The regency romances, p.101
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       The Regency Romances, p.101

           Laura Kinsale
 

  “Lassar,” he said, and turned her toward the carriage with his spidery touch. “God bless. I’ll carry ye safe home.”

  Faelan came down from the box, leaving the horses as if they were stone statues. He opened the door for her, and climbed in after. As Roddy settled gingerly back in the musty seat, he drew the silver veil through his fingers. “Lassar he’s named you.” Faelan’s touch was warmer, firmer than the old man’s. “Flame. I like that.”

  “He’s blind,” Roddy said.

  In the dark, Faelan’s lips in her hair felt like swallow’s wings. “Do you think so?” he asked complacently. “I’ve never been certain.”

  The carriage moved into a smooth, forward rock. Roddy clutched at Faelan’s hand. “But he’s driving!”

  “He knows the way.”

  “Faelan!”

  His arms came around her, restraining her plunge for the door. “Ho there, little sidhe—we’re safe enough with Senach. Haven’t you recognized a kindred spirit?”

  She stiffened in his embrace. Her voice came out a little shrilly. “I don’t know what you could possibly mean. I’ve never tried to drive a coach-and-four blindfolded, I’ll tell you!”

  His grip stayed firm across her shoulders. The swaying carriage brought their bodies together, and he kissed the top of her head. “No. But I’ll wager you could, if you tried.”

  “Of course not—” She broke off, and looked sideways at him in the dimness. A sudden terror gripped her, that he knew; that he had guessed her secret. She stared into his eyes, light blue in the moonlight from the door, and searched frantically for the telltale fear and disgust, the awful knowledge that had destroyed her great-aunt Jane’s life and marriage long ago.

  She did not see it. In the changing shadows, he was as impenetrable as ever, but the smile that curved his fine lips seemed warm—almost proud.

  “Cailin sidhe,” he murmured. “Do you remember when we helped the mare? I told you then, I knew a man who felt what you feel. Senach can see through the animals’ eyes, if he can’t see through his own.”

  “That’s crazy,” she said, and meant it. Never before had she encountered someone else with her talent, and she found she was as unprepared to believe in it as any ordinary person would have been.

  He laughed. “Ah, but we’re home now, little girl. I think everyone is a little mad in this place.”

  Roddy gave him a startled look.

  “Yes,” he said, in a taunting voice. He took her chin and forced her close, his lips brushing and exploring on her skin. “Were you hoping I was sane? I’ve seen you with that hope in your eyes, little girl. But we can’t be sane—not tonight. It’s November Eve, cailin sidhe, when mortal folk stay home in bed and Finvarra and his lady ride a coach with four white horses on their way to dance with the dead.”

  She wet her lips and said, “Finvarra?” in a dry whisper.

  “The King of the Fairies of the West, my love.” His arm tightened around her, and his lips caressed her mouth. “Will you dance with me tonight?”

  Her breath seemed to be coming very short and fast; her heart thumped louder than the horses’ hooves. It was fear and confusion, but it was something else besides: the night and the moonlight and the wind that rushed past. Like wild music, it hummed in her veins, and sparked a chill of pleasure as Faelan slid his hand beneath the silver cloak and explored the shape of her breast.

  The touch on her skin was solid and human, in spite of his words. It reassured her. She leaned against him, pressed into his flesh-and-blood warmth. There was some purpose in this, she told herself. There were Geoffrey’s guns and the militia, things all too real and dangerous. She could not afford to give in to the fancies that seemed to fill the air around them.

  King of the Fairies, indeed. She reached up to his cheek and gave him a hard pinch, and told him to stop roasting her.

  “Ow!” He jerked his head away. “Good God, woman, I’ll steal your luck for that.”

  Roddy laughed, relieved to hear the common teasing in his voice. He grabbed her and dragged her closer and growled, “I’ll carry you off to Tir-Na-Oge and hold you prisoner in my castle.”

  “Good!” she said, muffled in his black cloak.

