Magic by Daylight
Click on image to enlarge.
by Cynthia Bailey Pratt
Description: Dominic Knight claims to be a historian, but his real mission is to end the strife in the faery kingdom. Clarice Stavely, beautiful and rich, has never found a man so fascinating, and opens her home and heart to him. But when she discovers his real motives, she embarks on a dangerous journey in the faery world--and is forced to make a devastating choice. Paranormal Historical Romance by Cynthia Bailey Pratt writing as Lynn Bailey; originally published by Jove
eBook Publisher: Belgrave House, 1999
eBookwise Release Date: April 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [441 KB]
Reading time: 287-403 min.
The bride sparkled like a newly opened rose touched with dew. When she gazed upon her husband, the words of their vows still trembling in the air, all her adoration was written in her eyes. Clarice saw with approval that Mr. Henry returned her dear friend's love with full measure. Melissa perhaps deserved more than to share the future of a curate, but she would have at least the consolation of knowing he cherished her.
When the young couple emerged from the church, Clarice was the first to embrace the bride, veil, flowers, and all. "From the bottom of my heart, I wish you happy!" she said. She smiled down at her shorter friend. "Now didn't we vow we would not cry?"
"I can't help it. I'm so happy."
Mr. Henry shuffled his feet. Always a rather red-faced young man, he was blushing brightly beneath the indulgent gazes of the gentry and townsfolk of Hamford. Clarice turned to him with an outstretched hand and a warm smile. "Congratulations, Mr. Henry. I yield to you the dearest friend I have ever had. I know she will prove a great comfort and support to you all the days of your life."
'Thank you, my lady," he said, bowing as gracefully as a royal bishop. "I count the day I came to Hamford as the most fortunate of my life . . . until now."
Clarice laughed and let the bride and groom go to greet the rest of their well-wishers. As she turned to follow them, she very plainly heard a farmer's wife saying to her somewhat deaf mother, " 'Tis a pity she's no younger."
"Aye," the older woman said, nodding. "Young pullets do make the best layers. But she's a very pleasant-spoken lady for all that."
As Clarice watched Mr. and Mrs. Henry shake hands and smile, never leaving go of each other's arm, she could not help giving a sigh. Melissa Bainbridge was nearly a year younger than herself. If the townspeople of Hamford had long since given up expectation of seeing her wed, how much less hope had they of seeing the Lady of the Manor married? Their hopes could not be smaller than Clarice's own.
Fortunately, her position protected her somewhat from the pointed questions and sly comments that were too often the part of the unmarried at a wedding celebration. The fact that she was in somewise the founder of this feast didn't hurt either. But good wine and fine food was the least she could do to mark the wedding of the dearest friend she'd ever known.
"I'm afraid you'll be lonely now," her half sister said, approaching her after dinner. Felicia Gardner had the softest voice and the warmest eyes in the world. If anyone would understand Clarice's feelings it would be she, who had been almost a mother to her. For an instant, honest words rose to her lips. But then, over Felicia's shoulder, Clarice saw that Melissa was listening.
"Lonely?" Clarice said brightly. "Not at all! I shall positively relish the silence. You don't know, Felicia, how trying it is to live with people in love. If she was not sighing because he had not spoken to her in church, then she was singing because he had. If she was not over the moon with delight at receiving some little note, she was cast down into the depths because he had not written. I should appreciate some level ground after so many ups and downs."
"I have been a great trial to her ladyship indeed," Melissa said, smiling. "And she has borne all my foolishness most patiently."
"Only out of friendship for you, my dear," Clarice said, still merrily. "For I declare that my friendship for Mr. Henry has been severely tried."
"What's that?" Blaic Gardner came up, Mr. Henry just behind him. "You have sinned grievously, sir, if Lady Stavely finds fault with you."
"I beg pardon ..." the curate began, not yet used to the jokes of the circle he'd joined by marriage.
"As you should," Clarice said, stern as a judge but for the twinkle in her eyes. "Why, you kept my dear friend waiting almost six months before you proposed, when anyone could see that you had fallen in love with her at first sight. That is a high crime, as you must agree."
"You are right. I felt an immediate inclination. However, I wished to give her time to know her heart," he said, drawing Melissa's arm through the bend of his elbow.
