dirty wooden staircase with no small trepidation; she smiled to herself, knowing what awaited them at the top.
She and the girls emerged from this place feeling a glow of triumph. Here, at least, fashion was not being subjected to patriotism. But then again, the ladies who frequented this dressmaker absolutely required every aid to seduction that fine clothing could provide, for most of them had "arrangements" with the gentlemen of Whitehall, the City, and both Houses of Parliament—arrangements that did not include wedding rings. As a consequence, they were unlikely to sacrifice beauty for the appearance of respectability. Alison knew of this place from her early days as one of the demimondaine—but of course, unlike the rest of her sisters-in-sin, she'd had the means at her disposal to ensure she got a wedding ring before too long into her arrangement.
This particular dressmaker spent half the time creating costumes for the theater, and half dressing the kept ladies of the town; but because she did the former, she had a huge storehouse of fabric to pull from. After the third house had disappointed, Alison had come to the reluctant conclusion that it was possible the war and the Hun submarine blockade had begun to affect even those with money to spend on London dressmakers. This dressmaker had only confirmed that, as she had pulled out roll after roll of silk and muslin with the comment, "You won't see that, thanks to the Kaiser." Silks came from China by way of Paris; muslin from India or the United States. Both had to come by way of the ocean, and between ships being sunk, and ships being commandeered to bring over military goods—luxury goods probably still were coming, but now their prices had gone beyond the reach of a minor industrialist's widow.
Of course, even in Broom, one didn't go to a theatrical costumier for one's wardrobe—but Alison had a way around that. When the dresses arrived in their plain packaging, she would have Ellie cut the labels out of last year's gowns and sew them into the unlabeled new ones. Perhaps it was a bit foolish to do so, but after all, the laundry was sent out—and the laundress would take note if this year's gowns had no labels anymore—or worse, had labels from Keplans Haberdashery rather than a fashion house that was cited in the London society pages.
Half of keeping up appearances was in attending to details.
Alison smiled, as the girls chattered happily on the way back to the Savoy. There was a slight drawback to patronizing Miss Keplan. They would have to stay in London for nearly a week to accomplish all the fittings, whereas the establishments they usually used had mannequins and fitting-dummies made to all three women's measure. Still, the results would be worth the extra days. The girls would look like butterflies among the caterpillars at every garden party and fete this spring and summer. Men responded to these things. They would outshine much prettier girls, just because their frocks were prettier. With any luck, one of them, at least, would catch someone with a title, money, or better still, both to his name.
Robinson's fortune was reasonable, and since by magically enhanced maneuvering, Alison had secured the monopoly of supplying sacks for sandbags to the army, it was not likely to run out any time soon—but Alison was weary of being reasonable, weary of Broom, weary of being the leading light in a claustrophobically tiny and insignificant social sphere. She had wearied of it very soon after ascending to the throne of unofficial queen of Broom. She had much larger ambitions.
Alison aspired to Longacre Park.
It was not a new desire. As a scrawny adolescent, hard-eyed with ambition, she had aspired to the circles of those who feted royalty. She would gather with other spectators on the pavement whenever a grand party or ball was being held, and vow that one day she would be among such invitees. When she had been taken up by an aging courtesan with enough of the gift of Earth Magery to recognize it in another, she had seen it as a first step to those circles and deserted her dreary working-class family, even though all such a relic of Victoria's time could hope for was the company of prosperous shopkeepers and minor industrialists.
But Alison had bided her time, and ensnared the first of the unmarried gentlemen moderate means to cross her path, sacrificing wealth temporarily for respectability. She had slipped up a trifle, allowing him to get her with child twice—well, he was more virile than she had thought. She had rid herself of him soon enough, which left her a comfortably off widow, and had laid the foundations for better conquests by learning the lessons that would fit her for the circles of the exalted, while at the same time mastering her Magery. Etiquette, elocution—especially elocution, for Bernard Shaw was right, the wrong accent guaranteed failure at this game—she had instructors for everything. A good nanny for the children and the proper boarding schools gave her the time she needed to attain full command of Earth Magic at the same time.
That had been at the hands of a male Earth Master, of course, and a suitably old one, who flattered himself that the attentiveness of this attractive widow was genuine and not inspired by the desire to have all of his secrets. Strange how male mages never seemed to learn from the lesson of Merlin and Nimue. A female would not have been so easy to manipulate, nor so hopelessly naive. She had learned all he had to teach, and then—well, he got his reward, and had not survived die experience. He had, however, died with a look of incredulous pleasure on his face. She had owed him that much. She wondered what the coroner and undertaker had made of it. And had made of the fact that he might have been sixty, but when he died, he had looked ninety.
"Mama, we're here]" Carolyn called out, shaking her out of her reverie. She followed the girls out of the taxi, paid and tipped the driver, and entered the hotel.
No one took any note of them—well, no one except a couple of young officers in the lobby who gazed at the girls appreciatively. She repressed a grimace. Had the family been of note, there would be concierges and porters swarming about them, eager to know their slightest whim, even with the hotel staff so seriously depleted by the war—
Well, if she had anything to say about it, they would be swarmed, one day.
They entered the elevator, and with a nod and a shilling to the operator, ascended to their floor.
Which was not the best floor. Respectable, and the denizens of Broom would have been overwhelmed by the elegance, but it was by no means the best the Savoy had to offer. And that rankled.
But she would not show that before the girls. They required ambition, and they had it, but it must be unclouded by envy. Envy would put disagreeable lines in their faces. They must be like athletes, or perhaps warriors, with their eyes and minds firmly fixed on the prize. They must be ruthless, of course, but they should never waste time on so unprofitable an emotion as envy.
The girls fluttered into the salon, still chattering about the gowns. They understood completely that they must not say where the gowns were coming from, of course, but they were bewitched, properly bewitched, by the pastel silks and delicately printed muslins that had been spread out for their approval, and the elegant copies of the gowns that the other fashion houses were showing. As Alison had well remembered, the dressmaker was a very clever little woman; within days of new gowns being shown for the season, she had sketches of every one of them, and was making copies.
And the gowns that she copied were not those of the houses that Alison could afford to patronize. Oh no. These were the gowns that would make their appearance on the lawns of stately homes like Longacre Park. . . .
For the truly, fabulously wealthy, and the extremely well-connected, were no more affected by the blockade than the theatrical dressmaker was. In the case of the latter, it was because she had an entire warehouse of fabrics stockpiled, and besides that, access to dozens, perhaps hundreds of old gowns and costumes that could be remade. In the case of the former—well, where the habitues of the Royal Enclosure were concerned, a bolt or two of fabric could be brought over, somehow. . . .
Well, perhaps this would be the year. And if the faintly frivolous gowns caused a stirring of dismay at the Broom cricket games, or the country club tennis matches, well, perhaps the owners of the gowns could move into territory this summer where their appearance would harmonize with the surroundings, rather than stand out from them.
She shook off her reverie. There was, of course, more to this biannual visit than just the replenishing of a wardrobe. She had other calls to make while she was here.
"I'm going out, girls," she called out to them. "Have your dinner sent up. And you are not—"
"On any account to stir from these rooms," they replied in chorus, and ended with a giggle.
"Practice your charms," she said, with a lifted brow.
"Oh, Mama—" Lauralee objected. "They're so much more difficult here!"
"All the more important that you learn how to set them here," she replied severely. "You have no more magic than the old woman who taught me—but if I have anything to say about it, you'll learn how to make much better use of it than she did." A thought occurred to her that would give them malicious amusement, and would set their minds on the proper task. "Our windows overlook the street. Why don't you exercise your skills and your minds by making unsuitable persons conceive of a passion for one another?"
"Oh, Mama!" Carolyn exclaimed, delight sparking in her eyes. "May we?"
"I would not have told you to do so if I did not mean it," she replied, with a little smile of her own. "Make me a thorough report when I return."
She telephoned the Exeter Club as they set themselves and the small bits of apparatus they would need at the window. There would be no need to find taxis for this visit. Lord Alderscroft would send a car. This was, after all, the business of the War Office.
Maya narrowed her eyes suspiciously as she watched Lord Alderscroft's visitor. He had not invited her into his own rooms; instead, they were meeting in the same Aesthetic public dining room that she had been taken to the first time she entered the doors of the Exeter Club.
What she had not known then was that one of the mirrors was one-way, and hid a tiny spyhole. She didn't think that anyone had been watching her that time, but even if they had been, they hadn't learned anything they couldn't have learned by watching her openly.
Alderscroft wanted her assessment of someone he wanted to keep an eye on Reggie Fenyx. It was another Earth Master. And already Maya disliked her.
"Really?" the elegant woman said, her eyes widening slightly. "Young Fenyx is so badly off as all that?"
No, Maya did not like Alison Robinson; she did not trust Mrs. Robinson one tiny little bit. She had no reason for these feelings, other than her instinct, though, which was not enough to give as a reason to Lord Alderscroft, who distrusted feminine intuition.
Were the rumors true that far too many people that Alison Robinson was intended to keep watch on died instead? And was that enough of a reason for suspicion? Of course, they had all been spies for the Hun, and there was never any reason to point to Alison Robinson as the cause of their deaths but—
Maya toyed with her tea on the other side of the one-way mirror, listened as Alderscroft assigned Alison Robinson to keep an eye on Reginald Fenyx, and reflected with some relief that this was a perfectly absurd assignment. After all, someone like Mrs. Robinson, the widow of a mere small manufacturer, was not going to have entree into—
"But Lord Alderscroft," Alison said, smiling, "This is really quite impossible! I have no entree into such exalted social circles! Why, I should not be able to do more than glimpse the young man at a distance! The closest approach I could manage would be in the autumn, as the hunt goes by, if he even participates in the hunt at all! You know I have no objection to doing anything you and the War Office might ask of me, but really, dropping me behind enemy lines and asking me to pass myself off as a kleine hausfrau would be simpler!"
"Ah, erm—" Alderscroft coughed. "Well, perhaps I should—"
"If I am to carry out this assignment, you shall have to manufacture an appropriate background for me," the wretched woman went on, to Maya's dismay. "You'll have to find an impoverished line in Burke's with a daughter called Alison of the proper age, one that might well have decided that ungenteel comfort was preferable to leaking roofs and no proper plumbing. And then you'll have to arrange a proper introduction to his mother, by letter if nothing else."
"That will take time, I'm afraid," said Alderscroft, sounding apologetic.
"I can wait," she replied gaily, with a delicate little laugh. "After all, a job worth doing is worth doing properly. Thank you, my lord. This is much preferable to investigating the occasional foreigner on a walking tour through Shakespeare country." That sweet little laugh grated on Maya's nerves. One Earth Master to another—that woman was altogether too well shielded. But then, London was unbearable for an Earth Master without being shielded . . . and although it would have been much more polite to forego her shields within the Exeter Club, she wasn't a member of the Lodge, so she couldn't know that it was safe to do so. So that was no good reason to mistrust her, or at least, it was not a reason that Alderscroft would accept.
The creature was back to harping on that introduction. Maya had seen more than her share of social climbers in India, and she knew another one the moment she saw her. Though she might not be able to read Mrs. Robinson, she didn't have to in order to recognize those signs.
Doesn't she have daughters? Oh yes . . . planning on marrying into the family, are you, my dear? If you can manage it, that is. Well, there was the one saving grace of Reggie's condition; he was so heavily blocked that the Robinson woman could run him down with a locomotive-sized love spell and he'd be impervious to it. He was, in fact, the mirror opposite to an Elemental Master now, he was powerfully unmagical. She could throw spells at him for a week, and all that would happen would be that they would be swallowed up without a trace. And as for simple vamping—
Our Reggie's had every sort of woman there is fling themselves at his head by now. He's not going to think much of a couple of provincial belles hanging out for a title and a fortune. And if you can't recognize that, dear lady, you are an utter fool.
And sure enough, she was back on that so-precious introduction again. "It probably should be a letter, Lord Alderscroft," she was saying, with a melting smile. "Or better still, two—one to Lady Devlin directly and one I can hand-carry. Say that—oh, I am too diffident to push myself on her, but would she please look me up as I'm too terribly alone down there in the village?"
Maya gritted her teeth. Oh, please rescue me from these wretched peasants, she means. And she knew that Alderscroft's subconscious would recognize her tone and the cadence of her speech as well as her words and respond to it in spite of the fact that he knew she was as common as a dustbin. That was because she had the proper accent, and the proper manner, and everything in his upbringing and training was screaming out to his subconscious that here was gentry. For one moment she hated Alderscroft, his automatic response to the proper turn of phrase, his automatic assumption that anyone born to the strawberry leaves was "one of us" and deserving of special treatment and protection.
For one moment, she hated them all, and felt a powerful sympathy for the socialists and the Bolsheviks, and it was very tempting to think about throwing a bomb or two into the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, just to shake them up a bit. Certainly you could fire a cannon off through there and never hit anyone who would be missed by society—
But then good sense overcame her, and she sighed, and acknowledged that there were aristocrats who were good stewards, and useful. And as for the rest, she forgave Alderscroft and his set for being idiots, and went back to paying attention to the conversation.
Well, there was one thing that being born a half-caste in India was good for, and that was in knowing what wouldn't work with the British aristocracy. Though she might very much like to point out to the old lion that the Robinson woman had played him like salmon on her line, it would do no good at all.
No, she would simply tell Alderscroft that the woman was heavily shielded and couldn't be read—that she certainly had ulterior motives for wanting that introduction and remind him of the two daughters looking for husbands—and that Fenyx's own grandmother would do a much better job of keeping an eye on him than any stranger ever could.
And then she would go confide her real feelings to her husband Peter—who would certainly, at that point, take them to his "Twin." And there was no one that Peter Almsley did not know among the Elemental Mages inside the peerage. Almsley's grandmother, who was herself a powerful Elemental Master, almost certainly knew Reggie's aunt, who was another. And when those two heard what she had to say. . . .
Now Maya smiled for the first time since she began listening to the conversation, struck by the mental image of a herd of water-buffalo surrounding an injured calf to protect it from a tigress.
The tigress had no notion of what she was about to face.
Alison was pleased with herself. Despite some setbacks, this trip to London had been unexpectedly productive. She sat down at the little desk in the sitting room of their suite to catch up on her correspondence, while the girls unpacked the day's purchases.
"Mama," said Carolyn, idly tracing the line of the fringe on the new shawl she had purchased that morning, "What do you know about the Americans getting into the war?"
Alison looked up from the letter she was writing to Warrick Locke. "The Americans have no intention of entering the war, child. President Wilson is a pacifist. If the sinking of the Lusitania did not accomplish it, nothing will. Why?"
"Well," Carolyn persisted, with a small, sly smile playing about her lips, "It's just that—you had rather they didn't, wouldn't you?"
"It would interfere greatly with my plans, yes," she said sharply. "And it would probably interfere with our income as well. Why do you ask?"
"She asks because she's been meeting with that American boy, from the embassy in the tea room," Lauralee interrupted, frowning with jealousy at her sister. "And she doesn't want to get in trouble over it, so she wants to make you think she's been doing it for—"
"Lauralee—" Alison held up a warning hand. "First, do not frown. Frowns do not improve your looks, and cause wrinkles. Secondly, let your sister answer for herself. Carolyn?"
"He is the ambassador's son," Carolyn protested, pouting prettily, in a way that Alison approved. "And you know Mama has been busy, and you know we've been hearing rumors in the hotel! I thought I ought to find out at first hand!"
"And it has nothing to do with the fact that he's tall, and blue-eyed, and looks like—" Lauralee muttered, sullenly.
"And don't allow jealousy to show, Lauralee," Alison reproved absently. "It gives one jowls. What did the young man tell you, Carolyn?"
"That the President will certainly enter the war next month!" Carolyn said in triumph. "He's going home to enlist! So are most of the young men on the embassy staff!"
Alison's lips tightened. This was no part of her plans. At the moment, the war was at a stalemate—both sides were worn out and weary, and the conflict might well drag on for years, which was very good news for the Earth Elementals that she favored, and for her plans concerning Reggie Fenyx. For the latter, she planned more fear—her Elemental creatures making his life a never-ending round of attacks of terror—until the one girl who could drive them away appeared in his life. At which point, he would probably marry her on the spot. Or at least be willing to.
But to complete the plan, she would need time. Time for the boy to heal physically enough to be sent home on recovery leave. Time for Lord Alderscroft's introduction to bear fruit. Time for her spells to work, time for Carolyn—or Lauralee—to be the answer to his prayers, time for him to propose and for a proper society wedding. And then more time, for she did not intend for him to survive the war, and he would have to recover from his shellshock and go back to the Air Corps, and if the Yanks entered the War—
America was full of brash young men who were perfectly willing to fling themselves into combat. America was wealthy; within months she could turn her factories from making frying pans into making cannon and machine-guns. And America had immense, untapped resources on her own soil; she did not depend on ships to bring those resources to the factories. If America entered the war, it could be over within a year.
She couldn't stop them. But she could add a new enemy to the equation . . . one that should add to the attrition in the trenches, and slow the number of troops coming over.
"Carolyn, dear, I believe that we ought to hold a little farewell dinner for all those fine young men at the embassy," she said, in a tone that made Carolyn's eyes narrow. "We ought to thank them for being so willing to serve. Invite them to a little supper tomorrow night."
Lauralee also caught the scent of something in the air. "Mama—" she began, then shook her head. "Come along, Carolyn. Let's go write invitations. I think there are six or seven of them, including the ambassador's son, Mama."
"When you are finished writing the invitations, make the supper arrangements with the Savoy chef," Alison replied, already unpacking what she needed from her trunk. "You should know what to do already."
"Yes, Mama," her daughters chorused, and Alison smiled with content. Well-trained and obedient, everything a mother could ask for.
By the time that all the arrangements were complete, and the invitations sent to the embassy by messenger, Alison was ready. Her implements—deceptively simple ones—were set out on the thick silk cloth that she used as her portable Working table. It already had the runes and circles of containment embroidered into it, dyed with blood—hers, and others. She spread it out over the table they used when they dined en-suite, summoned the girls, doused the electric lights, and lit the candles she had unpacked.
"This may be one of the most underrated incantations in our arsenal, girls," she said, as the two of them moved closer to stand on either side of her. "And yet, it requires surprisingly little power, especially here, in the city. We are going to call an Earth Elemental. The trick to this is that you have to remember to be very specific about what you want from this entity. You already know that one of the great Gifts of the Earth Mage is to heal—but the converse is also true. Watch."
With the precision of a surgeon, Alison placed a deceptively plain bowl (made of clay dug from a graveyard and fired in the same fire as a cremation) in the center of her Working cloth. Into it she dropped a tiny bit of rotting meat (she always kept some sealed in a small jar with her when she traveled), and several more equally distasteful ingredients, burying them all beneath a layer of dirt dug from the piles of tin-waste near a mine. Then she closed her eyes, held her hands over the bowl, and let the power flow from her, into it, chanting her specific invocation under her breath and concentrating with all of her might, and the sullen ocher-colored energies flowed out of her fingertips and into the bowl, pooling there in the candlelight.
Carolyn gasped, and at that sign, she opened her eyes.
The Earth Elemental standing in the now-empty bowl might not look like much—it was a squat little putty-colored nothing, with the barest suggestions of limbs and a head, the sort of crude and primitive object that might be found in an ancient ruin. It looked utterly harmless—but properly used, it was one of the most powerful of all of the inimical Earth Elementals, because it was one of the most insidious.
It was called a maledero, and it brought, and spread, disease.
"I need an illness," she told it. "One that spreads in the air. It should seem harmless, but kill. I don't want it to fell everything that catches it, no more than one in four, but no less than one in ten. It should bring death quickly when it does kill, it should lay out those it does not kill, and it should be hardest not on the very young nor the very old, but those in the prime of life. It should spread rapidly, and be impossible to stop, because by the time victims are dying, it should have passed on to others."
The putty-colored thing smiled, showing a mouth full of jagged and rotting teeth, while above the mouth, a pair of bottomless black eyes looked at her. "How if it spreads through a sneeze?" it suggested. "If it be spread by any other means, this might be countered."
She nodded. "Ideal. There will be six young men here tomorrow night for dinner before they journey homewards. You will infect them, and only them, and you will lie dormant within them until they have ended their journey in a place where there will be thousands of young men like them. Then you will release yourself, and be free to spread as far as you please, across the whole world, if you like—except to myself and my daughters."
"Easily done," the thing croaked, and it—divided, right before their eyes, into six identical creatures, each one-sixth the size of the original. "We pledge by the bond," they chorused.
Alison nodded, and tapped the side of the bowl with her willow-wand. "Then I release from the bowl. When you have infested the young men, you will be released from the room."
She inscribed the appropriate sigils in the air, where they glowed for a moment, then settled over the six creatures and were absorbed.
"When you have come to the place across the sea where thousands of young men have gathered to train as warriors," she continued, still inscribing the sigils of containment in the air, "You will be free to infect and spread as far as you please, save only myself and my daughters," she wrote her own glyph and those of Carolyn and Lauralee, and the sigil of prohibition on top of those three names. All this sank down to rest briefly on the little Elementals, before being absorbed into them. The flow of power was minimal—one of the reasons why this was such a useful conjuration.
"And now, you may conceal yourself within this room, until the vessels have come," she concluded, breaking the containment with a flourish of her wand. The entities gave her a mocking little bow, and faded away.
The girls looked at her, wide-eyed. "Did you just—create a disease?" Lauralee gaped.
She shrugged. "It is better to say that I altered one to suit our purposes. It will probably be a pneumonia or influenza, but when it is released, it will be something quite different from any other of its kind. It will certainly be bad enough to decimate the ranks of the Americans long enough to keep them from winning the war in a few months. And that is all that we will need." She smiled at her girls, who stared at her, wide-eyed. "I doubt it will kill one in four of those that are really healthy; the Elemental I conjured is not strong enough for that. But it will cause a great deal of havoc. That is something else to remember. Sometimes you do not need to confront your enemy directly; you only need to interfere with him."
She began putting her supplies away; neither girl offered to help, as was proper. She would not have allowed them. They were never to touch her Working materials.
That, after all, was how she had managed to get control over her teachers.
"And now," she added brightly, putting the last of her equipment away and locking the little trunk in which it was kept. "I believe it is time we went downstairs to dine."
March 14, 1917
WHEN ELEANOR WAS CERTAIN THAT Alison and the girls were on the train to London, the first thing she did was to go straight to the kitchen, throw open the pantry doors and plan herself a feast.
Brushing aside Alison's magically laid prohibitions like so many cobwebs, Eleanor could not help but gloat. She felt the barriers, certainly, but she was able to push right through them. And the irony of it was, there had never been any good reason to make the pantry off-limits while the Robinsons were gone, nor to restrict Eleanor to the foodstuffs that Alison allowed her to keep in the kitchen. When they returned, there were things in here that would have had to be thrown in the bin because they were spoiled, that Eleanor could perfectly well have eaten while the others were gone. It made no sense, no sense at all.
It was all just spite, just pure meanness.
She surveyed the shelves, and decided that she would clean out her ever-simmering soup-pot and give it a good scrubbing before starting a new batch, while she ate those things that would go bad before long. And she could include the end of that ham in the soup.
It wasn't all cream for her, though; most of Alison's magics still worked. Before she had done much more than empty out the soup-pot into a smaller vessel to leave on the hearth, and fill the pot with soapy water, the compulsions to clean struck her. Up the stairs she went, discovering that she still had to sweep and dust, air the rooms out and close them up again, mop and scrub down the bathroom. True, she didn't have to spend as much time at it, nor work quite as hard, but she couldn't fight the compulsion off altogether. And although she tried, she discovered that she couldn't leave the house and garden either, even with Alison gone. But after some experimentation, she had the measure of the compulsions. She finished everything she needed to do in the upstairs rooms by luncheon, which meant that she would have the rest of the day free for herself.
The first thing that she did was to make herself a proper luncheon, and to read while she ate it; she chose a book from the library, a room which had been mostly unused since her father died.
She ate in the library, too, in defiance of crumbs—after all, she was the one who was going to be doing the cleaning-up—curled up in her father's favorite old chesterfield chair with her feet to the fire she built in the fireplace.
After she had finished eating, the compulsions urged her into work briefly, but she discovered that she could satisfy them merely by making a few swipes with a dust-mop and the broom in each room so long as they were visibly clean. By this time her soup-pot had soaked enough, so she gave it a good scrubbing inside and out, and put beans to soak in it. She returned again to the library with a tray laden with teapot and the cakes that would have gone stale, there to lose herself in a book until the fading light and growing hunger called her back to the kitchen and that feast she had promised herself.
Then—luxury of luxuries!—she drew herself a hot bath, and had a good long soak and a proper hair-washing. Baths were what she got at the kitchen sink these days, and often as not, in cold water. She used Lauralee's rosewater soap, knowing from experience that it was something Lauralee wouldn't miss, whereas if she purloined Alison's Spanish sandalwood, or Carolyn's Eau de Nil bars, they would be missed. After a blissful hour immersed to the neck in hot water, and an equally blissful interlude spent giving her hair the good wash she had longed for, she emerged clean and scented faintly with roses.
Her hair wasn't very long, though it was unlike the girls' ultra-fashionable bobs—Alison hacked it off just below her shoulders on a regular basis—so it didn't take long to dry in front of the kitchen fire. She slipped a bed-warmer into her own bed to heat it while she dried her hair, and after banking the fires in the kitchen and the library, and making sure the stove had enough fuel to last through the night and keep the hot-water boiler at the back of it 'warm, she went to bed at last feeling more like her old self than she had since before her father had left on that fateful trip.
