"Up the airy mountain, down the rushing glen, We daren't go a-hunting, for fear of little men." -William Allingham, "The Fairies" *** "I want to dance with the hill people at night," Flora said, standing on a chair and looking out the window. Megan looked with her. The summer sun was slipping behind the yew trees on the hill beside the big old house, but no one was there that Megan could see.
She frowned. "What do you mean?" Flora looked up at her. "Every night the people dance and sing all over that hill, and the lights are very pretty." "They bring lights?" "They ARE lights." Megan tsked. "No nonsense," she said. "Get ready for bed." Flora climbed off the chair and trotted up the stairs, skirting past her brother on the floor. Megan snuffed all the candles except one, which she took with her.
With the lights out, the bruised yellow color of the sunset crept around the curtain sash, turning things in the playroom a feverish color. The old oaks and ancient yews around the estate seemed to stir like dismal, sleeping things. Megan looked at Miles. "Have you seen your sister's lights?" she said. But Miles was busy building a castle out of blocks and didn't answer. Megan set him on his feet and ushered him up the stairs after Flora.
She was about to follow when Peter came in, carrying an open book. "Are the children in bed?" he said, reading. "I just sent them up." "If you see Mrs. Rhoslyn upstairs tell her I want to talk to her about the staff." He closed the book and handed it to her.
It was heavy. The staircase creaked as she climbed it. The old house always seemed noisier at night, for some reason. This was a summer home, in Sir Rowland's family for generations, but nobody had ever really made long use of it until now, and it had perhaps grown used to being empty. Megan quickened her pace. Giggles and the sound of little footsteps told her that the children weren't in bed yet.
Before she could chide them she heard Mrs. Rhoslyn's voice coming around the bend in the corridor. ".at least he was always practical before. Not that I hold it against him, mind you, given what the poor chestnut has been through, but there's no sense pretending—" "Pretending what, Mrs.
Rhoslyn?" Megan said. Mrs. Rhoslyn had been talking to one of the wash maids (Megan could never remember their impossible Welsh names), who jumped and flushed as red as an apple. Mrs. Rhoslyn herself, though, didn't miss a beat. "We were just saying how badly we feel for Sir Rowland," she said, smiling and smoothing her apron. "How is he holding up these days?" "Shouldn't you know? You see him every day." Mrs. Rhoslyn's smile grew to distinctly impertinent proportions.
"But you see more of him, don't you Miss James? It's all right, no need to be embarrassed, I know how it is: I was a pretty young thing once too, not that you'd know it to look at me now." "Yes, Mrs.
Rhoslyn: I will keep in mind how little you are to look at now. Sir Rowland would like to speak with you, by the way. Something about the staff." This caused the other maid to flush even brighter, and Megan felt their pointed stares all the way down the hall. She found Flora and Miles just slipping under the covers of the old canopy bed in the second-floor bedroom that was serving as theirs. She clucked her tongue in disapproval and they giggled more.
Megan sat, adjusted her bustle, and opened the book. "Which story do you want?" she said. "'Childe Rowland,'" Flora said, before the question was even finished. Megan cocked her head. "I'm not sure that's in this book." "I'll show you" Flora said, flipping to just the right page. Then she pulled the blanket up so that only her shiny blue eyes peeped over it. So Megan read: ".they sought her east, they sought her west, they sought her up and down. At last her eldest brother went to a wizard and asked him if he knew where Ellen was.
'The fair Burd Ellen,' said the wizard, 'has been carried off by the fairies. She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland.
It would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back.'" Megan stopped. "This doesn't seem like a good story." "It's pretty," Flora said. "And it's called 'Rowland,' just like us. Miles likes it too," she added, and Miles nodded, though he didn't seem to want to come out from under the covers.
Megan kept reading. "'The eldest brother of Burd Ellen set out for Elfland to save her. But long they waited, and longer still, and woe were the hearts of his brethren, for he came not back again.'" When the story was over she kissed the children on the forehead (Flora insisted on being kissed twice), helped them say their prayers, then closed the curtains and went downstairs carrying a single candle.
Mrs. Rhoslyn insisted everyone use single candles after hours because "There's no sense going out and buying more when as soon as I do Sir Rowland will pack us up back to London again, mark my words." Peter was in bed but still awake when she came in. "Are the children settled?" he said. "As they ever are." Megan sat on the edge of the bed, much as she'd done in the children's rooms. "Mrs. Rhoslyn's been at gossip again. I don't suppose you're letting her go?" She gestured that he should help with the buttons on the back of her dress.
"There's no harm in it," Peter said. "She keeps the house running." Megan wriggled out of her dress and petticoat and slipped out of her chemise. Peter put his arms around her naked body and she huddled up against him, burying her face in the side of his neck. His hands felt rough on her bare skin. She never understood how a man who never handled anything rougher than pen and ink ended up with such hands, but she liked the feeling. She wondered, idly, if Lady Rowland had ever liked it too, but the thought horrified her a little, so she put it away.
Peter was kissing his way down her neck when she remembered what Flora said before bed. "Peter dear, are there, I don't know, gypsies or anything, in those woods?" "There damn well better not be," he said. His mustaches tickled her bare shoulders. "Flora said something about dancing people on the hill.
It made me nervous. You told me no one in the family had stayed here since your grandfather's day. Could bad sorts have taken up in these parts?" "We keep servants on to make sure they don't. You should know better than to pay too much attention to Flora's stories." "I suppose you're right.
That feels good." He had moved down to kissing her naked thighs. Summer nights were hot and stuffy in this little room, and the heat of their two bodies pressed together made it worse, but Peter never wanted to move to a bigger one. At least the heat was a welcome change from the coldness of the rest of the place.
