Part I – Mages and Magic
Elizabeth Bennet leaned over the injured boy lying in the narrow bed. “What happened to you, Tommy?” She did not expect a useful answer. No one else had been able to tell her what had attacked them.
“Don’t know,” said the boy sullenly.
“I saw it.” A girl of perhaps five peeked out from behind the door. “It was a fay. It jumped out of the bushes, grabbed his leg, and bit him.”
Finally, someone who could confirm her guess! “What did it look like?”
The child considered. “It was one of the little ones with the red stocking hats.”
A redcap, as Elizabeth had suspected. “Thank you. That is very helpful.”
“Only babies see the fay,” Tommy sneered.
Elizabeth gently touched the skin around his wound. Hot. Too hot. “All children can see them when they are very young, but I know a few lucky people who have kept the ability to see fay folk all their lives.”
The little girl crept forward to stand by Elizabeth’s skirt. “I hope I can. I like the fay folk. We have a brownie.”
“I can tell,” said Elizabeth. The cottage was sparkling clean, inside and out, unlike many of the neglected cottages at Hunsford. “She does excellent work.” She nodded to the short, stocky creature who stood outside the window, polishing each pane. The brownie glared at her.
“Is this going to hurt?” asked the boy suspiciously.
“A little, but it should not be bad. Your mother was clever to rinse it out so quickly.” Elizabeth unpacked several vials from her satchel and handed one to Tommy’s mother. “Put two drops of this on his temples and rub it in slowly.” It would make no real difference, but it served as a good distraction while she performed her magic.
She sent her consciousness through her fingertips into the gaping maw of the bite. The fay poison had not traveled far, but the bite was alive with sparks of malicious magic. One by one she stubbed out the sparks and drew the poison to the surface.
“That stings!” the boy cried as she wiped a damp cloth over his wound to collect the poison.
“I am sorry.” Elizabeth folded the cloth over itself twice and handed it to Charlotte.
“Will he live?” Tommy’s mother, Mrs. Miller, asked, her voice trembling.
“I see no reason why he should not.” Elizabeth wrapped a thick bandage around his leg. “He is young and healthy. You should put a deadly nightshade vine around his leg above the wound, but not touching it. That will draw out the rest of the poison.” The nightshade would do nothing for the poison, but it would catch any sparks of malicious magic she might have missed. If only she did not have to hide her use of magic! “We will come again tomorrow to check on him.”
Mrs. Miller wrung her hands. “Why are the fay folk attacking us? They never used to hurt anyone. Now it isn’t safe to cross a field.”
“I wish I knew.” Elizabeth surreptitiously pinched out a stray spark of magic. “I remember when redcaps never bothered people unless they were attacked.”
The woman lowered her voice. “Is it safe, living in a house with a brownie?”
“Your brownie will not hurt you. I have only seen injuries from redcaps and elfshot. Staying away from trees and bushes may help to keep the children safe from redcaps.” Nothing could protect against elfshot, the terrifying projectile that seemed to come out of nowhere and ate its way to the victim’s heart. It was no wonder the villagers were panicking. “If he worsens, send for me at the parsonage.”
Tears filled the woman’s eyes. “Thank you. I will.”
Elizabeth followed Charlotte Collins out of the cottage. “Could you wait for a minute? There is something I need to do.” Beside her a fluffy white cat yawned and stretched.
“Of course,” said Charlotte.
Elizabeth walked around the outside of the cottage to the window where she had seen the brownie. The stocky fay was still there, scrubbing industriously at the window frame with a worn rag.
She scowled at Elizabeth. “What is it ye want?” she demanded. “I’ve work to do.”
“The bandage on the boy’s leg has iron shavings in it. I did not wish for you to burn yourself by touching it.”
“Iron shavings, forsooth,” grumbled the brownie. “Mortals are nothing but trouble.” With inhuman speed she reached out and scratched the side of Elizabeth’s neck with the pointed nail of her little finger. “Now be off wi’ ye, and take yon bit of bad luck with you.” She pointed at the white cat.
The cat hissed at her, turned and stalked away. Elizabeth followed her.
“What was that?” asked Charlotte. “Who were you talking to?”
“The brownie. I warned her about the iron shavings.” Elizabeth rubbed her skin where the brownie had scratched her.
Charlotte peered at her neck. “What happened?”
“The brownie marked me. It is a message, I think, to tell other fay that I helped her, but I could do without it.”
“I wish I could still see fay folk. I do not remember much about them from when I was little,” said Charlotte wistfully.
“And I wish I understood why they are attacking innocent children,” grumbled Elizabeth. “I hope the boy improves. Once Mr. Darcy arrives, I cannot afford to use magic on him again.”
“I doubt we will see much of Mr. Darcy. Lady Catherine will have less use for our company once her nephews are at Rosings,” said Charlotte.
“Her nephews? Is there another one besides Mr. Darcy?”
Charlotte nodded. “Lady Catherine told Mr. Collins yesterday that Mr. Darcy will be bringing his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, the son of the Earl of Matlock. That should work in your favor; Mr. Darcy will be spending his time with him. He may not even notice you are here.”
Elizabeth stopped short in horror. “The Earl of Matlock’s son? That is even worse! Lord Matlock is the Master of the Collegium of Mages. If Mr. Darcy confides his suspicions to his cousin, I am lost.” She tried to still her racing heart. “It is too dangerous. I cannot stay here.”
“Don’t be foolish, Lizzy. Leaving would be even more likely to draw their attention. Besides, you do not know that Mr. Darcy suspects you.”
“I cannot prove it, but why else would he always be watching me? He suspected me in Meryton and he wished to catch me in the act.” She had been so frightened of making a slip during those days at Netherfield.