She fell asleep at once, relaxed, warm, and contented.
She hadn't expected to dream, but she did. And her dreams were—rather odd. Full of fire-images, of leaping flames themselves, of odd, half-fairy creatures whose flesh glowed with fire and who had wings of flame, of the medieval salamanders that were supposed to live in fires, of dragons, and of the phoenyx and the firebird. They weren't nightmares, nothing like, even though she found herself engulfed by fires that caressed her like sun-warmed silk.
In fact, she found herself wearing the flames, like an ever-changing gown. In her dreams, she found these mythical beings welcoming her as a friend, and in her dreams, that seemed perfectly natural and right. They were lovely dreams, the best she'd had since before Alison came—and she didn't want to wake up from them.
The compulsions broke into those dreams, jarring her awake her at dawn.
Full of resentment, she resisted them for a moment, pondering those dreams while they were still fresh in her mind. What on earth could they mean? That they meant something, she was sure.
And once or twice, hadn't she felt a sense of familiarity about them? As if the things she did and saw were calling up an echo, faint and far, in her memory?
Finally she could resist the compulsions no longer, for her legs began to twitch, and a nasty headache started just between her eyebrows. She knew those signs of old, and got reluctantly out of bed to start her round of morning chores.
At least she was going to get more to eat this morning than a lot of tasteless porridge.
The sun was just coming up over the horizon, and distant roosters were crowing, as she began the day. This was the day of the week when Eleanor usually did the heavy laundry, the sheets and the towels, and her own clothing, and there was no real reason to change her schedule. Usually she looked forward to the day, as she often got a chance to wash up in the laundry-water, though the lye-soap was harsh enough to burn if she wasn't careful.
She went out to the wash-house in the little shed at the back of the garden to fire up the wash-boiler out there, a huge kettle built right into a kind of oven, pump it full of cold water, and add the soap. She returned to the house and collected all of the linen before breakfast. A glance up at the sky told her that the day was going to be fair again—a good thing, since it meant she could hang things out in the sunlight, and wouldn't have to iron them dry. With even Howse gone—Alison wouldn't have traveled a step without her maid—there was less of the wash than usual, but Eleanor was feeling unusually energetic. Perhaps it was simply that she wasn't forced to do her work on a couple of spoonfuls of unflavored oat-porridge and a cup of weak tea.
She actually enjoyed herself; the winter had been horribly, dreadfully cold, and doing the household laundry had been nothing short of torture. Today—well, it was cold, but briskly so, and it was grand to have the sun on her back as she pinned up the sheets and towels. By mid-morning, it was all washed and wrung dry and hanging up in the garden, and Eleanor was scrubbing the kitchen floor, exactly as she usually did on wash-day, though it wasn't often that she was done this early.
And that was when a knocking at the kitchen door startled her so much that she yelped, and dropped the brush into her bucket of water with a splash.
She stared at the closed door, sure that what she had heard must have been some accident of an echo—someone out in the street, perhaps, or knocking at one of the neighbors' gates.
But the rapping came again, brisk and insistent.
Who could be knocking at this door? Surely no one knew that she was here—
It must be a tradesman. Or someone about a bill. It couldn't be a delivery; Alison was punctilious about canceling all deliveries when she expected to be gone. The old cook had been quite incensed about that—"As if we're of no account and can live on bacon and tinned peas while she swans about London!"—but she had even done so back when the house was full of servants.
Not that I would mind if there had been a mistake! A delivery of baked goods would be jam on top of the cream. . . .
The knocking came again. Whoever was there wasn't going away. She got to her feet, and slowly opened the door.
There was a woman there—perhaps Alison's age, or a little older, but she was nothing like Alison. Her graying brown hair was done up in a knot at the back of her head from which little wisps were straying. Friendly, amber-brown eyes gazed warmly at Eleanor, though the focus suggested that the gaze was a trifle short-sighted. Her round face had both plenty of little lines and very pink cheeks. She was dressed quite plainly, in a heavy woolen skirt and smock, with an apron, rather like a local farmer's wife, complete with woolen shawl wrapped around herself. She smiled at Eleanor, who found herself smiling back.
"Hello, my dear," the woman said, in a soothing, low voice that tickled the back of Eleanor's mind with a sensation of familiarity. "I'm Sarah Chase."
Sarah Chase! Eleanor knew that name, though she had never actually met the woman. Sarah Chase was supposed—at least by the children of Broom—to be a witch!
Not a bad witch, though—she didn't live in a cobwebby old hut at the edge of the forest, she lived right in the middle of Broom itself, in a tidy little Tudor cottage literally sandwiched in between two larger buildings. On the right was the Swan pub, and on the left, the village shop. Any children bold enough to stand on the threshold of the door and try to peer into the heavily curtained windows never were able to see anything, and the extremely public situation meant that their mothers usually heard about the adventure and they got a tongue-lashing about rude behavior and nosy-parkers. No one in Eleanor's circle of friends had ever seen Sarah Chase, in fact—
But here she was, standing on the threshold, a covered basket in one hand, the other outstretched a little towards Eleanor.
"Well, dear," the woman prompted gently. "Aren't you going to ask your godmother inside?"
Her mind was still taking that in, as her mouth said, without any thought on her part, "Come in, Godmother." And the village witch stepped across the threshold and entered the kitchen like a beam of sunshine.
For the third time in her life, Eleanor's life turned upside down.
She sat, in something of a daze, on a stool beside the kitchen fire, where her prosaic soup-pot full of beans and the end of the ham simmered, and listened to impossible things.
Things which she never would have believed—if her finger wasn't buried beneath the hearth-stone.
Sarah looked perfectly comfortable in the sunny kitchen with its blackened beams and whitewashed walls. Eleanor never even thought to invite her into the parlor. But then, these were not particularly discussions for the parlor.
Eleanor was hearing, for the first time, that the woman her father had thought he had married was no more than a fraction of what she actually was.
"... so your father never knew, of course," Sarah concluded. "Never knew that your mother was a Fire Master, or that we were such friends, she and I, never even knew such a thing as magic existed at all." Her cheeks went pinker, and she gave Eleanor an apologetic little shrug. "That's the way of it, usually, when one of Us marries one of Them, Them as has no magic. We generally keep it to ourselves, for more often than not it does no good and a great deal of harm to try and make them understand. The ones with minds stuck in the world they can see are usually made very unhappy by such things. Either they think they have gone mad, or they think their spouse has, and in either case it only ends in tears and tragedy." She nodded wisely. "Like the Fenyxes. Him and his father, they have the magic—or Lord Devlin did before he died, but Lady Devlin, she's got no more idea than a bird."
Eleanor gaped at her. This was somehow harder to believe than that her own mother had magic. The Fenyx family? Were what Sarah called Elemental Masters?
Sarah went right on, not noticing Eleanor's state of shock—or else, determined to get out everything she needed to say without interruption. "So we met here, of a night, or of an afternoon, over cups of tea as two old friends from such a small place often do, and your father would look in on us and laugh and ask us if we were setting the world aright, and of course, we never told him that we were—in small ways, of course, but small ways have the habit of adding up."
"You were—setting the world aright?" Eleanor repeated, and shook her head. "But how—"
"A little magic here, a little magic there; hers more than mine, you understand, since I'm but a mere Witch, and she was a Master. But— oh, she would speak to the Salamanders of a night, and find out whose chimneys were getting over-choked with soot, and I'd have a word with the owner of the house by-and-by, and Neil Frandsen would come along and clean it, and there'd be no chimney fire, do you see?"
Eleanor blinked again. "Is that the plumber, Mr. Frandsen? The man that cleans chimneys with a shotgun?"
Sarah threw back her head and laughed. "Oh, aye! But less often then than he does now, I'm afraid—he was nimbler when he was young; now he don't like to go atop the houses much. But you see what we did? And there was other things—never a house-fire have we had hereabouts once she came into her powers, nor a barn-fire, and no accidents with fire either. If a cottager's baby tumbled into a fire, it tumbled right back out again, with just enough scorching on his smock to make his mama take better heed. No fires from a coal hopping out; no curtains blowing into candles nor gas-flames. Sometimes it isn't so much doing things that's important as it is keeping them from happening." She sighed. "I remember how she used to put you in your cradle next to the fire, or once you were old enough, just on a blanket. No worries you'd be burned, of course—the Salamanders used to frisk and play around you, and you'd laugh and try to catch them with your little hands. Clear enough it was, you'd taken after her. And then—she died."
"She drowned," Eleanor whispered, and shuddered. All her life, the one thing she'd been afraid of was water. Sarah nodded.
"The enemy Element," Sarah said sadly. "The Element that hates hers; the river flooded, you see, and to this day, I don't know if it was accident or an enemy. She could have told me, but—well, the river flooded and washed out the bridge as she was trying to get across to get home to you. Her allies had no power to save her. And your father, well, he couldn't bear to look upon me, who was her close friend, so I stayed away. And you seemed to be flourishing, and I heard about you going up to university and all, and I thought, well, well enough, I'll leave her be, and when she starts to come into her power, I'll send to the Fire Masters who've people at Oxford, and they'll take on the teaching of you. So much more clever than I, those dons and scholars—"
"But She came." Eleanor's voice cracked.
"Then She came." Sarah's voice hardened. "My Element, but a Master, more powerful than me, and better connected by far. In magic as in everything else, it's who you know that gets you places, and what you've got." Sarah grimaced. "She's trusted by them as should know better, but don't; there's no help there—yet. I could no more stand against her than your mother could stand against the flood. But you are coming into your powers, and I can set your feet on the right path, and you can break her, if you grow strong enough. And this is where I can make a start—"
She got up out of the chair where she was sitting and walked over to the hearth. She stared down at the hearthstones for a moment, then bent, and traced a symbol with her index finger on one. It glowed for a moment, a warm, lovely golden-amber, before sinking into the stone.
"Blast her," Sarah muttered under her breath. "She's stronger than I thought."
"What?" Eleanor asked.
"It's a spell that will answer to Fire as well as Earth; it's what She did to bind you here. I know a counter that will work within her spell to free you from this house and hearth for a few hours at a time, though you won't be able to go farther than, say, Longacre," the witch said. "You'll have to learn how to work magic of your own to make her spell answer to you, how to bend it to your will for a little—we'll start you learning Fire magic now, if you're ready, but definitely before she comes back."
"I—Sarah, I don't know, this all seems so—" She was going to say, "impossible to believe," but at exactly that moment, something looked at her out of the hearth-fire. She looked back, feeling her eyes widen as she recognized the fiery-eyed lizard of her dreams.
"Well, and there you are," Sarah said, with triumph, following her startled glance. "Salamander. Sure sign of you coming into your powers, no matter what she's done."
"You can see it too?" she asked incredulously.
"Well, of course. I can see the Elementals, and if they feel like it, they might help me out, but I can't command them, not even Earth. I'm not a Master," Sarah said; wistfully, Eleanor thought. "But you can command the ones of Fire; because you're a Fire Master, you'll have their respect, and because of your mother, you already have their loyalty, and the only way you'd lose that would be to do something they didn't like."
"What do you mean, I have their loyalty?" Eleanor asked incredulously.
"Hold out your hand," Sarah replied. "To the fire, I mean. You'll see."
Dubiously Eleanor did so, and before she could pull away with surprise, that same something leapt out of the flames and began twining around her hands like a friendly ferret. It looked like a lizard made of flame, and it felt like sun-warmed silk slithering through her fingers and around her wrists.
"It's not burning me—" she gasped, staring at the creature in fascination.
"And I'll wager you've never been burned in your life," Sarah replied triumphantly. "Have you?"
"Only—" Eleanor began, then stopped. She had been going to say, "only when Carolyn cauterized my finger," but then she realized that she had not actually been burned, not even then. The bleeding had been stopped, and the wound sealed, but no more, and it hadn't been a burn that had caused her so much pain, it had been the wound itself and the fever that followed. "—ah, I haven't," she admitted, watching the Salamander weave around her outstretched fingers.
"What—what does all this mean?" she asked at last.
"That I need to begin teaching you what I can, and there is no time like the present. Unless you had something planned?" Sarah tilted her head to the side. "A garden party, perhaps?"
That brought a smile to Eleanor's face, and a rueful shrug. "So long as my stepmother isn't here—"
"We must take advantage of that. Let your friend go back to his fire and we'll begin."
By nightfall, Eleanor knew a hundred times more about magic than she had before Sarah knocked on the door. She knew about casting circles of protection and containment, a little about summoning, and something about the Elementals of her own Element, although the only one she had seen as yet was the little Salamander, the weakest of the lot. And she was far more tired than she would have thought likely. It wasn't as if she'd been working, after all, just sitting and walking about the kitchen, nothing more.
"It takes it out of you," Sarah said solemnly, as the two of them worked on a little supper in the evening gloom. "And you're lucky that woman is of another Element, or she'd know when you were working, as she'd be able to cut you off from your power. As it is, she's strong enough to bind you and command you."
By this point, Eleanor had gotten well past the suspension of disbelief and was at the point where she would have accepted the presence of an invisible second moon in the sky if Sarah had insisted it was there. Part of this was due to fatigue, but most of it was simply that she had taken in so many strange things that her mind was simply fogging over.
"Why am I so tired?" she asked, setting down plates on the kitchen table, while Sarah ladled soup into bowls and cut slices of bread for both of them.
"Because the power you've been using to cast circles and all has to come from you yourself, lovey," Sarah replied.
Eleanor frowned, and rubbed her temple with the back of her wrist. "But I thought magic just was—magic!"
"Something out of nothing, you mean?" Sarah laughed. "Not likely, my girl. The only time you get power at no cost to you is when your Elementals grant it to you, or you take it from someone else. And I'll give you a guess where your stepmother gets much of hers from."
Eleanor sat down in her chair. "She'll be back in a day or two—and what will I do then?" she asked. "How am I going to see you, or keep learning?" It was a good question; what would she do? She was kept busy from dawn to dark and then some; how could she ever get time to continue learning and practicing?
"Does she lock the doors?" Sarah asked. "You'll wait until the house is asleep, and then you'll draw the glyph and bend her spell and come to me for an hour or two." She smiled slyly. "You do the cooking, don't you? Well, one advantage of being a mere Witch is that I don't rely on power to do everything. I'll give you some things to put in their food that will send them to bed early on the nights you're to come, and keep them there a-snoring, and they'll be nothing the wiser!"
Eleanor blinked. "Is that safe?" she asked, dubiously. "I mean, what if they—taste it, or something?"
"They won't. And I'll have a charm on it to make sure they eat enough of it to do what I want." Sarah seemed quite confident that she could do exactly what she claimed. Eleanor wasn't nearly as confident—but then, she didn't have anything to lose by trying, either. "Now, you eat," Sarah continued, "so you get your energy back, and we'll practice those shields and wards again."
Eleanor sighed, and applied herself to her food. She wanted to protest; she hadn't had a moment to herself all day. When she hadn't been learning the "shields and wards" that Sarah thought were so important, and which didn't seem very much like magic to her, she'd been taking in the laundry, putting it away, and tidying up. She had been so looking forward to another afternoon in the library—but the promise that she might be able to break herself free of Alison's magic was so tempting that she hadn't so much as whispered a complaint.
As if she had heard all those thoughts, Sarah looked up from her dinner and smiled at her. "I know it's hard, my dear," she said, in a kindly voice. "Cruel hard on you, it is. But I'm having to teach you the hard way, to bring up the protections and take them down without leaving a trace for your wretched stepmother to find. Until you can do that, you daren't even try to work magic here, for she will know, and that will be no good thing at all."
Eleanor shuddered at the idea of her stepmother discovering such a thing.
"And you should shiver," Sarah said, noting it. "Do believe me in that. It would be very, very bad for you. She would bind you in so many spells that you would scarcely be able to walk without being under compulsion, and I should not be able to do a thing about them. Never forget that she is a Master, and until you have Mastery of your own, she can bind you by that finger beneath the hearthstone to whatever she wills."
Eleanor glanced over at the hearth, and shuddered again. "I won't forget," she said, quietly.
"Then eat," the witch replied, "And we'll work tonight until you're too tired to carry on."
And so they did, though to her credit, Sarah Chase helped with the washing up before they did. Over and over again, Eleanor spun out the cinnamon-tasting, warm-red power of the Element of Fire from the crackling blaze on the hearth, and built it into an arching dome around herself, then sent the power back into the hearth and erased all traces of the energy from the very air around her. She wondered now why she had never noticed the power before this, though; although it was easier to see amid the flames of the real fire, there were wisps of it everywhere, like the last breath of fog above the grass on a spring morning, or the trailing bits of smoke above a chimney. There were other colors of power there too, now that she knew what to look for— a warm amber glow that was somehow as sweet as honey that seemed to surround Sarah Chase like sunlight, a hint here or there of a thread of blue or a flicker of green—but none of them called to her as that scarlet flame did.
There were several Salamanders in the hearth-fire by now, and she felt their presence as a friendly and encouraging warmth. That helped her when she faltered, right up to the point at which she ran out of energy altogether, and simply sat right down on the hearth and looked up at the witch with pleading in her eyes. "I can't," she said, plaintively. "I—"
"Ah, then we're finished for now!" Sarah exclaimed. "The one thing your mother always told me is that Fire is the most dangerous of the Elements; handle it carelessly at your peril, is what she said!"
"She did?" Eleanor glanced at the hearth; three little Salamanders coiled quietly amid the flames and blinked slow and sleepy eyes at her. They didn't look dangerous—
But then, neither did a bull, until you got into the field and it charged you.
"She did." Sarah offered her hand; Eleanor took it, and the witch pulled her to her feet with surprising strength. "You sit at the table for a moment, until you're feeling livelier, then get yourself to your bed. I'll be back tomorrow at the same time, unless she's come back by then. And in that case—well, I'll leave you a note in the wash-house. Oh, and any time yon Salamanders want to frisk about you, let them. They'll do a bit of slow healing on you when they do. Give them a month, maybe two, and they'll heal those scullery-maid's hands of yours."
Eleanor nodded. Of all the places in and around The Arrows that Sarah could get to, the wash-house was the safest to leave any such thing; Alison hadn't so much as set foot in it in all the time she'd lived here.
"Now, I'll let myself out, don't get up," Sarah concluded cheerfully. "Maybe have yourself a cup of tea and a bit of toast before you go to bed." She picked up her basket, wrapped her shawl around her shoulders, and suited her actions to her words, slipping out into the night-shrouded garden and closing the door after herself.
Eleanor simply sat, and looked back at the hearth-fire again. The Salamanders were still there, still watching her, reminding her of nothing so much as a tangle of kittens.
If kittens could be made of flames.
"Why didn't I ever see you before?" she wondered aloud.
She was shocked to her bones when the one in the middle raised its head, looked straight at her, and answered her.
Because She was there, and you had not fought her power. Just a touch of scorn came into the creature's tone. Why should we show ourselves to one who would not fight for her own freedom?
It was a good question. "But I thought that I had—" she replied, slowly.
All three of them shook their heads negatively. Hating someone is not fighting them, the middle one pointed out. You pushed, but pushing is not fighting, and you gave up too soon. Yesterday, you fought. That was good. If you fight, we will help. But remember that if Earth can smother Fire, Fire also can consume Earth.
Before she could say, or ask, anything else, the Salamanders faded into the flames, and were gone.
March 18, 1917
THE ONE DISADVANTAGE OF BEING in London was that even the meals at the Savoy were subject to rationing and shortages. However, if one was forced to pay lip-service to rationing and shortages, at least the Savoy had excellent chefs, who could make a great deal out of very little. While breakfast was something of a disappointment when compared to the same meal served three years ago, it was still superior to virtually anything being served anywhere else in the city.
Still, as Alison regarded her plate with mild disapproval and wished—for just this moment of the day, anyway—that she were back in Broom, the thought of her well-stocked pantry brought something else to mind. This was the first time that Alison and the girls had stayed in London so long since the cook had left. Eleanor was certainly breakfasting on crusts by now. The thought made her smile a little; the wretched girl was such a source of unnecessary complication that not even her usefulness as a servant outweighed it.
After breakfast, as Howse put the finishing touches on her hair, Alison wondered briefly if she ought to do something about the girl back in Broom. It wouldn't do for her to starve. And all alone for so long— was it possible she might be able to get into mischief? Would anyone think to check the house and find her?
Then she dismissed the thought. The girl had plenty of food in the way of potatoes, turnips, dried beans and black bread, and she couldn't get out of the house and garden. No one knew she was there alone, so no one would come looking for her. In fact, Alison was not entirely sure anyone in Broom still remembered her, except vaguely; other concerns occupied Broom now, as they occupied most of Britain. There wasn't a family in Broom that didn't have at least one member fighting, wounded, maimed or dead; most had several. Fully half the jobs in Broom that had once been taken by men were now being filled by women. On consideration, Alison doubted very much that anyone in the village ever thought about Eleanor, even to wonder what had happened to her.
Besides, there were a great many things that could be done here that could not be done in Broom. Warrick Locke was very useful with his black-market connections, enabling her to get hold of all manner of goods that were otherwise unobtainable, having them shipped home in discreet parcels marked as "hessian," "beans," or "oats," or other things that were not in short supply. And it was not only convenient to meet her solicitor here, it was safer. There were no prying eyes noting how often the man came to see her and how long he stayed. Meetings that happened too often made tongues wag in Broom, and she had the image of a respectable widow to maintain if she was to remain the top of the social pyramid.
Not that the thought of taking Locke as a lover ever crossed her mind. If she ever took a lover, and that was not likely, it would be someone who she could not buy with other coin, and the situation would have to have a great deal of advantage in it for her.
Mind—once she got access to the social circles of Longacre Park and the Hall-Well, that was for the future, and Warrick was still very useful. In fact, she had a meeting scheduled with him this morning, at a working-class pub where no one knew either of them. So long as no Zepps or aeroplanes appeared to drop bombs on Southwark, things should go smoothly.
She frowned into her mirror again, as Howse handed her the neat, mauve velvet hat she wanted, and she pinned it on. One true disadvantage of being in London—it was within range of the Hun's Zeppelins and 'planes. That was an annoyance, though Alison was sure enough of her power that she was not concerned that she would fall victim to a Hun bomb. But bombing raids threw such terror into the populace that getting around in the vicinity of one afterwards was a great trial, and one not compensated for by the abundance of energies released by death and fear afterwards.
She took herself downstairs, after warning the girls to remain in the hotel. Since the American boys had left, and her girls didn't find walking or taking the 'bus or Underground amusing, even Carolyn was inclined to obey without an argument. There were plenty of officers frequenting the tea-room and bar of the Savoy; if they wished to flirt, all they had to do was go downstairs.
Since Alison had arranged last night with the concierge to procure a taxi, there actually was one waiting for her without the need for magic. Though the ancient cabby looked at her a bit oddly when she gave the address, he made no comment.
The taxi deposited her on the doorstep of the pub without incident, although the arrival of the taxi itself caused a little stir among the local loungers; these days it was not the usual thing to see a taxi in Southwark. Locke was waiting for her, however, and escorted her into the pub and a private parlor he had arranged for as per her request, and the short-lived moment of interest faded once they were inside.
The private parlor was quite small, scarcely larger than the booth whose high-backed seats framed a window that didn't appear to have been washed for a decade, and looked as if it dated back at least two hundred years. The wood of the walls and the booth itself was nearly black with age, but the place was comfortable enough. They placed an order for luncheon; fish and chips seemed to be the only thing that was available, as the girl said, apologetically, over and over, "Sorry, miss. Rationing."
"Robbie's got my motor car," Locke announced as she settled herself in the ancient leather of the seat. "I'll have him drop you either back at the hotel or somewhere across the river where you can get another taxi, as you prefer."
She nodded. "Now what was it you wanted to see me about personally?" she asked, with some suspicion. "If it's about those American boys at the embassy, they've gone."
Locke shook his head; his thick glasses glinted in the dim light. His poor eyesight was what had saved him from the front; he was the next thing to blind without his spectacles, and though he might have been accepted at this point had he volunteered, he was hardly inclined to do so. No one even gave him so much as a sour look, with his disability so clear for anyone to see, and he saw no reason to throw his life away in the trenches.
For which Alison was grateful. It would have been impossible to find another solicitor she could have let in on her secrets, much less one as well-connected. In fact, if he was ever called up in despite of his eyesight, she had a little plan in mind to take out his foot or his knee, thus rendering him completely useless as a soldier. It would be easy enough to find someone who would shatter a kneecap for a few pounds; she hadn't given up all of her old contacts when she'd married Robinson. She hadn't told Locke about her plan, of course. He wouldn't have been pleased, even if it allowed him to escape conscription.
That is, she didn't think he'd take such a plan well, but you never knew. He might have had a plan of his own, like shooting himself in the foot. That one not only got you out of being conscripted, it got many a man out of the trenches and home.
Robbie Christopher, his "hired man," had gotten off by virtue of the fact that he could dislocate both shoulders at will. The trick had not only come in handy for escaping conscription, but for escaping police custody in the past.
Robbie was extremely useful to Locke, and not just as a driver and lifter of heavy objects. Robbie liked fires. Locke sometimes arranged them. Robbie liked hearing other peoples' bones break. Locke went places where his slight frame would attract unwelcome attention without someone like Robbie around. And it would not have surprised Alison at all to learn that Locke also arranged for Robbie to break other peoples' bones for a consideration. Locke was clever enough to fix things so that Robbie could enjoy his favorite pastimes without being caught. It was a profitable partnership, no doubt.