"I will not add to her blushes by saying that you waited three months too long for that!"
The bride hid her blooming cheeks in her husband's lapel. "You are too bad," she said in a muffled voice.
"That is nothing. Wait till you hear the speech I mean to give, being in loco parentis as it were to the bride. But now, there is to be dancing! Gentlemen, take your wives away unless you wish to incur more of my displeasure!"
She knew Mr. Henry did not disapprove of dancing, and indeed his rather large foot was already tapping to the sound of fiddles and drum. The early summer evening was warm, while moonrise and sunset met to give the sky a soft, opalescent gleam. Out on the lawn of Hamdry Manor, twenty couples had already joined hands on the wooden platform Clarice had ordered built for the occasion.
Blaic too was whistling almost soundlessly along with the music. His eyes, green as new-budded leaves, looked at his wife with an eager light that not even ten years of marriage had dimmed. Felicia smiled back in a mysteriously tender way that seemed the special property of married women. Yet she took a moment to say, "Don't try so hard, Clarice. Everyone knows you are sorry to be losing your friend."
Before Clarice could answer, Blaic took his wife to the floor. Suddenly the joyousness of the music and the delight on her friends' faces was too overwhelming. Clarice turned away. The windows of her beloved home, welcoming with candlelight, beckoned to her but she did not go in. For the moment, she could not find comfort there. Too soon it would contain her alone, with no equal or even near-equal to share her days, her occupations, or her thoughts.
Slipping away unnoticed, and feeling absurdly neglected even though it was her own wish, Clarice wended her way through the garden. The gravel paths were laid out to wind and bend among an assortment of statuary, classical and modern. Though elegant and civilized in its contents, the famous Hamdry Gardens rested upon the very edge of a wilderness. The great moor rose beyond this hedge, seemingly wind-swept and empty, yet filled with secrets and danger enough to rival the deepest jungle.
Melissa, for one, had always thought Clarice's love for the moor bordered on the macabre. "How can you stand it, knowin' your ma ... died there?" she'd asked once, not long after leaving Tally ford Orphanage to live with Clarice, orphaned herself.
"I don't mind that. I never feel unwelcome."
"You're Viscountess Stavely. Where do you ever feel out of place?" Melissa had been only a young girl then and, despite her illegitimacy and the hardness of her life, she'd still kept some illusions. Those few that Clarice knew had all been shattered the morning they'd found her mother's clothing beside one of the sucking green pools that looked so innocent in the sunshine yet concealed such deadly depths.
But she did not blame the moor for that.
The sounds of the party were dim as she walked out through the gap in the thick hedge at the back of the manor property. The wind pulled at the pale yellow silk of her gown, loosening the mass of curls piled upon her head. She had a sudden fancy to walk up to the top of the hill where the rising moon seemed to dance among the clouds like an Arabian princess among her veils.
Though the thin-soled slippers she wore were only good for dancing, she didn't notice any stones beneath her feet. Nor did she pay any particular attention when the moon hid herself away. She wasn't afraid of the dark. There was a greater chance of her losing her way in her own drawing room than here on the moor, even in the darkness.
As she walked, she thought about the men she knew and why she was not married to any of them.
They'd asked her. Ever since she'd come of age, there'd been a suitor or two to squire her to Assembly Balls, to routs, and to whatever other amusement this fold of the Devonshire landscape offered. But always when the moment had come to answer "Yes, I will," she had said, "You are very kind but. .. no."
Part of the problem was that she did not need to marry to better herself. "I have money," she said aloud to the night. "I have a title in my own right. I have everything a woman marries for, yet I also have the extra benefit of complete freedom of action. If only there was a man I could . .. respect."
She was thinking of the look on Melissa's face as she took the vows that made her a wife when she realized that she'd reached the top of the hill. For a moment, she stood with her eyes tightly closed as she caught her breath. Then she opened them, expecting to see the land she knew so well spread out before her like a giant's map.
But instead of familiar landmarks, she saw a tumbled, broken line of stones before her that looked black as obsidian in the moonlight. "But this is Barren Fort," she said. "I can't have walked five miles. That's impossible."
Yet even as she stood there, she became aware that the soles of her dancing slippers were worn right through. She felt the damp scrubbrush-like grass beneath the ball of her foot. A certain trembling in her lower limbs told her that she'd walked far, and at an unaccustomed speed.