  “You’d like that, would you?” She felt his low chuckle, a vibration against her cheek. “You’re hopelessly fairy-struck, I fear.”

  She lifted her head, just enough to see his face: his blue eyes like the glowing mist, his dark brows and lashes as black as the mountains. “So I must be,” she said, speaking lightly. It covered the truth in her words, she hoped.

  He touched her temple, spreading his fingers through her hair. “It will serve you well enough tonight.” His thumb grazed across her brow. “Those eyes of yours—keep them high, my love, and don’t look down before anyone you see.”

  Then, as if that had been the most natural advice in the world, he sat back and turned his face from her, pulling out his pocket watch and holding it toward the window to read.

  She had no notion of what time passed, and didn’t ask. The road was smooth, eerily so, as if they traveled on the path of the moon she saw shining across the silvered water. The bulky hills rose and fell beside them, brooding shapes that matched the mystery of the islands and headlands across the bays: some sharp and small, some broad and long; all dark, all silent, all patiently waiting as the carriage flew along under a blind man’s hands.

  Her first warning of the militia was an agitated shout, a demand to halt that Senach ignored, and then the crack of musket fire behind them. They were among people, almost before she could realize that her gift still eluded her. The carriage did not slow at all; it picked up speed and flashed by figures silhouetted against the lurid spark of campfires. There were more shouts, more gunfire, and then her talent struck her with a vengeance, dragging her ahead to where a sentry stood frozen in the road and watched the white horses bear down on him.

  She felt his terror; it washed into her own, and she tried to pull away, to force it back, for she feared she would be with him when the horses ran him down. But the images engulfed her. She saw with numbing clarity the animals’ flared nostrils and red eyes of reflected fire, heard the thunder of hooves and wheels, felt the shaft of horror as the soldier stared up into Senach’s fixed and glassy gaze. The militiaman’s body moved somehow, his limbs reacting to what his mind could not comprehend: that the coach which exploded through their camp had a blind man at the lines. The soldier abandoned his duty and threw himself aside. The last she felt of him was the solid, painful impact of his face and shoulder with the dirt at the side of the road, and then her gift was gone again.

  They were in empty country, so suddenly that she found herself still clinging in panic to Faelan’s sleeve beneath his cloak. She let go of him, though it was an effort. The road was rougher now, and the carriage began to tackle a slight rise. Faelan took out his timepiece again.

  He put it away and grinned at her. “A quarter till midnight,” he said, and yanked once on the signal bell. “We’ll give them time to catch up.”

  The horses slowed to a trot, then a walk. Roddy sat with her arms and ankles tightly crossed, trying to convince herself that Faelan actually had some rational plan. The more she thought of the hot exhilaration in his grin, the more it seemed to border on mania. When she considered the whole situation—a blind driver, a mad rush through an armed camp, the half-wild talk of fairy kings—it seemed that he was far less than sane.

  Not even this pause made sense. Why plunge through the militia like avenging angels and then slow down to wait for the pursuit?

  She stared at his dark profile against the moonlight. And while she stared she began to hear music. It came, a fair, faint sweetness, there and gone, and there again. Faelan did not move, but the horses picked up a trot. Their hooves filled the air with muffled thunder, and she thought she had imagined the distant tune.

  But she began to hear it again; in snatches, in small, strange moments of suspension, as if for an instant the horses
feet flew instead of struck the ground. The haunting melody grew louder. Beyond Faelan’s profile the sky took on a lighter glow.

  The carriage leveled out and then dipped into a valley where a tangle of vegetation blocked the view. Roddy had opened her mouth, ready to force out a half-formed question, when the coach rose again and made a sharp right turn. The encroaching bushes fell away like dark, frightened sheep, and then, on the hill above them, she saw it.

  A house. A huge house, stark black against the shimmer of underlit clouds. Tall, symmetrical windows lined the long facade, spilling cold light into the lingering wisps of fog. She grabbed at the rotating seat as the carriage swung left again. The mansion disappeared from view. When she saw it again from her own window, the source of the glow in the clouds above the structure was unmistakable.