"No, I wanted to tell you in person that I've found a loophole in the law regarding your inheritance problem, and I cannot believe that I didn't think of it sooner," Locke told her, with an air of triumph. "All we have to do is to arrange for the girl to be rendered incapable of taking care of herself in some permanent way, and when she's twenty-one the entire estate will be assigned to whoever is her guardian and caretaker. Since you have been her guardian all this time, that will be you, and that wretched solicitor who is the trustee of her fortune will have no more to say about it."
Alison smiled, slowly. "What would you suggest?" she asked. Locke laughed, and leaned back, one arm cast carelessly along the back of his side of the booth they shared. "My first thought was to drive her mad, of course," he replied. "Since we wouldn't want the unwelcome inquiries that an accident might cause, and you certainly wouldn't want to leave her still capable of speaking for herself, so that lets out breaking her back. You're an Earth Master; you ought to have enough nasty beasties at your beck and call to do that. The fact that she's got powers herself means she'll see them, doesn't it?"
Alison frowned slightly. "There are a great many hobgoblins and wraiths that would do," she admitted, "But I don't like to use them. They're expensive in terms of power. Perhaps some other way—"
He shrugged. "We have a year to plan it out. We should be able to think of something. Aren't there poisons that make one mad? I seem to recall something about hatters—"
"Hmm. Mercury, I think." Alison tapped her cheek with one perfectly manicured nail. "Finding a dose that wouldn't kill her could be a problem."
A very nasty smile crept over Locke's face. "You know," he said, leaning over the table and lowering his voice to almost a whisper, "There are—the illnesses that one doesn't talk about in polite society—that do the same thing." He raised an eyebrow. "I could arrange for that—if you could arrange for the disease to act rather more swiftly than it usually does."
Alison stared at him for a moment, then suppressed smile of her own. "Now that is an interesting thought. Especially if I were to lodge a complaint with the police that she had run away, perhaps with a soldier, and she was to be brought back home by you very publicly, and in a—less than pristine state."
Locke spread his hands wide. "Sad thing, but an old story these days," he said. "Sheltered little country-girl, handsome fellow, and Til marry you when I come home, but why should we wait?' Men are such cads."
"And she needn't even actually leave the house," Alison said thoughtfully. "Carolyn bundled in a cloak could stand in for her when you 'return' her. No one would think twice about her not wanting to show her face after such a disgrace."
"The only thing I can think of that would cause a problem is—she still is showing signs of coming into her power as a Fire Mage, isn't she?" Locke asked. "And the nearer she gets to twenty-one, the harder it will be to keep her suppressed."
"Distressingly true; mind you, I've seen no signs, no signs at all, that she's coming into any significant power, only that she isn't ever burned, no matter what she does around fire," Alison replied, and pursed her lips. "Still, all the more reason not to use magic to drive her mad. Much better to use something purely physical."
Locke shrugged. "It's all one to me; one will be expensive in magical coin, the other in real money. I'll have to find the proper man— and it will have to be someone who wouldn't be missed, because when the job is over, if we want to keep things quiet, Robbie will have to take care of him."
"Well, Robbie would enjoy that, wouldn't he?" She smiled silkily.
"And we always like to give Robbie his little pleasures." Locke returned her smile. "He is such a loyal employee, and he asks so little in return for so much."
Deciding to proceed with caution, Alison elected to have Robbie drop her at Victoria Station, and took a taxi back to the Savoy. She was glad that she had; there was a messenger waiting for her in the lobby, and the packet he handed to her in return for her signature was sealed with Lord Alderscroft's signet.
Although she was impatient to see what was inside, she gave no outward sign; she tucked it under her arm and took it upstairs.
This was not just simple caution; the moment she touched the seal, she had known it was not just a physical protection against prying. So whatever lay within would be rendered unreadable if the seal was broken without the magical component being properly released. Not the wisest thing to do in a public place.
The girls were at the window of the sitting-room, putting charms on passers-by in the street below. They had moved on from simple lust-charms; she noted with approval that they were also distributing anger, depression, and quarrelsomeness with an even hand. Not all the charms "took," of course, but every failure was a lesson in what not to do—or who not to do it to. There were those who had mere touches of magic about them who were never touched by such things. It was best to learn to recognize such people so that if one had to curse them, one would know to use a stronger spell.
Seeing that they were gainfully occupied, Alison moved to the little writing-desk and opened the envelope, first tracing the counter-sigil on the seal so that the contents would remain intact. She never failed to feel amused at how those foolish men, with their silly White Lodge, refused to let her past the public rooms of their little club because she was female. They were like schoolboys, with their "No Girls Allowed" signs—or cavemen, superstitiously afraid of the "unclean" woman!
As she had hoped, the letter contained the dossier of the woman she was to impersonate. Alison Stanley, of the Northumberland branch of the Stanleys, had died when the hospital ship Britannia, on which she was a nurse, had been torpedoed, but because no one had printed a new edition of Burke's since the war began, she would still be listed as living. Early in the war, the casualty lists had been suppressed, so only Alison Stanley's immediate circle would be aware she was dead. Alison nodded with satisfaction. The northern Stanleys were as poor as church mice for all their pedigree, what little income they got went straight into trying to keep the roof on their ancient barn of a manor house patched, and no one from Longacre would ever have met any of them.
Lord Alderscroft gave her the particulars of her "family;" it was numerous, and she was going to have to memorize it all later.
And he enclosed a letter of introduction to Reggie's mother that made her smile widen. I have written her ladyship myself, he said in his cover-note. Telling her about my "cousin" who was supposed to have married a fellow called Robinson down there in or around Broom, and asking if she'd heard of you, and if she had, would she look you up to see that you were all right. The rest is up to you. Reginald isn't likely to be discharged until May at the earliest, so you should have time to establish yourself before he's brought to Longacre.
She laughed silently. If Alderscroft only knew how he was setting a fox to guard the hens!
She rested her chin on her hand for a moment, as a complication occurred to her. Whatever she did to Eleanor, it would have to wait. She could not afford a scandal before she got one of the girls safely married to Reggie. Afterwards—well, these things happened to the best of families these days, and at any rate, Eleanor was not, strictly speaking, related in any way to her or her girls. The Fenyx family would move heaven and earth to keep things hushed up. It was the way these things worked, after all.
So—plans for wretched Ellie must go to simmer. It wouldn't matter; Alison would get what she wanted in the end.
She always had, no matter who was in her way.
At night, once all the visitors were gone, but before most of the men fell asleep, was the easiest time of Reggie's day. That was when, freed, perhaps, by the dim light, and the first fuzziness of opiates, freed by being just one more whisper in the dark, the men talked openly among themselves of what they would not tell anyone else.
There was a new patient in the bed to Reggie's right; a cavalry officer, with an empty sleeve pinned against the breast of his pajamas. He had stared at the ceiling all day, saying nothing, not even whimpering when his dressings were changed. Now, suddenly, he spoke.
"Don't you think it's a relief?" he said, with surprising clarity, still staring at the ceiling.
Reggie thought, Do I think what is a relief? but the man continued before he could ask the question.
"Finally—no more ruddy show for the folks back home. No pretending it's all beer and skittles and no one ever gets hurt. Not that they don't know, of course, because they do, but you have to pretend anyway. No reckoning how much life you're going to pack into a ninety-six hour leave 'cause it might be the last one you get, while pretending it's nothing much. No more careful letters that don't let on. No more wondering if you're going to do a funk. It's over, the worst has happened." He did sound relieved. Reggie swallowed, his mouth gone dry. Maybe for his neighbor, the worst had happened.
"That part's a relief," someone else agreed, out there in the dimness.
"No more guns," someone else moaned. "All day and all night-pounding, pounding, pounding—"
"Ah," said Reggie's neighbor in an undertone. "FBI. I'd've done a funk six weeks ago if I'd been FBI."
Reggie turned his head, took in the neat moustache and what he could see of the other man's remaining hand, and made a guess.
"Cavalry?" he suggested.
The other finally turned his head and looked at Reggie. "Most useless waste of man and horseflesh on God's own earth," the other agreed, and though the voice was cheerful, the bleak expression on the man's face gave it the lie. "Should have put my horse on a gun-carriage and me in a trench. All we existed for was to be shot to pieces. All they could think to do with us was send us across the wire again and again and let the machine guns have us."
Reggie winced. The cavalry had not fared well in the war. And the face on the pillow of the bed next to his was, behind its brave moustache, disturbingly young.
"My brother's FBI; told me enough about it before he caught it that I knew I wouldn't last a day," the youngster continued. "Thought, since I was a neck-and-nothing rider, I'd try the cavalry. I," he concluded bitterly, "was an idiot. All a man on a horse is out there is a grand target."
"But the worst is over," Reggie suggested, echoing the young man's own words.
"Oh, yes, the worst is over." The young man sighed, with a suggestion of a groan in it. "If I keep telling myself that, I should start believing it soon."
He blinked owlishly at Reggie, then looked back up at the ceiling; another moment, and his eyelids drooped, and he fell asleep.
Out in the ward, the whispering went on.
"—watched that gas coming closer and closer; couldn't move, didn't dare, had a machine gun above us to get anybody that bolted that took out two of my men that tried—"
"—one minute, passing me a smoke, the next, head gone—"
"—arm sticking out of the trench wall. Men used to give it a handshake as they went past—"
"—sweet Jesus, the smell! If I can just get it out of my nose for a minute—"
"The smell—" Reggie repeated, with complete understanding. No one who had not been in the trenches understood what that meant. He hadn't not really, until he'd been buried in a bunker. One part, the stink of aged mustard gas. One part, stagnant water. One part, rat urine, for the rats were everywhere and only a gas attack got rid of them. One part, unwashed human body, for what was the point of washing when you were standing knee-deep in stagnant water? And one part dead and rotting human flesh. When somebody died, you gathered up as much as you could of him to bury—but sometimes your trenches were dug across an old burial-field, or sometimes, when a bomb or a barrage had hit the trench directly, there were so many bits scattered about that you just cleaned up what you could and dumped what might remain after the stretcher-bearers left into a hole. It wasn't the first time that Reggie had heard a story like the hand and arm sticking out of a trench-wall. Soon enough, you got numb to seeing things like that. Especially if you were in the FBI.
But that stink never left you. It got in your nose, in your hair, lodged in your memory until you couldn't draw a free breath anymore.
Yet his exposure it had been so brief—many of the officers in this ward had lived with it for weeks, months. Maybe they got used to it.
Maybe they just got numb to it.
"Know what the real relief is? Not having to bloody lie to the boys anymore."
That was another new voice, a tired, tired voice from the other side of his new neighbor. Reggie got himself up on his elbow and peered through the gloom.
It was, indeed, a new man—older than Reggie, old enough to have been Reggie's father, in fact. Oh, God, he thought in sudden recollection. They've raised the conscription age to fifty, haven't they? One eye was bandaged; in fact, half his head was bandaged on that side, and his shoulder as well.
"I mean," the man continued, doggedly, "They're just kids, and they believe you when you tell them that bunk about 'one more push’, 'over the top and on to Berlin.' They tell you to tell it to these kids, and you do, and you know you're lying to them, that you're all going over the top and nothing is going to change except that half of them aren't going to be in the trench when you scramble back. Cod how I hate the lying—"
There were uncomfortable murmurs, but no one disagreed with him. What was treason to say on the front was of little matter in the ward. What was the War Department going to do, anyway? Line up a lot of men with empty sleeves and empty pant-legs and shoot them? Especially when they were only telling the truth?
Insanity. Pure insanity—the generals at the rear giving the same orders, over and over and over again, regardless of the fact that all those orders did was to kill a few thousand men and maim a few thousand more without winning back an inch of ground. Reggie lay back down and stared at the ceiling himself, seeing the future stretching on, bleak and full of death. He had the sudden notion that this was never going to end, not until the generals found there was no one to put in the trenches but toddlers and senile old men. Or until one side or another found some weapon so vile, so destructive, that it would sweep from the Western Front to the Eastern Front in a path of lunatic carnage, leaving nothing alive on the entire continent... and he no longer had the illusion that such a weapon, if found, would not be used. Give a man who saw his fellow men as markers on a board such a weapon, and he would use it, and damn the consequences, and there were plenty such men on both sides of this conflict.
"I'm tired," said the man who had said he hated lying. "I want—"
But neither Reggie, nor anyone else, was ever to find out what he wanted, for he suddenly shivered all over so that the bed rattled, and then lay terribly still.
A deathly quiet settled over the ward, a quiet in which Reggie heard a steady thumping as of distant thunder. The sound of the guns across the Channel, carried on the wind.
Someone cleared his throat. "Poor bastard," said someone else, in a voice of detached pity. "He's out of it now."
"Maybe—" Reggie began, then kept the rest of what he would have said behind his teeth, and listened to the barrage falling, somewhere— somewhere—out in the darkness.
Eventually the nurse made her rounds, discovered the death, and an orderly brought screens to put up around the bed. That had never made sense to Reggie; what difference did screens make? Everyone knew the poor blighter was dead. The presence of the screens only confirmed that. A metal frame and a bit of cloth was not going to create the illusion that he was still alive.
A VAD girl put out all of the lamps but the one at her duty-station; and Reggie steeled himself for the night. Night was the worst. Night, when the ward closed in around him, when the men drifted off into drugged slumber, and there was no one conscious to talk. He wasn't supposed to get morphia to sleep, but it was the only way he could sleep, because those horrible things that had tormented him had come in the dark, and even though he didn't have magic to attract them anymore, he lay in fear that they would come for him, anyway, that they would know him without magic and come for him. They'd come out of the shadows and surround him, and take him back under the ground, under the stifling ground, and the torture would begin again. The long, thin, fingers, dry and rustling, that had clutched at his throat—the heavy, leaden weight pressing down on his chest—the lidless, glowing eyes in the darkness—the fetid ooze that had dripped into his face from mouths with swollen tongues protruding from between stained brown teeth—
He clutched the blanket with both hands and stared at the ceiling, willing his eyes to stay open, unable to move, as he had been unable to move then, completely paralyzed. His heart pounded like the distant guns, shaking him. The VAD girl passed and looked at him; he tried to open his mouth to ask for help, for water, for anything to keep her there for a precious few moments, but his body no longer answered to him. He couldn't scream, couldn't speak, couldn't even whisper. Fear flooded him. There was nothing in his world but fear and the darkness, the darkness that was slowly eroding that last circle of light at the end of the ward, and when it was gone, they would come, and they would take him as they had always wanted to do.
Or worse, the nurse would think he was dead, she would tell the orderlies and they would come and take him away and put him, still living and unable to show it, in the ground, and then—
—then, with a sudden spasm, he could breathe again, and move. The fear receded—not much, but enough for relief.
With an effort, he threw the memories off, and stared fixedly at a wavering spot on the ceiling, cast by the dim lamp. They weren't here. The wights, the wraiths, the goblins of the Earth, they weren't here.
They could never find him. He had nothing about himself to tell them where he was.
He wasn't an Elemental Mage anymore. They couldn't touch him, they couldn't see him, they couldn't find him. It was magic that called them, and he had given his up, burned it out, walled it away. He had no magic, nothing for them to find, and without that to call them, they wouldn't find him. No matter what those lipless mouths had whispered into his ear in the dark of that buried bunker.
So he kept telling himself, shivering under his blanket, long past the time when the orderlies came and took away the body on a stretcher and carried off the screens, long past the time when a new, groaning body was placed in the newly changed bed, right into the moment when gray dawn began to creep across the windows. And then, only then, could he let go his hold, and fall, senseless, into exhausted slumber.
March 18, 1917
EYES NARROWED IN CONCENTRATION, ELEANOR knelt in front of the kitchen fire and stared at the hearthstone directly before her, willing the symbol that she knew was magically embedded there to appear. As she did so, she felt a thin trickle of power flowing from her to it, a sensation that was unsettlingly like blood flowing from a wound.
This was the first time she had dared try anything with the spell binding her to the house. Every time she meddled with one of Alison's spells in order to bend it even a little and change the conditions by which it held, she got this sensation. Sarah said it was because she wasn't yet able to get power from outside herself.
The spells guarding the pantry were weak, easy to bend enough that she could walk through them just by sheer willpower, because Alison had not troubled herself about them very much. Because this particular piece of magic had been laid using her flesh, blood, and bone, it was one of the strongest spells in the house, and if she actually broke it, no matter how far away her stepmother was, Alison would feel the backlash and know what had happened.
She had asked Sarah why they couldn't simply dig up the stone and destroy the finger (or what was left of it), but Sarah had blanched. "Don't even think of trying that," the witch had said earnestly. "It would kill both of us. The layers of protection she has on that stone would fell a charging elephant. It's not like in a fairy tale, child, where all you need do is find the thing and be rid of it. No magician worth his salt would put his major spells in place without protections."
That left the difficult task of insinuating around the protections and the spell itself, of twisting and distorting the original spell to give Eleanor more freedom, until the spell snapped back to its original form. Sarah could show Eleanor how to work the magic that would lengthen Eleanor's invisible chain for a few hours, but Eleanor was going to have to learn how to actually perform the magic for herself.
Her shielding circle of protection was small, just big enough to hold her and the stone. It was a good thing she wasn't claustrophobic; she could actually feel the boundaries of the circle pressing in on her.
There must be something missing here. Why can't I finish this thing? She stared down at the stone, and tried to remember what had let her get into the pantry—
I was angry. Would that help? She let some of her anger and impatience trickle down into it along with the power. And that turned the trick; the first hints of a sullen glow appeared on the dull, grainy surface of the rock, then the glyph came slowly to life, as if painted in lines that burned with malevolence.
She knew now it would make her ill merely to touch it with a finger. Fortunately, she wouldn't have to.
With twigs of oak, ash and thorn bound together into a wand, she traced the lines of the glyph—and the closer she got to the end of her tracing, the harder it was, physically, to move the wand, the more the nasty thing faded back into the stone, blurring. . . .
It was as if the air had become thick and gluey, and the stone itself was trying to take hold of the end of the wand and keep it from moving any further. The last few fractions of an inch took all her strength.
The moment she finished the tracing, all resistance to her movement vanished, the glowing glyph evaporated, and she bent over her own knees, panting with exertion. Her arms trembled and ached, and she felt as if she had been trying to push Sisyphus's stone up the hill in hell.
But it was worth the effort—for a few hours, at least, she would be free to leave the house now.
She took the sprig of rosemary that she had plucked from the garden, broke it in half, and laid half of it on the stone, putting the other half inside her bodice where she could smell it. For as long as the rosemary was unwithered, she would be free of the spell. The withering of the two sprigs of herb would be her signal that she had about a quarter-hour to get back inside the boundaries set about the house. Sarah had not been able to tell her what would happen if she didn't get back in time; "I know you'll be pulled back, and all I can say," she had opined, "is that you'll regret it, for fair."
Thinking about her stepmother's temper, and her pleasure in the pain of others, Eleanor decided that she didn't want to chance it. Tucking the wand into a pocket along the seam of her skirt where it would be hidden, she dispelled her protective circle and stood up.
"Well done," said Sarah, sounding quite pleased. "Now, since you've done this for the first time, you'll be fair useless for magic today—so what would you like to be doing?"
"But how am I going to learn anything—" she began, feeling alarm.
Sarah shushed her, shaking her head. "Don't get yourself in a pother; after this, 'twill be much easier each time you free yourself.
You've made the spell answer to your will now. You've put your bit of a brick in the door; it can't entirely close now. D'ye see?"
She nodded; she did see. "Then—Sarah, can we get help somehow?" She swallowed hard. If only someone would believe her in the village—
But Sarah shook her head. "There's no magicians in the village at all but me, and no one else is going to see past the spells she's got in place about you to keep people from recognizing you or believing you." She bit her lower lip. "Well, someone who was completely shielded would, but my dear—someone with that sort of shielding would be a Master. Those spells were set with your blood too, and I don't know where or how."
Eleanor closed her eyes for a moment to swallow down her bitter disappointment. "I don't remember anything," she admitted.
"You wouldn't. She probably set them outside the house, with the rags she used to clean up the kitchen after she took off your finger," Sarah said. "Otherwise people wouldn't be thinking that you're up at Oxford. Alison's set the spell to make anyone as sees you think you're some daft little servant girl she got through some charity place."
"That's what the servants we used to have thought," she said, slowly. "So even if I could make people understand what I'm saying to them, they are still going to think I'm mad." If she hadn't spent the last three years in complete misery, she might have been thrown into despair by this crushing of her hopes. "Well, look at me!" She laughed bitterly, because no one would ever have recognized the old Eleanor Robinson, pampered and petted, in the work-worn, shabby creature she was now. "Even without a spell, no one would know me! People don't look past clothing much, do they?"
Sarah shook her head. "I'm sorry, love, no they don't. She doesn't need a spell to make you look like a scullery maid, does she?"
Eleanor felt the sting of tears in her eyes, and rubbed at them angrily with the back of her hand. This was a lesson in humility she hadn't thought she needed, and yet—when she thought of all the times she had looked right past anyone who was dressed as a low servant, expecting only to hear, at most, a low-voiced and humble "Morning, miss," paying no attention whatsoever to anything else that might come out of that person's mouth—
Oh, she had plenty of excuses for herself! That she couldn't help how she'd been brought up, that even the old vicar had on occasion preached sermons about knowing one's place—
Yes, but— Just because you were taught something didn't make it right.
She looked down at her work-worn hands. They were a bit better now, knuckles not quite so swollen, cracks healing, but she would never lose the muscle and the callus and have dainty lady's hands again. She might as well be one of them now, because that was what she looked like, and that was what everyone who saw her would think she was. Servants. The lower classes. Inconsequential, to be silent until spoken to, never to venture an opinion, much less disagree with what their betters said. Of course, they were too ignorant to know what was good for them. That was why God had placed others in authority over them, wasn't it? And the hierarchy of master over servant didn't end there, of course, because the servants themselves had their own hierarchy of greater and lesser, each class lording it over the one beneath. And on what justification? Because you were born into a particular family!
"Gad, Sarah, why don't they all rise up in the night and slit our throats?" she cried, looking up.
Sarah didn't seem at all confused by the outburst. "I'm told." she said dryly, "That's what they're doing in Roosha. So the papers say. So Mad Ross says."
She was distracted for a moment. "Ross Ashley is still here in the village? Trying to make us all socialists?" Even before the war Ross had been notorious in Broom, with his membership in the Clarion Cycling Club, his socialist pamphlets and lectures, going about the country on his bicycle and standing up on soapboxes at church fetes and country fairs and singing "The Red Flag" at the top of his lungs at every opportunity.
Sarah nodded, half wryly, half in sympathy. "Oh, aye. Got conscripted, like everyone else, discharged last year, lost half his left hand when his rifle exploded, and lucky it didn't take all of it and his face, too. Got a quarter interest in a bicycle shop now with Alan Vocksmith. Alan's rifle blew up too; he lost an eye."
The distraction served its purpose; she lost that first, hot rush of anger. She looked up at Sarah, setting her jaw. "If I can ever break this magic, maybe I'll help him," she said. "But first, I have to break free."
"That you do." Sarah stood up and brushed off her apron. "Let's make the first start."
Her first feeling when she walked out of the garden gate was of disbelief, combined with a rush of such elation that she felt giddy. She had not been outside of those walls for so long that the commonplace street seemed as exotic as Timbuktu. She was free! At long last, she was free, free to stand on the street, free to wander where she wanted, free to—
But as she looked up and down the street—and just across the street from the garden gate, where the largest of the village pubs stood—she got the feeling that something was not right.
But what was it?
"Wait—" she said to Sarah, standing beside the garden wall, staring around her, trying to identify what it was that made the familiar street seem so unfamiliar. There were no children playing, but that was scarcely it; first of all, it was cold again, overcast and raw, and second, it was a school day. Little ones wouldn't be outside on a nasty day like this. No, it wasn't the absence of children—
Then, suddenly, as the postman came around the corner, and she saw, not trousers but a skirt, a postwoman, she understood with a hideous feeling of shock what it was that was bothering her.
There were no men.
There were no men anywhere to be seen.
Not opening up the pub, not making deliveries, not making repairs, not carrying the post.
And suddenly, all those notices in the papers that she read without really understanding them became solid and real in her mind. Conscription age dropped to seventeen. Conscription age raised to fifty. No deferments for only sons, for fathers of young children, for students. No deferment for religious objections. No deferments except for what the War Department considered to be "vital work in the national interest" and severe physical impairment. Go to War or go to prison: that was your choice.
England was a nation of women now, sprinkled with old men, boys, and those whose wounds were too serious, too incapacitating to allow them back into the army.