“I remember, but I think he watched you for a completely different reason. He finds you attractive, Lizzy.”
“Nonsense. He finds me tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt him. He said so himself.” One more reason to dislike Mr. Darcy.
“Why are you so worried about Mr. Darcy? You never fretted so much over any of the mages near Meryton discovering you.”
“The Meryton mages have known me all my life and would likely be forgiving if they discovered my magic. Mr. Darcy disapproves of me. I was so relieved when he finally left Netherfield.”
“How could he have found you out? You are always careful not to let anyone see you use magic.”
Elizabeth closed her eyes. “Because I was foolish. I employed an illusion that first night at the assembly in Meryton, just a tiny illusion to cover a stain on my dress where Lydia spilled tea, but he must have noticed it. I risked everything for vanity.”
“Perhaps he noticed and did not care. Have you ever considered that?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “He paid too much attention to me for that. I will not be so foolish now. Oh, why could they not have waited to visit until after I left?”
“How clever of you to be acquainted with the new parson’s wife and her friend,” said Richard Fitzwilliam. “It gives us a good excuse to escape from Rosings. I always forget just how much I dislike the place.”
“You hide it well.” Darcy’s step was light. Soon he would be in the same room with Elizabeth, after all these dark months believing he would never see her again.
It had to be an improvement over the empty months of longing. Perhaps he would discover she was not as bewitching as he remembered, and she would stop haunting his dreams. Or perhaps he would once again experience the sheer delight of being in her presence, the shiver her low laugh sent down his spine, and the freedom of spirit only she could bring to him. Or perhaps when she saw him, her fine eyes would burn with a sultry look, and she would take him by the hand, lead him somewhere private, slide her hands under his coat and caress him as her lips feathered along the line of his jaw, sending a jolt of awareness and desire straight through his body as he finally captured those tempting lips with his own… Well, perhaps not that, but a man could dream.
How often had he awakened from fevered dreams of Elizabeth Bennet, dreams of pushing aside the fabric of her dress to reveal the untouched flesh below, dreams of her dark curls spread across his pillow as she moved beneath him?
Richard continued, “I can ignore Her Harridanship easily enough, but Anne would be a blow to any man’s pride. Not that she is any prize, but what man likes being around a woman who swoons in fear whenever he comes near her? What did I ever do to produce such terror in her? Jasper was the one who put crickets in her bed, not me.” He snorted in disgust. “The servants are the worst part. God knows I am accustomed to servants who spy on me, but the ones here are so, well, servile. All that abject boot licking turns my stomach, just like eating jellied eels does. Ugh. I would not be surprised to discover that they actually clean my boots by licking them.”
“Wait until you meet Mr. Collins. He has taken toadying to a high art. He cannot stop praising our aunt even when he is three counties away.”
Richard groaned. “I hope he is not at home, then. I do not need another dose of jellied eels.”
It was a constant mystery to Darcy why Richard could face Napoleon’s charging army without turning a hair, yet there were certain everyday people whose presence he could barely tolerate without feeling ill. They were never the people one would expect, either. Usually it was just some harmless busybody. But he could not deny that the abject, cringing behavior Lady Catherine demanded in those around her could be stomach turning. “Collins’s wife is a good enough sort. I cannot imagine what induced her to marry such a ridiculous man.”
“Money will make women do the strangest things. For example, Anne does not swoon when you approach her. I do not think it is merely your pretty face, cousin. Do you suppose that could be why she fears me? Perhaps she thinks I will try to compromise her for her money and snatch her and Rosings out of your hands.”
It was Darcy’s turn to groan. “Please do! I would be in your debt.”
“That would be a novel experience,” Richard grumbled. “Just think, I could spend every day of my life among servants who make my skin crawl. Delightful.”
They had reached the parsonage, so Darcy did not trouble himself to point out that Richard could hire new servants. His heart began to beat faster as he rapped on the door with the gold knob of his cane. Elizabeth was behind that door. He could tell she was there because the constant pressure of the elements around him was already starting to fade.
The maid showed them into a small sitting room where Elizabeth and the former Miss Lucas sat near a tiny fire. Darcy somehow managed to introduce Richard to them despite his every sense being overwhelmed by Elizabeth’s light and pleasing figure, the tiny dark curls along her neck that escaped from the restraint of her hairpins, the movements of the long, slender fingers on her small hands. Oh, to have those delicate fingers caressing his skin! If he did not restrain his thoughts, the direction of them would become all too apparent.
How was it that the air around Elizabeth seemed brighter than everywhere else in the room?
Her dark eyes were every bit as fine as he remembered, although the expression in them was not sultry, but wary. It was natural, he supposed. He had singled her out for attention at the Netherfield ball and then he had abandoned her. She must think he had deliberately toyed with her feelings. But she seemed well enough; her complexion was still rosy, and she did not appear to have lost weight, as he had.
Charlotte said, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Colonel. Lady Catherine often tells us about you and your family.”
Richard assumed an expression of mock dismay. “Pray permit me to guess.” He pressed his hand to his chest and said in falsetto, “My dear brother, the Earl of Matlock.”
Charlotte laughed. “To be fair, she has mentioned him once or twice without reminding us he is an earl – but only to remind us he is also a powerful mage.”
“I am all astonishment that she should ever forget!” said Richard.
Darcy felt pressure against his leg and looked down to see a white cat turning mismatched eyes to him. “Miss Elizabeth, did you bring your cat to Kent, or is this simply a close relative?”
Elizabeth smiled. “That is indeed my cat. She hates being separated from me. Since she does not mind curling up in a basket on the stage, I brought her with me.”