She spread her legs wider and Peter's lips traveled up and down, tracing the outline of her calves and ankles before slipping up beyond her knees and then higher still. His stubble was so rough on her sensitive skin that she bit nearly through her lip, but she didn't want him to stop.
His arms cradled her hips, and looking down she could see his broad shoulders and great mane of hair. Just a little bit more now. "Oh!" She melted, sliding back into the decadent softness of the pillows.
But he would go no further than this. She understood why: Part of it was practicality. Nothing would be a greater disaster for either of them than if Megan were to find herself carrying his child.
And part was the memory of Lady Rowland. For the same reason, Megan could never sleep in the same bed with him. If he woke in the night he'd assume that any woman next to him was his wife. Megan understood. Later, in her own room, she caught herself stealing a glance out at the hill. There were, of course, no lights there, but for perhaps a second she imagined she saw—no, nothing, she told herself, closing the curtains.
Peter was right; she shouldn't let Flora's storytelling get the better of her. It was simply too easy in this old house and these queer woods to imagine…well, anything at all.
She said her prayers twice but still felt restless as she lay down. I sleep alone in here, she thought, and Peter sleeps alone too. And as for Bryn— But no, she wouldn't think about him now either. She rolled over and put everything out of her mind. If sleep didn't want to come on its own, she'd simply make it. *** It was Saturday, and Megan took the children for a walk in the gardens. It was the blooming season, and everything was red and yellow and it felt warm and alive outside of the old, dusty house.
Miles held Megan's hand while Flora flounced along the path a few feet ahead of them, chasing the bees and telling stories: "Then the queen and her daughter and 300 fairies went up on the hill with a pole and a ribbon and a mirror, and the queen had a harebell in her left hand and a cup of burning perfume in her right hand," Flora was saying.
She paused. "Does perfume really burn?" "Sometimes," said Megan, lifting Miles over a hedge and then clambering over it herself. "Oh," said Flora. Then: "So, the fairies tied the ribbon to the top of the pole and stuck the pole in the ground, and they all danced around it, and wherever they danced the grass died. What's the name for a pole with a ribbon that you dance around like that?" "A maypole." "Can we make one?" Flora said.
"If you're good, and if Sir Rowland says so.
It's a pagan thing, though." Miles had discovered an old, empty badger den under the hedge and Megan was down on her knees in the grass with him, vaguely concerned that it may, in fact, not be empty after all.
"What's 'pagan' mean?" said Flora. "Godless," Megan replied, brushing the grass off her skirts. Something caught her eye: At the top of a nearby hill, Bryn was trimming the hedges. She looked over both of her shoulders to check if any of the other servants were nearby and then told Flora, "Both of you wait here. Finish telling your fairy story to your brother." She hiked up the slope toward Bryn while Flora plunked down in the middle of a ring of toadstools and took Miles by the hand, relating the rest of her tale in a whisper, just quiet enough that Megan couldn't really make out the words but loud enough that she could tell Flora was still there.
Bryn nodded as she came up, but his sheers never stopped working. "Good afternoon, Miss James," he said. Megan found a soft spot on the clover bed and sat, watching him work. He was wearing a short-sleeved work shirt that showed an awful lot of his arms. "How are things in the big house?" he said. "Just fine. .actually, not fine at all." "But saying 'fine' is polite." "I guess it is." She waited for him to smile but he didn't.
He was always like that: Stern when she expected him to be jovial, amused when she expected nothing at all.
She used to tease him about being a melancholy Welshman, but stopped because he took it so personally. "Will you all be staying on with us the whole summer?" he said, sounding like he was talking to the postman. "I imagine. It's up to Sir Rowland, though." "That's fine. That old house always looks lonely without tenants.
It's good you've all come, and brought the children too. I trust they're well?" Megan threw a handful of clover at him. "You know they are. Why are you talking to me like a stranger?" "Little pitchers have wide ears, as my grandmother used to remind us." "The twins?" Megan twisted around to glance at them over her shoulder.
"They're in a world all their own. Besides, we're not going to say anything they shouldn't hear, are we? Sit down and talk to me like a civilized person. If anyone tries to get you in trouble for lazing about I'll say it was entirely on my account." He seemed hesitant, but sat anyway. She noticed his hands and took hold of them, turning them over. His fingers were covered with tiny cuts.
He shrugged at her scrutiny and looked embarrassed. "What in the world have you been doing?" she said. "I was taking the thorns off the roses." She wanted to laugh but was sure he'd be too insulted. "Why would you do a thing like that? And without gloves?" "You always do it without gloves. It's traditional." "A Welsh tradition?" "A family one. My mother did it in the summer.
She said that in the earthly paradise, roses had no thorns. You take them off by hand to remind yourself that getting back to a state of grace takes hard work and hurt." "That's almost sweet. The maddest thing I've ever heard. But sweet." 'You didn't come up here to chat about the flowers though, did you?" A bee landed on Megan's foot, and she watched it tickle its way across the buckle of her shoe.
"I'm anxious lately. Stir crazy. Something about this place bothers me. Not the house, but the land. As the summer gets on it seems like everything here has a kind of mind of its own. Does that make any sense?" Bryn seemed to be looking at something very intently, and Megan realized it was the children.
When he spoke he looked at them, not her. "I've lived here so long I guess I don't notice anymore, but you wouldn't be used to it. Summer is a strange time in this place. My grandmother told me stories about such things.