She followed Sarah, numb, feeling a kind of cold chill creeping over her as she passed the small street of the shops and saw women behind the counters, women making the deliveries. And in the shops—the butcher shop had hardly anything on display, most of the bread in the bakery was the same, heavy, rye and oat bread that she ate, and there were more bare places in the tiny grocery than there were goods. When she contrasted those shelves with the ones in Alison's cellar and pantry, she was appalled. Where was Alison getting her treats? Not in Broom—
Everywhere there was a kind of emotional pall that had nothing to do with the weather. It was as if there was no hope anymore in Broom—
But for all of that, the little talk that she overheard was not about the war, not about the lost loved ones. That bleak December when her father had died, that was all that anyone could talk about. Who had gone, where they were, that the war would surely soon be over— hushed whispers about the slaughter at Mons and other places, with glances over the shoulder as if to talk of such things would bring disaster down upon one's own loved ones, or as if it were treasonous to even suggest that things were not going well. Teas and entertainments were being planned for boys in training at nearby camps, there was talk of volunteer work, of parties to knit scarves and roll bandages—
There was none of that now. Just sharp-voiced complaints about the price of butter and the impossibility of getting sugar—of having to make do on thin rations, and the talk of further privations. Of the impossibility of getting servants, of the only help at the farm being Land Girls. Of longing for spring "when at least we'll have our veg garden and won't feel the pinch so—"
Ordinary talk, unless you heard the barely repressed hysteria or depression under the words, the attempt to cover up hopelessness with chatter about nothing. She ghosted along in Sarah's wake, and now saw the signs of actual, physical privation in some places, of sunken cheek and waistbands too large, and realized she wasn't just seeing the effect of lack of luxuries, she was seeing real hunger.
And if that were so, in the country, where people were likely enough skirting the rationing by hiding pigs in the forest, geese and ducks on the farm-ponds, chickens, pigeons, and rabbits in the garden, reporting less milk than their cows actually gave—what was it like in the city?
She felt battered, actually battered, by revelation after cruel revelation. She couldn't have managed to speak to any of these familiar strangers, even if she hadn't been walled off from them by appearance and spell. She didn't know them. These were not her people. They were some odd breed of changeling that looked superficially like her old neighbors, but who were mere shells, filled with despair, over which a cracking veneer of commonplace was held in place by a fading will to pretend that everything was all right.
Sarah glanced soberly at her from time to time, but said nothing. She only led the way to her little cottage, propped up on either side by larger Tudor buildings, and opened the door to let them both inside, hanging up her plain brown wool shawl on the peg beside the door.
Once inside, Eleanor put her back to the wall and stared at Sarah incredulously. "Why didn't you tell me?" she blurted, wanting nothing more than to bolt back to the safety of her kitchen where the privations of the years had not penetrated, and where she could pretend that nothing outside the walls had changed.
"Would you have believed me?" Sarah countered, stirring up the fire in her tiny fireplace and putting another log on it. "Could I have told you in any way that you would have believed? You've been seeing some of the papers, now and again, I'm sure."
Eleanor collapsed into the old wooden chair that Sarah indicated, hands limply in her lap. "But—" she said, helplessly. "But that doesn't tell you—"
"Because no one wants the truth to be printed in the papers," Sarah said cruelly. "If they did, it'd be like Roosha all over again. Or so them fellows in the government think."
"How many?" Eleanor asked, feeling numb.
"How many what?" Sarah responded.
"I didn't see any men—" she began. Sarah nodded. "Most of them—well; we think they're still alive, though some haven't been heard from in a fair while," she said, sadly. "But then again, it's one thing to come home on leave when you live in London or you've ready in your pocket. 'Tis quite another when all your pay comes home, and you haven't the money for a train ticket when they give you leave." She sighed. "I don't know but what you'll not recognize the names— Matt Brennan lost a leg. Ross Ashley you know lost his hand and Alan Vocksmith his eye. Michael Kabon—that's the butcher that came in after you were bespelled, finding we hadn't one—he's all scarred up outside and in from gas. Jack Samburs lost an arm, Eric Whitcomb his wits. Then the ones as won't be home at all—" She took a deep breath. "They're on the monument that got put up at the Church. Bruce Gulken, Thomas Golding, John McGregor, Daniel Heistand, Jock Williamson, William Williamson, Daniel Linden, Harry Brown the baker, and Sean Newton. Sean's the latest; his mum just heard last week."
Each name fell like a stone into the silence. So—it was Pamela Brown at the bakery now, not her husband. Eleanor really hadn't known most of them, but Willie Williamson had been one year older and one of the boys who had hero-worshipped Reggie Fenyx, and Sean Newton had used to ask her to dance at village fetes. Daniel Heistand had been another of Reggie's devoted followers, and had always frowned at her so fiercely when she was the one who got to pull the wheel-chocks away. . . .
Not coming home. Or maimed so badly no one would put them back out again. Horrible. Horrible. What was that, a third of the men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five in this village? Sean— Sean had been his widowed mother's only child. She shook her head; it hurt, even to think about. "It's never going to end, is it?" she asked, faintly. "It's just going to go on and on and on until there are no men left in England—"
Sarah only sighed, and closed her eyes, her shoulders hunched as if she found the weight of it all too much to bear. "I don't pretend to see the future," she replied, sadly. "But the present is nasty enough to worry about. Even Mad Ross come home all grim and quiet. No more riding about, hardly ever makes a speech, unless it's in the pub and he's had some courage in him. The ones as came home, well, they don't talk to their wives and they don't talk to their sweethearts, they just sit in pub and stare at wall. Shellshocked, they call it. I call it that they've seen too much to bear and stay entirely sane. They don't talk about tomorrows, either, and a man what won't plan for tomorrow is a man who believes he won't see it. That's what you feel on the village; that's what come home from the war with the ones that did come home. Nobody thinks about tomorrow if they can help it. Nobody. Church and chapel, they're both alike. Stopped praying for victory, they have; now they just pray for it to be over and have no faith it ever will. I s'pose it's easier to whinge about not having beef and the cost of butter than it is to have hope."
Eleanor shuddered. "What is going on over there?" she whispered. "What is it?"
"I don't know," Sarah said, staring deeply into the fire on her hearth, as if searching there for answers. "But I'll tell you this much. Whatever it is, it eats a man's soul. They talk to each other, them as came home, but never to the rest of us."
She had thought to walk about the village; now she couldn't bear the idea. "I'm going to see if I can get as far as the aeroplane field at Longacre," she said, standing up. "I'll do it now, while the spell's still fresh."
Sarah just nodded. "Mind the wind," was all she said. "You can borrow that shawl by the door, if you'd like."
Eleanor hadn't thought to bring a shawl when they left the kitchen, and for a moment, she looked at the plain, shabby garment with the disfavor the old Eleanor might have—
Oh, who and what am I to be so picky? she asked herself. "Thank you, Sarah, if it's no inconvenience—"
"I won't be going out before you're back," Sarah said with certainty. Eleanor paused with one hand on the door.
"Sarah—what is it you do?" she asked, bewildered. "For a living?" She couldn't bear it if Sarah was teetering on the edge of poverty.
Sarah laughed. "What, no one ever told you? I'm the district nurse and licensed midwife! Never a doctor between here and Stratford almost, especially now, so I do for all of those that need simple tending." She nodded at Eleanor's silent "oh" of understanding. "It's what my sort does now. Hide in plain sight. People call me 'witch,' they're joking— and I've license to cure as much of their ills as I'm able. I do well enough. Better than some—most of my patients are farm folk, and barter is better for them than money, so I get some of that butter and beef no one else can find. And it's a help to have enough of the magic that I have a good sense of when I'll be needed, and often as not, where. So shoo—off with you, find out how far you can go. Nobody'll call me out until after dark, when you had best be back in your kitchen."
"Thank you," Eleanor told her, then wrapped the heavy shawl around herself, pulling it up over her head, and went back out onto the street. It smelled pleasantly of lavender, and was softer than it looked. No one gave her a second look; she had the feeling this was part of the magic her stepmother had put on her. People wouldn't look at her, probably, unless they actually bumped into her.
Well, that was one thing working like a slavey all these years had done for her—a walk she would have quailed at four years ago was nothing. She set off up the road, heading for Longacre, to see how far she could get before she was stopped.
The village was tiny; five minutes, and she was off cobbles and onto hard-packed earth, rutted by farm carts and marked by hooves, passing between farm fields she had known all her life. Hedgerows showed a lack of tending that would have been shocking three years ago. It was too early for planting, but the meadows were full of cattle and sheep, the only creatures that looked to be prospering at prewar levels. As she passed the Gulkens' dairy-farm—Theresa's now, alone— she heard Louis Blue's shrill whistle, and saw the cattle raise their heads and begin to amble in the direction of the milking-barn. So Louis, probably around about sixty now, was old enough to escape conscription; though she didn't know Theresa except as the supplier of butter and milk, she still felt an absent sort of relief. Hard enough to find yourself a widow, but how could one woman keep up a busy dairy farm by herself? Louis, however, she knew from her rambles about as a child; always with a kitten in his pocket, for cats and dairy farms went together like clotted cream and jam. He could never bear to drown the kittens, and was always looking for homes for them. The thought of him going off to the horror that this war must be was an obscenity, he, who couldn't bear to kill a kitten. At least he'd been spared that.
Beyond the dairy-farm was the Scroggins' orchard, and again, with relief, she saw another bit of normality. Brian Scroggins was out, checking the apple trees, with his wife Tracy in the next row, and Brianna and Zach picking up every twig of fallen applewood they could carry. Everyone liked a bit of applewood on their fire, and applewood-smoked bacon and ham were a treat; no wasting in Brian Scroggins' orchard. But he couldn't be fifty. How had he escaped being called up? Oh— as Brian plodded like a donkey along the row of trees, head down, she remembered. He was so short-sighted as to be almost blind; Tracy did anything that required reading and writing. Just as well. If anyone dared to call up the maker of the best scrumpy in the county, she didn't doubt there'd be an uprising. . . .
She trudged along the road, pulling the shawl out of the grip of the wind. The lovely weather a few days ago had been a lie, it had. There might even be snow tonight. Or if rain, it would be ice-edged.
Across from the Scroggins was the farm of Joanne and Michael Van, and here it was painfully clear that all was not as normal. There was no sign of Michael, who surely must be in France now, and all of the figures picking stones in the field were female. One was probably Joanne, but no Broom native had red hair of the sort that flamed under one of the scarves, nor the midnight-black bob of another of the girls. Were these Land Girls, young women who volunteered to work on farms and take the place of the absent farmers? If so, they were Eleanor's first sight of the breed, and for all the complaints of how they were lazy or vamps out to tease the country boys, they seemed to know their job well enough, and they were sensibly clothed in heavy coats, boots, and long, warm skirts.
Finally, the last farm before the fields belonging to Longacre began, was the Samburs' sheep farm. And as she trudged up the road, she saw Sarah hurrying after a male figure with one sleeve pinned up to his chest, supporting himself with a stick, following two sheepdogs with more determination than steadiness. But she didn't call after him, did Sarah, nor did she take over the direction of the sheepdogs. She seemed more like one of the dogs herself, waiting to see what her husband wanted, then doing it, without a word, just as silent, just as faithful. You do for yourself, she seemed to say, until you can't do no more. I know you have to.
It made tears spring into Eleanor's eyes, and she had to turn away and hide her face in the shawl. The last thing she wanted to do was let either of them catch this sign of her pity. They likely got more than enough of it as it was.
But neither of them looked in her direction as she hurried past, the cold, raw wind plastering her skirts to her legs. All of his attention was on the dogs and the sheep, and all of hers was on him.
Eleanor passed their farmhouse, and more of their fields, dotted with sheep, who raised their heads and looked at her with their foolish faces when she passed.
And then—the hedgerows became fences, marking the beginning of the fields of Longacre.
She paused for a moment at the side of the road; these were grazing fields too, but for horses, not cattle or sheep, the hunters of Longacre Park. The grass was thick and rank here, for the horses were gone, gone to the war, to pull gun-carriages, not leap fences in the hunt. Only off in the distance were three old, gray-nosed fellows, too old to be of use across the Channel.
She had gotten this far. Could she possibly get so far as the field where Reggie had kept his aeroplane?
She trudged on, past the horse field, past one of the woods kept stocked with pheasant for the shooting season. Was there still a shooting season? Did anyone come out to hunt, or were they all hunting men now in the trenches? And then, the second field; she climbed over the stile and down into it. The grass was up to her knees, but this was it; this was Reggie's field.
She could walk here, just.
Trembling a little, and feeling the pull start, she paused beside the old shed, empty and falling to pieces, where the aeroplane had lived. No sign of it now, beyond a discarded and broken propeller, some bits and bobs of wing-struts and a half-rotten roll of canvas inside. She lingered as long as she could, but the pull homewards became more insistent with each passing minute, and when she pulled out the rosemary sprig, it was clearly beginning to wither.
But she turned her back on the place and headed back in the growing gloom with no real sense of disappointment. She had gotten this far—and this place held nothing but melancholy, as sad and abandoned as the places in the village where the men used to gather and socialize.
Enough despair for one day. Time to go back to Sarah, and try to scrape up enough hope to carry on her own fight.
April 3, 1917
"NOW WE MUST PLAY THESE cards slowly and carefully, girls," Alison said, as the three of them sat over a light luncheon of potted-shrimp sandwiches and teacakes. The girls had taken up smoking while in London, and were indulging in malicious enjoyment as they ruined their leftovers with ash and stubs. So much for the stepsister grazing on what was left. Oat-bread and bean soup was more than good enough for her.
Alison reflected for a moment on the quiet occupant of the kitchen. That wretched girl Eleanor didn't seem any the worse for having been left on her own for longer than usual, and in fact, the absence seemed to have made her more subdued. This was a pleasant development. More than that, it now seemed more likely that Alison would find a way to render her into a helpless object without having to resort to any of Locke's complicated schemes.
While she had initially been in favor of the idea, Alison dislike complication intensely. The simpler the plan, the better, for the less there was that was likely to go wrong. She didn't like the idea of bringing in a stranger, who certainly would be a criminal, and thus, unreliable. Criminals often thought they would be clever and turn on the one who had hired them.
The more she thought about it, the more she began to believe that in dealing with the girl Eleanor, it was probably better not to bring Locke or any of his friends into it at all. After all, she was an Earth Master. There ought to be some way for an Earth Master to damage someone's mind irreparably. And much as she would enjoy Eleanor's pain, there were other ways to extract the same pleasure.
She took a reflective sip of her tea, and returned her attention to the subject at hand.
"By now, the first letter will have been received up at Longacre Park," she continued, "But we must not give an appearance of being too eager to make this connection. The opposite, in fact; the last thing we wish is to make it seem as if we are pursuing the Fenyx family. Remember, I allegedly married far below me, and I might find that fact uncomfortable. In fact, we must appear to be—"
"Diffident?" suggested Carolyn. "Shamefaced?" was Lauralee's choice.
"Diffident," Alison replied decidedly, which made Carolyn smirk and Lauralee pout a trifle. "These days there is nothing shameful about repairing a great line's fortunes by marrying into trade. The only shame comes about when one tries to push in before one is invited, or to use one's name and connections as a kind of commodity." She pursed her lips; frowning only made the brow wrinkle. "You see, Lauralee, we must appear to be modest above all. We must appear to be reticent about taking advantage of this tentative connection. You two should look hopeful and eager but say nothing until we are actually established and accepting invitations. And when the invitations arrive, you must be—"
"Retiring and modest," Carolyn supplied, with a glance at Lauralee. "No flirtations. Friendly wallflowers, so to speak."
"Exactly right." Alison bestowed a smile of favor on her elder-born. "You must appear to be grateful without fawning, and without any hint that you intend to take advantage of the new situation."
"New situation?" Lauralee laughed, and flicked her cigarette ash into the remains of her buttered toast. "Any parties we're invited to will be rather thin on male company! Unless you want us to cozy up to grandfathers and schoolboys."
Alison stared at her in astonishment. " 'Cozy up!' Where did you get that expression? You've been going to too many American cinema shows, young lady—"
"Well—" Lauralee flushed, and looked at her in defiance Alison quelled the defiance with another look.
"No 'well' about it." Alison sketched a sign in the air, and Lauralee squealed in pained surprise as her mother administered a mild correction. "Let that be a lesson to you: no slang, no impudence. You will maintain impeccable manners from this point on. No, you will not be courting old men or schoolboys. You will be comforting Reginald Fenyx, who is returning to Longacre in extremely fragile condition on medical leave. You will be compassionate, understanding, and willing to listen to or do anything he asks, which likely won't be much. You will become indispensible to him. And I don't care which of you does it, either, so long as one of you gets him to the point where he cannot do without you, at which point we will ensure he asks for your hand. I will be assisting considerably, of course," she added. "Let's just say he'll be plagued by things he would rather not see, and the only time he will be free of them will be in your presence."
Lauralee understood immediately; Carolyn took a moment or two of thought, and the hint, from her older sister, of "he's shellshocked."
It was Alison's considered opinion at that point, that regardless of Carolyn's superior looks and predilection for flirtation, Lauralee was probably going to win this particular contest. "That will be up to the two of you," she said serenly. "I will supply the structure."
"Which is all any good daughter could ask, Mama," said Carolyn sweetly. Lauralee leveled a withering glance at her, but said nothing. Alison was pleased. With a contest of rivalry set up between the two, things should proceed apace, as soon as Reggie made his appearance back home.
"Now, I have something important that I must tend to," she said, and got to her feet. "A small matter on behalf of the Lodge and the Department combined. I will take the auto, and I should be back by dark. Has that odd butcher sent anything of my order? Or the tavern?"
Carolyn shook her head. "Just notes that there is no meat to be had today, so no roast and no ham."
"Have the girl do something with potted pheasant then," Alison said, absently. "Get it out of the pantry for her."
"Certainly, Mama." Carolyn always enjoyed the opportunity to humiliate Eleanor, even when it meant having to set foot in the kitchen.
Eleanor still wasn't much of a cook. Fortunately, there wasn't much that the girl could do to ruin a potted pheasant "I will see you at dinner, then," she repeated, and went out, jingling her keys.
It was a distinct inconvenience to be required to drive herself, but there wasn't a man to chauffeur to be had, and Alison had learned to cope. The auto was less than comfortable on the country roads around Broom, but a carriage would have been just as bad, and at least the weather hadn't left the roads nothing but muck or kicking up choking clouds of dust. She needed her duster and her hat and goggles though. This time it was going to be a considerable drive—into Stratford.
Even now, three years into the war, Stratford-on-Avon was an attraction for visitors, who came to see Anne Hathaway's cottage and other Shakespearian landmarks. That most of them were elderly or female was of no matter. Strangers, even strangers with accents, occasioned no undue attention. There was an industry—no longer thriving, but still in place—of people renting out their cottages to visitors.
The Lodge had been good enough to give Alison not only a name, but directions to the quarry, who had established himself in a cottage on the outskirts of Stratford, one that had once been a farm cottage for a tenant, until the land was given over to grazing.
Rose Cottage was exceptionally remote, tucked off by itself down a little by-lane; the owners had probably been pathetically grateful that anyone was willing to take it these days. Grateful enough to look the other way when the man claiming to be a refugee from Belgium had turned up wanting to take it.
Alison stopped the car at the head of the lane in the partial concealment of some overgrown hedges, and cautiously cast a shield of protection about herself. She had no intention of going into this unprotected. Then, without taking off the enveloping duster and goggles that hid her identity, she walked cautiously down the lane. That few people came this way was given mute testimony to by the grass growing rank over the road. That fit with what Alison had been told.
As she approached the cottage, it was clear that it was several hundred years old, and "improvements" to it had been minimal. No gas, probably no water pipes, certainly no electricity or telephone, and what heat there was would be supplied by one or two fireplaces. There was a single chimney, and the roof was of thatch.
The aura of magic was muted and subdued; probably no one would have noticed, if not for the tell-tale traces of Elementals that were strangers to this part of the world. What was it about Germans that so attracted them to Tibetan magic? That was something that had always puzzled Alison. Weren't their native creatures powerful enough for them?
Well, the little air-demons of the Everest were not going to be able to deal with the Earth Elementals of England on their own ground.
Particularly not as Alison had surprise on her side.
She stopped just long enough at the gate to invoke a gnome, a twisted and ugly little manikin the color of old stone.
"Where is the master of this place?" she asked quietly, as it emerged out of the rock of the garden wall and stood there, rock-silent itself, looking at her.
"Gone," the gnome croaked, and waved in the direction of meadows.
Good. She dismissed the creature, which melted back into the stone. She entered the garden gate and sauntered up the path to the cottage—it had been gravel once, but was now as overgrown as the road, and as she took in the rather picturesque little dwelling, she could not help but smile broadly. A vine-covered cottage—and beneath the vines was stone. Good Cotswold stone. Thatched roof. Earth and earth and earth. What had he been thinking?
Probably not that an Earth Master would come hunting him.
She laid one hand on wall beside the thick oaken door, and allowed the stone to speak to her. Her duster blended nicely with the gray of the stone, and even if anyone came along here and saw her, she could claim to be looking for the tenant. Not that anyone would. The spell of avoidance she had laid across the lane would keep even cattle from wandering down this way.
Needless to say, the German agent did not work his spells within the confines of the cottage, the spells he had laid here were all of protection, a dome of mixed shielding that melded with the walls of the cottage. His purpose here was twofold: to gather information by means of his Air Elementals, and, whenever possible, to disrupt the training of the Royal Flying Corps. Now, from the little that Alison had learned about the RFC, it took very little to disrupt that training. Fog, rain, contrary winds—things that were all easy to direct and create would render it difficult and dangerous to go up, and they were all things that occurred frequently and naturally. Impossible to say how many casualties, if any, were due to his interference. Possibly none whatsoever; the Flying Corps was quite efficient at killing off its young recruits all by itself. One recruit a day died at each of the two training fields, so Alison had been told, and there could be upwards of two dozen crashes a day, and that was without any magical interference whatsoever.
Insane. But no more insane, presumably, than the generals whose only strategy seemed to be that of amassing men in trenches, then sending them in charges against machine-gun nests across open land littered with shell-holes, razor-wire, and bits of the last lot to make the charge.
Absolutely insane. If Alison had been in charge of the war, the slaughter would certainly have been as great, but it would have been to more purpose. There were other ways of killing men than flinging them straight to their deaths. And she would not have pursued a policy that spent so much to gain nothing.
She didn't know this man's real name, and she didn't care to learn it. She didn't want to know precisely what he was doing, outside of what he was doing magically. She did not care to know who he was reporting to, or how. The War Office, of course, did want to know these things.
The War Office would have to go on wanting.
If the War Office was interested discovering these things, the War Office could send its own men.
Of course . . . they had tried doing just that. They had sent conventional agents against Elemental Masters before, but like the generals, it seemed that they never learned what not to do. They had gotten less than satisfactory results in their investigations of this man, for instance. Those two agents that had been sent to find out what this man was up to, at least according to what the Lodge had told Alison, had been found wandering around the countryside, scorched and witless.
Lightning, of course. Well known as the weapon of choice for Far Eastern Air Elementals, especially the ones associated with Tibetan shamanism.
Alison might have started life as an ignorant working-class girl, but knowledge was power, and she intended to be as powerful as knowledge could make her. It was astonishing, the amount of information that she had accumulated about traditions other than her own. Thus far, the magic of choice for Germans seemed equally split between Nordic and Tibetan; agents of the Irish in league with the Germans stuck to their dark Celtic ways. The walls of this cottage spoke to her of foreign creatures with multiple limbs and eyes, and boar-like tushes. Definitely Tibetan.
So, her quarry was out in a field somewhere, communing with his slant-eyed demons, interfering with the lives of the young bucks at the two Schools of Military Aeronautics, one at Reading, one at Oxford. And all without going more than a half mile from this house.
So why choose Stratford as a base? That Alison couldn't guess, and didn't really care. Perhaps it was simply that there was nothing much of military significance around her, and so there was less chance of his being found out. It didn't matter where an Air Master was in relation to what he wanted to investigate. The only question was how long he was willing to wait to find out the information, and how sure his control over his Elementals was. He could operate at a distance of a couple hundred miles if he had firm control of his creatures. It was certainly less than that from Stratford to Oxford or Reading. He would have no difficulty at all in controlling weather from here, and depending on how fast his Elementals flew, he could have his information within an hour or two. Of all of the Elemental Masters, it was the Air Masters who made the best spies, for precisely that reason. Earth and Water Masters tended to have more control over their creatures, but needed to be in close proximity to what they were investigating, because their Elementals could not travel nearly so fast. And Fire Masters could work at a distance, but their control tended to be problematical. If Fire Elementals did not like you, they didn't have a great deal of difficulty in slipping their bonds. And when they did, even the friendliest ones could prove deadly. So Fire Masters, in general, were very poor intelligence agents.
Well, the one thing that this Air Master had neglected to do was to leave one of his little servants here to guard his dwelling in person.
That had certainly been a mistake. Even an Elemental with no power could have run to alert his Master that there was another Elemental Mage in his territory, and she probably would not have been able to catch or stop it.
Well, perhaps he had made the mistake that so many in the past had. He had looked for a male Master, assuming that a female would be inconsequential. The Germans seemed to have that habit of dismissing female Masters out of hand. Or, like many Masters of a "superior" Element, he could have assumed that an Earth Master was in control of an inferior power.
If that was the case, he should have known better. There was a reason why opposite pairings were considered inimical to each other. It might be a bit more difficult for an Earth Master to get an Air Master in a position where he was under her control, but when it happened— the results were unfortunate for the Air Master.
Or it might be because he had never seen an Earth Master who had dominion over the hostile creatures of the Element. Earth Masters tended to be healing, nurturing types. Alison curled her lip in contempt. If that was the case, if he hadn't bothered to do his research, he deserved what he was about to get.
She placed both hands on the wall, and summoned her own creatures. They would bypass the protections on this place—one great fault Air Masters often had was that they forgot that things could come up from below as well as down from above. Their protections tended to be domes rather than spheres. Water Masters and Fire Masters rarely made that mistake.