“I recall how she followed you across three miles of fields when you stayed at Netherfield.” Darcy reached down to scratch the cat’s head. Normally he did not care much for cats, but he had felt so peaceful when this one sat in his lap in the garden at Netherfield. Or perhaps he liked her simply because she was Elizabeth’s cat.
“I am impressed you remember her,” said Elizabeth.
“A white cat named Pepper is rather memorable.” Darcy could hardly say he had not forgotten anything about Elizabeth during the months since he had seen her at Netherfield. He had tried to forget her and failed, and now he could not stay away from her.
“You named a white cat Pepper?” asked Richard in surprise. Hearing her name, the cat sniffed at his boots.
“I cannot claim the credit,” said Elizabeth lightly. “She was given to me by a friend with an unusual sense of humor. I am fortunate she did not name her Bluebird or Elephant or something even less appropriate than Pepper.”
“Pepper is an unusual cat,” Elizabeth said archly.
Pepper abandoned Richard’s boots and jumped onto Darcy’s lap. Her fluffy tail tickled his chin as she turned around, curled up, and started to purr. Darcy’s muscles relaxed as he stroked her back. The purr grew louder.
Mrs. Collins handed Richard a cup of tea. “Are you a mage like your father?”
“Of a sort,” said Richard. “My magic cannot compare to his. A good thing, since otherwise
I would have been forced to follow in his footsteps at the Collegium of Mages, and I am much happier in the Army.”
“It must be exciting to grow up with a father who is a mage,” said Mrs. Collins. “When I was a child, Mr. Bennet would occasionally create an illusion to entertain us, and I thought it the most marvelous thing in the world.”
A shadow crossed Elizabeth’s face so quickly Darcy thought he might have imagined it. She said, “My father no longer practices magery. For all I know, he may have resigned from the Collegium.”
Richard shook his head. “He would not resign. People would suspect he was dabbling in sorcery.”
“Surely that is no longer the case,” said Mrs. Collins. “There has not been a sorcerer in England in more than a century.”
“Only thanks to the Collegium, and the watchful eye it keeps on all mages to keep them from being tempted into sorcery.” Richard sipped his tea with the elegant grace his mother had instilled into him. “Good Lord, I sound just like my father! Heaven forbid.”
Mrs. Collins shivered. “Tempted into sorcery? Who would want to become a monster from our nightmares?”
“I doubt any of them set out to be evil. But have you never wished you could make someone do your bidding? For a mage, that is the road to sorcery, so we have outlawed casting spells on people.”
“At least on men,” said Elizabeth. Her normally smiling lips had a bitter twist to them.
Oh, no. Darcy wanted to kick himself. He should have seen that coming.
Richard fell into the trap. “Mages don’t cast spells on women or children, either.”
“Except for those unfortunate women who have magic,” Elizabeth said with finality.
Before Richard could reply, Mrs. Collins said firmly, “Lady Catherine was gracious enough to send us one of her cook’s delicious almond tarts. Lizzy, would you like a slice?” Her tone held a warning.
“I thank you, no.” Elizabeth sounded subdued.
“Mr. Darcy? Colonel Fitzwilliam?” She cut a slice for each of the gentlemen. “I hope Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh are in good health.”
“Indeed they are,” said Richard a little too heartily. “Lady Catherine is very pleased with the state of Anne’s health. She has told us that at least four times since we arrived yesterday.”
As if being in good health meant someone who swooned twice a day and could barely complete a thought before being distracted by something else! Darcy would much rather be with Elizabeth, even though he would pay for it later with tortured dreams.
Elizabeth did not seem to have recovered her spirits. She had not even touched her tea. Had she missed him as much as he had longed for her? Was it painful for her to be thrown into his company, knowing there could be no future? Poor Elizabeth! If only he had the right to make her smile again.
Absently he continued to stroke her cat. It was as close as he was ever likely to come to touching her.
“Lizzy, what were you thinking?” exclaimed Charlotte in exasperation. “Were you trying to expose yourself?”
Elizabeth looked away. “I know. I was not thinking.”
“You most certainly were not! Two mages, and you immediately inform them that their treatment of women with magic is unfair. They are not stupid, Lizzy. What if they tell Lady Catherine what you said? It could bring trouble for me as well.”
As if she did not feel frightened enough about her slip already! “I truly am sorry. I just could not bear it when the Colonel went on about how the enlightened Collegium will not permit spells on people’s minds – at least when it suits them. I had stayed out of the discussion until then. Perhaps I should return to London early, and you can tell Lady Catherine you sent me away because of my behavior.”
“Don’t be silly. It will come to nothing. Colonel Fitzwilliam seems to find Lady Catherine a subject for mockery. I doubt he would consult her on anything.”
“If you change your mind –” Elizabeth wished she would. It would be so much easier to leave all of this behind, but she had promised Charlotte this visit.
“I will not change my mind. I am happy to have you here.” Charlotte picked up Elizabeth’s full tea cup and placed it on the tray. “Was something wrong with the tea?”
Elizabeth shook her head. “No. It was simply not as hot as I like it. I had best accustom myself to it. I will be drinking a great deal of lukewarm tea until Mr. Darcy leaves Rosings Park.” Noticing Charlotte’s worried look, she added, “I do not mind lukewarm tea, to tell the truth. It simply made me angry that I could not heat it with magic as I usually do.”
“And then you did not want it at all, because you were so busy resenting Mr. Darcy.”
“How well you know me!” Elizabeth turned to her cat. “And you have turned traitor, Pepper. When did you become such a great friend of Mr. Darcy?”
“Mrowr.” Pepper nonchalantly began to wash herself.