She had knelt down to untie the silken laces of her ruined shoes when she felt the ground tremble. Once, while accompanying Blaic and Felicia on their wedding trip to Italy, she and Melissa had been on a Naples street when a tremor had shaken the city. This was the same vibration, yet who'd ever heard of an earthquake or volcano here?
Clarice looked around on instinct for someplace to take shelter. Except for the stones, the top of the hill was indeed barren. The trembling grew more furious, accompanied by a colossal groan as the earth twisted itself in resistance to its own violence.
Then she realized there was something oddly rhythmic about the way the ground shook. It was a beat she knew well, part of her blood ever since her father had put her on her first mare. Somewhere quite near, a horse galloped at a frenzied pace, coming closer by the instant.
But who would be made enough to gallop over treacherous ground beneath the insubstantial light of a coy moon? Clarice straightened up, shoe in hand, looking around for the animal and owner. She'd deliver a stern lecture to the foolhardy person! She cared little whether the rider broke his neck, but she cared deeply about the horse!
She saw nothing. A strong breeze blew up, blinding her with strands of her own hair. She pushed it back as the wind died away as abruptly as it had come.
Then he was there, taking the jagged stones of Barren Fort in a leap at least as daring as it was insane. The horse was black as the stones and from its back great wings soared out, flung wide in the tempest of its passing.
He passed so close that Clarice cowered, afraid of the slashing hooves over her head. They wrung red and gold sparks from the underlying stone as he landed.
Staring, Clarice saw the horse bore a rider. Yet the words she'd thought to say of his recklessness perished in her throat at the uncanny sight before her. Perhaps he wore only a hooded cloak. Yet the effect was that of a shadow riding a shadow. She could distinguish the outline of a figure astride the black animal, nothing more.
Rider and horse were as still as statues in the liquid light of the moon. Neither of them gave any sign of the strenuous exercise they'd just completed, by so much as a deep breath. The horse did not paw the ground, nor did the rider make any move to dismount. The dimly seen head moved as he seemed to scan the horizon for something.
"Shall we about it?" he asked.
The voice was so sudden and deep that Clarice jumped. The hooded face turned toward her despite her having made no sound beyond the thud of a shoeless foot in short grass. Clarice froze like a rabbit that feels the shadow of the hawk pass over. She even shut tight her eyes so that no gleam of white could draw his attention. Every tale of bogle or banshee that she'd ever heard in her life suddenly filled her head. She did not want to see whatever baneful face was hidden in the hood.
An eternal moment later, she heard again the ring of hooves striking rock beneath the thin covering of soil on the tor. She opened her eyes partway to see him ride down the hill, the sides of his long cloak flying open like wings upon a horse's back. She half thought he was looking back at her, so she shut her eyes tight again.
"Here she is!" a voice called on a note of triumph.
Clarice opened her eyes to find the handsome face of her brother-in-law bending low over her. The lines at the corners of his eyes deepened as he smiled reassuringly. "Sit up, Clarice. You're cold as ice from lying on the ground."
"On the ground?' she asked. She realized the strange prickling all over her body was from the blades of grass poking through the silk of her gown.
Blaic gave her his hand and pulled her up. She felt her head whirl. "Here now," he said, sliding his arm around her. "You're not going to faint?"
"I haven't fainted since I was sixteen. What happened? I was out on the moor a moment ago."
"Were you? Where?"
"Barren Tor. I don't know how I..."
"Barren Tor? But that's five miles away."
"I know. Yet I swear I was there. And a man on a horse came out of nowhere.. ." Suddenly, her knees seemed to lose all their stiffness. She started to sink.
"Hurry!" he called, even as he bent to pick her up. Though he was at least forty, his arms were strong and his shoulder broad enough to lean her head on. "You need a glass of brandy," he said more quietly.
"Oh, no. I loathe the stuff."
She could hear more voices, anxious, questioning voices, coming nearer. In the forefront was Melissa, closely followed by Felicia and several servants with torches alight. Their wavering light made the shadows move. Clarice gave a convulsive shudder, prey to the sensation known as "a goose walking over a grave," and tried to see past the shadows. Did someone in a black cloak stand there, concealed and watching?