Up they came, slow and cold, investing the walls and the floor with their presence, swimming through the stone as an undine would swim through water. Kobolds and tommyknockers, mostly, those creatures that invested rock rather than earth, and who hated mankind with an enduring passion as the invader and despoiler of their secret underground fastnesses. They had the power to bring down mines when angered, and the only reason that they weren't more dangerous than trolls and giants was that they were slow to work on their own, and solitary, and found it difficult to work with one another.
She bound them with spell and command, it wasn't difficult, given what she intended them to do. They hated mankind in general, and Air Magicians worst of all. Ah, the benefit of working against a Master of the inimical Elemental; it was seldom that she commanded any of her creatures under these circumstances that was not pleased to do her will.
The spell was set, the trap laid, and there was no point in remaining. The Air Master would be returning soon. He would check his boundaries and find them untouched, because her invaders had not forced, had not even crossed them. Only when the clock crossed into the dark side of the night, at just past midnight, would her minions—"strike" was not the correct word, for they would approach by stealth. "Envelop" was more accurate. As he slept, they would creep upon him, imprison him, paralyze him. And then, they would slowly, so slowly, squeeze the breath out of him, sitting on his chest while he struggled for air, until the lungs collapsed and the laboring heart gave out. There would be no sign that he had died of anything other than natural causes.
This was far superior to invoking a were-creature and tearing her victim apart, which is what she had been forced to do the last time. Stealth was always preferable to direct conflict. Whenever she could avoid a mage-battle, she felt that she had won two victories in one.
She sauntered back to the waiting automobile, feeling altogether pleased with herself. The amount of terror and pain that this particular murder would produce would be remarkable, and that in turn, would enrich the power given up at the death. The victim might well last most of the night. The kobolds would absorb that power—retain some for themselves—but deliver the lion's share to her.
Which would, in turn, give her more power for the conquest of Reginald Fenyx. She would need extra power; Earth Elementals had already feasted on his fear and pain, and would hunger for more. If she had meant to destroy him, that would have been fine, but she would need all her magic and cunning to keep them restrained and held in check.
She drove back home in the sunset; the auto was constructed of enough of the materials of Earth—though it was powered by Fire and Air—that it did not dare misbehave under her hand. Which was more than could be said of horses, or, for that matter, any other living beast that she hadn't specifically bred, altered, and trained. That was the drawback to being a Dark Master; animals didn't much care for you.
Well, the antipathy was mutual.
She brought it to a halt inside what had been the stable, and turned it off as the last light of the day slowly faded. Through the garden door she came, walking briskly up the path as light shown warmly through the kitchen windows.
Of course, she did not have to go through the kitchen, for there were two doors into the garden—the kitchen door and this one. It would never do for her to take a servant's entrance, not even when there was no one there to see; the passage from the garden led directly to the sitting and dining rooms. However, the savory aroma coming from the kitchen told her that the girl had concocted something tasty with the potted pheasant.
She went upstairs to clean herself from the drive, and smiled at herself in the mirror. It had been a most satisfactory day.
Orders to use potted pheasant for dinner had made Eleanor seethe with repressed anger, and this time, it was not only on her own behalf. Outside these walls, people were getting by on a few ounces of meat in a day, stretching it by stewing, putting it in soup, concocting pie— using parts of the cow, pig, sheep, and chicken that no one would have dreamed of using before this. Here within the walls of The Arrows, the announcement that there would be no ham or roast had been met with an order to make a meal with a potted pheasant, as if this was a great hardship. While the trio had been gone, Eleanor had learned a great deal about life in the village in this third year of the war, and she knew that the steady submarine attacks on convoys coming from the United States were taking a significant toll on what was getting to the island. It wasn't only munitions. Far more than she had ever dreamed came into Britain from across the oceans.
Taking a greater toll on people's everyday lives was the rationing and simple scarcity, for there was no need to formally ration what simply was not available. The greater share of meat, white flour, fat, dairy, and sugar was simply taken to go to those who were fighting, or who, like the medical services overseas, were serving those fighting. The result had an impact everywhere. She wasn't sure if people were actually hungry, but it wouldn't surprise her.
There were no sweets in the village store for children, for instance, and when sugar was available, everyone rushed to get what they could. The butcher, Michael Kabon—to Eleanor's initial shock, he was a black man, from somewhere in Africa—made the most of every bit of meat and bone that fell beneath his cleaver.
Mr. Kabon was well-regarded in normally insular Broom, but then, when his personal sacrifice was so visible in his own flesh, Broom would have found it difficult to turn away from him, even had he not been as good-natured as he was. Whatever had moved him to volunteer, she could not say, but he was never going to go back to the lines again—not the way he fought for each breath after the dose of mustard gas that had also scarred his face and body.
And he had proved to be very useful for the village. Of course, here in the country, no one ever complained about eating organ-meat, so he had no trouble finding buyers for kidneys and livers, lungs and brains. But he knew of other options. People were poor where he came from; he had some interesting suggestions about how unlikely things could be cooked, and by this time, the women of Broom were getting desperate enough to try them.
Chicken feet, it turned out, did make a tasty soup when cooked long enough . . . and cow hooves were not all that far from pig-trotters and could be used to make more than jelly. So long as housewives disguised the origin of their culinary adventures, no one seemed to mind where the taste of meat came from. Any bone could be used to make a stock, and stock meant soup. It was amazing how much meat could be gotten when you scraped bones, too.
So, outside these four walls, families were dining tonight on chicken-foot soup and oat-bread, while within, the ladies of The Arrows thought it hard that they were reduced to a casserole of potted pheasant. If there was a sweet course on the tables of the village, it would probably be a jam tart—with the jam spread as thin as might be. Alison and her daughters feasted on sugar-frosted cake.
Eleanor wondered just what the reaction would be in the village if anyone knew this. Or knew that the innocuous parcels that came on a regular basis to The Arrows contained foodstuffs no one in Broom had seen for days or weeks, or even months.
Certainly Alison's reputation in the village would suffer the loss of some of its shine.
Eleanor had planned to go to visit Sarah tonight, but as she had gotten ready to add Sarah's herbs to the tea, something had hissed out of the fire.
She had turned to see a Salamander writhing on the hearth, watching her with agitation. When it knew it had caught her eye, it beckoned her nearer.
"Not tonight," it had hissed. "She walks and wakes tonight. Tomorrow."
For a moment she had hesitated, but then had put the herbs away. The Salamanders didn't often speak to her, or even appear in the fire during the hours in which they might be seen by someone else. If this one felt it needful to deliver a warning, why take chances?
So she resigned herself to a night of hard work alone. If Alison was going to be awake, there was no point in fighting the compulsions and arousing her suspicion.
She stared at her own reflection in the window as she washed up the dinner dishes. In some ways, none of this made any sense at all. At this point, there were days when if Alison had simply come to her and said, "If you sign over your inheritance, I will let you go" that she would have agreed in a flash. It wasn't as if, given all she had learned perforce, she couldn't earn a living as a servant.
Of course, that would have meant giving up a great deal of what made life tolerable. Servants didn't have a lot of time nor leisure to read. And once she did that, the life of an Oxford scholar would have been quite out of reach.
But why should she give up what was hers? Especially when Alison had essentially stolen it in the first place?
Because freedom was worth more than things. If she had learned one lesson in all of this, it was that. Freedom was worth far more than things.
She finished the dishes, and sighed. Alison would never let her go, not even for that. She knew too much. Ordinary people might not believe in magic, but there were more like Alison out there, and if she was ever able to leave these four walls, she would be in a position to tell them herself what Alison was up to, how she had bewitched Eleanor's father, and all the rest. Those people might not pay attention, but then again, they might. Alison would never let her go as long as there was a chance that her scheme would be exposed.
Because even if those people did nothing about what had happened to Eleanor and her father, they would be warned for the future, and any new scheme Alison had in mind could be thwarted.
She reached for a towel to dry off her hands, and made a face as she looked at the left. Well, there was another reason for Alison not to let her go. She wouldn't even have to say anything about magic, just that her stepmother had kept her prisoner and abused her all these years, and here was her little finger buried beneath the hearthstone to prove it. She certainly wouldn't have chopped her own finger off and buried it, now would she?
With the dishes finished, she took some mending and sat beside the hearth to do it. The Salamander was still there, coiling restlessly around the flames, sometimes flickering out and around her ankles before diving back in again. She had expected the house to settle, and indeed, she heard the two girls going to their rooms, but Alison kept walking back and forth restlessly.
Or was she walking back and forth?
Eleanor cocked her head and listened intently. No, this wasn't a simple to-and-fro. Alison was walking in a circle. The house was too well-built for her to hear if her stepmother was saying anything, but—
The Salamander looked up. "It is near midnight," it observed. "She walks."
"You mean, she's doing magic?" Eleanor whispered.
The Salamander nodded.
So that was what the creature had meant!
Eleanor looked up and shivered. Whatever was going on, it couldn't mean anything good. Who, or what else, did Alison have in her power now?
And what was she doing to them?
April 20, 1917
Longacre Park, Warwickshire
REGGIE GOT OUT OF THE car stiffly, gazing up at the imposing front of Longacre feeling not that he was coming home, but that he was a stranger in a foreign land. He wasn't comfortable standing on the steps of a place like this anymore; he kept wondering when the next barrage would come in and knock it all to pieces. This was not reality, this quiet, peaceful country, this grand house with its velvety lawns. This was not where he lived. His home was a tent or a hastily-thrown-up wood hut, the earth churned by bombs, with the echoing thud of cannon that never stopped. This was no longer his world. Beautiful, yes, it was. With its stone columns rising to support a Grecian-inspired portico, it looked more like a government monument than a place where people lived. The Georgians built to impress, rather than to house.
He took the first few steps, knee crying agony at him, and looked up at the portico again. What am I doing here? he thought. The uniformed staff was lined up beside the door to greet him. Uniformed staff? Neat suits, proper little gowns and aprons?
His world contained slovenly orderlies that stole your whiskey and tobacco, piles of dirty uniforms pitched in the corner of the tent, clutter that was never cleaned, only rearranged.
He took another three steps upwards, feeling as if he was a supplicant climbing to the throne of God. The scene had that same feeling of unreality. Pristine white steps going up to a colonnaded portico, cloudless blue sky, larks overhead, a line of solemn, priest-like people waiting to greet him—
He realized as he was halfway up the stairs that once he had thought he loved Longacre, but he was not the same person who had given that love to this place.
In fact, he was only just coming to the realization that what he loved was not this great stone pile, this display in marble, it was the land around it.
What had he remembered, after all, in those days when he waited to be sent up, in those nights when he listened to the guns? As he climbed all those stairs, what occurred to him was that it had not been the memories set in those rooms with their twenty-foot ceilings, but the ones spent in woods and fields, in the stables and the sheds, that had kept him alive and sane.
There were 6,500 acres of field and farm, meadow and woods belonging to this place; he felt more at home in any of them than in the building itself. If it had not been too much effort to go back down all those steps, he might just have gone down to the car and ordered it away, far away, anywhere but here, this strange place that should have been home and wasn't.
His mother had the entire staff lined up out front to greet him, as if he was some sort of medieval monarch returning. Bloody hell, he thought, with weary resignation. Don't they have things to do? Of course they did. But this was traditional. This was where the staff of Longacre got their largesse—
So why don't I just pay them decently instead, and we can do without this mummery?
But no, no, he must follow the tradition. Noblesse oblige. Can't disappoint the staff.
So he hobbled forward, as one of the men detached himself from the line and moved to his elbow, and pressed several coins into his hand.
Surely they would prefer this in their proper pay-packet?
First and foremost in line were Mrs. Dick, the housekeeper, and James Boatwright, the butler. They had held those positions on the estate for as long as Reggie could recall, and in all that time they had not apparently changed; no one knew if Mrs. Dick had ever actually had a "Mister" Dick; one just referred to the housekeeper by the title of "Mrs." because that was how things were done. He vividly recalled the day he had learned her given name of Catriona—all his life until then he had thought "Mrs." was her first name.
They, at least, seemed genuinely moved to see him. "Boatwright," he said, shaking the upright old man's hand. "Mrs. Dick." They didn't even acknowledge the largesse, simply slipped it into a pocket and went on shaking his hand, and somewhat to his shock, there were tears in their eyes.
Why? What should they care? Even if they remembered him as a child, they could not have done so all that vividly. The people he had spent the most amount of time with had been his nurse, his governess, and then his tutors and his father. All of them were gone, and of all of them, only the nurse remained anywhere nearby—in the pensioners' cottages, if she hadn't died of old age yet.
And he felt so unmoved ... as if it wasn't he who was standing here, greeting old family retainers who, with so many going off and being slaughtered, hadn't expected to see him alive. As if he actually was dead, a ghost come back to observe, but not feel.
Next in the hierarchy, he greeted with somber gravity the cook. Mrs. Murphy was not quite as intimidating as Mrs. Dick, being all Irish and beaming. "Mrs. Murphy," he said, shaking her hand—every time he did this, of course, he left that money in their hands gold sovereigns for the upper servants, smaller coins for the lesser, the tips that servants in great houses were accustomed to get from visitors and on occasions like this, from the family. Or at least, the head of the family, which he now was. His father had simply dropped where he stood, on the first of June, 1915, after Reggie was already in the RFC.
It should have been his father standing here. For God's sake, why couldn't this have been done with less fanfare? It was humiliating, surely, for them, and no great joy for him. And his knee hurt abominably.
He could remember his father doing this, on occasions like the King's birthday, or Boxing Day, or the day he, Reggie, had taken his Oxford degree, just before the war began. Devlin Fenyx had never seemed to find this the ordeal that his son was now experiencing.
Beside him was Michael Turner, his valet, unobtrusively handing him the gold sovereigns. Turner had been his father's valet, and knew the secret that father and son kept from his mother, that both of them were Elemental Masters. Only with Turner did he feel something like normal, and he wished that, if this had to be done, it could have been Turner who attended to it.
I don't belong here. I don't belong to this world anymore, these piles of showy stone, these devoted family retainers. My world is not this place. My world is a world of blood and ruin, of bombs and cannon and the stink of gas.
Still he moved on, smiling, pleasant, while pain lanced through his knee and more and more he wanted only to go lie down somewhere. Next to Mrs. Murphy was Thelma Hawkins; Thelma cooked for the servants. Quiet word, shake hand, slip in the coin, move on. What were these folk to him, or him to them? Just "milord," or something more? And was that something nothing more than a chimera, a fata morgana, an illusion? He was a ghost, a ghost of the past, and no more real than the dreams of a poet.
Then there were the cook's helpers, four of them: Cheryl Case, Maria Bracken, Amanda Hart, and Mary Holman the tweenie. He wasn't supposed to know them, but he did, all but Mary Holman; Turner murmured their names as they curtsied, and this time it was Turner who gave them their largesse, not Reggie, because these were under-servants, the bottom of the hierarchy. And little Matthew Case, who ran errands, was hardly even in the hierarchy at all.
And just why should that be? Reggie knew the helpers better than he knew many blood relations. Reggie had spent many hours in the kitchens as a boy, running away from lessons. The little Holman girl looked up at him in awe, as if he had been the king. It was embarrassing. In the end, he was no better than she. She might one day come to produce something good and useful—all he had produced was death.
Next, the housekeeping staff, women first. Upstairs maids in their crisp black dresses with white collars and cuffs and starched white aprons with lace caps—all of which must have been wretched to keep clean when your job was to clean. Downstairs maids, in gray-striped gowns of the same cut. One of them, Mary, had been the one who had taught him how to slide down the banister. Turner gave them their little gift. They didn't say a word, other than a murmur of thanks directed to him and not to Turner.
They curtseyed, too, like stiff little puppets, their faces without expression. Even Mary. Didn't she remember? Or was this one of the things she wasn't supposed to remember, lest she embarrass the master?
Men next, the footmen, George Woodward, James Jennings (Reggie remembered this old fellow was a talented hobbyist cabinetmaker), and Steven Druce. All three of them were from his father's staff, and definitely too old to be conscripted. Poor old men! They should have gone to a pensioners' cottage long ago. He couldn't help but think of the prewar descriptions in the newspaper for those seeking footmen—tall, of particular hair-color, and with a handsome leg— well, George and James probably looked like that when his father was a youngster, but they were very much past their prime now.
In contrast to their years was the hall boy, Jason Long, who couldn't have been more than fifteen. The hall boy had that name because his position required that he sleep in the hall to answer the door after hours, but Lord Devlin had found that distasteful. "That might do for some medieval blockhead," he had said with a grimace, "but I am neither, and we do have some modern conveniences these days." So instead of sleeping in the hall on a cot behind a screen, the hall boy had a room just off the kitchen, with a bell connected up to the door. And if anyone was foolish enough to come calling after everyone had gone to bed, Lord Devlin had felt that they deserved to have to wait in the cold and dark until the hall boy made his way to the door. Reggie was glad the change had been made. The head stableman was in the same age-bracket as the two footmen. And the stable boys were both boys, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, and looking stricken and anxious as he greeted them.
There was a pattern building here. No men between the ages of seventeen and fifty. He had known that in the abstract, but seeing it on the staff—babies and grandfathers. How many hundreds of thousands of men were dead in the killing fields of Flanders and France? No way of telling, not when a barrage came in and blew everyone to bits, and you just estimated who had been there. But it was bad—bad—if you could look at people here at home and see a gap where there just were no men of a certain age Of course, it cut across all nations, and surely the French had suffered the worst of all, but—but this was home— He moved on, looked down at a face, and got a shock that almost made him stagger. The head gardener—who was responsible for Longacre's famous rose garden—was not the man he recalled, but a woman. "Mrs. Green" was murmured into his ear, and he recalled with a start that her husband had been killed in the first year of the war. "A sad loss," he said, with as much sincerity as he could. The next face was another shock, for another mere boy was the second gardener.
Now the staff that did not get largesse, the business staff. Gray old Paul McMahon, the estate accountant, and the estate manager, which should have been Owen McGregor, but Reggie found another female face looking at him where a man's should have been. "Lee McGregor, sir," she said to him, without waiting for Michael. "Owen was conscripted in June of ' 16 and we heard we'd lost him in January."
"Good Lord," he said, feeling knocked a-kilter. He took her hand and shook it. "I'm so sorry—"
She managed a wan smile. "I'm hoping you'll keep me on in his place, sir."
He glanced over at McMahon, who lifted his brow and gave a slight nod of approval. "If Paul thinks you're handling the job, then certainly," he replied, still feeling off-balance.
So now women were taking men's jobs, because there were no men to fill them. What else? When he went down into Broom, what would he find there? Female shopkeepers, surely—female postmen? Female constables?
Female farmers—how many of the tenant farmers are gone? Are their wives managing? Do we need Land Girls to help them? He hadn't been home a half an hour, he was supposed to be here to recover, but already he felt burdens settling onto his shoulders—
Until he looked down at Lee McGregor again, and realized that his concerns were misplaced. Old Paul approved. She probably already had everything in hand. He would just be meddling.
But then he moved to old friends; he was so happy to see Peter Budd, despite his new chauffeur's hook-hand, that he nearly shook the hook off. Budd had been the one responsible for helping to dig him out of that wretched bunker—Budd had heard him screaming his lungs hoarse, insisted there was someone still alive in there, and had begun the digging with only a bit of board to help him. And that, ironically, had led to the loss of his hand; he'd gotten a splinter of all damned things, the wound had gone septic immediately as happened all too often in the trenches, and before anyone could do anything about it, it had gotten so black it had to come off. When Reggie had gotten wind of that, he had sent to his fellow-sufferer to offer him a job. Peter had been a chauffeur before the war; Reggie assumed that anyone with the gumption to dig a man out with a board had the gumption to learn to drive again with a hook.
"How are you doing, old man?" he asked.
Budd grinned. "Ready to race, milord," he said saluting with his hook. "Took the liberty, milord, of lookin' up me mate, Bruce Kenny, and turned out he was already working here." He jerked his head to the side at another new face. "Good mechanic, milord, and made bold to conscript 'im. Wasted on horses."
It was obvious why Kenny was working at Longacre, given Reggie's standing order to replace staff that were not going to return with unemployed veterans of the war. Kenny had a wooden leg. A wooden leg was unlikely to impede his abilities as a mechanic.
"Excellent," Reggie replied, feeling much more heartened than he had been a few moments ago. And feeling relieved that the review of the staff was apparently over. There might be some groundskeeping staff, and eventually Gaffer Norman, the gameskeeper, would present himself, probably with his pretty daughter Eva in tow (Gaffer had read too many romantic novels in which the gameskeeper's daughter marries the lord of the manor). He would be expected to make the rounds and meet all of the tenant farmers. And he should inspect the woodlands. Not that he intended to hunt, but there was a sawmill on the property, and it might not be such a bad idea to think about producing lumber for fine cabinetry . . . the woodlands were old, and properly managed, could remain woodlands and provide timber.
No, he wouldn't hunt. He had had enough of hunting. He never wanted to shoot anything again. Not ever.
But he should also look over the accounts of all the rental properties in Stratford and elsewhere; reliable sources of income needed to be cared for.
The welcome being over, the staff filing away to their various duties, he could now enter his house—
How can anyone call this monster a "house"?
The first room was the Great Hall, and it was guaranteed to make virtually anyone feel utterly insignificant. Here, the ceiling was thirty feet above the floor, and the magnificence of the room matched the size. It might be beautiful but it had never been built for humans—
But that was the moment of epiphany when Reggie realized that it had been built for Air Masters.
He stepped inside, and between the height of the ceiling and the windows up high as well as low, he realized that he felt—comfortable. He could draw a breath as easy as if he had been outside. For the first time since he had come back, he was in a room that didn't feel as if it was pressing in on him.
Of course; this wasn't just a monument to display, it was the retreat and stronghold of someone who needed the sky above him to feel truly happy. The public rooms on the ground floor, all with twenty-foot ceilings with the exception of the Great Hall, virtually guaranteed that no Air Master would ever feel claustrophobic. And the private rooms on the next floor were nearly as spacious. He mentally apologized to his ancestor. What he had thought had been built to intimidate had actually been constructed to comfort. . . .
He'd suffered from gnawing claustrophobia, he suddenly realized, ever since his return from France. The proportions made sense when you thought of it as a house built for those most comfortable under the open sky. Even the ceiling murals with their clouds and birds made sense.
His mother was waiting for him, posed in the exact center of the Great Hall, with her hands outstretched. He limped toward her, and took both her hands in his.
She studied his face anxiously, and he produced a surface smile for her. His poor mother! She was not very clever, being one of those fluttery, helpless creatures, but she had loved her husband dearly, and he, her. She just hadn't known what to do with the two Fenyx males in her life, who had bonded more closely than mother and child right from the first. "Oh, my dear boy," she said, "You look so pale—"
"I'm tired, mother," he replied, with partial honesty. "It was a brutal trip down. Not good on the knee." That was nothing less than the truth. Every little bump had sent a lance of pain through it. And he hadn't had a decent night of sleep without being drugged for months.
"Well, go along to your old room then, dear, and have a lie-down. You don't mind that you're still in your old room, do you?" her voice sharpened with anxiety.
As if I'd want father's room. Not a chance. "It will suit me just fine," he told her, and followed one of the footmen up the stairs and down the corridor, though he hardly needed to be shown the way.
His room had not been touched since he left, except to clean and tidy it. He paused just over the threshold, feeling, with another sense of shock, that it had been preserved as a sort of shrine. Perhaps to his safety—perhaps to his memory.
And because of that, it was now a shrine to something that didn't exist anymore.
He'd known this when he had come home on leave, in a vague way. But now—now the contrast between what he had been and what he had become could not have been greater.
Here was his room—it was, thank goodness, not the room of the cricket-playing boy-in-a-man's-body that had gone off to Oxford. He had made some changes since that time. But it was the room of an enthusiast, for everywhere you looked were items having to do with flight. Books, models, pictures of 'planes, a stack of the blueprints for his own 'bus, framed pictures of himself in her. Bits of a carburetor were still lovingly arranged on the desk from the last time he'd taken it to bits. Whoever had been doing the arrangement had lined up the parts by order of size, and had polished them until they gleamed. How long had that taken?
He could not help but contrast this room with the aerodrome on the Western Front he'd last been posted to. More of a cubbyhole in a tent, really, his sleeping-quarters had been cluttered with binoculars, maps, bits of aeroplanes—some souvenirs, some just picked up out of idle curiosity. He generally shared his quarters with at least two cats on account of the rats and mice being everywhere, but in general, an aerodrome was overrun with dogs.
It was mad, really, there were always dogs everywhere, puppies peeking their heads out from under cots, adult dogs fighting or fornicating in the runways. Dogs in the club, dogs in the enlisted men's tent barracks, dogs of every shape and size but with no pedigree whatsoever. Why all the dogs? It had finally occurred to him that the aerodromes were probably where every pet in Belgium and France that had been bombed out of its home had come—in the cities that were still intact, they had their own pets, and there was no safety nor comfort in the trenches for any animal. So the aerodromes were where the homeless hounds of France had come, following their noses to where there might be food and friends.
He hadn't much cared for the fleas that the dogs brought, and liked the quiet company of cats, so there were usually a couple lounging about his bunk. He, like so many others, decorated the canvas of his tent or hut with enemy insignia cut from downed planes, and illustrations cut from magazines—
Then there had been the photos. Every flier had them, layered onto the wall. He'd never indulged in the gruesome hobby of snapping dead enemies and posting them on the walls of his quarters, though plenty of the others did, but in a way, his collection was quite as bad, for so many of those in the snaps were dead. Ghost arms circled the shoulders of the living, dead eyes shone at the camera with the same enthusiasm as those who had survived.