Darcy took the path through the grove towards the parsonage. He had planned to call there with Colonel Fitzwilliam later in the day, but the thought of Elizabeth drew him in, moth to her flame, and he could not wait to be in her presence. She had seemed unhappy at the end of their visit yesterday, and he ached to relieve her distress.
He stopped in mid-stride. The elements were growing weaker, so Elizabeth had to be near, probably here in the grove. Darcy went still and listened. Yes, there were sounds from over to the left. He hurried on to reach the path in that direction.
There she was. He could see her light and pleasing figure past a clump of trees. A smile curved his lips. Elizabeth! She was looking down at something and seemed to be talking to it. Her cat, most likely. How very like Elizabeth to have conversations with her cat!
But as he rounded the curve, he discovered a little girl was skipping beside her, a tenant’s child, by the look of her. What was she doing on the private grounds of Rosings? Tenants were only allowed there if they were doing work.
He bowed. “Miss Bennet, this is a fortuitous meeting. I was on my way to call on you at the parsonage.” It came out sounding too stilted and formal.
Her cheerful expression faded. “You would have found no one there. Mrs. Collins is helping at a parishioner’s cottage, and I am assisting her by distracting young Meggy.”
Darcy examined the girl. Her clothes were clean and mended, at least, but her hands were grubby. “This is Meggy, I assume.” She certainly did not belong in the pleasure grounds.
The girl buried her face into Elizabeth’s skirt. “Am I in trouble?” she whimpered.
“Not at all,” Elizabeth said firmly. “Mr. Darcy, Meggy knows she is not supposed to come onto the Rosings grounds, but I told her it would be fine for her to come into the grove this one time with me. Her brother is very ill, and I wanted to show her something here.” She gave him a pleading look.
Ordinarily he did not approve of bending rules of this sort, but clearly Elizabeth had done it out of a charitable impulse. “You are not in trouble. As long as you are with Miss Bennet, you may come here.”
“You see, all is well.” Elizabeth smiled and mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to him. “Meggy, this is Mr. Darcy, Lady Catherine’s nephew, and he will not eat you up like the wicked wolf.”
The girl’s face emerged, but she kept hold of Elizabeth’s skirt. “Promise?” she asked Elizabeth shyly.
If being kind to the little girl meant smiles from Elizabeth, he intended to make the most of it. “I promise on my honor as a gentleman not to eat you up.”
“Oh.” The girl ducked her chin. “Or tell her ladyship?” Her tone made it clear that telling her ladyship was a worse threat than being eaten by the wicked wolf.
“Or tell her ladyship.”
Elizabeth said, “Thank you. Lady Catherine is an intimidating figure to some of the children here.”
Darcy chucked. “I can imagine. She intimidates many adults, too.”
“I was not going to say that,” Elizabeth said pointedly, but with a smile.
“I cannot imagine that you allow yourself to be intimidated by her,” Darcy said.
“Of course not,” Elizabeth said gravely. “It would be most ungenerous of me to let her intimidate me.”
This was much better. She was about to tease him. “I fail to see why it would be ungenerous.” He awaited her riposte.
She opened her eyes wide in mock innocence. “Why, if I were intimidated, I would be afraid to reveal my character flaws and the deficits in my education, and that would deprive Lady Catherine of the great joy of informing me of my failings and those of my parents. I do not think I have ever seen her as happy as when she is informing someone of their inferiority to her and instructing them on how they might improve.”
He tipped his head. “A veritable hit, Miss Bennet. I cannot deny Lady Catherine’s pleasure in correcting others, although I cannot believe she has found you in any need of correction.”
Her musical laugh sounded freer and more genuine than he had heard from her since arriving in Kent. “I beg to differ! I would be happy to list for you all the faults she has found in me, but I imagine Meggy might become impatient after the first hour or so of that.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Very neatly done! If I now suggest you cannot possibly have so many faults, you will ask me which faults I believe you do have.”
Elizabeth dramatically pressed her hand to her chest. “You have spotted my devious plan. Alas, that I should be too clever to please your aunt, and not clever enough for you!”
“Miss Bennet!” The girl tugged at Elizabeth’s arm, her face suddenly ashen.
Elizabeth bent down to speak to the girl. “What is it, Meggy?”
Meggy whispered something, a tear running down her cheek.
Elizabeth straightened and looked past Darcy with an odd, arrested expression. She reached surreptitiously into the reticule pinned to her waist.
“Is something the matter?” Darcy asked. There were no dangers in the grove, but perhaps this was a game.
“Mr. Darcy, I pray you to listen to me very carefully,” Elizabeth said urgently. “Remain still. Do not move a muscle.”
She darted around him, and he heard thrashing in the bushes. “You wretched little creature! You may not bite him,” she scolded. “Besides, he would taste sour.”
Shrill keening was followed by a squeaky voice shrieking, “Let me go! Let me go! It burns!”
So there really was something. Judging it now safe to move, Darcy turned to see Elizabeth holding up a creature no more than two feet tall by the back collar of its shirt. The fay’s tiny hands clung to his red stocking cap and his legs kicked wildly.
“Now listen to me,” said Elizabeth sternly. “This is my place and you cannot come here. If I find you anywhere nearby, I will do worse to you than this.”
“It burns! It burns!” the redcap squealed, displaying a mouthful of pointed teeth.
“Go, and do not return!” Elizabeth flung the creature into the bushes. Shrill howls echoed as it ran away.
“You can see redcaps?” Darcy was stunned.
She smiled ruefully. “I suppose I gave myself away. He was about to bite you. You have the ability to see the fay as well, then?”
“Guilty as charged, although I have never spoken to one. What did you do to him?”
