For Helen and Mackenzie,
two of the sweetest Southern ladies I know.
Her passage through the woods set the leaves atremble. Her childish laughter rang through the trees and the wind blew her hair out behind her in a golden stream. The sun covered her with kisses and the rain-damp earth squelched up between her toes, embracing her with each step.
Willa loved to run barefoot after a rain. However, if Eada or Papa found out about this, she knew there would be trouble. It was worth the risk.
She broke into a clearing and abruptly paused. Her laughter faded at once, the happiness slipping from her face. Something was wrong. It was so silent. Too silent. The birds had stopped singing and were motionless in the trees. Even the bugs had stopped buzzing. And she couldn't hear Luvena running in front of her anymore.
Her brow creased with worry as she peered slowly around the clearing.
"Luv?" she whispered, taking a tentative step forward. "Luv?"
A quiet rustle drew her head around. Something dropped from the small cliff near where she had entered the clearing. Cloth - golden as the sunlight - fluttered through the air like a chick tumbling from its nest. The bundle landed with an ominous thud.
Willa swallowed nervously. Her gaze slid slowly over the bright pile of gilded material on the ground. It was the gown Lord Sedgewick had brought back from London for her. The one Luvena had been so eager to wear.
Then she spied the small, motionless legs, in their fine new hose, peeking out from beneath the skirts. One of the soft slippers was missing. A hand lay half-curled in supplication amidst the material of the gown. Shiny red-gold tresses lay limp in the grass. Luvena's pale face was turned away, her head at an odd angle.
These images assaulted Willa one after the other like the threads of a tapestry that had yet to be created. By the time her brain had woven them together and understood their meaning, she had been screaming for several moments.
The door flew open, slamming into the cottage with what would have been a crash if it had been made of stronger material. Hugh had been about to dismount, but paused to run a wary eye over the old woman now watching him from the open door.
Eada. She was very old, age bowing her shoulders and gnarling her hands and fingers. Her hair was a long coarse cape of white around a face puckered and wrinkled by the passage of years. Only her cobalt eyes still held any hint of snapping youth. They also held a knowledge that was unnerving.
She can look into your eyes and see your soul, pick out every flaw you possess, along with every grace. She can read your future in the dregs of the wine you drink and read your past in the lines on your face.
Hugh had been told all of this and, still, a jolt went through him as he looked into the eyes of the old witch. He felt a shock run through his entire body, as if she truly were looking right into him. As if she could see all the way down to his presently curling toes. She held Hugh in thrall for a moment with just her eyes, then turned to walk into the hovel. She left the door open - undoubtedly an invitation for him to follow.
Hugh relaxed once she was out of sight, then glanced at the mounted man beside him: Lucan D'Amanieu, his friend and confidant for years. Hugh had rather hoped his companion would soothe the foolish superstitions suddenly rising within him. The old childhood beliefs in witches and haunts were all rattling to life in his suddenly fancy-filled mind, and he'd been counting on Lucan to arch one amused eyebrow and make some derisive comment that would put everything back into perspective. Unfortunately, it appeared his sensible friend was feeling rather fanciful himself today. Rather than soothe him, Lucan appeared nervous, himself.
"Think you she knows?" he asked.
Hugh gave a start at the question. It hadn't occurred to him that she might. He considered the possibility now, his gaze fixed on the hovel. "Nay," he said at last. "How could she?"
"Aye," Lucan agreed with less confidence as they dismounted. "How could she?"
The old woman was fussing over the fire when they entered the shack. It gave the two men an opportunity to survey their surroundings.
In contrast with the filthy and dilapidated state of the outside of the cottage, the inside was clean and quite homey. Flowers sat in a wooden bowl in the center of a rough-hewn table at one end of the room, while a narrow cot was pressed up against the wall opposite. A fire was built into the wall across from the door, and it was here the woman stood stoking the flames. Once satisfied, she moved back to the table and collapsed upon one of the three chairs, then waved Hugh and Lucan to the others.
After a barely noticeable hesitation, Hugh took the seat opposite the woman, placing his back to the door. Lucan took the seat adjacent to her, leaving him a clear view of the door, should anyone enter. They then waited expectantly for the woman to ask their reason for coming. Instead, she took the wine flask from the center of the table and poured two mugs full. Ignoring Lucan, she pushed one to Hugh, then lifted the other to her mouth.
