Here’s another sneak peek at my upcoming magical variation on Pride & Prejudice. This scene also takes place while Elizabeth is at Netherfield, and comes just after the last excerpt I posted, but I think you can read it on its own, too. I hope you enjoy it!
Elizabeth tiptoed out of Jane’s sickroom and headed for the grand staircase. She had only just reached the bottom when a voice reached her.
“Good morning, Miss Elizabeth. I was hoping to see you.” Mr. Darcy rose from one of the straight-backed chairs lining the front hall and tucked a small book into his pocket.
“Good morning, sir.” She strove to hide her surprise. Had he truly been sitting in an uncomfortable chair in the chilliest room in the entire manor on the mere hope of seeing her?
“May I inquire if your sister’s illness is improving?” He sounded stiff, as if polite niceties did not come easily to him.
“Slowly, but yes. She ate a little breakfast and is now resting. I thought I might look in the library for a book to read.”
A tentative smile flickered across his face. “I would be happy to accompany you there if you wish, but I had hoped to convince you to take a walk with me. There is something I wish to show you.”
She blinked. He wanted to spend time with her? Well, she might not enjoy his company, but she needed him to keep her secret, so if he wished her to walk with him, walk she would. “I would enjoy that. What do you hope to show me?”
He hesitated, glancing about as if making certain no one was nearby. “Would you be interested in seeing how I created the illusion of the cows?”
Interested? She would give a great deal for such an opportunity! She could hardly believe it. Mages were notoriously secretive about their art. “Would I!” she exclaimed.
His smile widened. “Excellent.”
They set forth as soon as Elizabeth had collected her bonnet, gloves, and pelisse. There was more of autumn’s nip in the air today, but even the tapestry of leaves beginning to turn color could not compete with her bubbling excitement. She would see magery at work!
The question remained, though, of why Darcy would make this sudden effort. She resolved to be cautious until she found the answer.
Darcy said little as they walked along the gravel path beside the lake, past the folly in the shape of a Grecian temple, and onto a footpath leading into the farmlands. He stopped when they reached the same pasture where she had seen the cows the previous day. Today it was empty, without any evidence of humans nearby. No doubt the little boy would avoid it forever after his fright there.
“What would you like me to create?” Darcy asked her. “Cows again, or a different animal?”
She did not know what to do with this suddenly amiable, obliging Darcy, but she would take advantage of it. “Is there any limit?”
“A common animal, one whose ways I know, would be best. While I can make an illusory lion or elephant, they would not move convincingly, since I have never seen them in motion.”
“Sheep, then?” That was common enough.
He studied the pasture, and then his body became motionless. She could not have said what was different, but the air around him had somehow changed, a stillness like being in the center of an oak grove on a summer day.
Elizabeth had seen the cow illusion only from a distance, but this sheep was convincing in every detail. Every whorl of wool, each hoof moving over the ground, even her jaw moving as she chewed grass. “Astonishing,” she murmured.
“You can go closer,” he urged.
She needed no second invitation. The sheep picked up her head and looked at her, for all the world as if she had heard Elizabeth’s approach.
Only when Elizabeth stood next to the ewe could she see a difference, and even that was outside the illusion. The grass was not moving as the sheep grazed, instead staying upright and undamaged. But every other detail was perfect. “May I touch it?”
“If you wish, but you will feel nothing, as there is nothing there.”
She reached out to touch the ewe, but instead of the expected raspy fibers, her hand sank right into the sheep until it disappeared up to her wrist. It was a most disturbing sight. She removed her hand – but how could she remove it when nothing was there? – and found the sheep staring at her with unblinking eyes.
“Now, if you will, Miss Elizabeth, could you attempt to interact with her? To make her move or to do something?”
She doubted it. When she chased off the cows, she had believed they were real. Of course, this sheep looked so real…
Elizabeth reached down, pulled up some grass, and held it up in front of the ewe’s face. “Here you are, a little treat,” she coaxed.
The sheep did nothing, of course.
Firming her resolve, she let her Talent run into her from the earth. “Eat,” she said, imagining the sheep taking a bite, just as she had imagined the cows fleeing the fire.
The ewe sniffed the grass, then took it between her teeth. Tugging at it, she began to chew audibly.
But the grass was still in Elizabeth’s hand, and she had felt nothing when the sheep had apparently taken it. Her skin tingled. This was magic beyond anything she had ever imagined.
Mr. Darcy spoke from behind her. “Astounding. You actually altered my illusion. I have never heard of such a thing.” He sounded reverent.
“What does that mean?”
“I cannot say.” He turned abruptly, and the sheep winked out of sight as if it had never been. “Is that your falcon?” He sounded a trifle guarded.
Elizabeth looked over her shoulder. Yes, there was Cerridwen, perched on the fence post next to the gate. “Yes. There is no cause for concern; she only attacked yesterday because she thought you were hurting me.”
