I’ve been in the mid-book doldrums for months on my new magical Pride & Prejudice variation, but the good news is that I’ve figured out where I’m stuck, even if I haven’t quite figured out the way out yet. Still, that’s where story magic comes in!
Anyway, I’m behind in providing these excerpts, so here’s an extra-long one to make up for it. This one follows immediately after my last excerpt where Elizabeth discovered she could cast illusions, only to faint in Darcy’s arms. Now she’s regaining consciousness in the old folly, with her falcon Cerridwen nearby.
Elizabeth propped herself up on one elbow. “Where am I? How did I get here?” And why was Mr. Darcy holding her hand? She could remember nothing after creating the mist, and then Cerridwen had shouted inside her head.
Darcy looked pale. “At the folly. I carried you here after you fainted. It was the nearest place.”
“I cannot believe it. I never faint.” She was sure of that much.
“Anyone would, in these circumstances.” He hung his head, an odd look on the proud Mr. Darcy. “It was my fault. I should have warned you that casting is dangerous, that you must stop it quickly, lest you drain out your life force. I am very sorry.”
For some reason it troubled her to see him humbled. “It seems no harm was done.” The bench was uncomfortably cold, and she felt helpless lying down, so she spent what seemed to be an inordinate amount of energy to sit up.
“Nevertheless, you must promise me never to try again,” Darcy insisted. “It is far too risky to be done without supervision. Next time you might not be so fortunate.”
She had no intention of giving up this fabulous new Talent she had discovered. “If you had simply told me not to extend myself, I would have stopped, and nothing would have happened.”
“I know! You think I have not been berating myself with that?” he snapped. “Had I thought there was even the slightest possibility that you were —” he stopped short, then resumed, “— able to cast illusions, I would have been far more careful.”
“But you could not imagine a mere country gentleman’s daughter would have any real Talent, could you?”
“The last time someone with this ability appeared outside the Three Families was in the reign of Henry VIII, and even then, it was thought he was most likely a Percy bastard. Why should I expect that to change now?” he bit out.
“None outside the Three Families? How about you? Your name is not Percy, Fitzwilliam, or Mortimer.”
This seemed to amuse him. “My mother is a Fitzwilliam, and my father’s mother was a Percy. And, in fact, my given name is Fitzwilliam. Fitzwilliam Darcy, at your service.” He inclined his head, as if they were meeting for the first time.
Suddenly all the odd things about him made sense. “What are you doing here, then? Why are you not in service to the Crown?”
“Perhaps the Crown wanted me to go to a benighted corner of Hertfordshire to practice casting illusions of charging cows.” Laughter lurked behind his words.
It only annoyed her more. “There is nothing benighted about Meryton.”
“Perhaps not, but it is far from the nearest ley line.”
Crossly, she wiggled her foot until Cerridwen flew off it with an offended squawk, lighting instead on the head of a statue of a Greek god. Elizabeth pushed herself to her feet.
Except her legs were not working. Before she tumbled to the ground, Darcy’s hands were under her elbows, supporting her weight, his chest just inches from her, as he helped her back to the bench.
“Goodness,” Elizabeth said.
“You must not try to stand. Not until you have had something to eat, and tea with plenty of sugar, and some rest,” Darcy stated.
Now that he mentioned it, she was very hungry indeed, despite the large breakfast she’d eaten only hours ago. “If you would be willing to assist me outside, where I can sit on the ground, the land will help me.” It would be improper to be so close to him, but there was no one to see.
“A good idea.” But instead of offering her his arm for support, he swept her up in his arms and carried her outside.
She stiffened in shock at his forwardness. Surely it was wrong to be pressed so tightly against him that she could feel the hardness of his chest and catch his scent of soap and spice – and a hint of the smell that comes after a thunderstorm had passed. And she certainly should not enjoy the warm pressure of his arm underneath her knees, which sent the strangest sensation spiraling through her.
Darcy carefully set her on her feet, but did not release her until she was sitting on a patch of grass.
When he took his hands away, she should have been relieved. Why was she filled with empty disappointment instead?
No doubt it was just her state of exhaustion. She reached for her connection to the land, entwining her fingers in the grass, feeling the steady thrum of the earth’s power pulsing beneath her, letting it nourish her. It was but a thin trickle of energy here, compared to what she felt at Longbourn, but it was enough to make her breathe more easily. She felt Cerridwen’s reassuring presence on a branch overhead.
She opened her eyes, to see him watching her with an oddly vulnerable look. “I thank you. This is better.”
“You will still need nourishment before you try to walk.” He frowned. “I dare not leave you alone yet, but I will fetch some food from the house in a little while.”
“It is hardly necessary. I am certain I will be perfectly well with a little rest.”
“Miss Elizabeth, you know nothing of this. It has been drilled into me since I was a child how dangerous the condition you are in can be, and how food is absolutely necessary for recovery. If you attempt to do too much without it, even walking a few feet, it could kill you.”