For want of anything better to do, Hugh drank. He was immediately sorry. The wine was bitter, scraping across his tongue. Doing his best not to show his distaste, he set the almost full tankard back on the table's worn surface. Hugh returned his gaze to the witch, still expecting questions regarding his presence, or at least his identity. The crone merely eyed him over the lip of her own mug, waiting. When the silence had grown long and tense, he finally spoke, "I am Hugh Dulonget."
"The fifth earl of Hillcrest."
He gave a start as she finished the introduction for him. "You know of my uncle's - ?"
"I beg your pardon?" He stared at her nonplused.
"I said he's dead. His heart gave out on him," she repeated impatiently. "Ye'll succeed to his title and holdings."
"Aye. I am his nephew. His only heir."
"The only one, hmm?" Her tone was dry and had him shifting uncomfortably.
"Well... aye," he lied, squirming under her all-knowing gaze. He said, "Nay. Uncle Richard left a bequest for - "
"A bequest?" She seemed to look right through him.
Hugh picked up the wine, drinking from it almost desperately despite its bitter taste. Slamming the tankard down once it was empty, he straightened his shoulders and scowled. "Of course, you shall continue to receive coin for her care."
"The girl. This Willa person my uncle was so concerned with." He did not bother to hide his distaste for the matter.
"Coin for her care, hmm?"
Hugh swallowed and felt his discomfort increase. Her steady stare was disconcerting. He could almost believe that she was looking into his soul. If so, he suspected the flaws to be found were many. He doubted if there were many graces to be seen at the moment. After all, he was lying through his teeth.
"Do ye not mean she'll be well cared for once she marries you?"
Hugh went still. He could feel the blood rush into his face with reawakened rage. That same rage had consumed him on first hearing this news from his uncle's solicitor. He'd inherited it all. The earldom, the money, the servants and estates... as well as his uncle's bastard daughter to wed. In effect, he'd been willed a wife. Nothing more than a village bastard, raised by an old crone who had once served in the castle. It was one of the most asinine situations Hugh had ever imagined himself being forced into. He, a lord, the son of a great knight, and now the heir to an earldom, to marry some village brat! Not even a titled lady, but a bastard village brat with no more training than how to milk cows or whatever it was they trained village brats to do. Impossible. Inconceivable. But true. Now, as he had that morning, he felt his body cramp with fury. His hands clenched on the table-top, aching to fit themselves around the crone's throat. That was when he heard the singing. It was a woman's voice, high and clear and as sweet as a tankard of meade on the hottest afternoon.
Everything seemed to slow; his anger, his thoughts, his very heartbeat all stilled in anticipation, even the room around him became motionless. Lucan and the hag sat unmoving. A fly he had absently noticed buzzing around his tankard landed on its lip and remained there as if listening to the voice as it drew nearer.
The door behind him opened, bathing the dim interior of the cottage in afternoon light, then something moved to block that light. The singing abruptly halted.
"Oh! We have guests."
Hugh heard Lucan's gasp. Wondering over it, he turned inexorably toward the source of the lovely voice. He felt his jaw slacken in shock.
An angel. Surely, that was what she was. Only an angel would glow golden, Hugh thought as he stared at the radiant outline of the female form. Then she stepped away from the door. She moved to the old woman's side and he saw that the golden glow had merely been the sunlight reflecting off her hair. And what a glory that was! Full, thick strands of pure gold.
Nay, not pure gold, he decided. Those tresses were brighter than gold and there were strands of red shot through them. Her hair was woven sunlight set afire. It blazed down over her shoulders and trailed past her h*ps to her knees. Hugh had never before beheld such a vision and was sure he never would again. At first, he was so transfixed by the sight, he noticed neither her face nor figure as she bent to press an affectionate kiss on the cheek of the old hag. Then she straightened. Her limpid gray eyes turned to him and his attention shifted, taking in their pale color and bold expression. His gaze dropped to the smile on her luscious lips and he found himself swallowing.
"You must be my betrothed."