Do you want to hear one?" I want to listen to just about anything you want to say, you dolt, she thought. But instead of saying that she just nodded. "Here's one that happened to my grandmother's uncle: It was in summer when Uncle Tudur was walking about these hills at night, and he met a strange man playing a fiddle. And while the man played, people came up and formed a ring and started to dance. "Poor Uncle Tudur couldn't help tapping his foot along with the music.
Eventually he threw his cap in the air and joined in the pagan dance, and when he did the fiddler's face became black as soot and the horns of a goat appeared on his head, and the fairy dancers became goats and cats and dogs and foxes, and poor Uncle Tudur was forced to dance with them until the cock crowed morning.
"He very nearly danced his legs off, and would have died for exhaustion if they hadn't let him go." Bryn stopped and licked his dry lips. Megan had never heard him speak for so long at one time. "That's like one of Flora's stories," Megan said.
"I imagine it is." He hopped up. "I have to finish these hedges by sundown, Miss James," he said, loudly. "Bryn, wait. I want to apologize for what happened the other night. And.I want to come see you." "What about Sir Rowland?" "He won't miss me." "The other night you said—" "Forget what I said.
I really need to see you. And I have to get out of that house for a little while. Please?" He wavered with one foot off the path, and behind his eyes Megan could sense a million conflicting wants vying for his favor.
Eventually he nodded, and Megan felt something like a great weight come off her shoulders. "Tonight?" she said.
"Tonight, yes. But I've got to get back to this before anyone sees us talking." It seemed the sun was warmer and Megan's steps lighter as she went back down the hill. She chastised herself for being so pleased. If Bryn ever noticed how easily he could change her mood, or her mind… But of course, he wasn't the observant type. Not when it came to people, anyway.
Megan found the twins precisely where she'd left them, Flora still telling stories to Miles. But it was a minute before she was close enough to really make out the words. ".and the men of Ardudwy raided the Vale of Clwyd, and carried off all the women there, until finally the fairy men caught up and flayed their hides and hung them up from the trees.
"And the fairy women all threw themselves into the lake and drowned, and so it's called Maiden's Lake. And if you drink from it—" "FLORA!" The little girl spun around, eyes wide.
"Where did you hear such awful things?" Megan said, marching down to them. "You've scared your brother half to death!" Miles ran and hid behind Megan's skirt. Flora stood like a cornered doe. "I didn't mean to say anything bad," she said, looking at her hands. "I was just telling stories the way they're written in the book." Megan went to slap her, but Flora flinched immediately and began to bawl as if she'd already been hit.
Megan sighed. "There's no such thing in any book you have," she said. "That's not true!" Flora said, startling Megan with the force of her reply. "It's a story right out of the book, and it's a true story too. They're all true stories!" And before Megan could say anything more Flora ran off toward the house, ribbons and curls bouncing all the way.
Megan could only stare, dumbfounded, and Miles clutched her skirts even tighter. *** The sunny day turned to rain soon enough, and Megan lay awake that night listening to the storm pound the roof of the garden cottage. She jumped when a hand touched her bare shoulder, but then she took it and squeezed. "You're fretting," Bryn said in the dark.
Megan rolled over to face him. "Yes," she said. "You're thinking about Sir Rowland." "No. I mean, yes, but that's not—" "Do you love him?" Oh for fuck's sake, she thought. "Don't ask me things like that." "But you don't love me." She glared at him. "I never led you to believe I did. Do you really want to talk about this now? We've only just made up, let's not fight again." As soon as she said it she knew it was a mistake: When told not to do something, he became twice as determined to do it.
"If you're not in love with Sir Rowland then why not just leave him?" he said. Megan sat up. "You complete ass." She started to dress.
"Don't go," he said, touching her back, but she shook him off. "I certainly won't stay. You know that a girl in my position can't just walk away from a job anytime she pleases. I realize your ego is bruised, but don't just cavalierly suggest I put myself out on the street over it. And DO NOT suggest that I can live with you if I have to." Bryn had been about to speak but now shut his mouth. Megan paused with a stocking in hand.
"Besides," she said. "I like Sir Rowland. I don't LOVE him but I like him just fine. You knew that when we started." Bryn gave up the tiniest bit of ground: "Even if you don't quit you don't have to go to bed with him." "He might put me out if I don't." "Do you really think Sir Rowland would do that?" "He's a man; I have no idea what he might do." She was half dressed. Bryn was still naked, with only a blanket to keep the draft off ,and he suddenly looked much smaller and more afraid than she thought he really was.
Her heart softened. She sat down again and kissed him. "Listen," she said. "I'll do terrible things to your heart if you let me. So don't let me. Let's just enjoy this for what it is." "You do terrible things anyway," Bryn said, pulling her back onto the cot.
She swayed a little, as if to resist, but ended up tumbling right back into bed with his young, muscled body pressed up against hers. The wind rattled the lattice and the whole cottage swayed, but they paid it no mind. Bryn's lips were soft, but his kisses hard. Megan was half-clothed and tried to free up enough room to wriggle out of her undergarments again, but he held her in place. The curve of his prick pressed against the inside of her leg. She let him keep kissing her, chasing his mouth with hers, her tongue darting into his mouth now and then.
The cot creaked. Megan got her legs out from under Bryn far enough to wrap them around him. Their kisses went white-hot, breathless, painful. The tip of him pressed into her. She gasped and cried out, smothering the sound by burying her face against the side of his neck. Then she panted: "Bryn." "Do you want to stop?" "No." He slid in.
She tightened her hold, shuddering as the length of him entered her. Rain pattered the tin roof, covering up the sound of their bodies rising and falling and the springs bouncing up and down and Megan's quiet, strangled cries. He plowed into her and her muscles contracted, gripping him tight. It was too dark to see, but she imagined his dark brown eyes holding her gaze as their bodies ebbed and flowed together. He felt was hot and slippery all over. She licked his bare chest, tongue tingling with the salt of perspiration.