Taken aback at his intensity, she said, “I see. Then I shall rest here as long as necessary.” She had not realized it was so risky.
“I thank you. And once again, I must apologize for having allowed this situation to arise.”
She could not help smiling. “I am not sorry. It was well worth it.” Then a motion in the trees caught her eye. It was the head of a large animal, but not one she recognized, its pointed ears topped with tufts of fur. It moved out into the open, revealing a cat-like body with a bobbed tail, easily three feet tall, but all Elizabeth could see was its feral, hunting cat face. And she and Darcy were perfectly defenseless against this creature. In a low voice, she told Darcy, “I pray you, do not move a muscle.”
He obeyed, and responded quietly, “Why? What is the matter?”
“There is a wild beast at the edge of the wood.” Her voice trembled. “Some sort of massive cat. Like a tiger, only spotted.”
He seemed to relax, saying in a normal voice, “In that case, there is no need for fear. He will not hurt you.”
Of course. He was amusing himself by frightening her, and just when she was thinking better of him. “What, another illusion? I am not entertained.”
He shook his head. “Hardly. He is my familiar.”
This wild beast, a familiar? “You might have warned me!”
“I did not expect you to see him. He is very private, and usually only shows himself when I am in danger. There is no need to worry, though; he is only curious now.”
“What is he?”
“But they are extinct here! Since the Dark Ages, if not before! Did you find him abroad?”
“No. He walked out of the forest at Pemberley one day. Apparently they are not as extinct as we believed.”
“Are there more of them, then?” That was a frightening thought. She would hate to meet one of them while walking in the woods, without a nearby Talent to control it.
“I must assume so, although I have never seen another.”
“Why is he here? Did you call him?” It seemed too much of a coincidence that the lynx should appear when she was so helpless, the perfect prey.
“No. I am not certain why he is here.” Darcy’s eyelids drooped briefly, as if he was suddenly sleepy, and his gaze became unfocused. Then his eyebrows shot up. “He is here because he wants to meet you.”
“Me? Why would he care about me?” She would have doubted him, except that he looked so shocked.
Again, the unfocused look. “He says it is needful.” His expression turned apologetic. “He is a wild creature and does not think about why or wherefore. Just what he needs to do.”
“Well, he has seen me. Can you send him on his way now?” She certainly hoped so.
“He would like to approach you, to gain your scent. If you are willing. He will keep his distance if I tell him to. But I promise you he will not harm you.”
The lynx cocked its head, watching her curiously.
It did not seem to regard her as prey, and she had no wish to appear a coward or, worse, a trembling Miss. And she had to admit it was a magnificent animal. “Very well.” She was pleased that her voice did not shake. “But if he tears out my throat, I will never forgive you.”
Darcy had the gall to smile. “He will not, though I must point out that if he did, you would be in no position to forgive anyone.”
“I would haunt you.” But then the lynx was padding toward her, each powerful stride like a symphony of motion. Instinct made Elizabeth freeze, and she had to force herself to breathe.
The big cat stopped a few feet away and cocked his head. Cautiously Elizabeth extended her hand as she might to a strange dog. The lynx’s warm breath tickled it as he sniffed her hands thoroughly.
Then he butted her hand as he turned his head, pushing her fingers into the ruff of fur on his cheeks. It was rough and silky at the same time, and she caught a faint musky scent as he rubbed against her hand.
Could he possibly want her to scratch him under the ear, as if he were a lap cat?
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Daringly she turned her fingers and began to scratch, first lightly, then more firmly as he pressed his head into her hand. A deep rumble merged from his throat.
She still tasted fear, but, oh, how exhilarating it was to be so close to such a powerful creature, and have it enjoy her touch!
But the lynx tired of her attentions quickly, giving its thanks with an utterly terrifying lick to Elizabeth’s arm with its abrasive tongue, revealing wickedly sharp teeth. She drew in a breath. “And I thought a kitten’s tongue was rough. I think your lynx took half of my skin with it.”
And she glanced up to see Darcy staring at her in astonishment.
“Is something the matter?” she asked, as if it were not strange enough that this wild creature of the forest, this predator, had licked her, and was now curling up beside her.
“I do not understand what he is doing.” Darcy sounded half-strangled.
It was oddly satisfying to see him knocked off his pedestal of knowing everything. Let him be the one to be overwhelmed by something altogether strange for once! With new confidence, Elizabeth reached out and ran her hand along the lynx’s back, petting him as if he were a giant house cat and not a wild animal who could eat her for breakfast.
The rumbling started again, and she laughed delightedly. “I must confess that I have sometimes wished for a traditional familiar, a cat that would curl up in my lap and purr. I had not pictured this!”
“He is not a house cat.”
“What is his name?”
Darcy seemed surprised by the question. “I call him Lynx. He is the only one I have ever seen, after all.”