"I'll carry you into the house," Blaic said. "You're not well."
Clarice shook her head with a smile, "Put me down, Blaic, do. I'm perfectly well."
"Is she hurt?" Felicia asked, her lovely face tight with anxiety.
"A little faint," her husband answered, ignoring Clarice's repeated request. "She's been overdoing it, I think."
"Don't spare my feelings," Clarice said, responding as always to any ugly emotion like this unreasoning fear that gripped her, fighting back with a smile and a joke. "Tell the world I'm naught but a dissipated rake. Can a woman be a rake?"
"Oh, it's my fault," Melissa said, wringing her hands. "She took too much on herself with this wedding."
"Carry her to the house, Blaic," Felicia said. "An early night and a glass of hot milk will do much to restore her. I'll make your excuses to the other guests, Clarice."
"Nonsense! Put me down. I'm very well able to walk. I merely wanted to be alone for a little. I had a bit of a headache, if you must know."
"Then why .. ." Blaic began, only to receive a nip of his sister-in-law's fingers all too close to his ear.
"Sssh," she hissed. "Don't worry them."
He only shook his head as he swung her down. Just as she stood on her own two feet, Melissa caught her breath on a gasp. "Clarice! What has become of your shoes?"
The grass of Hamdry Manor was cool and rich beneath her naked soles. Close-shearing made it as delightful to tred on as cut velvet. Very different from the dry, coarse grass on Barren Tor. Clarice looked down at her feet, white and long against the seemingly black turf. "I--I took them off. One of the laces broke."
"Would this be before or after you had the headache?" Felicia asked with the raised eyebrow and drawling tone of a skeptical older sister.
Clarice just laughed. She stepped over the grass to kiss Felicia's pale cheek. "Come along," she said. "I'm in no danger. I shall go to the house and find another pair of satin slippers. Then I shall dance with your gallant husband and he shall tell me all the doings of my brilliant nephew."
"Brilliant indeed," Blaic said, his fair brows twitching down in a way that promised and threatened all in one. "He takes after his father, who is not to be fooled."
When Clarice returned, last year's silver slippers safe upon her feet, her brother-in-law did not dance with her. They sat down together at a table with glasses of wine before them. Clarice imagined that to anyone else, they looked like a friendly pair of relations by marriage. Yet their talk was far from ordinary.
"So he appeared out of nowhere?" Blaic asked.
"It was dark. The moon had gone in among the clouds. I might not have seen a rider clad in black riding a black horse until he was upon me."
"Did he speak to you?"
"No. And I said nothing either. I--I was afraid." She paused an instant. "No, not afraid. Just. . . Anyway, what could I have said? I was not even certain of how I had come to be there."
"Clarice . . ." Blaic began. Then he shot a cautious glance over his shoulder. No one stood near enough to overhear. "Did you think at all that it might be one of the People?"
"One of the People?"
Clarice too, on instinct, glanced around before answering. Though many of the country-folk believed in the "piskies," most of their betters did not. Little did any of them know that Blaic Gardner, well-respected gentleman and author of the soon-to-be published Notes on the Life-span and Social Structure of the British Bee, had once been a prince of a mysterious race far older than mankind. Felicia's love for him had made him the man he was today, in more ways than one.
Clarice not only knew of Blaic's former station, she herself had had an enchantment laid upon her. Therefore, she considered Blaic's suggestion with due care. "No. Although ... no. I didn't think of it; I don't think it."
"Barren Fort is a very ancient ruin. They are fond of such places. Some of them were built with our help, many thousands of years ago before King Boadach became so stern about enforcing the law against contact with mortals."
"You've never spoken to me much about this before, Blaic. Why not?"
The leaf green eyes of the singularly handsome older man turned in search of his beautiful wife. "I have not wished to remember. Even the near-paradise of the Living Lands pales beside my mortal life with Felicia and Morgain." He looked a( Clarice. "Lately, however, I have been revisiting Mag Mell in my dreams. It troubles me. And now this . . . appearance . .."
Clarice patted her brother-in-law's folded hands. "It's nothing, Blaic. I had an odd experience perhaps, but it isn't the first time strange things have happened to me on the moor. No doubt the explanation is perfectly reasonable. You and Felicia shall go to London tomorrow with a clear conscience.