He buried his smooth face between her breasts. Even the thin blankets became uncomfortable with all this heat, and they ended up a tangled mass on the floor as the two of them went on. She felt him tense up all over and then begin to withdraw. She stopped him. He mumbled a warning but she told him it was fine. "I had my time," she said. "It's safe." "You're sure?" "Too many questions," she said, swallowing his mouth with hers and guiding him back in, squeezing his rear with both hands.
She was obscenely wet. He reminded her of a sprinting colt, all muscle and sinew and sweaty flanks. She encouraged him to go faster. When he came, it was a hot rush, and he gasped a wordless, soundless cry into the dark and fell over her. They clung together while she brushed the hair back out of his face and accepted a series of small, loving kisses one by one on her lips and cheeks and chin as they waited for their hearts to stop racing. He tried to convince her to stay the whole night, but it was no good.
Megan wrapped herself in a shawl for protection from the rain and pressed a finger to his lips before he could object any more. The storm was at a lull, and only a drizzle touched Megan as she ran from the garden cottage along the dark but familiar paths to the side door.
She stepped in a dish as she let herself in. One of the maids, it seemed, had left some cream out. Was there a cat about? She shook her wet foot and padded inside. This was the part she hated most of all. It was one thing going through the dark halls when she at least had a small light, but this mad sprint to her own room in the pitch black was unbearable. She ran as fast as she dared, and didn't stop until her bedroom door shut behind her.
She sat on the edge of the bed and waited for her heart to slow again. It took some time. She began brushing out her damp hair and slipped off her wet clothes and shoes, and eventually she began to feel calm again. What was it about this house and this land at night that made her feel like a child? Of course, the twins really were children, and they didn't seem to mind the place.
Flora didn't, at least. Sometimes Megan wondered— She stopped when she heard the voice. It came right out of the darkened corner of the room, and it said: "As St. Collen sat in his cell he heard two men conversing about the king of the elves and fairies, and Collen put his head out of and said to them, 'Those are but devils.'" Megan would have screamed except for the fact that, suddenly, she couldn't breathe.
She stayed perfectly still and waited for whoever it was to show himself, but there didn't seem to be anyone there. Had she imagined it? Had she— "Collen heard a knock at his door. It was a messenger, saying that the king of the fairies bid him come to a certain hilltop at midnight. But Collen did not go." Megan felt all of her hairs stand up. It sounded like the voice was coming from the closet? But that was impossible. She must be overhearing something from one of the nearby rooms, though almost all of them were meant to be shut up.
Anxious, she lit a candle and eased the closet open anyway. Of course, no one was there. "Three times the messenger came and three times Collen refused, until finally the fairy threatened its most dire curse, and Collen relented." Now it was in the hall. Heart racing again, Megan pushed the bedroom door open. Nothing there but shadows.
From further down, perhaps in one of the empty rooms? Padding in her bare feet up the stairs, Megan followed the voice. It sounded like a woman, but no one she'd ever heard before? "Collen went to the top of the hill, and there was a man dressed in hides, with a crown of stag's antlers and a face as black as coal and a spear as long as three men.
Down in the town, the bells were tolling twelve." There was a light under the door of the children's room, but not like a candle or a lantern.
This was pale green, like marsh gas. Megan pressed her ear to the door: "Then he beheld the fairest castle he had ever seen, and the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music and voice and string.
And steeds with youths upon them, and maidens of elegant aspect, and every magnificence becoming the court of a sovereign. But the sickly sweet beauty of everything filled his heart with dread. "That's when the king of the fairies said to Collen—" Megan pushed the door in.
She was not sure what she expected (or dreaded?) to find, but what waited for her was… Nothing. There was no light, and no one here but Flora and Miles, and they were both asleep, with their little heads together on the pillow. The voice was gone, its tale lingering in mid-sentence, eternally unfinished. Cupping the candle flame, Megan looked behind the door and in closet and even peered under the bed, but no one was hiding. The window was closed, and this was the second floor in any case.
The children stirred. Megan sat on the foot of the bed. When she put a hand on the comforter it was warm, as if someone had sat there only a second ago. She noticed a pair of eyes peeping over the covers.
She'd woken Miles. She told him to go back to sleep, but he pointed to the rosary around her neck. She dangled it over his head and helped him count the beads very quietly, as they did every night, then kissed him on the forehead and went back downstairs. There were no voices in the dark now, but she locked the door behind her and left a candle burning in the closet all night, never mind what Mrs.
Rhoslyn might say. She didn't want to run the risk of waking up and not being able to see who else could be in the room with her. *** It was Wednesday. Megan had been reviewing Catechisms with the children and kept losing her own place. Finally she sent them to play, on the solemn promise that Flora wouldn't sneak off on her own. Megan paced the sunroom, thinking. Sir Rowland had gone for a few days on business; the twins were being attentive; she was able to see Bryn every night.
Everything was peaceful, but she still felt uneasy. It must be the queer summer, like Bryn said. Lady Rowland's portrait was in this room. She'd spent much of the last year of her life sitting for it. Megan, who had come to work for the family only after she died, wasn't sure if it was a good likeness, but she hoped not. It looked downright ghoulish. Megan tried to read but made little headway. The window was open and she heard Mrs. Rhoslyn and one of the maids clucking away like a pair of hens as they folded the wash.