“How startlingly original.” She studied the lynx, who picked up his head to watch her, something feral burning behind his dark eyes. “I think I shall call you Fire Eyes.”
He made no reaction beyond a slow blink. Of course he did not; true familiars could not understand the spoken word. She was spoiled by her experience with Cerridwen.
That thought led to another. How had Darcy bound the lynx to be his familiar in the first place? “Did you let him bite you?” she asked in disbelief. It was one thing to let a small cat or dog draw one’s blood to make the bond, but to knowingly put one’s arm in the way of those sharp dangerous teeth!
Darcy shrugged. “He was very gentle.”
“I cannot believe you!”
He smiled. “Very well, I will confess that the first time, when he came and offered himself to me, I was terrified. I was certain I would never see my hand again.”
“You did it anyway.” That actually impressed her. As if his abilities had not impressed her enough already. Now she had to add courage to his list of qualities. It was becoming very difficult to maintain her dislike for him.
“It had been drilled into me since childhood that when a familiar offered itself, I should never refuse. I simply expected something smaller and tamer. And not seemingly extinct. I had to search the library to find a book with illustrations before I even knew what sort of animal he was.”
“How old were you?”
“I was twelve.”
She could picture the boy he had been, madly perusing books in search of information about the wild animal with whom he had bonded. It seemed a long way from the proud Mr. Darcy of today.
Suddenly the lynx uncoiled smoothly to his feet and took off at a run into the woods.
She stared after him, oddly disappointed. “Did I do something wrong?”
That unfocused look again. “No. He heard someone coming.”
And then Elizabeth heard it, too, footsteps approaching along the gravel path from the main house. She tried to gather her scattered wits, to make herself appear composed, as if there were nothing unusual or unladylike about sitting on the grass. As if there had not been an extinct wild animal licking her arm a few minutes earlier.
Two servants, each carrying a tray, came around the bend in the path. The first one approached Darcy and asked, “Where would you like us to set these, sir?”
Darcy looked stunned. “Next to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, if you please.”
As the servant set them out, Elizabeth asked, “What have we here?” One tray held a teapot and cups, and the other a variety of foodstuffs.
The first servant bowed. “Chamomile tea, honey, fresh bread with butter, and plum cake, just as Mr. Darcy requested.”
She could not quite manage to hide her amusement. “Very good. How clever of him to include just what I wanted.” It would be interesting to see him try to explain this. Would he guess what had happened? “Would you care to join me, Mr. Darcy?”
“No, pray go ahead.” He nodded to the servants, who appeared prepared to wait. “That will be all for now.”
As soon as they were out of sight, Darcy began to pace, back and forth, back and forth, as if he could not manage to stay still. He seemed to have forgotten her presence.
Watching him pace only reminded her how handsome he was, and heat seemed to grow inside her. She swallowed hard. There was no point in letting herself be attracted to a man who had been completely out of her reach even before she discovered he was a mage. To distract herself, Elizabeth poured her tea and added a generous dollop of honey. After taking a few sips, she said, “You seem disturbed.”
He halted. “I have not been out of your presence since we left Netherfield. That means I must have cast a sending which told the servants to bring you food. I have never managed a sending at such a distance before. It might have been my desperation, or perhaps your presence enabled me to do it, since our Talents intertwine. I must try to recall exactly what I was thinking at the time.”
“Mmm, a good idea.” She tried to hide her amusement, quite certain there had indeed been a sending, and equally certain that Darcy had nothing to do with it. She spared a glance upward to the falcon circling overhead. Cerridwen knew her tastes, and the kestrel was inordinately fond of plum cake.
But it would not do for Darcy to suspect that her falcon had any unusual powers, so she would let him take the credit. “My thanks,” she said as she spread the butter on the bread. “How long will it be before I can walk?”
“Once you have eaten, perhaps an hour, or little less.”
Another hour in his company? It certainly did not seem as terrible a fate as it had this morning, and perhaps she could get him to talk more about illusions. “And how long to recover fully?”
“After a good night’s sleep. But I cannot emphasize this enough, that it would be dangerous for you to try this again.”
So her weakness would be gone by tomorrow, and then she could ask Mr. Darcy for another lesson in illusion casting, regardless of what he said. Surely she could make a case that it would be better to try casting under his supervision. In any case, it would behoove her to be pleasant to him now. “So quickly? Good. I am learning a great deal today, between illusions and lynxes.”
His expression turned serious. “Miss Elizabeth, I must ask something of you. I could find myself in rather serious difficulties if certain people discovered I had taught you to cast an illusion. Even more so if they knew how poorly I had prepared you. I would be in your debt if you agreed to keep this between us.”
“Of course, if you wish it.” Though it will be frustrating to keep her new accomplishment to herself when she longed to shout her ability to the world. But it was only fair. After all, he agreed to keep her secret, too.
What do you think of Darcy’s lynx? Will he and Cerridwen make an interesting combination? I hope you’ll let me know what you think – I can use all the inspiration I can get!