Those words stopped Hugh cold. His admiration of her beauty became instead a grim perusal of the plain and patched gown she wore. The garment hung on her like a sack. She looked like a village girl, a pretty village girl perhaps, but a village girl just the same whereas he was a lord, above being bound to a simple female of such uncertain parentage. Marrying her was out of the question, though she would make a fetching mistress.
"Gold is gold whether buried deep in the mud or adorning a king's crown," the crone said.
Hugh frowned at the comment, annoyed at the suggestion that she'd known what he was thinking. He was even more annoyed at the meaning of her words, since he was positive they didn't apply here.
When he remained silent, the witch tilted her head to the side, considering him. She then reached up to clasp the hand at her shoulder, drawing the girl's attention. "We will need more garlic, child. For the trip."
Nodding, the chit collected a basket and left the cottage without making a sound.
"Ye'll marry her." It was a simple statement of fact.
Hugh turned sharply on the witch, but froze, eyes widening when he saw that she now held his empty mug. She was squinting at the dregs that had been left behind when he'd finished the drink. That knowledge sent a frisson of something akin to fear arcing up his spine. This woman was said to see the future in those dregs. In these uncertain times, Hugh did not think he wished to know what was yet to be. But whether he wished it or not, the woman read on.
"Ye'll marry her for yer people, but she'll quickly come to claim yer heart."
He sneered at this possibility, but the woman paid him little heed as she continued to stare into the tankard. "The future holds much joy, happiness and children aplenty... if ye solve the riddle."
"What riddle?" Lucan asked breathlessly and Hugh sneered at his being taking in by this trickery. When the woman merely raised dark eyes to stare at the other knight, he shifted and asked, "Well then, what if he does not solve the riddle?"
Hugh saw the conviction in her eyes and swallowed nervously. Then she sat back and waved an impatient hand. "Begone. I am weary and your presence annoys me."
The two men were more than happy to comply. They removed themselves from the dim cottage, and stepped out into the sunlight with relief.
"Well?" Lucan queried as they returned to their mounts.
Grim-faced, Hugh waited until he was back atop his mount to ask, "Well what?"
"Do you return on the morrow for her or no?"
Head snapping around, Hugh glared at the old woman for eavesdropping, then angrily tugged on his reins, drawing his horse around before spurring him into a canter that left Lucan scrambling to mount and catch up to him.
Hugh had to slow down once he hit the trees; there was no true path to or from this cottage, which had made finding it an adventure. His decreased speed allowed Lucan to catch up to him. The moment he did, he again asked whether Hugh would marry the girl, Hugh scowled at the question. His visit with Lord Wynekyn and the solicitor had been short. Once he had heard the bit about his being expected to marry some by-blow named Willa, he had worked himself into a fine temper. After bellowing and stomping about a bit, he had headed for Hillcrest. Hugh had no desire to marry the girl. But he wasn't sure how he could get himself out of it. The way the solicitor had phrased it, he had to marry her in order to gain his inheritance. "I do not wish it, but fear I may have no choice if I want Hillcrest."
"Surely you cannot be denied Hillcrest," Lucan argued. " 'Tis yours by law of primogeniture. You are next in line. Whether you marry the girl or not, Hillcrest cannot be refused you."
Hugh perked up at this comment. "Aye. You are right."
"Aye. So what will you do with her?" Lucan asked and Hugh's posture deflated, along with his mood. "I do not know."
They were both silent, then Hugh said slowly, "I suppose I really have to see to her future. She is a relative after all."
"Aye," Lucan murmured. Then, when Hugh did not continue, he suggested tentatively, "Perhaps you could arrange a marriage for her. See her settled."
Hugh pondered that briefly, then gave a slow nod. "Aye. That might be just the thing. She may even have a fondness for someone of her own class."
"Aye. She may."
Relaxing a little, Hugh set his mind to accomplishing the task. He would have to work around the old woman, that was obvious. If the hag got wind of his idea, she would most likely put an end to it right quick and make trouble for him. He supposed that wouldn't be his responsibility. After all, the only thing he could do was try to see to the girl's future well-being. If the old woman wouldn't accept anything from him but marriage... well, she was going to be disappointed. It was just a shame if she made things harder on the girl than need be.