She couldn't help but eavesdrop: "Because my father's father was a miner, and you know they've always lived down in the mines," Mrs. Rhoslyn said. "They knock three times to warn a man he's about to die, but never soon enough that he'd be able to save himself. It's their way." "My mother's bachelor uncle fell in love with a woman who rowed a golden boat across the lake over in the glen of nights," said the maid.
"He knew she was one of the Wives of the Lower World, but he didn't care. He went every night to beg her to row to the shore but she never would. He washed up drowned one morning. How could it be any other way?" Megan put the book down. "Everyone's family has some story like that," said Mrs.
Rhoslyn. "But this lot from the city don't know anything. They don't pay attention. Go out wandering around after dark or step into a ring of toadstools and it's nobody's fault but your own what happens.
The neighbors' boy got caught in their dances once. Thought he'd been there ten minutes but it had been a whole year. No sense." "It's the children I really feel bad for. Ought to put black-handled sheers in the crib, but no one does anymore.
What's to be done?" "These two aren't long for it.
The boy maybe, but as for the girl." "Old King Gavran ought to be back from his voyage any time now." "There'll be dancing at the yew tree like we never saw before." "And all the rest of these will get what they deserve then. Mark my words…" Megan threw open the window and stuck her head out, cheeks burning, an angry question on the tip of her tongue.
Then she blinked. No one was there. She looked left and right, but the lawn was deserted. Both women's voices couldn't have been coming from more than ten feet away, but now there was only the sound of the wind. Megan saw the impressions on the grass where a basket and three-legged stools would recently have sat.
She pulled her head back inside. She tugged her lower lip in thought, then stamped her foot on the carpet, once, like a child. "Not this time," she said. She stopped the first maid she found and demanded to know where Mrs.
Rhoslyn was. The girl (young, and new) fidgeted with her hair and said she didn't know for sure but she thought Mrs. Rhoslyn might have gone to town. Megan said that was impossible but was interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Rhoslyn herself, carrying an armful of green brocade. She smiled like a Cheshire cat when she saw Megan. "Good morning, dear," Mrs. Rhoslyn said. "How's all the news?" Megan folded her arms. "Mrs. Rhoslyn, were you talking with someone outside the sunroom just now?" "Can't say I was.
I went into town to get fabric for the new curtains. Isn't it lovely?" "I heard you and another woman talking for ten minutes at least." Mrs. Rhoslyn put the basket down and started unrolling the bolts of fabric. "It couldn't have been. Haven't even been to that side of the house since eight this morning, when we did the wash. You must have heard someone else." She would not stop grinning. Megan rounded on her heels and walked away but after a moment came back.
"One more thing: I notice that Flora has taken to telling stories. I don't know where she's getting them all from, but if you or anyone else has been filling her head with nonsense it's time you stopped." "It certainly wasn't me who's been telling the little duck such things. The children are your job, not mine." Megan left again but lingered at the turn of the hall. Mrs. Rhoslyn's voice carried: ".no better than she ought to be. You know she's the one who tells the children those stories in the first place.
At least, that's the way little Flora has it, and which of the two is the more likely liar, tell me that?" Megan balled up her hands. She marched straight up the old, creaking stairs to the children's room and found Flora and Miles in the middle some sort of castle game with the canopy bed. With no explanation except a stern word she pulled Flora into the library and shut the door. Getting on her knees, she grabbed the girl by the shoulders.
"Flora, I promise I'm not angry with you, but I need you to tell me the truth right now: Did you tell Mrs. Rhoslyn that you get your stories from me?" Flora shook her head. Her eyes were already bright with tears.
"Then why does she think that?" "I did tell her that my nurse taught me the stories." "You just told me you didn't?" "I didn't mean you," said Flora. "I meant my other nurse. The one who comes in my window at night." A cold feeling crept across the back of Megan's neck. "She sits on the edge of my bed and tells me stories," Flora said.
"She said she's sent by the queen of the hill people to take care of me. She says the other side of the hill is a beautiful place and if I'm good she'll take me there. And she says." Flora seemed to lose her nerve and it was only after Megan prodded her that she finished. "She says I can see Mother again." Megan's mouth went suddenly dry, and it was a few moments before she could speak.
"How long has this been going on?" she said when her voice came back. "Ever since we came here." "Why didn't you tell anyone?" "I did, but you didn't believe me!" And Flora threw her arms around Megan's neck. Putting her own arms around the girl, Megan rocked her back and forth, and while she did she thought. "This other nurse, what's she like?" "She's very nice. But she scares me sometimes, too. She asks me to leave with her, and sometimes I want to, but I'm always afraid." Something else about the story particularly troubled Megan, but it took a moment to put her finger on it.
"You say she comes in your window?" "Yes." "Your window is on the second story." Flora's eyes were very wide. "I know," she said. *** Bryn put the kettle on.
Megan stayed close to the stove. It was a warm night, but she felt chilled anyway. For a while neither of them spoke. Bryn looked anxious and held onto the sideboard like it was the only raft in the ocean.
"Don't look so trapped," she said. "Sir Rowland isn't here." "Someone could still see me." "You're not a dog. You're allowed in the house." "People will talk. If they talk to Sir Rowland—" "He already knows about us." "You told him?!" "No, but he can figure it out on his own. He was young once." Bryn looked even more uncomfortable. Megan put her hand over his. "Thank you for coming. I can't stand being alone in here anymore, but I don't dare leave the children by themselves.
They're asleep in the study." "Why there?" "I certainly wasn't going to put them back in the same room after what Flora told me. I wanted them somewhere where I'm close." She considered her next words carefully. "This house and these woods, are they.haunted?" "Yes," Bryn said.