"Besides," she added on a laugh, "I'd match my darling nephew against any magical creature from the depths of Mag Mell, or from the Book of Revelations for that matter. Morgain's a dragon, a gryphon, and a six-headed hydra all by himself. A pity he's not old enough for war. Wellington could use a weapon like Morgain. Napoleon would resign in an instant and be thankful for the opportunity."
Blaic could always be distracted by talk of his son. Just when Clarice believed she'd changed the subject successfully, Blaic came back to Mag Mell. "There is one way to tell whether someone is of the People or not." He paused impressively, an effect ruined by Clarice's impatient, "Well?"
"If you touch one, they are obliged to obey you in your next request, no matter what it may be."
Clarice nodded, giving Blaic the compliment of taking what he said in the same spirit in which he spoke. "I shall make it a point to touch every stranger I meet."
Soon, the fall of evening put an end to the festivities. The guests would have a full moon to light their various ways home. Melissa and her husband would spend their first night of married life in the little cottage allotted to him as curate. However, their bridal month would be spent in Bath, where Mr. Henry's invalid mother and two sisters lived.
Melissa gave her dear friend a warm hug and handed her the tightly gathered nosegay of pink roses that she'd carried that day. "I want you to have this," she said, her brown eyes sparkling with unshed tears. "You have been the truest, dearest.. .." She swallowed with a noticeable gulp. "I never minded not having a family after I came here. Hamdry has been the nearest thing to a home that I. . . ."
"You'll make your own home now," Clarice said bracingly, though her throat was tight.
Melissa nodded. "I love him so much!"
"Then go to him. Be happy."
After the manor had settled down for the night, Clarice softly put the bedclothes aside. In her white nightdress, she knelt on the padded window seat in her room. She reached out to open the casement, letting the warm summer air perfume her chamber. Remembering how her former nurse would have died of horror at the risk of illness she was running, Clarice opened it a little wider.
She couldn't help thinking of Melissa, who was perhaps at this moment learning the deepest mysteries of married life. And from Mr. Henry! Though she'd never said anything of her feelings to Melissa, Clarice could not for the life of her understand what her friend saw in her new husband. He was, no doubt, very well in his way. But where were the depths that a woman could explore for life? Where was the spice of a clever mind, the challenge of taming a stronger will, the fascination of two completely dissimilar sexes finding a common ground on which to stand against the world?
Felicia and Blaic had these things. Clarice had seen their love grow from day to day, sometimes set back by adversity, sometimes by doubts. Always, however, they'd become stronger because of the struggle. Though when they'd met she herself had been under a spell-compelled to remain mentally a child despite the growth of her body--she knew that Felicia and Blaic had both desired and battled from the first only to reach a safe haven at the end. But with Melissa and Mr. Henry, falling in love had been about as arduous as sleeping on a new feather bed.
Clarice worried that without these necessary "growing pangs" Melissa and Mr. Henry's first quarrel would seem entirely out of proportion to the cause. She vowed that she would never marry a man who did not argue with her. Then she laughed at herself. Could she tolerate having her decisions questioned when she'd been sole mistress at Hamdry for so long?
The door behind her creaked in warning, a good reason for her always having refused to have it fixed. Just for an instant, Clarice felt convinced that the man from Barren Fort stood behind her, perhaps even reached out to her. The feeling was so strong that it was like having a wave break over her. She did not dare to turn her head, though she despised herself for a coward.
A whispered "Clarice?" reassured her.
"Is something wrong, Felicia?" she asked.
"I was worried so I came to look in on you," Felicia said. "You should be in bed."
"I couldn't sleep. Too much wedding cake, I think."
"You'll catch your death sitting there like that. At least wrap up." Her sister pulled the neatly folded cashmere shawl off the end of the bed. 'Tuck this around you. What are you thinking about, sitting there like an owl in an oak tree?"
"I was thinking about marrying, actually."
"Indeed? Anyone I know?"
"Marriage in general, I mean. How do you know when someone is right for you?"
"You're thinking about Mr. Henry. Well, he wouldn't have done for me and he certainly wouldn't have done for you. but he's the precisely right man for Melissa Bainbridge."
"Melissa's a dear girl."