  The mansion had no roof. No curtains graced the stark windows; no sign of habitation softened the grim spires of crumbling chimneys. The place was a skeleton.

  And yet light shone out of the dead windows like the weird blue fire of the boglands, and strange music played, and vague silhouettes danced and turned and curtsied in the hall.

  In Roddy’s conscious mind, she had reasoned out the trick. This mad scene was all staged, a play made of darkness and superstition, to scare the militiamen into staying safe by their fires while Geoffrey’s rebels moved the guns from the mansion into the mountain passes.

  And the ghoulish diversion worked. It worked too well. In the deeper reaches of Roddy’s being, she felt a chill such as she had never known before.

  November Eve. The night the fairies danced with the dead.

  The carriage drew up before the great doors and came to a halt. In a black sweep, Faelan was on the ground and turning back toward her, holding out his hand. She took it, stepped down, and looked up at her husband.

  If ever she had thought to imagine Finvarra, the King of the Fairies of the West, it would have been Faelan in that moment, with the wild moon in his eyes and the music behind him and the luminescence that touched him like a crown of living light.

  “Lassar,” he said. “Cailin sidhe. Welcome home.”

  She looked beyond him to the great, gaunt, haunted ruin.

  Home.

  Oh, God, she thought. God help me.

  Chapter 14

  She supposed, much later, that legends began with less. A hundred years from now, they would speak of Finvarra’s ball, and the way the hills had echoed with fey minuets and glittered with the ghostly torches of the departing guests. The way a man feared to look over his shoulders to find the source of footsteps behind him. The way a force of one hundred gallant West Country militia had known better than their foolish officers to interfere with fairy business.

  Three men, a captain and two lieutenants, came to grief that night while trying to investigate. One was found in the morning by the little lake in the bottom of a mountain coum, having fallen, the broken condition of his body told, from the cliff eight hundred feet above. The second—what was left of him—was buried near the clear spring where wolves, so the official report stated, had sprung upon him. The unofficial whisper was that there had been no wolves in the barony for decades; that he had been torn to pieces by something far, far worse—while his horse, like the others, had wandered home unscathed.

  The third man, the captain, had come riding up just as Roddy descended from the carriage. His loud hail was more indignant than frightened, but when Faelan took no notice of him, only guiding Roddy toward the moss-covered stairs, the soldier’s voice faltered a little. At the top of the steps, Faelan paused, turning back.

  The officer’s horse was dancing under a tight hand as the man looked over his shoulder behind him. “Armstrong,” he’d shouted, amid the drifting music and the fog that had begun to roll in thick fingers up from the glen. “Logan!”

  There was no answer, no pair of armed, red-coated riders at his back. He swore and faced the house again, spurred his horse forward where it seemed loath to go. “Your name, sir,” he demanded.

  Faelan smiled. The mist hung about his head, gleaming from the light behind. “I have many,” he said. He held out his free hand. “Will you join us?”

  Unable to come closer without mounting the steps, the captain hesitated, and then swung impatiently off his horse. The animal shied as he did so; reared and tore the reins from his hand. The captain’s urgent soothings were useless: while the carriage horses stood, carved still as white marble, the soldier’s mount twisted backward, bucking as if to dislodge a devil from its back, and plunged down the hill into the fog.

  Faelan stood unmoving, smiling yet with that strange knowing smile.

  The captain swung toward them. With the same startling, crystalline impact that Roddy had experienced on the ride through the militia camp, she felt her talent return. The captain’s disconcerted anger and chagrin throbbed in her head. He strode up the steps and confronted them.

  “In the King’s name,” he snapped, “identify yourself.”

  Faelan laughed. “Call me the east wind,” he said lightly. “My lady’s name is Flame.”

  The soldier frowned nervously. He could barely see Faelan’s face against the pale light from within the open door. “What nonsense is this?”

  “The east wind,” Faelan said, in a voice that tangled with the music floating past them. “The demon wind. It blows tonight.”