"But not by ghosts, exactly." "Okay. Whatever they are, are they dangerous?" "Oh yes." "Then we have to leave. Will you help me take the children to town tonight?" Bryn stared. "Are you mad? When Sir Rowland comes back—" "I'll take the blame." "And he'll turn you out, and who'll protect the children then?
Mrs. Rhoslyn?" That silenced Megan. She sat at the small table in the servant's kitchen, wringing her hands. The kettle whistled and Bryn poured the steaming water over the leaves. Megan wrapped her hands around the entire teapot. "You're thinking about this all wrong," Bryn said. "Let's say you lived by a river. A river can be a danger, but you don't go running away from it." "But you might warn children not to play by it." "And they'll play by it anyway and most likely be fine, just like when you were that age.
This is no different. "This land all belonged to the hill people first. This house was built out of trees from their forests. Its foundations are stones from out of their mountains. My flowers grow from the seeds they planted here a thousand years ago. They come and go as they please." "You should have told me about all this." "I did, but you had to see a little of it for yourself to understand. That's the way of things. You're outsiders." "Sir Rowland's family has owned this land for generations." "But they've never really lived here until now.
It's the living that makes the difference." Megan drank her tea too fast and burned her mouth. Putting her cup down, she sat on his lap and threw her arms around his neck.
He seemed almost startled but wrapped his arms around her and comforted her as best he could. Then he said, "I have to leave." She pulled away.
"What do you mean?" "I'm going to find work in town." Megan gaped. "I don't understand." "You told me not to let you hurt me. So I'm not. Tomorrow morning I'll be gone." "I am not hearing this," Megan said.
"There's no—" "You can't really just be leaving me here in the middle of all this? I need you." "You need someone to use." "That's not—" But she couldn't finish.
It was not, she was sure, entirely fair, but it wasn't entirely unfair either. "All right," she said. "Do what's best for you. Just hold me now. Kiss me." "I'm not—" "Do it," she said, and before he could object again her mouth was right there on his and they fell into each other, hot breath mingling.
He tried to pull away but she brought him back, and before long the kisses went wild. She was still sitting on his lap and felt the rise there. She slipped a hand between his legs and he grunted. "We shouldn't be doing this." he said. "Does that mean stop?" She gave him a squeeze, and when he said nothing she accepted that as surrender. Dropping to her knees she unlatched his belt and tugged at his trousers. Bryn peered at the doorway, anxious, but Megan paid it no mind. She took him in one hand and licked the curved length of his cock from top to bottom.
The pulse right at the base throbbed against her lips. "What are you doing?" "What does it look like?" Megan said, sliding her tongue along him again and listening for the involuntary gasp when she came to the tip. "You never—" "Stranger things have happened." She sucked her lips around it and drew her mouth tighter, until it gleamed even in the feeble, flickering light in the little kitchen.
She eased it into her open mouth slowly, so that she wouldn't choke. She found it wasn't unpleasant. When she sucked it made a sound that was almost funny but sent a hot flush all down the front of her. As she moved her head up and down she snuck a glance at Bryn and was surprised by the look on his face.
He seemed positively helpless. When she sped up he almost rose up out of his seat entirely. When he actually did stand she nearly fell over. He pulled his trousers back up and fumbled with his belt. Megan reached for him again but he but slapped her hand away.
"What's wrong?" "I told you I'm leaving, and you're not going to change that." "I wasn't trying to." She put her hand against him again. "Let me finish. Can't I at least do that?" "It won't make any difference." "Then there's no harm in it," she said, backing him into the wall. He hadn't quite gotten his belt undone and she slid her hand inside his trousers again, wrapping all of her fingers around him. He still felt wet and slippery from her mouth. "If this is really the last night we're going to be together then don't you want to enjoy it?" she said.
"I'm not afraid to admit I need you. I'm alone and scared, and I need you. So what do I need to do to get you to stay with me a few more hours?" She saw that he was holding his breath, so she squeezed him harder and began stroking his hard, helpless cock up and down.
It responded with increased gusto, even as he seemed to want to shrink away. "Let's go to the cottage," he eventually said. She shook her head and squeezed the tip of him harder. "I can't leave the twins alone in the house." He was throbbing hard in her hand now. She imagined how he'd feel dribbling between her fingers and was surprised by how pleasing she found the image.
What would he do if he saw her licking it off her fingers one at a time…? "The study…" Bryn whispered. "Are you mad? We can't go—" "No, I mean I hear something in the study." They both turned. The candles flickered and almost went out. Releasing him, Megan ran to the door.
"Don't go in there," Bryn said. "I have to." "Don't!" Bryn said again, but the children were in there, so she went, and she heard him a few steps behind him, though even the way he walked betrayed his reluctance. The window in the study was open. The curtains stirred. Miles and Flora were asleep on an old day bed.
Someone else was sitting on it. It was a woman with her hair tied back in a bun. She was short, with a strange, hunched posture and arms that looked somehow too long. She faced the wall. The cushion sank under her weight, but only a little. Bryn shrank in the doorway.
Swallowing her fear, Megan said, "Who are you?" The woman's voice was so low she could barely make it out. "A visitor," she said.
Megan squared her shoulders. "You're not wanted here." "Neither are you." "Who are you people?" "Children of the land of Gwydion. The faithful of Gwynn ap Nudd. Defenders of the Craig y Ddinas." A sick feeling turned Megan's stomach over. The children stirred and fretted, as if troubled in their dreams.
"Just get out of here," Megan said. "Leave the children alone." The woman stood with jerky motions, like a marionette pulled on strings. There was, Megan was sure, a faint luminosity about her, a pale green color, like marsh gas. "This place is ours," the strange woman said. "We are the lords here. The owners." Megan held up her rosary. She thrust it at the woman and, as loud as she dared, she said, "Go away!" The shape of the woman jittered, and she made a noise like a goat bleating under the butcher's knife, and then she was gone, leaving only a haze of marsh light that shortly faded.