He studied the bird. “I have never heard of a bird familiar, either. This is a day for surprises.”
Elizabeth’s mouth opened in the automatic response that she had no familiar nor magic, but she realized it was foolish to deny it when he just seen her interact with his Talent. “She is not exactly a familiar, but she is attached to me.”
“How is that different?”
Cerridwen was a much less interesting topic to her than illusions, and this might be her only opportunity to ask about them. By tomorrow Mr. Darcy might be too proud to speak to her again. “That is a long story. Tell me, if I can affect your illusions, does that mean I might be able to learn to create them?”
“Highly unlikely. That is an inherited skill, and happens only within the Three Families,” he said dismissively.
“Well, if altering an illusion is unheard of, perhaps this unlikely thing might be true for me, too.”
“I suppose it would not hurt to try,” he said with just a touch of condescension. “To rule that out as a possible cause, if nothing else.”
Elation filled her. Even if she proved incapable, this would be an experience never described in any of her reading. “How do I begin? What animal should I try to make?”
He chuckled. “Animal illusions are advanced. Let us start with something simpler. Come.”
She followed him to a corner of the pasture shaded by a large oak. “This will do,” he said. “We will have you try to create a little mist, right here in the corner of the stone wall.”
“Mist?” she asked dubiously.
“It is the simplest illusion, and the one that we all start with.”
“How do I begin?” She held her breath, hoping he would not suddenly recall that this was a closely guarded secret.
“First, picture the mist in your mind. Just a little wisp of mist, nothing elaborate. Fix that image in your mind.”
Elizabeth fixed it so firmly in her mind that she might never forget it. She would never have another chance at this. “Very well.”
“Now you must gather energy. Can you imagine that you can see the rays of the sun reaching down to the earth, like a set of very long, very fine invisible threads?”
Could this be some sort of elaborate joke? “Threads of sunlight. Yes.”
“Those are energy. Now you must picture yourself gathering some of those threads, mentally bundling them together. I think of it as braiding them, so they are bound to each other. Then think of your mist, and cast the bound energy toward it.” He leaned back against the wall, clearly expecting nothing would happen.
Oh, how she wanted to prove him wrong! She imagined braiding the invisible threads, and turning it into mist. Nothing. She tried again, forcing with all the power of her will, minute after minute, without success. Surely if she just tried hard enough, something would happen.
As tears of frustration began to fill her eyes, an image jumped into her mind, oddly distorted, as if seen through Cerridwen’s eyes. It was her spinning wheel.
Cerridwen never sent to her without a reason, but why her spinning wheel?
With new resolve, she gathered the invisible threads, but this time she pictured them as strands of combed flax. She let them run through her pinched thumb and forefinger just as if she were spinning them, her foot tapping as if moving the treadle. With her mist image in the forefront of her mind, she sent her spun thread out into the corner.
Mist began to coalesce.
She had done it! With a triumphant smile, she glanced over at Mr. Darcy, but he was gazing off into the distance.
“Look!” she cried.
His head swiveled and his jaw dropped. “Good God.”
Giddy with triumph, she kept spinning, making her mist grow and spread. It was glorious. It was dizzying. It was…
“Stop! Let it go, Elizabeth. Cut the threads!” Mr. Darcy’s voice seemed to come from a long distance away.
Obediently she stopped spinning. Just as well, because now the pasture itself was spinning.
As her legs gave way beneath her, she felt strong arms close around her. It felt warm and safe. And then she stopped feeling anything.
He laid Elizabeth’s unconscious body down with all possible gentleness on the marble bench. Good God, she was practically as pale as the marble! He laid his fingers against her throat to check her pulse, as difficult as that might be when his own heart was pounding uncontrollably.
There it was, slow but steady. Thank God!
This was all his fault. He had no business letting her try to cast an illusion in the first place, and it had been beyond reckless not to warn her of the dangers before she attempted it. But he had been so certain that she lacked the ability that he had barely been paying attention. His mother would flay him alive if she ever found out.
Yes, he was a fool, and he had risked Elizabeth’s life. He would never forgive himself if she did not recover.
And still she lay motionless.
Stricken, he dropped to his knees beside her, taking her hand between his and chafing it, gently, as if he could pour his strength into her. “Elizabeth, I beg you. Open your eyes. Do not give up. Stay with me.” The last words resounded in his head.
What if he lost her, so soon after finding her? The consequences, both to him and to England, would be —
Hope stirred in Darcy’s chest as he stared at the bird’s dark eyes, with the black line below them looking almost like tear streaks. Could this not-quite-familiar transfer energy to Elizabeth as a true familiar might?
The kestrel spread its wings and called again, but this time with a commanding “Kee, kee, kee!”
Elizabeth stirred, her hand creeping up to rub across her eyes. “What?” she asked weakly.
Relief poured through him.
Poor Darcy! What will Elizabeth say? 🙂
I’d love to hear what you think!