Usually there wasn't room for more in his sleeping quarters than bed, kit-bag, a little table and a chair—with perhaps an ammunition crate serving as a bedside stand. The bed would be covered in cats and clothing, the stand would have something to give light, the chair would be draped with two or three jackets or waistcoats.
And on his table, more bits of motors, bills, brandy bottles half-full, whiskey bottles either full or empty, letters, tobacco for his friends, light novels borrowed from those who had finished them, boxes of stomach pills, for every flyer he knew ate them like candy, himself not excepted. How not, when every time you went up you stood a good chance of coming down in pieces? The RFC pitied the FBI, but the FBI called the RFC the "suicide corps" or the "sixty-minute men" because a total of sixty minutes in the air was allegedly the average lifespan of a pilot.
Dirty clothes on the floor, a floor of rough wood full of splinters— the sound of a gramophone bawling somewhere down the row, Harry Tate or sentimental music-hall songs. In the last bivouac, it had been "The Rose of Tralee," over and over; the chap with the gramophone never shut it off. The smell—as distinct as in the trenches but thank God not so—unbearable. Oil, hot metal, glue, paraffin, the French cook conjuring up something—tobacco—brandy.
His unit had a French cook and kept hold of him grimly. Having a Frenchie to do for you meant you could actually eat the food—the sad substitutes for cooks supplied by the British Army took whatever they got, boiled it for three hours, then served it with a white sauce with the look and taste of flour-paste. The Frenchies did you right; a good soup, a little salad, and making the most of whatever they could get from the quartermaster and by scrounging. He suspected horse, many times, but that was preferable to the slimy "bully-beef" which he also suspected to be horse.
He'd always been in places where the commanding officer took as firm a hand as one could over such a collection of misfits as pilots tended to be, so there had always been some semblance of order, at least on the surface. The monkeys were kept on leads, the goats in pens, the trash policed, the meals on time. But even in the English aerodromes, no two pilots were alike. Take an inventory, and you could come up with anything. He'd served with fellows who'd left the seminary to fly, and fellows who he suspected had been (and might still be) whoremongers. With country lads and cockneys. With fellow Oxford and Cambridge men, and men who could barely read. With Canadians and Americans, raised on Wild West shows and inclined to die rather quickly from an overabundance of enthusiasm combined with a lack of skill and an absolute certainty that instinct was better than training. . . .
He propped his cane on the bureau and laid himself down on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. Another mural of sky and clouds.
And I'm up above the ground floor. Too far up for them to find me. They won't come up here—
Relief washed over him. He had thought that coming home to convalesce was the worst thing he could have done. Now he was prepared to admit he might have been wrong.
And for the first time in far too long, he felt his eyelids grow heavy, and he let them close, and drifted into sleep.
Not a true sleep; it was too light for that. A kind of half-conscious doze, for he heard the servants moving about in this wing, going about their duties. Mrs. Dick was very strict with her girls; unless some task was so heavy it needed two, they were to keep to the schedule and stay strictly apart to avoid wasting time on gossip. But evidently, she wasn't so hard on them that they were unhappy; as a counterpart to his dozing he could hear the one working across the hall humming to herself.
Heavier footsteps in the hall; the girl said, "Right there, please," and there was a thud of logs, the rattle of a scuttle. One of the boys must have brought up coal and wood for the fire.
More humming; it was so unlike the sounds in the hospitals or the camps that it felt as if he was in another world entirely.
Well, he was, really. Though it wasn't the world he had left behind. Mind, he hadn't been home on leave for more than a year; instead, he had come over to London, roughly ever other time meeting his mother there instead of coming down to Longacre. It was easier that way; making a round of theater prevented any need to talk. She didn't want to hear about the war, and he didn't want to hear about the nice young ladies she wanted him to meet.
When he'd come over on his own, there had been other entertainment than theater. And his mother, no doubt, would have been shocked to learn that some of those same "nice young ladies" were dispensing their favors with freedom and enthusiasm at the parties given by William Waldorf, Viscount Astor, Lady Anson. Always it was the war, the war, the war, giving a feverish cast to these parties, with everyone grimly determined to have—if not enjoyment, then pure physical pleasure.
Here it seemed as if his mother had dedicated her life and all of her strength to trying to preserve life here at Longacre as it had been before the war. He had noted the last time he was on leave that she assiduously avoided any mention of the war and anything connected to it, and there had been a kind of brittleness about her.
He wondered what would have happened to her if he had died. Would she have dedicated the rest of her life to keeping things absolutely the same, frozen in time, like an Edwardian iteration of Miss Havisham?
He could easily see that. Poor mother.
It was a lost cause, of course. The juggernaut that this war had become had its own momentum. It was devouring everything in its path, and everything it could possibly touch. She didn't have a chance against it.
In the end, nothing and no one did.
He came down to dinner, to discover, to his horror, that he and his mother were not alone in the house. His grandfather on his mother's side was in residence. Unfortunately, the old man considered himself a military expert, having served in a tame regiment in India, that saw no more exciting action than polo games.
He kept a civil tongue in his head all through the rather strained dinner, while the old man held forth on the wisdom of the war Office, the grand strategies of Kitchener, and the superiority of "real army tactics" to the new weaponry of tanks and machine guns and, especially, aeroplanes.
"Damned useless, said it before, and I'll say it again," the old man fulminated, as Reggie shoved bits of rabbit cassoulet around on his plate. "Damned cowards are what's holdin' the victory up! Too damned cowardly to make the charges. One good push, over the top, that'd be all it'd take!"
Reggie closed his eyes, counted to ten, feeling a vein throbbing in his temple. He thought of all the times he'd looked down on the FBI in their "big pushes," how often he had watched them slaughtered by the machine guns. Thought of the men who had become his friends back on the ward, men who had been thrown into a meat-chopper by old fools who could not and would not understand that war had changed, changed in unrecognizable ways, and that the old tactics that had worked once did not work anymore.
He held his temper and his words all through dinner, and after, when what should have been a nice, quiet moment for a smoke in the sunset turned into another occasion for a rant from the old man, who seemed determined to confront him, for some reason. Finally, it was only when his mother retired, that her father came to the real point.
"Now that we're alone, boy," Grandfather said, with a particularly vicious look out of the corner of his eye at Reggie, "I want you to know I don't hold with this 'shellshock' nonsense. A bust-up leg, that's fair. But the other, that's just malingering." The old man gave him a particularly malicious glance. "I've got my eye on you."
Suddenly, a fury that Reggie had not realized he possessed welled up in him, and he actually began to shake. He clenched his fist around the handle of his cane to stop it from trembling, a bitter bile rose up in his throat.
To keep from giving the old man the answer he deserved, he bit down hard and clenched his teeth together. Life was difficult enough for his mother; he was not going to make it harder by having a row with her evil-minded old father.
"You can believe what you like, sir," he got out between his clenched teeth, staring at the old bastard who stood a silhouette, black against the fire in the study. "I cannot hope to change your mind."
"Huh," Grandfather snorted, and turned away. Reggie, still full of fury, limped off out of the study, not really knowing where to go, but only knowing that if he didn't get away from that house and that horrible old man he was going to say or do something that would make his mother unhappy.
He forced himself into a walk around the garden; it might be night, but the layout of the rose garden hadn't changed in two hundred years, and he didn't need light to know his way around.
But after limping around the turfed paths for a half an hour, his temper still hadn't cooled, and he knew he wanted something he could not get in that house.
He limped down to the stables, where horses were sharing their accommodations with his motor cars. There were three of them now, an enclosed model for his mother, his own fast Allard, and a Bentley that he could either drive himself or be chauffeured in. Or rather, he could when the knee healed up. The condition of the knee made shifting problematic for a while.
But down there in the stable were two men with whom he had something in common. A million times more than he shared with that vicious old man who had driven him out of his own house, though they were neither officers nor gentlemen.
The stables had been neatly divided into horse and auto sides, with the autos being housed in the part that had once held the carriages. There was one farm cart there now, one pony trap (perhaps his mother liked to drive herself around) and one small, open carriage. The rest of the space was made into a proper garage, and the glow of a cigarette in the shadows told him that someone was out for a smoke.
"Care for a gasper, milord?" asked Peter Budd.
"Thanks," Reggie replied, taking the metaphorical strides that crossed all the boundaries of rank, class, wealth, and education, to arrive at the side of someone who deserved a hundred times more respect than that horrible old man. "I would."
April 24, 1917
THE BROOM HALL INN WAS where the autumn hunts began, the hounds and horses assembling in the courtyard for the traditional stirrup cup, marking it as a distinctly upper-class establishment. It was certainly of the proper standard for Lady Devlin to meet Alison Robinson and her daughters for tea.
It was a safe way for Lady Devlin to examine these curious women for herself, without incurring any obligations beyond a single meeting. Tea in an inn didn't require a response other than a "thank you, I enjoyed your company," and it didn't imply that invitations to one's house should or could be forthcoming.
Alison knew all of this, and also knew that she had passed the first test by agreeing to this meeting. It was a public place, and while that was an initial advantage, socially, it could prove to be a disaster if the single meeting was all that there was, and the rest of Broom could read the snub for themselves.
This was all part of the social game that the gentry played among themselves, to ferret out the unworthy, the unmannered, the ill-bred.
Alison knew all of the moves of the game by heart, and there was only one question in her mind as she listened to her girls snap waspishly at each other while Howse attended to their hair.
To drive, or not to drive?
The big Crosley auto could fit four, which the Hispano-Suiza would not and the inn was just far enough away that driving would not be terribly gauche. On the other hand, it was within easy walking distance, and these were times in which some self-sacrifice was expected. Decisions, decisions. . . .
It was the shoes that finally decided her; the frocks she had picked out for all three of them required town shoes, not country shoes, and in their high-heeled town shoes the girls were at risk of spraining an ankle. So off they went, rattling and chugging up the street, and when she arrived at the Inn, Alison was glad she had made that decision. Lady Devlin's auto, a magnificent Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, and her chauffeur were already there.
And Lady Devlin waited in a private parlor.
It was not, by any means, the first time that Alison had dined here, and this place and the Broom Pub with the White Swan alternated in supplying some of their meals. But this was not the usual private parlor she took; it was clear from the outset, that this room was not available for just anyone.
Lady Devlin had already ordered tea; it was waiting when they arrived, and she served as the hostess, pouring for all four of them. She was of the kind that Alison thought of as "wispy"—soft, blond hair going to gray, styled in a fashionable chignon, soft, gray-blue linen walking suit, slight figure, doll-pretty face with soft blue eyes.
"Mrs. Robinson," she said, as she poured the tea as a good hostess did, "I understand that you have lived in Broom since just before the war began."
"That is quite true, Lady Devlin," Alison replied, taking the cup and saucer from her hostess, and making sure that their fingers touched as she did so—
Because, while Alderscroft would never have dreamed she would use magic to ensure that she became Lady Devlin's bosom friend, Alison had no scruples whatsoever on the subject. But it would have to be subtle, and work with more mundane methods of influencing Reggie's mother. So what passed between them in that moment, was a spell as wispy, as fragile, as Lady Devlin herself. And, unless you were very, very good, it was exceedingly difficult to detect.
Affinity—we are the same, you and I—
"Then I wonder why I heard nothing of you until now?" Lady Devlin continued, pouring tea now for Carolyn, who accepted her cup with a diffident murmur of thanks.
"Oh, Lady Devlin, I would never have dreamed of pushing myself into your notice!" Alison replied, putting down her teacup and looking at Lady Devlin in consternation. "Truth to tell, I do not know why my cousin Alderscroft elected to do so for me. But Alderscroft is a kind man, and perhaps. . .." She looked away and let the words trail off. The letter to Lady Devlin had stressed how lonely, how hungry for refined company Alison was. But that was not what one would say for one's own self. "One wishes for compatible company, now and again. One does one's best," she murmured, dropping her eyes. "But sometimes, I worry about my daughters. I should think that Broom would feel very confining for a young person."
"Oh, no, Mama, not at all!" Carolyn, looking very pretty in soft lilac, exclaimed. "Why, our days are very full here! We have the parish work, the Red Cross, the Ladies' Friendly Society—now that spring is come, there will be tennis at the country club—we scarcely have time to ourselves, some days!"
Now Alison exchanged a significant look with Lady Devlin. These are all productive things, no doubt, but hardly entertaining for a pretty young girl] And they do not put her into company appropriate to her breeding.
"And of course—the war—" Lauralee's hands fluttered over her cup, the sleeves of her pink gown fluttering gently as well. "There are so many things one can do for the war—"
"Well, when we were your age," Lady Devlin said, with a friendly glance at Alison, "I'm sure we didn't think half as much about parish work and the like. It seems a pity this war has reached so far into our lives."
Alison let the corners of her mouth droop. "All of England seems so sad," she agreed. "And yet, one feels guilty if one does anything the least frivolous, when so many are suffering."
A slight movement of her hands drew subtle attention to her lapel, where she wore her widow's ribbon.
"And your dear husband was one of the first of our sacrifices," said Lady Devlin, with an air of sympathy.
"Mr. Robinson and I were only just married, too," she replied, now putting on a faint look of patient suffering, one she had practiced long in the mirror. "My first husband—the father of my girls—was a fine, fine man, but Robinson was my true love, late though he came to my life, and brief though his stay in it was."
Calculated, slyly calculated, to appeal to the romantic in her. And it worked, sublimely well. Lady Devlin passed her the plate of potted-salmon sandwiches with a sigh of commiseration.
"You poor dear]" she said, with an air of having made up her mind after careful consideration, which Alison did not in the least doubt. "You must come up to tea at Longacre next week, you and your charming daughters. Will Tuesday be reasonable for you?"
"My lady, any day you choose to honor us will be convenient," Alison replied, with eager humility. "We would never wish to be a burden on you, no matter what our cousin has told you."
"Oh, pish-tush," Lady Devlin said, waving her hand. "How could three more ladies be a burden at tea? The vicar and his wife will be there, and Roberta Cygnet and her daughter Leva, and Gina Towner, Miss Elizabeth Tansy—the Devon Tansys, you know, she's visiting with Leva, and Mr. Hartwell—"
Alison placed her fingers over her lips and allowed a smile to appear. "You don't mean William Hartwell, surely? The one who keeps exploding his sheds with his inventions?"
Lady Devlin laughed. "He does seem convinced that he will win the war, does he not? Well, he's a dear, and the worst that will come along with him is a faint aroma of gunpowder—"
There was a light tap at the doorframe, the stocky form of the innkeeper hunched diffidently there. "Is all to your liking, my lady? Is there anything else I can serve you with?"
"No, Mr. Caffrey, thank you," Lady Devlin sighed. "You've done a remarkable job under the trying circumstances that surround us. Thank you."
"Very well, my lady." The innkeeper bowed himself out, leaving them alone once more.
"Will your son come to tea, Lady Devlin?" Carolyn asked, ingenuously. "I had heard that he was home at last. I have always wanted to meet an aeroplane pilot! It must be so thrilling to be able to fly!"
But to both girls' vast disappointment, she shook her head. "I'm afraid not, dear," she said, in a kindly tone. "Company is a trial for him right now. But that's all right; sometime soon you'll be sure to meet him."
I hope to hell I don't meet Mother or any of her kittenish friends, Reggie thought, as he drove the auto at a snail's pace down into the village. Every bounce and rut made his knee sing with pain. This was not a bad thing, in some ways; when he was in physical pain, he could ignore the emotional turmoil within him. Grandfather had been up to his old tricks this morning, hovering just on the edge of his vision and glowering, every so often mouthing the word, "Malingerer." He'd taken refuge in the garage to overhaul the Vauxhall Prince Henry he'd bought just before the war.
That was when Budd had made the current suggestion, and he couldn't have leapt upon it faster if he'd had both good legs back.
He had Budd along with him, just in case his knee gave out and he couldn't wrestle the old bus any further along, but he was looking forward to the day when he could go out on his own. On his own—because then, he could open her up and let tear, and if he went smash, he'd hurt no one but himself.
And if I go smash, no one's to know how much of an accident it is . . . or isn't. Once he had fought death off like a tiger. That had been before every day was a battle, and every night a little war, and he could feel his sanity slipping through his fingers like water. Maybe death was just the door into another life. At the moment, he didn't believe it. He didn't believe in a higher power, either. What higher power would ever let the slaughter across the Channel go on and on and on as it had? Unless that higher power were stark raving mad.
So the big thing would be to do yourself in a way that was fast, and hopefully painless. A good smash into a solid oak tree at the Prince Henry's top end would do that.
But that wouldn't be today. Today, Budd had tendered that rather awkward and shy invitation to—a pub.
"Not just any pub, milord," he'd hastily said. "Used to be the workingman's pub, afore the war, so they say. Now—" He'd shrugged. "Not many workingmen in Broom. Them of us got mustered out, took it over, more or less."
He'd captured Reggie's dull attention with that. The only men that were "mustered out" these days were those who were too maimed to go back into the lines.
"Really?" he'd said, looking up at Budd over the Prince Henry's bonnet. "Tell me more."
"Not much to tell," Budd had replied. "Just—we didn't feel none too comfortable around—people who weren't there, d'ye see?"
"I do see, believe me, I do." He had tried to give Budd that look. "So, no one else ever comes in?"
"Mostly not, and they mostly goes back out again pretty quick." Budd had sighed, and stared glumly down at the carburetor. "Not a cheery lot, are we. Don't go in for darts, much. Skittles, right out. Tend to swap stories as make th' old reg'lars get the collie-wobbles and look for the door. Now, we're a rough lot. And old Mad Ross the socialist is one of us. But I wondered, milord, if you might find a pint there go down a bit easier than a brandy—" and he had jerked his head up at the house.
"I have no doubt of that," he'd said savagely, giving his wrench a hard crank. "And I'd be obliged if you'd be my introduction."
So that was how he found himself now on dusty High Street holding his fast auto to a chugging crawl she did not in the least like, while curious urchins came out to watch him pass.
Now, he had not, as a rule, held himself aloof from Broom in the old days. He wasn't at all averse to a pint or a meal at Broom Hall Inn. He tried to make some sort of a point of knowing a bit about his villagers, and he'd had a good memory for names and faces. And it was a shock, a real shock, to see what was going on now.
There was a woman delivering the mail. He thought it might be Aurora Cook. The postman had been Howard Sydneyson—the postmaster had been Thomas Price—
Who were both something like thirty. . . . Gone, of course, by now. Conscripted. Neither job came under the heading of "vital to the needs of the nation."
David Toback had been the constable—another shock came when Reggie saw poor old sixty-year-old Thomas Lament making the rounds in his stead. What would he do to a miscreant? Talk them to death? It was a good thing that most of the troublemakers were gone too—also conscripted, or else told by the judge it was the infantry or jail.
Carlton McKenney's blacksmith shop was closed; there were no sons to take his place at the forge, and blacksmithing was no job for a daughter. . . .
Thank heaven for a moment of normality—Stephen Kirby's apothecary shop was still open with Kirby in it—but then, the poor man was the next thing to blind, and his wife Morgan had to read out all of the doctor's prescriptions to him. Not good on the front line.
The saddlery was closed. Reggie bit his lip, remembering that one of the last things he had done before going off to the RFC Flying College at Oxford was to take his hunting saddle down there for repairs.
He finally stopped glancing to the side; there always seemed to be more bad news than there was good. Finally Budd directed him to park next to a whitewashed, two-story building he wouldn't have known was a pub except for the sign "The Broom" over the door.
"Here we are, milord," Budd said, getting out. "Now, don't you mind Mad Ross. He'll probably be on you the minute you're inside."
Reggie raised an eyebrow. "If I can't manage Ross Ashley, I'm in worse condition than I thought," he said wryly.
Budd held open the door for him, and the two of them entered, Reggie going first, his cane thudding on the dark wooden floor like a third foot.
It was dark inside, with a low, beamed ceiling, and plastered walls that hadn't been painted in some time and had turned the color of perfect toast. The usual pub furniture. Big inglenook fireplace at one end. Nothing roasting on it though; whole pigs were hard to come by these days. Just a little bit of a fire to keep the chill off.
All eyes were on them as they stepped up to the bar.
"This'll be—" Budd began "Reggie Fenyx," Reggie said gently. He held out his hand to the barman, who took it gingerly.
"Thomas Brennan, sir," the man said. "What'll it be, gents?"
"Bitter," said Reggie, and "Stout," said Budd. They took their drinks, both in good pint glasses, solid and substantial.
"That'll be my round, then," said Reggie, loud enough for the rest of the pub to hear, and cast a look around to make sure that everyone did hear him. Then he left a pound note casually on the bar. "And one for yourself," he added to Brennan. "Let me know when that runs out."
"Thenkee, sir." The barman made the pound note vanish.
There wasn't a rush for the bar, more of an orderly shuffle. Everyone seemed to know his place in the pecking order, and no one was in such a tearing hurry as to care to dare to jump the queue. Budd and Reggie took a little table at the back of the place to wait for people to come to them.
And predictably, the first was Ross Ashley, stumping over to them with determination on his face and a pint in one hand.
And before he could say a word, Reggie beat him to it. "Take a chair, Ross," he said mildly. "Don't stand there and sing The Red Flag at me, you couldn't carry a tune to save your soul, and I already know all the words."
Budd kicked a chair over to Ashley, who, all the wind knocked out of his sails, took it.
"Now, old man, if you're more of the 'share the wealth' sort of socialist and not the 'murder the oppressors in their beds,' sort, I think we can talk," said Reggie, as the rest of the pub denizens pretended to be very interested in their beers, while their ears were stretched to the furthest extent. "If you persuade me of a few things, you're a good enough speaker, and you aren't too mad, I might be persuaded to help you stand for Parliament. But you'd better be able to make a good speech and prepared to live up to what you promise in it."
Now Ross's mouth was opening and closing like a stranded fish's. Reggie was quite enjoying himself at this point—a sardonic sort of enjoyment, but more amusement than he'd had since the day Emily Welsh, his nurse in the hospital, had tipped a matchbox with a live spider in it into a particularly abusive doctor's pocket, and when the man had gone to light his cigar—
Served him right, too; acting as if the VADs were his personal slaveys.
Now, he wasn't going to do anything malicious to Ross, who he recalled as being passionate, but not particularly obnoxious. The man probably resented having one of the gentry, the oppressive ruling class invading his pub, and Reggie didn't blame him.
But he was tired of class separation. He was tired of officer and enlisted. He was tired of RFC and FBI. And he was tired to death of the boundaries between men that the war should have broken down and smashed to bits by now. He would have to take his father's seat in the House of Lords eventually—if he didn't do himself first—but he damned well would like to see a man in Commons for this district that had some ideas that weren't spawned in the seventeenth century.
Finally Ross managed to say something. "You'll not be bribing me, Reginald Fenyx," he growled. "You'll not be paying me off with the promise of a seat!"
"Of course I won't; I don't intend to." Reggie took a pull on his pint and sighed. He was very glad that Budd had brought him here. If nothing else, Brennan could brew. "And it's not a promise of a seat, it's a promise of support. You'll have to win the seat yourself; if you can't persuade people to vote for you, too bad. I want a fellow from here who'll argue for the people, even if it's against me. Better butting heads in Parliament than storming the walls of Longacre."
Ashley regarded him with a remnant of suspicion for a moment. "And I can say what I like?"
"I wouldn't begin to try to stop you," Reggie said sincerely. "Just remember you aren't recruiting for the socialists if you do go out there for a seat. You'll be stumping for votes. That's two different things. About as different as FBI and the sixty-minute men."
Once again, Ross sat there opening and closing his mouth a few times before stopping it by taking a pull of his pint.
"You are the damndest fellow I ever did see," he said, coming up out of the glass at last.
Reggie looked around, at the scarred faces, the missing limbs, the haunted looks. "I think we're all damned, Ross," he said quietly. "I think this is hell's own waiting-room. And I think we might as well make good company for each other while we're still here."
With Alison and the girls out of the house for a little, Eleanor hastily painted the glyph on the hearthstone with her sprig of rosemary (which worked better than the wand, actually), cracked it in half, and slipped out the back door and the back gate.
What she wanted, was a newspaper and gossip, in that order.
It never failed to amaze her, every time that she slipped out, how no one ever recognized her, not even the people she knew well. Their eyes just slipped past her, almost as if they actually could not see her. If something happened, such as physically bumping into someone, the person in question would look down at her in puzzlement or irritation, as if they could not imagine where she had sprung from, and depending on their natures, pass on with a vague smile or an annoyed frown without saying a word.
Then again, as a scullery maid, she didn't warrant a second glance, much less an apology.
I swear, if this is ever over, I will hunt down Ross Ashley and become a socialist. . . .
The newspaper could be found on the top of Morgan Kirby's dustbin, neatly folded. An old one, of course, but old was better than none. The gossip could be heard by creeping under the window of Nancy Barber's hairdressing establishment and listening there. Her husband had been the eponymous barber of the village, but he was gone, and Nancy had children to feed, so the barber-shop became a ladies' hairdressing salon where esoteric creations like marcel waves were produced, the very daring (or very young) had their hair bobbed, and the gossip flowed. . . .
Eleanor crept into place beneath the window just in time to catch the tail end of a sentence.
"—oh definitely back! Colonel Davies, the stationmaster, saw him when he got off the train, and his people sent a car down for him from Longacre."
Longacre! Well either they were talking about a guest or Reggie Fenyx was back from the war.