She held up her hand, showing a few iron filings clinging to her palm. “I put iron shavings under his shirt. He will not forget that quickly.”
“Do you always carry iron shavings?” he asked.
She gave him an impudent smile. “Only when I think they might be useful.”
The little girl quavered, “Is it gone?”
“He is gone, Meggy, and he did not bite anyone.” Elizabeth looked up at Darcy. “Her brother was bitten by a redcap and is still very ill from the poison, so she is frightened of them now.”
Darcy frowned. Usually redcaps avoided people unless they were attacked. “Was your brother teasing the redcap?”
Meggy wiped away her tears, her grubby hand leaving a dirty streak across her cheek. “He wasn’t doing anything, just sitting by the hearth. He’s too old to see the fay, but I saw it.”
Darcy recoiled. “In your house? Do you not have wards to keep out malicious fay?”
Elizabeth made a face. “Lady Catherine has deemed it unnecessary to have the old wards renewed, except at Rosings, of course. She says fay folk will not come near a good Christian. Therefore, if anyone is troubled by the fay, it means they are not good Christians and unworthy of her protection.”
Darcy snorted. “That is ridiculous.”
“I know.” Elizabeth dusted the last of the iron filings from her hands. “Unfortunately, Meggy’s brother and the two other townsfolk who have been bitten are paying the price.”
“Three people have been attacked by redcaps?” asked Darcy in disbelief. “I have heard of recent fay attacks elsewhere, but here they always left people alone unless they were threatened.”
“No doubt that was true once. Something has changed, but I do not know what.” She wiped Meggy’s face clean with her handkerchief.
“Lady Catherine has said nothing about fay attacks,” he said, half to himself.
“I cannot think why. Even if no one has told her about the redcap bites, a man was killed by elfshot last month.” She sounded irritated.
“Meggy, I will make certain the wards on your house are renewed so you can be safe inside it.” What was Lady Catherine thinking to let the wards lapse?
“What do you say, Meggy?” prompted Elizabeth.
“Thank you, sir,” the girl whispered.
Elizabeth said, “I appreciate it, too, especially as there is no wisewoman here to treat illnesses caused by the fay. The poisoned bites would not have become so serious if there were one, but Lady Catherine forced the last wisewoman to leave. Charlotte and I gave the boy some herbal simples, but it is not the same.”
Darcy’s mouth twisted. “A wisewoman? You mean a hedge witch?”
Elizabeth stiffened. “You may call them that if you choose,” she said coolly. “Meggy, perhaps we should go on instead of bothering Mr. Darcy.”
He did not want her to leave, especially not when she was unhappy with him. “Wait! I did not mean to offend you.”
She thawed a bit. “Wisewomen are insulted by that term. Most of them have spent a lifetime learning their craft, and if they do live in the hedges, it is because mages have left them no other choice,” she said defiantly. “The wisewoman near Longbourn is very knowledgeable about healing and she has saved lives.”
“You are perhaps under misapprehension. I have no objection to hedge – to wisewomen as long as they do no sorcery.”
She eyed him suspiciously. “That is very generous of you.” This time there was definitely irony in her voice.
He did not want to be in conflict with her. Perhaps it would please her if he talked to the girl again. “Meggy, have you seen anything interesting here in the grove?”
The girl shook her head and buried her face in Elizabeth’s skirt again. Why was she frightened now?
“We might as well confess, since I have already been caught out,” said Elizabeth with a rueful laugh. “Meggy wanted to see a dryad.”
Darcy eyed her doubtfully. Was she teasing him? “I have never seen a dryad here.”
“They are probably shy of you.” Elizabeth absently rubbed her neck just below her ear. “I see them here most days, tending to the trees.”
Was this a fanciful story she was weaving to amuse the girl? “I am sorry if I have chased away your entertainment. Is there something I can do to make the dryads more comfortable?”
She drew her brows together. “Will you promise not to hurt them?”
“Of course. They are doing no harm, are they?”
“No. Perhaps if you and Meggy sit on the bench, I can convince one to come out.”
Now she was definitely pretending. How could Elizabeth Bennet draw out the fay? “Very well.” He walked to the stone bench and sat down. Meggy timidly joined him, careful to sit as far from him as she could. At least the girl seemed to know her place.
Elizabeth went past them, off the path, and into the trees. “If there is a dryad here, I would count it a great kindness if you would permit yourself to be seen by my friends. The little girl is very worried about her ill brother, and she has always wished to see a dryad, even if only for a moment.” She returned to sit between the two of them.
Now Darcy appreciated the little girl’s presence, since it meant Elizabeth had to sit close enough to him that he could feel the pressure of her arm against his and catch the aroma of sweet lavender she wore. He would believe any faerie story she wished if she would stay this close to him.
“Will they come?” whispered Meggy.
“Perhaps they will, and perhaps not,” said Elizabeth kindly. “They are shy around mortals.”
“Look!” Wide-eyed, the girl pointed at a large oak, where several strips of turquoise silk fluttered in the breeze.
How had Elizabeth managed to set that up so quickly? It was clever, though. Now the girl would go home happy, thinking she had seen a dryad.
Then Darcy caught his breath as half of a pale, elongated face with tip-tilted eyes and high cheekbones peeked out from behind the oak. An unnaturally slender arm, half hidden by floating silk, reached out and beckoned to the child.
“Go to her,” urged Elizabeth, who did not seem surprised by the apparition. “She will not hurt you.” Her hand descended on Darcy’s arm, warning him not to move.