Megan waited to see if anything new emerged, but nothing did. The children still slept, like little enchantments. Megan fingered her rosary over each of them again and felt a bit braver.
Turning back to the doorway, she saw that Bryn was gone. She closed the window, latching it tight. But when she brushed the curtains aside she saw the hill on the west of the property and the copse of trees at the top, and then she shivered: There were lights all over it. Pale green lights. And as she watched, she realized they were dancing. *** Sunday morning.
Megan paced in the study, tugging the cuffs of her sleeves. Peter was at his account books, silent except for the sound of his pen scratching the page. He looked even more tired now than before he'd left. He'd come back late and put her off several times, and now she waited for him to finish with the books, rehearsing what she wanted to say.
Finally he looked up at her. His eyes were very sad. "All right," he said, and nodded. Megan swallowed. "I know it might not be my place." "Just get to it." "Things have happened while you're gone. I'm not really sure how to tell you." "Megan, I'm not an idiot. I know." She blinked. "You do?" "This is about the gardener boy. I know he's gone. If you want to follow him, I won't stand in your way. You're both young. I assumed someone would come along." It took a moment for her to realize what he was saying.
"Oh! No, it's nothing like that." Now Peter blinked. His voice took on an edge of uncertainty. "So you're not.leaving?" Megan took his hand, squeezing his large fingers and kissing the backs of his knuckles, never mind the smell of ink. "Certainly not." Some color came back into Peter's face. "Ah. Well. I'm pleased." "But I'm terribly worried about the children. I think it would be better if we moved them back to the city." "Why?" "This place isn't good for them.
And there's something that I." Her voice quavered. "Peter, if I told you everything you would call me mad, but I'm frightened. There are terrible things here, and I think Flora and Miles are in danger every second.
I can't say anything else, but I couldn't keep quiet about it either." She hung her head a bit. Peter paused for a moment, mulling this over. He closed the ledger and went to the window. The garden below was a carnival of yellow sun and flower petals. He breathed deep, as if trying to inhale the essence of the place, and then he said, "All right." Megan felt a knot untie itself in her chest.
"We'll go?" she said. "I don't understand what you're saying, but yes, if you feel this strongly then we can go. I know how much you care about the twins. We came here because…I don't know why, really. Something about family. After their mother… well, I don't think this place is really doing any good for all of us after all, is my point.
So we'll go." "Oh, Peter. Thank you." "It will take a few days to put everything in order. In the meantime, if you really think there's any danger then make sure one of the staff is with the children all the time. I trust that you'll eventually tell me what this is all about?" "I will.
I'm so relieved that I.excuse me, I'm sorry." If she said anything more she would probably cry, so instead she kissed his hand again. "Go tell the children," Peter said. "And…if you want the garden boy to come with us I'm sure we can find something for him to do in the city." Megan almost tripped on her dress.
"Oh. I." But this was no time to think about that (if there even was a time?), so she left without saying more. She had a spring in her step as she went to the kitchens. Even meeting Mrs. Rhoslyn there could not spoil her mood. She appeared to be baking. "Bakestones," she said. "Try one." Megan accepted and found they were good. Mrs. Rhoslyn talked while she picked one apart. "I hear you've lost your young man." "I'm sure I don't know who you mean, but it would be none of your business even if I did." "Don't be tart.
I was just going to say what a shame it was. He has a good head on his shoulders. And good shoulders, for that matter. "Do you know what tonight is?" Mrs. Rhoslyn wiped her flour-covered fingers on her apron. "It's Midsummer's Eve. Sneaks right up on you when you're not paying attention, doesn't it? My father once met a gwyllion on the road one Midsummer's Eve. I don't suppose you know what a gwyllion is?" Megan did not. "Trouble is what they are," was all Mrs. Rhoslyn would say.
"Led my poor father quite a chase. He didn't hold any grudge, though. He knew he oughtn't to have been out on a mountain road on that of all nights." Megan had finished the cake by now and brushed her hands off.
"What exactly are you saying, Mrs. Rhoslyn?" "Only that it can be a bad night for strangers. If they're not careful." The lingering taste of the cake seemed bitter in Megan's mouth now. Megan tucked the children back in their old bedroom that night, since the study had proved no safer.
Then she paced the hall, chewing her fingernails. A few more days in this place. It didn't feel safe to sleep. She wanted to see Bryn, but of course he wasn't there. The idea of his little cottage dark and empty made her heart ache. A lump under the cushion made her jump up when she sat in the nearest chair. It turned out to be a heavy black book. She saw that it was one of Flora's storybooks, though now that she looked at it she could not recall ever having seen this particular one until a week ago, and was not sure where it had come from.
Opening it, she found that a few pages were particularly worn. She recognized the story on the first: "'The fair Burd Ellen has been carried off by the fairies. She is now in the Dark Tower of the King of Elfland. It would take the boldest knight in Christendom to bring her back.' So the eldest brother of Burd Ellen set out for Elfland.
But long they waited, and longer still, and woe were the hearts of his brethren, for he came not back again." But the second she did not know: "In our Savior's time there lived a woman whose fortune it was to be possessed of nearly a score of children.
As she saw our blessed Lord approach her dwelling, being ashamed of being so prolific, she concealed about half of them. "But they never afterwards could be discovered, for as a punishment from heaven for hiding what God had given her she was deprived of them.