"Well, how did he look?" someone asked.
"The Colonel said none too healthy," replied the first speaker, sounding uncertain. "Though what he meant by that, I can't say."
"It could be anything," a third woman said, with resignation. "Men have no notion."
"Well, he was wounded. I should think he has every right to look unhealthy," said the first. "What's more interesting to me is that his mother, Lady Devlin, is having tea right this minute with Alison Robinson and her two girls."
"No!" "What?" "Really?" The replies came quickly, too quickly for the speaker to answer.
And now I understand why she was in such a pother over going to tea. It's not just that it's Lady Devlin and nobby society. It's Reggie. Unmarried Reggie.
"And her with two pretty daughters too. Hmm," said the owner of the third voice thoughtfully. "Well, we know where the wind blows there."
"Social climber," said the second with contempt. "So Broom society isn't good enough for milady Robinson—"
"Be fair! She never said anything about being gentry]" said the first. "Some nob relative of hers sent Lady Devlin a letter about her."
"At least now she'll stop her girls angling for every lad with a bit in his pocket here," said the second. "Not that they're so many on the ground anymore, but still."
"With your Tamara about?" giggled the third. "Those chits didn't have a chance. Oh, I wish you'd seen them at the Christmas party, swanning about in their fashionable London frocks, and in comes Tamara in her two-year-old velvet from Glennis White, and there go all the officers! Oh, their faces were a sight!"
"Fine feathers aren't everything," the mother of the village beauty, Tamara Budd, said complacently. "Nor, when it comes to it, is a pretty face, if there's a mean, nasty heart behind it."
Eleanor didn't have to hide a smirk, since there was no one to see her. If there was a single soul in all of the village that her stepsisters hated, truly hated, it was Tamara Budd. She had been pretty when Eleanor had been locked within the walls of the house. Now, evidently, she had blossomed into true beauty, for any time some entertainment was on offer, be it a tea-dance for soldiers or a gathering at some house or at the Broom Hall Inn, according to the girls, it was Tamara who was the center of male attention.
There was no doubt that the stepsisters would have killed or disfigured her if they could. Eleanor could tell that from the vicious things they said, the way they stabbed their cigarettes in the air, the mere tone that their voices took when they spoke about her.
For her part, she might have been alarmed that they would succeed in doing Tamara harm, except that she also heard them complaining that something protected their rival from any charms or cantrips they attempted to cast. She had a good idea that it might be Sarah who was responsible, but you never knew.
She listened a while longer, but it was clear enough that there was nothing more to hear, and it would not be long before Alison and girls returned from their tea with Lady Devlin.
She crept out of hiding, and hurried back to the kitchen with her purloined newspaper hidden in the folds of her skirt. From there it went underneath the pile of logs for the stove and the kitchen fire; there wasn't a chance that either of the girls nor Alison would move a single one of those logs. Now that she had gotten outside—and discovered what shocking changes had happened to the world that she had known—she was afire to find out how much more had been happening.
Not that any of it had been good. She had read with horror of ships being torpedoed by German submarines and sent to the bottom with most of their human cargo—even hospital ships! Bombs had actually been dropped on parts of London and the eastern coast by both zeppelins and huge aeroplanes and several hundred perfectly innocent people had been blown to bits. As for the war itself, her head reeled to think about it, and she knew she was getting no more than the barest, most sanitized idea of what was going on from the papers. How could something be a "glorious victory" when all it got you was possession of a long trench a hundred yards east of where you had been when an assault started—a trench you had occupied several times already, only to have been driven out of it by the Germans—who doubtless also crowed about their "glorious victory."
She couldn't help but wonder, was this how her father had died? No one had ever told her the details. All that she had ever known was that he was dead. She had nightmares about it sometimes; that he was blown to pieces by a shell, that he was killed in a charge, that he was shot by a sniper. That he died instantly, or that he had lain in agony for hours, while his fellow soldiers watched, unable to help him. It was horrible; she woke from those dreams sobbing, and only seeking solace from the little Salamanders in her fire helped.
She sighed, and went to work on dinner preparations. The girls were going to get chicken stew and dumplings, and like it, for it was the only way to stretch the poor, thin chicken that had come by way of the butcher shop today.
So, Reggie Fenyx was home again—and looking ill, and had been wounded. She could not imagine the energetic young man, boiling over with enthusiasm that she had known, as being ill or hurt. Such a thing never seemed possible.
But she couldn't imagine him in a uniform, either.
She couldn't think of him as shooting people, and killing them; he had always seemed so gentle in his way.
As she chopped vegetables, she reflected that now she knew why Alison was so afire over the invitation to tea with Lady Devlin—so much so, that the girls had left frocks spread all over their rooms for her to pick up, trying on this one and that one until Alison was satisfied with their appearance. It all made perfect sense. Alison wanted to get invitations up to Longacre Park so that the girls would have an unrestricted chance to snare Reggie.
She chopped savagely at the old, withered carrots. Miserable creatures! They would do nothing other than make poor Reggie unhappy! Here he was coming home in a weakened state, and they were going to descend on him like vultures to nibble on the carcass—
But wait a moment; hadn't Sarah said that the Fenyx family were Elemental Masters?
Eleanor felt her shoulders unknot. Of course. Reggie was an Air Master; Alison's girls would have no more chance of bewitching him than of taking one of his aeroplanes up by themselves.
But that opened up another thought. If Reggie was an Air Master, wouldn't he be able to see the magic spells on her? And even if he couldn't do anything about them himself, couldn't he tell someone who could?
Her heart fluttered in her throat at the very idea—
Don't get your hopes up, she scolded herself severely. First you have to get out of here. Then you have to be somewhere that he is. And last, he has to be willing to help you.
Still, the mere chance of a hope was more than she'd had in a long time.
I can at least make plans.
April 23, 1917
"SO THE BLOODY YANKS FINALLY decided to give us a hand, then." That was Matt Brennan, the barman's brother. Poor Matt had lost a leg and his arm had been terribly mangled, and half the time seemed to have lost his speech as well. Brother Thomas kept him on as potman, collecting the glasses, doing a bit of sweeping up, and let him sleep somewhere on the premises once the place was closed. It wasn't much, but it was work.
The news had finally percolated to Broom that the United States had actually joined the war that the rest of the world had been fighting for the past three years, and it was likely to be the sole topic of conversation here in this pub for the rest of the week. Everyone who came in started it over again.
"What d'ye think of them Yanks, captain?" Ross Ashley asked. "Never caught sight of one myself."
"Well," Reggie said, measuring his words carefully. "We got quite a few Yanks in the RFC, boys that wouldn't sit still and watch while someone else was having a fight. I heard the French picked up a few, especially in the Foreign Legion."
"So they got the gumption to stick it, ye think?" asked Will Stevens, who had been a good yeoman farmer before the war began, and was again, just without three fingers on his right hand.
Reggie shrugged. "Hard to tell, really. The ones I saw all seemed to think of themselves as being in some sort of Wild West show. Talked about 'flying by the seat of the pants, didn't pay a lot of attention to instruction, and tended to be 'thirty-minute men' if that. Though when they were good enough to survive, they were quite good. I don't know what their infantry will be like."
Young Albert Norman (chest wound, lost a lung) coughed and cleared his throat. Mind, he coughed a great deal, but this was the sort of cough he used when about to say something.
"There are a great many of them," he said carefully. "It's a bigger country than Canada. And I shouldn't think it would be too terribly difficult for them to turn all those factories to making armaments."
Reggie nodded. Albeit was well read; Reggie didn't doubt in the least that he had the right of it.
"So," Doug Baird (shrapnel to the legs) said bitterly. "We'll have fought the Kaiser to a standstill for three bloody years, and the Yanks will just come in with convoys of fresh troops and all the damned supplies you could ask for, roll over the trenches, and take credit for the whole thing, then?"
Reggie sighed. To be brutally honest, he didn't see it turning out any other way. But he decided not to say anything. These men were bitter enough without his adding to their discontent—or despair.
"At least it will be over," Richard Bowen said, with resignation. "That's all I care about. Just let it be over."
Thomas Brennan cleared his throat. "Last call, gentlemen." "My round again," Reggie said decisively.
He did a lot of round-buying—not so much as to make it seem as if he was patronizing them, but because he knew very well that there was not a lot of money to spare in their households, and it seemed a hard thing to him to have a man leave bits of himself in France in the service of his country only to find he couldn't afford his pint when he came home again. A hard thing, and a wicked, cruel thing; there wasn't a lot of pleasure left in the world for these men.
Those that had gone back to their work—farmers, mostly—were finding it difficult. Those who hadn't lost limbs outright still had injuries bad enough to muster them out. Legs didn't work right anymore, arms didn't have the same strength. They found themselves depending on their wives or children to help them with difficult physical jobs, and that was humiliating. Often the young horses they'd depended on to help with plowing had been taken for the war, leaving only the old fellows who should have been taking up pasture-space. They found themselves with a house full of Land Girls, who might or might not be of any use. Nothing was the same, everything was more difficult, and what had they gotten out of it all? Nothing to speak of. The best, the very best that they could say was that because they were at the production end of the food supply it was easier for them to hide a bit from the government and circumvent some of the shortages. If you were a farmer, you could still have your sweets, if you made do with honey instead of sugar, and though sugar was rationed for tea, it was, oddly enough, not rationed for jam-making—you could hide a pig in your wood-lot, or raise rabbits openly, since rabbit-meat wasn't in short supply. When you brought your wheat to David Miller, he'd generally "forget" about a few of the bags of white flour he loaded back on your cart. And if you had a cow of your own, your kiddies weren't forced to drink that thin, blue skimmed milk that made the city children so thin and pale-looking.
But that was the best you could say. For the rest, between rationing and scarcity, the prices were up, and what you got for your produce was the same as it had been before the war, just about. Someone was making a profit, but it wasn't you.
And if you didn't own or lease a farm—well, things were very hard indeed. Sometimes you couldn't do your old job, and it was hard to find a new one. Especially around here.
So if Reggie could help out a little by buying more than his share of rounds, it seemed a small thing.
Mater wouldn't like it by half if she knew where I was going of a night. Hanging about with socialists. . . . But what she doesn't know, she can't object to. I'm more welcome here than there. Her father had gotten so poisonously aggressive in his accusations of malingering of late that even she had started to protest weakly. Never mind that there were days Reggie couldn't leave his room, days when he locked the door and spent half the day crouched in a corner like a terrified mouse, too afraid to so much as move. "Acting" was what Grandfather Sutton would have called it. Oh, yes, acting. As if he enjoyed spending his time huddled behind the furniture too afraid to make a sound, and completely unable to say what it was he was afraid of, only knowing that the bottom was out of the universe and doom was upon him.
But there was a letter in Reggie's pocket right now that might well prove to be the old man's undoing.
The address on the envelope said it all: Brigadier Eric Mann (Ret.) The Elms, Dorcester.
The Brigadier had been a great friend of Reggie's father—he had more experience in a single month with actual combat than Grandfather Sutton had in his entire career. His letter had been phrased with great delicacy, but Reggie had no difficulty whatsoever in interpreting it. The Brigadier had heard about Reggie's injuries, he actually knew what life was like on the front, and he wanted to come visit and offer whatever support he could.
And although in general the very last thing that Reggie wanted at the moment was a parade of visitors through Longacre, this was one letter he had answered as soon as he had read it, in the affirmative. The Brigadier did know what life was like on the front. He had been there. How? Reggie had no idea how he had managed to get out there—but the little he'd read in the letter told him that Eric Mann knew what conditions were really like. The Brigadier would not tolerate any nonsense from Grandfather Sutton. With any luck, once they butted heads a time or two, Sutton would elect to clear out and go back to his club in London and leave Reggie in peace. At the very least, he would keep his mouth shut as long as the Brigadier was there.
Reggie could hardly wait.
"Time, gentlemen!" Thomas called, recalling him to his present surroundings.
There was little more than a half inch of bitter in his glass; he swallowed it down with appreciation, left a little something under the glass for Matt to find, stood up, and pulled on his driving coat. That was one good thing about having an auto over a horse; he didn't have to worry about leaving a horse standing tied up for hours.
On the other hand, the auto won't get you home by itself if you're drunk. . . .
He made his farewells and went out into the night; he really couldn't bear watching the others make their way home. It was just too heartbreaking. If a man staggered away from his favorite pub of an evening, it should be because he'd had just a wee bit too much, not because his legs were too painful to hold him.
Nor because one leg was gone, and he wasn't used to walking on the wooden one.
Instead, he paid excruciatingly careful attention to getting the auto started; by the time he'd done, they were all gone. He climbed stiffly into the driver's seat, and chugged away.
"Well! There goes that Reggie Fenyx again," Sarah said, as the unfamiliar sound of an automobile engine chugged past the front of her cottage.
Eleanor looked up from the runes of warding that she had been learning. "How do you know?"
Sarah snorted. "And who else is it that would be leaving Thomas Brennan's pub after last call in a motorcar?" she asked rhetorically. "Doctor Sutherland's choice is the public bar at the Broom Hall Inn when he goes anywhere, Steven Zachary hasn't got a motor of his own yet, the vicar doesn't drink in public, so there you are! Besides, I happen to know the lads that have all been mustered out have taken the place over since Matt came home, and I expect he feels more at ease there among them than anywhere else."
Eleanor looked down at the little firepot she was using. "It's horrible, isn't it." It was a statement, not a question. "It's horrible, and they can't talk to anyone else about it."
"Well, they could," Sarah replied, somewhat to Eleanor's surprise. "They could talk to their wives, their sweethearts, their mothers. We're stronger than they think. They keep thinking they have to protect us from whatever it is that they went through, so there they are, suffering behind closed mouths, building walls to protect us, they say, but it's all so we won't see they're weak." She shook her head. "As if we don't. But there it is. Silly, isn't it? That they daren't let us see them as less than strong?"
Eleanor looked up and lifted an eyebrow. "I think I see why you never married, Sarah," she replied, with irony.
Sarah laughed. "Well, and I reckoned if I wanted something that'd come and go as he pleased, take me for granted, and ignore me when he chose, I'd get a cat. And if I wanted something I'd always have to be picking up after, getting into trouble, but slavishly devoted, I'd get a dog."
Eleanor shook her head and went back to her firepot, which was a little cast-iron pot on three legs, full of coals over which flames danced bluely. She was learning to write runes in the fire, which was the first step to making it answer her. A Salamander was coiled in the bottom of the pot just above the coals; it watched her with interest, and hissed a warning when she was just starting to go wrong.
Her moment of inattention made it hiss again, and Sarah paused to look down at it. "They're not supposed to do that, you know," she said, in surprise. "Warn you, that is. It's almost like it's trying to help you."
"I think it is," Eleanor said, canceling the rune with a wave of her wand, and holding out her hand to the pot. The salamander uncoiled itself and leapt out of the pot, circled her wrists like ferret three or four times, then leapt back into the pot.
Sarah shook her head. "They're not supposed to do that. I'd not have believed it if I'd been told. There's summat about you they like." "I hope so," she replied.
"Aye, well, they're not so changeable as air and water, though be wary you don't go angering them," Sarah warned. "They're quick to anger, and they ne'er forget, nor forgive."
Eleanor nodded, and bent back to her work. But part of her mind was on Reggie, wondering if Carolyn and Lauralee had been introduced to him, yet, if they'd started trying to charm him yet. It made her angry, that thought, and—yes—jealous. Which made no sense at all. He probably didn't even remember her, and if he did, it was as nothing more than a hoydenish tomboy, a silly little girl with a wild notion of becoming a scholar. He probably wouldn't remember her even if someone reminded him of her.
And as for now, he wouldn't look at her twice. She certainly was so far beneath his notice that if they passed on the same side of the street he wouldn't even see her, not really.
Stop thinking about Reggie! she scolded herself. Get your mind on your work. Because if you can't learn this soon, Alison and her girls will have him, and then where will you be?
"Don't bother fixing anything for tea, Ellie," Alison called through the open kitchen door. "We're having it at Longacre. In fact—" Eleanor could not help but hear the gloating sound in her voice "we'll be having our tea at Longacre for the foreseeable future."
"Yes, ma'am," Eleanor said dutifully, but her heard leapt. Tea at Longacre Park? And for the foreseeable future? That would mean she would be able to get away for the whole afternoon.
Of course, Alison would see it as another privation—if she wasn't permitted to get out tea-things for her stepmother and the girls, she wouldn't be able to make any tea for herself. Which meant that she would have to wait until suppertime for a meal.
Or so Alison thought. Well, that's what I want her to think. So Eleanor contrived to look disappointed and hungry, though she was neither. She could hardly contain her excitement as Alison and her girls bundled up into the motor and chugged off in the direction of Longacre Park. And the moment she was sure they weren't going to return, she wrote her runes on the hearthstone and was off like a shot.
The sky was bright and blue, the wind high, and she only had a few hours—but she knew where she wanted to be. Down at the opposite end of the six thousand or so acres of Longacre, in the round meadow in a little copse of trees at the end of what she still thought of as the Aeroplane Field. No one would see her there, no one ever went there; she was half mad to get out of the house for some sun and air. And this was the farthest Alison's spell would let her go.
She wrapped up a couple of slices of bread and jam for her own tea, broke her sprig of rosemary and left half on the hearthstone, flung on a coat and ran out the door.
She wasn't even entirely sure what she was running from. Maybe it was—well—everything. Her own imprisonment. The war news. Alison's glee and the girls' gloating. And fear, fear, so much fear—now she knew she had a chance to set herself free, and she was afraid. Afraid she would never learn all she needed to, afraid that she would never be able to command her Element as skillfully as Alison could and would lose, and her imprisonment would be even harsher than it was now. Afraid that ever if she did escape, no one would believe what she had to tell them, and she would accomplish nothing, or worse than nothing—that she'd be locked up as mad, or given back over to Alison, or else would have to turn drudge for someone else in order to put food in her stomach and a roof over her head. In a way, things were worse than before; before she'd had no hope and so nothing to lose. Now—now she had hope and all to lose.
So she ran, hoping to outrun her own fear and uncertainty. Hoping to outrun the bleak air of depression that hung over the entire town. Hoping to get to one place where none of this mattered, where she could just be for a few hours, and pretend that there was no war, there was no Alison, that the days of peace and plenty were still upon them all, and that when she came back to the house her father would still be alive and waiting to share supper with her.
She pushed herself so hard, trying to outrun her very thoughts, that she arrived at the meadow winded and out of breath, and flung herself down in the middle of the clear space among the trees to lie on her back in the old, dry grass and look up at the clouds and pant.
And it was glorious, because she could just empty her mind and not think, not about anything or anyone, and just stare up into the blue and watch nothing.
She could, in fact, have lain there forever, with the warm sun shining down on her. At that moment, cutting free of Alison and just going, finding someone else to work for, didn't seem so bad an idea—
If she did this to me, and to Papa, what would she do to Reggie?
The question struck her like a thunderbolt out of the blue sky, but at that moment she knew that if either Carolyn or Lauralee married Reggie Fenyx, no matter how strong his Air Magic was, he would remain alive no longer than her father had.
She sat bolt upright at the thought—
—and a yelp of strangled fear met her sudden appearance out of the grass.
She twisted around onto her knees to face the sound, and found herself staring into the white face of Reggie Fenyx.
He was sitting on a fallen tree-trunk at the edge of the tiny meadow, quite alone, and clearly her sudden appearance had frightened the wits out of him. As he stared at her with wild, wide eyes, all she could think of to do was to hold out her hand and say, soothingly, "I'm sorry—I beg your pardon—I'm really very sorry—"
He trembled as he stared at her, as if he didn't quite recognize her for what she was. And then, quite suddenly, she saw sense come into his gaze, and of course, he did recognize her, and passed a hand over his pale face. "No—no—" he said, finally. "No, it's quite all right. It's just my nerves. I wasn't expecting anyone—that is, I thought I was alone; no one ever used to come down to this part of Longacre but me."
"Well," she said, slowly getting to her feet, brushing down her threadbare skirt with one hand, and wondering hesitantly if she should leave. "That isn't quite true. But most of the people who used to come here are gone."
"Gone. That would be—the boys, wouldn't it?" His hand was still over his eyes, and still trembling. "Yes. Not boys any longer, though, and they would be gone, wouldn't they? Even the youngest." With an effort, he took his hand away from his eyes and looked at her again. She was horribly ashamed of how shabby she was, but he didn't notice, or at least, if he did, he wasn't letting on. He squinted at her, and then managed a tremulous smile. "You're that little tomboy, Eleanor Robinson from the village, aren't you? Only not such a little tomboy anymore." The smile faded. "I heard about your father. I'm dreadfully sorry."
She looked down at her hands, clasped together in front of her. "Thank you," she said quietly. Then she looked back up again. She kept her frown to herself, but—
But wasn't he supposed to be an Air Master? Yet there were none of the energies, none of the Elementals of Air anywhere about him! Why, he showed no more of magic than—than the schoolmaster, Michael Stone! Less!
Surely that wasn't right.
"So, do you come and invade my private property often?" he was asking, trying to sound normal, trying to make an ordinary conversation of the sort he could so easily back before the war began.
And now she found herself fighting against the prohibitions of Alison's other spells. She would have liked to say, "When I can escape my stepmother's spell—" or "When no one is going to catch me and make my life a purgatory—"
But all she could say was, "When I can." Then she sighed. "It's so peaceful here, and sometimes I can't bear how things are now. Here, nothing's changed. It's all the way it was—before. The meadow probably hasn't changed in a hundred years."
"That's a good answer, Eleanor Robinson," he replied. "That's a very good answer, and I give you leave to come here whenever you want. It's the reason I came down here—well, I tell a lie, it's one of the reasons." He smiled wanly. "My teatime has been unconscionably invaded, and I came to escape the enemy."
She furrowed her brow in puzzlement, and stepped forward a pace or two. "Enemy?" she asked uncertainly.
"Women," he elaborated. "A gaggle of women. Invited by my mother, with malice and intent. Those that weren't there on their own to simper and flirt at me, were mothers eyeing the goods before they set their own daughters on the scent." He shuddered. "I felt like the only fox in the county with three hunts in the field at once."
She couldn't help it; she had to laugh at that. Especially considering that Alison and the girls must have been in that group he so openly despised.
And they thought they were the only ones with an invitation to tea! That was more than enough to make her smile. Oh, they would be so angry when they came home! They hadn't reckoned on there being competition. They should have, though. Reggie would have been quite a prize before the war, and now, with so many young men dead in France and Flanders, he was an even greater prize.
And the best part was that they would be blaming one another. Alison would be blaming the girls for not being sufficiently charming to keep Reggie there, and the girls would be blaming their mother for not knowing this was going to be a competition staged by Reggie's mother, inadvertently or on purpose. There was not a single thing that any of them could blame on her, so they would make poisonous jibes at each other, or stare sullenly, all through dinner.
And meanwhile, here he was, the object of their hunt, hiding from them.
"I'll go if you want to be alone," she offered. It only seemed fair. He'd come here to be alone, hadn't he? "I just—I just wanted to go somewhere today where I could pretend that—all that—hadn't happened. At least for a while."
"I wanted the same thing," he said, and somehow, the wistful, yet completely hopeless way in which he said it, made her heart ache for him. "And—no, Miss Robison—" "Eleanor," she said, instantly.
He smiled a little. "Then if I am to call you Eleanor, you must promise to call me Reggie. No, please don't go. I'm not much company, but I don't want to think I've driven you away from the only peaceful place you can find."
He patted the tree-trunk beside him in a kind of half-hearted invitation to sit; instead, she sat down in the grass at his feet.
He looked a great deal different from the last time she had seen him, and it wasn't just the little moustache or the close-cropped military haircut. He was very pale, and every movement had a nervous quality to it, like one of those high-bred miniature greyhounds that never seems entirely sure something isn't going to step on it or snatch it up and bite it in two. He was also very thin, much thinner than she remembered him being.
And his eyes, his gray-blue eyes, were the saddest things about him. "Haunted" was the very expression she would have used, had anyone asked her. These were eyes that had seen too much, too much loss, too much horror.
She felt tongue-tied, at a loss for anything to say to him, and it was clear that he felt the same. Finally, she said, in desperation, knowing that the topic of an automobile was at least safe, "I heard your motorcar go past the other night. Is it a very fast one?"
With relief, he seized the neutral subject as a drowning man seizes a plank, and went into exacting, excruciating detail about the auto. She had to admit, although she didn't care a jot about the insides of the thing, the other things he could tell her about the auto itself were fascinating. Evidently its type had won many races, and there was no doubt that he was as proud of it as he had been of his aeroplane.
And something instinctively warned her about not talking about flying, though she couldn't have told what. Perhaps it was the vague recollection of hearing his wounds had come when he had crashed. Perhaps it was because he himself didn't bring the subject up, and before he had gone off to the war, that had been the one thing in his life he had been the most passionate about.
When he ran out of things to tell her about his motorcar, she asked about what he had read for at Oxford, and what his friends had been like. He relaxed, more and more, as he spoke of these things, and she thought she just might be doing him some good. Finally, when he looked as if he was searching a little too hard for another good story, she smiled, and asked, "I have some bread and jam. Would you like to share my tea?"
And at that, he laughed weakly, and quoted, " 'Better a dinner of herbs where love is?' Yes, thank you, I should very much like to share your tea. And—" He reached down behind the trunk of the tree and brought up an old rucksack, rummaging around in it for a moment. "Well, yes, good, my old instincts have not failed me; as I fled the harpies, I carried off provender. I can provide drink. I have two bottles of ginger-beer."