Meggy’s mouth hung open in shock as she hesitantly tiptoed towards the dryad. The fay creature stepped out from the oak, dressed in filmy silks that only half concealed her delicate legs. She took the child’s hands and leaned down to press a kiss on her forehead. Then she disappeared behind the oak again.
Elizabeth called out to the empty air, “I will not forget your kindness and generosity.”
“How did you do that?” asked Darcy in astonishment.
A gentle smile lit Elizabeth’s face. “Just good fortune. I am surprised she did so much, as they never approach me. Perhaps it was because I asked on behalf of a child.”
Meggy returned to them, looking half mesmerized. “She was so beautiful,” she sighed.
Darcy said slowly, “I have never been so close to one of the fay. Usually I only see them at a distance.”
Elizabeth’s lips quivered. “Perhaps it is because you are a mage,” she said archly. Then she looked away. “But usually that is all I see as well. Come, Meggy, I should take you back to your mother now that you have seen your dryad.”
He did not want her to leave, not so soon after that magical moment. “May I walk with you?”
“If you wish,” she said guardedly.
“I would like to see the location of these cottages that need their wards renewed.” That was a good reason.
She seemed to relax a little. “Very well.”
The boy Tommy was feverish today, a bad sign, but Elizabeth felt none of the tingling sensation of magic when she laid her hand on his ankle. Unwrapping the bandage revealed red, swollen skin above the wound and two red streaks traveling up his leg. She laid the back of her fingers against one of the red streaks. Burning hot.
“Infected,” she said quietly to Charlotte.
“Can you do anything to help?”
Elizabeth grimaced. “Very little under my current limitations.” If only Mr. Darcy would go away! Then she could use her magic to give the boy a fighting chance.
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” asked Mrs. Miller.
“It isn’t good. How long has he had the fever?” asked Elizabeth.
“It started last night.”
Elizabeth bit her lip. “I had best clean the wound. Is there a basin of water?” She took out clean rags and some herbal simples from her satchel, more for something to do than because she thought they might help.
If she did nothing, the infection might improve on its own, but more likely it would progress. The leg would have to be amputated – most surgeons would be suggesting that already – and even then Tommy might die. If she used her magic, he would have a better chance of recovery, but there would be no guarantee. But if Mr. Darcy caught her using magic, he would put her under a binding spell, and she would lose everything that made her herself. She had seen Mrs. Goulding after she was spell-bound. It had made her slow-witted, nervous, and fretful. It was a choice between her mind and Tommy’s leg, if not his life.
If only she knew more about the abilities of mages! They were half a mile from Rosings. Would Mr. Darcy be able to sense her using magic from that far? Perhaps she was worrying too much. If mages could sense magic half a mile away, they would have caught every woman with magic years ago. But Mr. Darcy had been watching her so closely. Did that make a difference?
Perhaps she could wait until late tonight when Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam would likely be asleep. But how would she explain to the boy’s mother that she wished to treat him in the middle of the night rather than now? The infection could be much worse by then, too.
“This is going to hurt.” She dipped a rag into the water his mother had brought and began to gently cleanse the bite wound.
The boy moaned. “Make it go away!”
“Not much more now, Tommy. You are being very brave.” It hurt to see his suffering.
She had to do it. If she did not take the risk, she would never be able to look at herself in a mirror again. Magic was the only thing she could do to help him, so she would use magic and hope that the distance from Rosings was enough that the mages there would not notice.
Elizabeth placed her fingers on Tommy’s ankles and felt for his life force. There it was, a little weak, but it was enough to work with.
A knock at the cottage door broke her concentration. As the boy’s mother answered it, Elizabeth lifted her hands. Better to wait until they were alone again.
A familiar voice said, “I am Darcy, the nephew of Lady Catherine de Bourgh. I am here to renew the wards on your cottage.”
Elizabeth jumped backwards, her heart pounding. Thank God she had not truly started yet! Her stomach churned at her narrow escape. She surreptitiously pulled the blanket over Tommy’s wound.
“Oh, come in, Mr. Darcy,” said Mrs. Miller. “We would be very grateful to have the wards renewed.”
Darcy ducked his head to step inside the cottage. “I did not realize you had callers.” He bowed to Elizabeth and Charlotte.
“Young Tommy is very ill,” said Charlotte. “We came to see if there was anything we could do to help.”
“I am sorry to hear it. Is this the boy who was bitten by a redcap?” he asked Elizabeth.
“Yes.” Oh, why had she told him anything about the boy?
Charlotte appeared to reach a decision and stepped closer to whisper something to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth took advantage of his distraction to fade further back into the shadows. She could hardly believe he had almost caught her in the act of using magic.
“I have no particular talent for healing, but I know the basic spells for treating common problems,” Darcy told Charlotte.
“Would you condescend so far as to see if Tommy’s injury is something you might be able to help with?”
Darcy moved to stand at Elizabeth’s side. “Do you think it is a fay spell?” he asked her quietly.
She somehow managed to find her voice. “It started that way, but now the problem is infection.”
“There is a spell for drawing out infection. It rarely solves the problem completely, but it often improves matters. I could try that.”
Why was he looking at her? “Mrs. Miller, Mr. Darcy is a mage. Would you like him to use magic on Tommy’s wound?”
“I’d take help from the devil himself,” said Mrs. Miller, her eyes filling with tears. “It’s that worried I am.”
Elizabeth carefully drew back the blanket to reveal the injury.
Mr. Darcy studied Tommy’s leg, looking at it first from one direction and then another. With a pained expression, he pushed aside the deadly nightshade vine. “What nonsense,” he muttered. He began murmuring in Latin, dipped his forefinger into the water and put two drops side by side above the wound and two just below. Elizabeth felt the tingle of building magic as he passed his hand over the wound.