"Very amiable. Now that she's not so bitter against life, she's a very amiable girl indeed. When I think how she snarled when I first met her at Tallyford Orphanage!" Felicia raised her eyes heavenward. "But no one could be more steadying and gently affectionate than Mr. Henry. That is what she needs and I, for one, am delighted that they found each other."
"But she seems to think of him as Apollo, Hercules, and Adonis all in one. He is not."
"Not to your eyes, perhaps. To each his own, my dear."
Felicia leaned closer to her half sister. In the moonlight, Clarice looked older than her twenty-six years, the lack of color emphasizing the slightly dark marks beneath her eyes and a tiny drawing in of a smooth cheek. These signs of weariness were not noticeable by day. All one saw then was the laughing beauty that was so startlingly perfect.
It was no wonder that all the young men--and quite a few of the older ones--came flocking to admire the exquisite young viscountess. The one Season she'd spent in London had caused pandemonium. At least one earl had been infatuated, as well as any number of lesser men. Yet in the end, Clarice had come home, unmarried, unengaged, and uninterested in trying the experiment a second time. She'd settled down with her friend and her old family retainers with every sign of contentment. But it was not contentment Felicia saw on that glorious countenance now.
"You are lonely, aren't you? Surely there must be someone you have considered marrying?"
Clarice switched her braided hair back and forth as she shook her head. Then she smiled impishly. "Melissa only left today. Give us a small respite before we have another wedding."
She looked into Felicia's eyes and seemed, for once, to be serious. "I am not afraid to be alone. In many ways, I have always been alone. If not for you coming to live here when I was a child, I should have died of loneliness. But I didn't. And I shan't die from it now either. Someday, if I wish it, I will search for a new companion."
"But not now?"
Somewhat absently, looking once more out the window, she answered, "No, not now. Let me. . . ." She caught her breath on a note of alarm.
"What is it?" Felicia asked, half-rising from the bed where she'd seated herself.
"Nothing.... I thought I saw a man."
"A man?" She came to the window seal to peer over Clarice's shoulder into the darkness beyond the open window. "Where? I don't see anyone."
"No... neither do I--now. It must have been a shadow. .."
"I shall rouse the servants," Felicia said, heading toward the door.
"No! There's no need to wake them because their mistress hasn't enough sense to go to bed and instead sits dreaming of things that never were. You can hardly blame me if I see one lurking in the garden."
"Things that never were . . ." Felicia repeated.
"I'm only tired," Clarice said. "Don't worry about me. I've been in a strange mood ever since Melissa came to tell me she'd accepted Mr. Henry. I think I am just lazy and am blue-deviled because now I have all the difficulty of picking out another congenial companion. Don't you have some respectable widow among all your good works to fill this vacancy?"
"Yes, I do." Felicia's thoughts were busy with the lists of young bachelors that every woman has in her head. Kept, if not for herself, on the thrifty notion of "waste not, want not" for others. She decided that one of the objects of her trip to London would be adding significant numbers of young men to that list. Somewhere lived a man for Clarice--Felicia intended to find him if she had to track him through the Trossachs in the depths of a January blizzard. Anything to banish the darkness at the back of the dear girl's eyes.
After Felicia returned to her sleeping husband, Clarice leaned her head on her hand and looked out the window. What dreams she'd entertained here as a young girl! Dreams of a dashing hero who'd dare anything for love! Her Season in London had taught her that there were no such men in these degenerate days. Plenty existed if she wished to be squired sedately around the park or escorted to choose a fashionable gown, but where were the bold knights and daring cavaliers of old?
Though it had never been said, Clarice knew that at nearly twenty-seven she was "on the shelf." Men preferred younger girls, fresh from the schoolroom, who could be molded and shaped into wives. Most women her age were already the proud mothers of hopeful families.
She leaned forward to close the window. "I think I shall buy a pug dog and raise roses," she said with a tiny, rueful laugh. "Better that than to settle for less than my dreams."
Some movement caught her eye. She paused, peering down like a princess in a tower. There was someone down there--moving slowly from shadow to shadow as though he did not wish to be seen. He was not moving toward the house, but away. It was hard to see through the distorting glass and the ethereal moonlight but Clarice felt certain she saw the trailing end of a cloak.
She sat up for a long time watching, even after she heard the sound of a horse's hooves traveling away.