With great solemnity he opened the bottles and handed her one; she passed over half of her slightly squashed jam sandwiches.
"I think it was very rude of your mother not to have warned you that guests were coming," she said bluntly, after they clinked bottles. "Especially so many. That was not at all fair."
"Yes, well, if she'd told me I'd have done the bunk beforehand, now, wouldn't I?" he replied logically. "I suppose now I'll have to find some excuse to avoid teatime every day from now on—"
"Oh, don't do that—she'll just invite them to supper or something equally inconvenient]" Eleanor exclaimed. "No, the thing to do—" she screwed up her face as she thought hard. "The thing to do is to sit through it once in a while. Every other day, or every third day, or the like. Only have something, some appointment or task later in the afternoon that you have to do so you can excuse yourself after an hour or two. That way your mother won't ever know when, exactly, you're going to take tea with her, and you will have a good escape ready."
"By Jove, Eleanor, I think that will work! And I know my estate manager will be only too ruddy pleased to have me in the office as often as possible, so I can make that my excuse." He actually looked— happy. Wanly happy, but definitely for one moment, happy. "You should be a tactician, old girl!"
And just at that most pleasant moment, she felt the first faint tugging of Alison's hearth-spell, and looked down to see the sprig of rosemary pinned to the breast of her shirtwaist starting to wilt. She could have cursed. "I have to go!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet. "I'm really sorry, but I must—"
"What's the hurry?" he asked in bewilderment, as she shoved the empty ginger-beer bottle into his hands. "I say, I haven't said anything to offend you, have I?"
"No, no, no, I just have to get back, I don't have a choice," she shook her head and felt the sting of disappointed tears in her eyes. "It's nothing to do with you; I enjoyed talking with you. I have to or—or— or I'll be in trouble—" she shook her head, and turned away.
"Well, at least say you'll be here tomorrow!" he called after her, as she began to run across the grass.
"I can't—" she called back over her shoulder, then at the sight of his stricken face, she made a reckless promise. "I'll come—I'll come whenever I can! At teatime! Whenever I can!"
And with that, she had to turn to race back to the house, back to captivity, an imprisonment that was now more onerous than it ever had seemed before.
April 28, 1917
DINNER WAS NOT PLEASANT TONIGHT. Animosity and suspicion hung over the table like the cloud of cigarette smoke rising above the heads of all three of the Robinsons at the table. "I don't understand it," Alison said, glaring at her daughters. "He hasn't shown the least bit of interest in either of you. That is just—unnatural." "It wasn't my spells, Mama," Carolyn said petulantly, tossing her head. "You checked them yourself. You watched me work them." She looked sideways at her sister. "Unless you interfered—"
But Alison wasn't accepting that excuse. "She didn't interfere; don't you think I would be able to tell?" Alison snarled. "No, it's not that. I've never seen anyone who was so unaffected by spells, and that's not natural. Even men with no magic at all respond to sex-charms."
Eleanor was unashamedly eavesdropping, and by a means that her stepmother would never guess. If Alison came to look, she would find Eleanor stoically peeling potatoes at the hearth, staring into the fire. Little did she guess that what Eleanor was staring at was not the flames. She had learned a new spell, or to be more precise, she had improvised it out of a scrying spell in Sarah's grimoire, that was supposed to use mirrors, linking the mirrors together, like a transmitter and a wireless radio, so that whatever was reflected in the target mirror was reflected in the one that the scryer held.
Only instead of mirrors, Eleanor was using the flames on the hearth in the kitchen and the one in the dining-room. It had been very odd, actually—Sarah had been struck dumb when she first tried it. And she could not imagine where she had gotten the idea that such a thing would work, either; it just—came to her, as she was reading the grimoire, as if someone had told it to her.
Now it was as if she was looking out from the fireplace there, and what was more, she was able to hear everything that went on as clearly as if she was sitting right there.
"It isn't only sex-charms he doesn't respond to," Lauralee said, stabbing her cigarette down into the center of her plate. "I tried to make him loathe that Leva Cygnet girl, and instead, he sat next to her at teal"
"And I thought you said he was an Air Master, Mama," interrupted Carolyn. "But I haven't seen a single Sylph anywhere about him, nor any hint of magic. Are you sure he's an Air Master?"
And when Carolyn said that, Eleanor watched Alison go through the most curious pantomime she had ever seen in her life. Alison opened her mouth to say something—then a puzzled look came over her—then she closed her mouth, opened it again, closed it, and frowned.
The girls stared at her, as if they had never seen their mother so nonplussed either.
Eleanor wondered what it meant.
"No Sylphs about," Alison said, consideringly. "As if the Sylphs do not recognize him as having Air Mastery either. No Zephyrs. They can't see him—I'm sure that's what that means. And yet, no shields, either. As if ... as if he is a magical cipher, a null. . . ."
"Actually, Mama," Lauralee said reflectively. "It's more as if the spells we cast on him are just swallowed up."
"Drained away," Carolyn echoed. "Or reflected, but not back at us."
"How . . . odd. Then I believe we are going to have to rethink our strategy," Alison brooded. "I wanted him to be attracted to you before I went to work more directly. I am going to need to make new plans."
"What new plans, Mama?" Lauralee asked leaning forward over the table eagerly. "Are you going to teach us new magic?"
Eleanor watched as Alison rubbed her hands along her arms uneasily. "Well, the magic that you two can cast is clearly not going to work. In fact, I would say he is probably resistant to all but the most powerful magic."
Both of them gazed at their mother with hunger now. Eleanor had wondered, ever since Sarah had come to the door, if Alison had been purposefully holding back teaching her daughters, or if her daughters were just not capable of greater magic. It was hard to tell—though it was true that none of the Earth Elementals were attracted to the girls.
Now she heard the answer, or at least, the answer that Alison was going to give them. "I'm afraid, my dears, you have no more inborn ability with magic than Warrick Locke. And I don't think at this point it would be wise to use my greater magics for more than I already have planned. So instead of using magic, use your wiles; show no jealousy of the other girls, but be the most pleasant and charming creatures in the room. Pay attention to everything he does and says. Work out what pleases him and what he would prefer not to deal with. Be sympathetic, and find things to get his mind off the war. That will do for now. Meanwhile, I will need to do some research of my own."
Eleanor had wondered about that. Her own feeling, once she had begun learning about magic herself, had been that neither girl would ever be a Master—because if that were possible for them, they would have surely shown some sign of it by now.
"Yes, Mama," the two chorused as one. They left the table to go up to their rooms, as Alison rang for Eleanor to clean up.
Is that why Reggie recognized me, when no one else in the village does? she wondered, as she carried plates back to the kitchen. Because Alison's spells just don't work on him?
It hadn't been until she had gotten back to the kitchen after first meeting him that she had realized Reggie had recognized her, had known who she was, almost from the first moment he had seen her. Other than Sarah, he was, apparently, the only other person who did. And she hadn't been able to get away to ask Sarah why that could be since the meeting.
Events in the household had conspired against her. First, despite Alison's assertion that she and the girls would be having tea up at Longacre for the foreseeable future, that hadn't exactly come to pass. The next day had been Alison's "at home," and although Alison certainly wanted to claw her way into the social circles of Longacre, she knew better than to abandon her post as leading light of Broom. For one thing, there were quite a number of things that the ladies of Broom could do to undermine Alison's progress if they chose. And for another, as she explained to her daughters, there was no point in prematurely burning bridges. The social set of Broom was still useful—particularly that centered around the vicarage, for the vicar, Donald Hinshaw, and his wife Theresa were the one couple who traveled socially freely between village and the big house.
Then the next day had been a meeting of the Ladies' Friendly Society, and it had been held at The Arrows, though under the auspices of its president, Amy Hammer. It had been yet another bandage-rolling meeting, and as a consequence, the house had been filled with women, all of whom required tea and refreshments. Now, those meetings were ones at which Eleanor had to be particularly careful of what was served; it wouldn't do at all to make it look as if this household was immune from the current privations—but at the same time, Alison was adamant that the tea be something that would elevate her status as a hostess. It all came down on Eleanor's shoulders, of course. It meant a great deal of cutting up heavy brown bread into thin, thin slices, toasting it delicately, and removing the crusts, spreading it with layers of jam and potted shrimp. It meant cutting more wafer-thin slices of brown bread and adding wafer-thin slices of smoked Scottish salmon atop. It meant baking whatever sort of cake could be managed with what was available in the village shops.
So that pretty well put paid to getting away that day. And the next, Warrick Locke had come for the afternoon. It had been all about business and legal papers; there was a good clue now to which sort of "business" was going on when Locke showed up. If it was mundane business, he brought with him his personal secretary, a curiously opaque lady named Jennifer Summers, as well as his "man," Robbie Christopher. Eleanor was not around Miss Summers enough to make a judgment of her, but Robbie made her flesh crawl. There was just something not right about him. As a consequence, she kept well out of their way. Locke spent the entire afternoon closeted with Alison, going over any number of matters concerning the manufactories.
He might be a horrible man, but he did know his business.
So, that meant no leaving the house on that day.
Finally, though, today had sent Alison and the girls out into the village on a series of meetings and whatnot concerning the annual May Day fete for the church, which brought them home exhausted, and made them perfect targets for Sarah's herb-spell. They were in bed by nine and fast asleep by ten, all three of them, and Eleanor was free to cast her spell and run to Sarah's cottage.
Sarah wasn't alone—Annette Monstead, the village midwife-in-training, and sister to Eric, the village sexton, was with her, discussing a possibly difficult case. Rather than intrude, Eleanor didn't even knock; she just waited outside until Annette left. It was scarcely a hardship; it was a beautiful evening, the kind on which—before the war—courting couples would go out walking.
Though that "walking" sometimes resulted in cases for Annette....
Proper young ladies weren't supposed to know about that sort of thing, but Eleanor had never been proper as such—and since the war, there was, if not actually condoning of such matters, certainly more understanding of them, and of the acts of desperation that led to an unexpected pregnancy. A fellow could get emergency leave, at least to get as far as London for a day or two to "put things right." There was not so much counting of months between the wedding-day and the day of the baby's arrival.
Eric turned up to escort his sister home—he, too, was above the conscription age, though his sister was at least twenty years younger. He was the eldest, and she the youngest, of a truly enormous family. Not so much a family as a tribe, in fact. Small wonder Annette had turned out to have a talent for midwifery!
Only after they were gone out of sight did Eleanor knock on Sarah's door and let herself in.
"I've met Reggie!" she burst out, unable to hold herself back. "And Sarah—he recognized me!"
"Well, and he would, wouldn't he, being an Air Master—" she began, but this time Eleanor interrupted her.
"Yes, but there's no Sylphs around him, and no Air energy," she continued, and went on to describe what she had learned watching the fire night after night.
When she was finished, Sarah stood next to her own hearth, arms folded over her chest, tapping her foot. "Hmm. That's a different kettle of fish altogether. It almost sounds like—" But then she frowned, and shook her head. "No, I don't know. And it's not right to speculate. I don't know nearly as much as your mother did, and sending you off in the wrong direction wouldn't do either of you any good."
"Sarah!" Eleanor cried indignantly. "At least give me a hint!" Sarah pursed her lips, and ran her hand through her hair. "Well, if I were to guess, and not being a Master, I have no business in guessing, I would say that something happened to him to make him afraid of using any magic. Now, when a Master decides not to use any magic, none at all, sometimes they stop thinking straight, and their heart—not their heads, the thinking parts, put the heart, the feeling part—is so frightened that the heart decides that means no magic by anyone else is going to get used around them either. So magic around them gets kind of—swallowed up. Things that the heart decides usually happen unless the head is well in charge." Sarah shrugged. "But that's just a guess. People like me don't have enough magic to do that sort of thing."
"But if that's the case, then why couldn't I tell him about Alison?" she asked, feeling desperate now. "Why didn't that spell stop working?"
Sarah grimaced, but with an air as if it should have been obvious to Eleanor that she had no idea why these things had happened or not. "Don't know. Maybe because that spell is stronger. Maybe because the spell to keep people from recognizing you is set to work on them and the one to keep you from telling people the truth is set to work on you." She shook her head. "I don't know, I'm just guessing. I'm not the Master Alison is, nor the Master your mother was. I know I've had my own counter-charms set that let me see you and talk to you freely, but then, I already knew what and who you were and I had a bit of your baby-hair I could use to work them. I don't know the complicated spells; I never bothered to learn them. I'm only strong enough to work cantrips and charms. In the case of countering what's on you, I can make them work for me, but not other people, unless I were to set the charm on each one of them. And maybe all of this guessing is going wide of the mark. I've no way to know."
It was terribly frustrating. To know that she had someone within reach who probably could help her break the spells that were on her, if only he knew what was going on, was agonizing.
"What do I do?" she wailed. Sarah gazed at her sternly.
"You stop whingeing for one," the witch replied. "It isn't going to help. For another, if you can find out what it is he's so afraid of, maybe you can do somewhat about it. Do that, and he may come out of that shell he's built around himself. If you can crack that, he should see you're set about with spells yourself, and wonder why, and try untangling them himself. But you can't do any of that if you're wasting your time feeling sorry for yourself."
Eleanor felt herself flush with anger, but kept a curb on her tongue. Sarah was right—but the witch's tongue got oversharp when she'd had a long day. And it wasn't as if Eleanor's day had been any shorter.
"Now, in the meantime," Sarah was already continuing, "While you're here, you might as well learn something. If Alison ever decides to challenge you Master to Master in a Sorcerer's Duel, your little Salamanders aren't going to be causing her more than a minute of amusement. So you might as well start learning how to call the Greater Fire Elementals, and the best time is now. We'll start with the Phoenyx."
Eleanor was quite ready to fall asleep on Sarah's floor when the wilting of her rosemary sprig told her it was time to go. When she got back, she made up her bed on the kitchen floor again, rather than take the chance of stumbling on the stairs and waking the household. She thought she saw eyes in the embers as she drowsed off—not the golden eyes of the Salamanders, but a hot, burning blue. . . .
Reggie showed up faithfully in the meadow at teatime, every day— though after the second day that the girl failed to materialize, he had brought the 'bus with him, so he could go on down to the pub if she didn't show up. After the third day, as he sat in the sun and listened to the wind in the grass watched the branches overhead with their haze of new green buds, he wondered why he kept coming here—there was nothing very special about her—
—well, other than her quick wit and agile mind.
It wasn't as if she were especially pretty; certainly not compared with all the elegant, doe-like creatures his mother kept trotting past him. She was as raw as a young filly and just as awkward. She seemed to be as poor as a church-mouse, too, from the state of her clothing.
That was odd; as he recalled, old Robinson had been something in the way of a manufacturing fellow, and when he'd known her last the girl had certainly dressed well enough. But maybe the money was all gone, thanks to the war. There were a lot of places that had failed; couldn't get the raw goods they needed to keep making whatever it was they were making.
She looked as if she worked for a living. Maybe she was a maid now, or a kitchen-girl. Or maybe she worked in one of the other pubs or something. Maybe that was what she meant when she said she'd be there "if she could."
What was it about her that made him desert his mother's carefully gathered bouquet of well-bred beauties and come down here to sit on a log for an hour on the chance that she might appear?
She can talk, for one thing. She knows how to listen, for another. And when she talks, she doesn't talk nonsense.
That was half of the reason why he hated those afternoon teas, the inane chatter. What was wrong with those girls, anyway? Half of them acted as if the war didn't exist, and the other half as if it existed only to inconvenience them!
She didn't talk about the war—but it wasn't because she was trying to play as if it wasn't going on. It was as if she was avoiding the subject so as not to trouble me.
It occurred to him that if she was working, working hard somewhere now—well, she wasn't going to be all that sheltered anymore. Maybe he could talk to her, about some of the things you just didn't talk about among men. All right to be bitter, angry, depressed; all right even to admit to being white-knuckle terrified in the night, and ready to do a bunk. All right even to admitting to want to take your faithful old Wembley and stick the barrel in your mouth and—
But you didn't talk to another man about losing your sense of wonder and beauty. You didn't tell him how your ideals were lying dead beside your comrades. Oh, maybe you could with the rare fellow like one or two of his former Oxford chums, the ones that had written damn good poetry, for instance. Not Steven Stewart, for instance— someone who'd call you "Reg" and talk about how he was going to start an air mail service when it was all over. Not Walter Boyes, either; plain as toast and solid as a rock, but who was reading history, and liked facts, plain and simple. Maybe William Howe—he was sensitive enough, just think about the stuff he pulled up for the regimental band to play, not just marches and bombast but Bach and Handel. But Howe was still at the Front.
Daniel Heistand— One of the ghosts, the men in the photos probably still on the canvas wall of his quarters, a dead man with his arms around the shoulders of the living. He was someone Reggie could have talked to about this. He hadn't written poetry; he was a musician, and not one of your ukulele players nor your accordion men. He was a violinist, and composed as well as played; Reggie remembered listening to him play during the pauses in the shelling, on the long, long, nights when nobody could sleep, playing some wistful haunting thing, too melancholy to be a lullaby—
Well, he hadn't lasted six months; a "sixty-minute man"—that was about how much time he'd had in the seat before a Hun in a Fokker shot him down.
Chris Whitmore? Maybe. Hard to tell. . . . That mania he'd had for photography might have been the stirrings of an artist's nature or just that of a tinkerer. He was supposed to be taking recon photos now, last Reggie'd heard, in the Sudan. No bloody mud in the Sudan.
Not Geoffrey Cockburn, that was certain. The boy who put his motorcar into the ornamental pond next to the cricket-grounds because he was roaring drunk the night before vivas was not the sort to have a sensitive soul. And no Lyman Evans, either, who'd been pouring the bubbly in the first place.
Maybe Rene Comeau; he was one of the better-educated French infantrymen attached to the air wing as local guards, and the French— well, they were French. They understood that sort of thing. But Rene was still over there too—unless he was dead.
Melancholy was certainly on him this afternoon. And he desperately wanted someone to talk to about it.
Oh, not Allan McBain either, that hard-headed Scots engineer who cursed them all whenever one of "his" runways got a shell-crater or a bomb-crater in it. As if it was their fault!
Though in a sense it was—if there hadn't been 'planes and pilots there, no one would bother to shell or bomb McBain's runways.
Vincent Mills . . . Another sensitive ghost out of the past, but this time a ghost that hadn't even made it to the Front. He'd trained with Reggie at the Oxford-based branch of the Flying School—and he'd been one of too-frequent fatalities. They'd found him upside-down in a tree, neck broken, a strange and puzzled look on his face as if he couldn't quite fathom what had gone wrong. His demise had been a shock; he was a good flyer. Perhaps the machine had done him wrong. Reggie still had one of his poems, or at least, it was folded into one of his books of sonnets back at the Front, an articulate yearning for higher skies—
No, there wasn't anyone here and now. And the girl was. Perhaps it was no bad thing that she wasn't pretty, wasn't his class, was, in fact, poor from all appearances. She didn't look like the sort to read trashy romantic novels and dream of marrying the duke. She looked like the sort who could be sensible. She'd certainly been more sensible than some of those boys who'd flocked around him.
He nodded to himself, as the golden-green light flooded around him. Maybe that was why he kept coming here. Someone sensitive, and sensible at the same time. Someone he could talk to that wouldn't go carrying tales. Who'd believe a kitchen-girl who told tales about meeting up with Reggie Fenyx in a meadow on odd afternoons to talk, anyway? No one. Without witnesses—and really, no one ever did come here—she'd never be believed.
So, content with his reasoning, he dozed a little in the sun until his watch told him the pub would be open. Who would ever have thought that a working-man's pub would become his refuge?
The Brigadier would be arriving in a few days, though. Perhaps then he wouldn't need a refuge as much.
Reggie came in through the garden entrance; it was just as easy to get to from the stable, and a great deal quieter. He took the entrance beneath the grand marble staircase, rather than the one on the terrace; this passage was generally used more by the staff but as a child he had scampered in and out of all possible entrances. The place was dark, as it should be; his mother and grandfather retired early when there was no entertaining going on, and she hadn't entertained since his father had died. None of the staff was down here now at this time of night, and it felt almost as if he was alone in the huge old house. He walked carefully, his path brightened only by a few gaslights, turned low.
He remembered how his father had brought in the gas. It hadn't been that long ago, it seemed. And now—
Electricity. We need to bring in electricity. And the telephone. He shook his head, and made his way up to the first floor. It was easier to get to the family staircase from this part of the house.
Stone floors below, polished wood above, and all of it too noisy, for all he was walking as quietly as he could. Tonight he was feeling more than a bit tipsy; it had been one of those nights. Something had set off Matt Brennan, and he'd gone down on a chair in the corner and just sat and rocked and wouldn't talk to anyone.
Shell shock. They all knew the signs of it, and Brennan—well, Brennan had more than a few reasons to suffer from it. It was the first time he'd gone into a fit of it in public though (and Reggie could only be grateful that he himself had managed to keep his own fits behind the closed doors of his rooms).
Well, they weren't doctors, but the only doctor that Reggie knew that had any success with shellshock was Doctor Maya, and she wasn't there. They had their own rough-and-ready remedy; maybe not the best, but a damn sight better than doing nothing, or telling a fellow he was malingering. They physically hauled him out to the middle table, put a glass in his hand, and poured drink into him until he came out of it—and of course in order to keep him drinking they had to match him drink for drink. They'd all gotten bawling sentimental, even Kevin Eaches, one of Reggie's tenant farmers, who'd wandered in by accident and somehow never made it out again.
When Brennan was well in hand, Reggie took his leave. It wasn't quite closing time, but this might be one of those nights when Tom locked the doors on a few of the oldest friends, and moved the "cure" into the private part of the building. He wasn't in that select group yet, and he was not inclined to intrude. So out he went, into the spring-scented night.
It had taken some careful navigating to get the 'bus up to the house without incident. Fortunately, there'd been a moon. Unfortunately, there had been cows. He'd had to stop and shoo them off the road.
Not the easiest thing to do, when you were staggering a bit. Cows didn't seem to be impressed with a man who wasn't able to stand without weaving back and forth.
He left the auto in the middle of the round stableyard; the men would park it in the carriage house. He knew that tonight he was in no condition to try and put her away himself.
With the hour so late, and the house so dark and still, he assumed that everyone, including all of the staff, had gone to bed. He expected to get quietly up to his rooms without anyone the wiser.
The last thing he anticipated was to find his mother waiting for him in the settle at the top of the family staircase.
She had an oil-lamp burning on the table beside her, and was pretending to work on some of that infernal knitting every woman seemed to be doing these days, making stockings for soldiers. He staggered back a pace or two on seeing her. "Ah. Evening, Mater," he said carefully. "I've been out."
"So I see." She put the knitting down in her lap. She was still dressed for dinner, in a navy-blue gown. Her tone could have frozen the flowers in the vase beside her. "I presume it was the same place you have been going to every night. The working-man's pub. The—
She acted as if she had never heard the name before. As if she had been completely unaware that there was a working-man's pub. He drew himself up. "Yes, I have. I've been to The Broom. I went last night, I went tonight, and I intend to go tomorrow night. In fact, I will continue to go to The Broom for as long as I am on medical leave."
Her face crumpled. "Reggie—how could you? Everyone in the village certainly knows—it won't be long before the whole county knows, you're down there every night, consorting with socialists and riff-raff—"
"Who give me a better and warmer welcome than I have in my own home," Reggie retorted, anger burning out some of the whiskey fumes and clearing his head. "Where I'm not called coward to my face, and told I'm malingering! Why, I'd rather spend four hours in Mad Ross's company than five minutes in your father's!"
Even as he said the words, he was glad they were out, that it was all out in the open, at last. He didn't need the Brigadier for this. Not to lay the truth plain to his mother. He should have stood on his own two feet a long time ago.
His mother cried out, and her hands flew to her mouth. Tears started up in his eyes.
He felt coldly, curiously unmoved.
"If you want to know why I go there, why don't you watch how your father drives me out of my own home every night?" he asked, angrily. "And you had better get used to my new friends, Mater, because they are my friends, and I have far more in common with them than you could ever understand! We're—" he could find no words to tell her. "We're soldiers" he said at last. "Real soldiers. Not tin-toys like your father, who strutted his way around cowing poor little Hindu heathen until he was old enough to claim a pension, and now wants to lord it over me the same way."
He stared at her, stared her down, stared at her until she shrank back in her seat and dropped her eyes. He took a deep breath, and walked past her, all the stagger gone from his step. He walked straight to his rooms, feeling full of a cold dignity he hadn't known he possessed.
And then, once the door was shut, he sat down abruptly on the side of the bed, and blinked.
"What did I just do?" he asked aloud.
But of course, there was no one there to answer him.
April 30, 1917
THE ARROWS WAS EMPTY; ALISON was gone. So were Carolyn and Lauralee, and it wasn't off to tea at Longacre again. It was a two-day excursion somewhere that they did not talk about even amongst themselves. But it was going to involve Warrick Locke.
And it was going to involve the contents of three brass-bound cases that Alison had taken with her.
Magic. That was Eleanor's guess, anyway. They were going somewhere to work magic, somewhere that was special. There were a lot of special places of power around, or so Sarah said; Stonehenge was only the most obvious. There had been enough blood spilled on English soil to make plenty of spots where Alison and her nasty Earth Elementals would feel right at home. Eleanor only hoped that they hadn't gotten hold of anything personal of Reggie's. With luck, this wouldn't have anything at all to do with Reggie, or this new magic woul