Nothing seemed to happen as Darcy finished reciting the spell. He said, “Now we must wait for the poisons to flow out of the wound. It may take some time.” But a cloudy fluid was already beginning to fill the bite. “I can check the wards in the meantime.”
He paced along the wall and stopped near a corner. He turned his back on the others to begin the warding spell. Elizabeth could not make out the hand gestures he made, and he was apparently careful not to speak the spell itself loud enough to be overheard. Elizabeth curled her lip. Typical mage behavior, making certain no one else could learn their skills.
She refused to stand there and gawk at him. Instead she tended to Tommy, wiping away the fluid trickling out of the bite. The red streaks running up his leg were already beginning to fade. Nothing she could have done would have worked so quickly or so well. It should have relieved her, but instead anger surged through her. It was not fair. Darcy had the opportunity to study magery and to learn skills and spells instead of having to fumble to discover how to use his magic. Not fair at all.
Elizabeth was still seething when she and Charlotte left the cottage, long after Darcy had finished renewing the wards. “I am glad for Tommy’s sake, but the Millers could never have afforded to pay a mage to heal him. Darcy happened to be feeling charitable, or more likely he wanted to look charitable, and so he deigned to help out. I would help boys like Tommy without charging money, but I am not permitted to learn how to do so, and I can be punished if I even dare to try. It is infuriating!”
“Still, it was kind of him to help when I asked,” said Charlotte reasonably. “He need not have obliged. And it is not his fault that women cannot receive the same training as men.”
“No, but he is content to be part of the Collegium that enforces those rules,” Elizabeth muttered. “I cannot forgive him for that.”
Darcy hurried through the gate to the formal gardens of Rosings Park. It was faster that way and would give him a chance to change his clothes before calling on Elizabeth. Would her warm smiles be back now that she had seen him help the sick boy?
He had just reached the Italian Garden when he felt her presence, that subtle relaxing of the pressure of the elements, and his yearning hunger for her began grow. Then he saw her, perched on the edge of the fountain, her gloves beside her and her fingertips trailing in the pool. It made an enchanting picture, one that took his breath away, at least until she spotted him and pulled her hand out of the water.
Darcy halted and bowed, pleasure in every breath now that he was in her presence. “Good day, Miss Elizabeth. I had not realized you were fond of these gardens.”
“In general, I prefer the grove, but today I was in the mood for flowers planted in straight lines. Lady Catherine told me I might walk in the gardens whenever I pleased so long as I was in no one’s way.” She added archly, “I hope I am not in your way.”
It would be unwise to tell her just how much he liked having her in his way. “Not at all. I am on my way back from the village, and this route is more direct than the road.”
“It is kind of you to renew the wards. I would not have imagined you would take that kind of work on yourself.” There was a slight edge to her voice.
Was she implying it was beneath him? Of course, he would usually think so, too. “The villagers need protection during these fay attacks, and I have a certain responsibility for the tenants of Rosings, including the village.”
She tilted her head. “Is that not Lady Catherine’s duty?”
“She does much of the day-to-day estate management because she prefers it that way, and I have seen no reason to interfere, but the estate belongs to Miss de Bourgh, and I am her guardian.” If only he could kiss her rosy lips instead of making nonsensical chatter!
“You are? It must be challenging to be guardian to a woman your own age.”
“My father was originally named as her guardian. I inherited the responsibility after his death.” It was a nuisance he would generally prefer to avoid, but it was that same guardianship that had forced him to come to Rosings each year, and without that he would not have seen Elizabeth again.
“I hope Lady Catherine has not objected to the wards being renewed.”
“I did not discuss the matter with her. It needed to be done, and so I have done it. Unless she wishes to dig each ward out of the walls, she has little choice but to tolerate it.” He did not want to waste his time with Elizabeth talking about his aunt or the wards.
Elizabeth reached behind her to trail her fingers in the fountain pool again. It was at once innocent and sensual, the movement exposing the curves of her body. She could have been a water nymph sitting there, and he was the Greek god desperate to possess her. How could he keep himself from touching her, twining his fingers with hers and then moving on to stroke her shapely arms, his body demanding more and more from her –
With a cry of surprise, Elizabeth yanked her hand out of the water, staring at it in shock.
“What is the matter?” Darcy asked.
“The water! Only my fingertips were in it, but the water crept up my hand and wrist!” Her disturbance was evident. “Did you cast a spell?” she accused.
“Not a spell as such, but it is my fault.” How could he have lost control like that? He wanted to sink into the ground. “My magic is elemental, and water has a particular affinity for me. When I am this close to a body of water, it can misbehave unless I make an effort to keep it quiet. I failed to pay sufficient attention to it, and I apologize for that.”
Elizabeth continued to stare down at her hand. “Water is not alive. How can it have an affinity for you?”
“Lodestones are not alive, either, yet they turn to point to the north. Natural philosophers have argued about water’s affinity for centuries. Some would say that my presence agitates the aetheric vibrations which keep the water in place. Others would say it is a relic of some fay traces in my blood. I have yet to see a convincing explanation of why I can do this.” He pressed his palms together and slowly separated them by a foot or so. The water in the fountain obediently retreated to each side, leaving a dry space in the middle.
Elizabeth eyed him warily. “That is uncanny. And it is not a spell?”
“No, although there are spells which could do similar things. I simply concentrate on the water and what I wish it to do. Left to itself, without my efforts to keep it quiet, it would do this.” He crossed his arms and withdrew from the constant calming refrain in his mind.