And it is said these, her offspring, have generated the race called fairies." It was a strange tale. Megan read it twice more but could not make sense of it. She flipped back and forth between the two stories, murmuring to herself. Missing children. Tiny footsteps drew her attention. She spotted Flora's curls and one bright blue eye peeking around a corner, and then she heard a giggle as the girl ran off again.
Megan frowned. How had she gotten out of bed? She called out: "Get back here this instant." More giggles. "I'm warning you." The tiny footsteps ran off the other way. Opening the door she found Miles, at least, still under the covers, but he was awake and looked troubled.
She stroked his hair. "What's wrong?" "Flora's gone." "She's running around past her bedtime. I'll get her." "No," Miles said.
"She's gone." And he pointed. The window was open. A tense feeling that had been hanging over Megan all week snapped. Her knuckles whitened on Miles' arm. "Go find your father," she told Miles. "Right now." Miles went. Megan stepped into the hall. The sound of footsteps led to the library. Creeping along with the candle in front of her, she pushed on the door. There was Flora, doll in hand, bent over some old books on the floor.
The empty spot on the shelves was up near the ceiling. Megan swallowed. "Come here," she said, careful to keep her voice steady. The girl looked up but didn't come, hugging her doll to her chest. "Did you say your prayers tonight?" Megan said.
Flora nodded. Her curls bounced. "Let's say them again, just to be sure." Megan held her rosary out. Flora looked at it. "I don't feel like it," she said. "Be a good girl," Megan said. She moved a step closer, rosary in hand.
Flora backed away. "Just take it," Megan said. "No." "Take it." "I said no!" "Flora, you take it right now or I'll—" "You'll do WHAT, you prying bitch?!" Flora's face stretched like melting candle wax. She threw the doll down and ran, and when she reached the wall she passed right through it. A green haze marked the spot where she'd stood. Megan grabbed a chair to keep from fainting.
She realized she was holding the rosary so tightly that it hurt, but she didn't let go. Taking one deliberate step at a time, she went to the dining room. Mrs. Rhoslyn found her halfway there. "Get Peter," Megan said. "Get the hounds ready. We have to find Flora." "I'm sure Sir Rowland's gone to bed already," Mrs. Rhoslyn said. "You're not listening: Flora is gone. She's run away with the hill people, or they've taken her.
We have to." But her voice trailed off in a slur. Something was wrong. She almost fell, but Mrs. Rhoslyn caught her. Holding Megan up, she shook her and then held her eyelids open, looking at her pupils.
She was talking, but it was a moment before the words registered: ".bakestones finally kicking in. It won't hurt you. It'll just see that you sleep the night through, for your own good." Megan tried to mumble a question but the words came out thick and jumbled. "Sir Rowland had two an hour ago, so you won't raise a peep out of him. Just let it happen." Mrs. Rhoslyn appeared to be gently lowering her to the floor. Through the drowsiness Megan produced a word: "Flora." Mrs. Rhoslyn sighed.
"It's Midsummer. They have to have their tithe. The Good Lord only knows the sorts of things they'll do to the rest of us if we don't let them." Megan tried to focus. The room was spinning.
Her body felt like a dead thing. She was lying, she realized, beneath one of the portraits of Lady Rowland. She was sure she was imagining that its expression had changed to one of sadistic triumph. She willed herself to stand. It was slow going. Mrs. Rhoslyn had let her here. Step by clumsy step, leaning on the walls to keep from falling over and praying all the while that she'd make it before her strength came out, Megan crept down the hall, through the entryway, down the front steps and into the gardens.
The flowers, it seemed, were all alight, and the way they bent and bobbed in the breeze suggested a dance, though Megan wondered if perhaps the poison had made her delirious. By the time she came to the foot of the hill she had to crawl. She was certain now that phantom lights really were dancing among the trees. The night forest was a foggy mass of unreal colors, blues and pale greens and decayed yellows. She heard music and the sound of feet shuffling in strange dances.
Her body hurt. She wanted very much to lie down and sleep, but she had to find Flora first. What she would do then she had no idea, but still she crept inch by painful inch through the haunted forest, following the music.
Up ahead, in a clearing, she thought she saw Flora dancing barefoot in the grass, spinning in a wild circle around a maypole, and with her some dozen others, oddly shaped and oddly dressed. Megan tried to call out but she had no more strength left, and she fell in a heap among the leaves.
In a moment Flora was shaking her and saying her name, and some of the dark creatures were with her. "Get up," Flora said. "We'll make you better." Megan licked her lips. "Run away. Back to the house." Did she really speak, or did she only think she did? "The queen has magic that can make you all better," Flora said. "Can't you stand?" "Can't move." "We'll carry you." Crooked arms picked Megan up.
She tried to resist, but it was too hard. It took all her strength to stay awake, and soon she wouldn't even be able to do that. Flora was skipping along the path ahead of them. "They say Mother will be there.
We can all dance and sing and be a family. They promised." "Flora…" "Everything will be better now," Flora said. "I read it in the book. You'll see." Megan drifted in and out of consciousness.
When she woke next she was in a place she didn't recognize, a stone room, or perhaps a cave. The light here was bright and frightening, and she heard terrible voices singing. Somewhere she thought she also heard Flora talking, and a woman whispering, but it was hard to tell what was real now. "We'll take you where there's a fair castle, and the best appointed troops, and minstrels who know every kind of music, and youths and maidens of elegant aspect, and everything is magnificent." the woman said.
"But can't we stay here just a little longer?" said Flora, sounding doubtful. And the strange woman replied: No, no, no… Although she felt herself slipping away, Megan was sure she was going to live.
That frightened her. She didn't know where they were going, but she was sure she would rather not ever wake to see it.