  In spite of himself, the captain glanced toward the east, where the mists slid up from the dark below.

  “Join us,” Faelan said again.

  His hand closed on Roddy’s arm. She turned with him, driven by the hard grip on her elbow, the only thing that seemed real in the whole unearthly scene.

  Beneath the arched doorway, leprous with black lichen, shadowy figures danced to the ancient music in the hall. A faint haze silvered everything, made the dark corners darker and the candlelight deathly pale. Without Faelan’s hand on her, propelling her forward, no force on earth would have made her join that spectral company, with their faces paste-white and their mouths painted murderous red, and the elegance of five decades past streaked and moldering on their bodies.

  But she, like the dumbfounded captain, was swung up in the haunting dance. Faelan bowed, dragging her down in a curtsy when she would have stood gawking at the burned-out shell. Three stories rose above them, open to the lowering sky, and dead vines crawled where fine curtains should have hung. Roddy felt the brush of lifeless fingers at her back, and then—as Faelan’s punishing grip controlled her start—saw the rotting silk that draped in tatters along the walls, swaying as the dancers passed like the strands of a drowned maiden’s hair.

  She danced, clinging to the reality of Faelan’s bruising touch. The captain’s rising panic was at one with her own; she could not separate them, or bring her mind to focus on the knowledge that this was all an illusion made of night and fog. When a wordless gentleman with a wooden smile pressed wine into the officer’s hand, Roddy tasted the sweet, convulsive gulp he took to rally himself. A lady’s cold fingers touched his hand, and Roddy felt the same chill pass down her spine. She glanced that way, seeing his partner from two minds at once: from Roddy’s view, a beauty like a winter night, all frozen stars and stillness, while in the captain’s befuddled brain the lady’s face was skeletal and strange, too difficult to comprehend in the gleaming, mist-tricked light.

  The room began to sway then, to rotate slowly around her head. From a distance, she saw the captain’s scarlet coat begin to blur, and felt the buckling of his knees. Caught in his mind, she stumbled too, hanging on to Faelan’s arm for one dizzy moment before the soldier crumpled—slowly, slowly—so slowly that it seemed a more fantastic dream than any that had gone before. She saw him for one instant, a red pool like bright blood on the ballroom floor, and then the shadows claimed her too, and darkness closed around her.

  She woke to the cool breeze on her face. Her body seemed disconnected from her mind; she had to fight to open her eyes, and her fingers would not move when she b
ade them.

  Someone spoke. It was an important voice, one she thought she should know. “She’s stirring,” it said. “Senach—God, thank God—will she…”

  The voice swirled and faded. “…winter planting,” it said the next time she made sense of it. “I’ve seed spuds coming in from Kenmare. Enough for tenscore cows’-grass. No more than that…”

  She spun in and out of odd dreams: cattle and ghostly dancers and huge mountains of potatoes.

  “…he’s after wakin’ up.” Another voice spoke in a light rasp, like the touch of the wind on her cheek.

  And, “Aye,” said the first. “I can see him moving.”

  She struggled to hold her eyelids open; to find reason in this babble.

  “Hush…hush…” The words were close, a warm breath in her ear. “Little girl, little love…be still.”

  She wanted badly to please that voice. For a moment she stopped struggling. The confusion in her mind began to sort itself, to separate and order. The dreams of walking ghosts belonged to another, she realized, and the stiff spine and cradled shoulders were her own.

  “How do you feel?” the gentle voice inquired close to her ear.

  The tone filled her with a flood of comfort and security. “You’re so nice,” she mumbled.

  The support beneath her shoulders shook softly in silent laughter. “A vote of confidence.”

  Her eyes wrenched open at last, and shut again instantly against light that seemed blinding. The arms around her tightened.

  “Rest awhile, little girl. Rest here awhile with me.”

  “No. Let her wake, m’lord. That’s the way now.”

  Pain was sparking through her limbs as she tried to move. She made a little complaining moan.

  “Oh, aye, it hurts a bit, do it not? All night sleepin’ on the hard cold floor.”

 
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