The water inched towards him, splashing over the edge of the fountain and running in rivulets towards his boots. It was slower than usual, most likely because Elizabeth’s odd ability to suppress some of his effect on the elements. “That is why I say it has an affinity for me.” He resumed his calming thoughts and the water stopped splashing out of the fountain. “My moods can affect water, too.” He never told people these things, but she ought to know what she would be facing if he offered for her.
Elizabeth touched one of the rivulets. “Not an illusion, then,” she said, as if to herself. “But I have never seen that happen to you before.”
“Usually I am telling the water not to do that.”
“All the time?” She sounded disbelieving.
“All the time. I had a very wet childhood until I learned to control it.”
That seemed to amuse her. “I suppose it is a useful skill to have.”
“No. It is not useful at all.” He had not meant to sound abrupt, but the subject rankled. “Apart from parlor tricks like these and telling people the best place to dig a well, I am forbidden from using it.”
“Forbidden? By whom?”
“The Collegium. It is a dangerous ability and easy to misuse. If there is drought in my lands and I draw water to my wells, someone else’s wells go dry. If I divert floodwaters from my doorstep, another house is flooded as a result. And while water is my primary affinity, I can also set fires with a thought. I am forbidden that, too.”
She nodded slowly. “They are afraid of you.”
“Rightly so. I could wreak havoc if I chose.”
“So they are willing to trust you to follow their rules, but not to use your powers wisely.”
And that was why it rankled. “More or less.”
She turned her hand palm up and looked down at it. “I do not understand one thing. Why did the water go up my arm instead of moving towards you?”
Of course Elizabeth had seen that one flaw in his explanation. How could he extricate himself from this predicament? Perhaps he should simply say he did not know. Or perhaps it was a sign that he should stop fighting the inevitable. “I was thinking about your arm. The water must have followed my thoughts.”
She stood, color rising on her cheeks. “Mr. Darcy, I believe it is time for me to go.”
He held up his hand. “Wait, I beg you. I meant no disrespect.”
“You were respectfully thinking about my arm? I am not a fool, Mr. Darcy. Good day.”
He dodged around her to block her path. He could not allow her to leave him in anger. “I assure you my intentions are honorable.” The words had spilled out before he had known what he was saying.
She turned slowly to face him again, her eyes wide. “What did you say?” she asked dubiously.
He had started, and now he must go on. “I had not meant to speak today, but apparently I must, since my feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you. I have wished to make you my wife since shortly after we met, and my feelings have only grown stronger since then. I have fought against them. I cannot deny that I have tried to avoid this connection. Your father’s position in life is acceptable, although lower than mine, but your mother’s birth is otherwise. More importantly, the inappropriate behavior of your mother, younger sisters, and even occasionally your father caused me to hesitate, and had my attraction to you been any less intense, I could not have –”
“Mr. Darcy, I pray you to say no more,” interrupted Elizabeth firmly. “While I am honored by the great compliment of your attentions, any connection between us is impossible. In addition to the obstacles you have mentioned, I resolved long ago never to marry a mage, and nothing will induce me to change my mind. I am sorry for any disappointment it may occasion you. For our peace of mind, let us say nothing more on the subject.”
Darcy stared at her incredulously. “That you would refuse me comes as a surprise, I admit, but that you should do so because I am a mage? Because I was born with powers I did not request and have spent years learning to suppress? You might as well refuse me because I have brown eyes.”
Elizabeth’s eyes narrowed. “Pardon me. I should have been clearer. It is not because you have magical powers, but because you are a member of the Collegium of Mages. If you belonged to a society of brown-eyed men who were determined to subdue all blue-eyed men by means fair and foul, then yes, I would refuse you for having brown eyes. But it does not matter, since I have other reasons as well.” She tried to move past him.
This time anger made him stand in her way. “Oh? Will you be so kind as to enlighten me as to my other faults?” He bit out the words.
Elizabeth paled. “All of us have flaws, and I do not think a recitation of them would reflect well on either of us. Suffice to say that I must refuse your very flattering offer.”
“I wish to know why.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
She kept her silence for a moment, and then the words began to pour out. “Very well. I do not like your proud and disdainful attitude to anyone beneath your station. It is abhorrent to me, especially your carelessness towards the devastation it causes. Need I explain that you have ruined the happiness of my beloved sister, who still suffers from heartbreak because you thought she was not good enough for your friend? If that is still not sufficient reason for my refusal, Mr. Wickham told me how he lost his ability to earn his living as a mage since you had him expelled from the Collegium because of his low birth.”
Darcy clenched his fists. “George Wickham is a liar. He was expelled from the Collegium for using his magic to cheat at cards. It had nothing to do with his station in life. If you do not believe me, I suggest you ask Colonel Fitzwilliam, who can tell you the entire tale.”
Elizabeth took a step backwards, clearly struggling to contain her own feelings. “I grant you I have no proof as to which of your stories is true, but you yourself showed your disdain for my low connections just minutes ago.”
“Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?” He could not stop himself.
“You should be relieved I refused you, then, since you have no idea how low my connections go. I can help a boy who is attacked by redcaps because for years I served as the assistant to a wisewoman, or as you would say, a hedge witch, a crone whose father was nothing more than a tenant farmer. She was going blind and could not do her work without someone who could see fay and their traces, and I was the only one she could find. And I admire her, even though she is far beneath me in birth. Now you see why I cannot marry a mage, a man who would imprison her with a binding spell merely because she is female. You should be grateful for my refusal. You are the last man in the world I could be prevailed upon to marry.”
Each of her words hit him like a dagger. That she should think so ill of him! There was nothing to do for it but to retreat and hope that someday this agonizing emptiness would fade. “You do not know me at all. Pray forgive me for having taken so much of your time.” He turned and strode away, his shoulders stiff.