Water dripped in a steady cadence from birch leaves, soaking Lucinda Drakewyck as she walked through the Bedfordshire woodlands. The rain had stopped some time ago. But like miniature pitchers, the newly unfurled leaves had gathered water and emptied on her as she passed beneath.
Warm and dry beneath her velvet hood, Lucinda smiled. She was up to her ankles in mud and enjoying every moment of it. The winter, coldly persistent in its bid to ruin her days, had blanketed the town of Somerton with two surprise snowstorms well past the first of April. Rain hardly seemed dreary after months of being caged in Drakewyck Grange with Uncle George.
Besides, today was special. May Day had arrived, signaling the return of life and fertility to the world. Lucinda planned to celebrate the day with a Beltane ritual totally unsuited to a lady of property and connections. She grinned at the thought of Uncle George's expression should he discover what she was about.
Sunlight fought its way through the treetops and glinted upon silver-limbed saplings, teasing the tulips and forget-me-nots that peeked through the undergrowth with the promise of warmth. Calm permeated the forest, a deep, humid peace that coaxed birds to somnolence and encouraged butterflies to roost upon warm boulders. Lucinda eased herself and her sack, weighted down with a flask of May wine, around an outcrop of rock.
Uncle George loved her dearly, of that she had no doubt. Still, he disapproved of her magic-working and insisted it would only bring heartache. "Find something else to do," he'd often told her. But what was a lady to do with herself week after week?
Gentlemen had their pursuits, of course: hunting, riding to the hounds, overseeing the estate, or even collecting old books, Uncle George's favorite pastime. And ladies? Well, true patricians didn't earn a living, and Lucinda had an obligation to preserve the Drakewyck family name by avoiding both the trades and manual labor. That ugly business was better left to maidservants and farmer's daughters. Ladies devoted themselves to embroidery and naught much else.
She shook her head as she hoisted herself, along with her many petticoats, skirt, and cloak over a decayed timber fence. In truth, she'd never cared much for rank and connections. The higher a person's rank, the more dependent on servants he or she became, and hopelessly inadequate husks bored her silly. In deference to Uncle George's nerves, however, she did place boundaries on her behavior and tried to remain respectable, at least in public.
Aged rocks, coated in yellow-green moss, tumbled in heaps, and violets peeped from beneath brown mulch. In the distance, she saw a stone retaining wall, a landmark which meant her glen, the place where she cast her spells, was nearby. She quickened her pace, not only eager to start the ceremony but to drop her sack to the ground. She'd tied a rope to the sack and slung the rope over her shoulder, and now the rope was cutting into her skin.
Beltane, she thought. A time when warmth imagined in winter becomes a reality, when the future becomes the present. What sort of future had she? She supposed she would spend her days caring for Uncle George and reading her books and poetry. Uncle George had told her on several occasions that he didn't need her and wouldnt mind marrying her off to some amiable lad, but Lucinda still preferred to fuss over him.
And books, unlike embroidery, were a worthwhile pursuit. Rank and connections did not make a person interesting, she'd decided. Books did. She'd always gravitated toward clever, well-informed people who gave all ideas equal consideration, and didn't listen to the gossip that called her a bluestocking. So she debated with Uncle George's cronies and quoted poetry and frightened away all the men who would court her.
And tried not to feel lonely.
Still, she wanted something more than amiability in a husband and was quite certain the local gentlemen would have left her dissatisfied. Would she die a spinster? Probably. She'd already turned twenty and hadn't a single prospect. Perhaps she'd even die a poor spinster. The good Lord knew she and Uncle George were having their monetary difficulties.
Lucinda stopped short. She'd reached the glen and, as usual, its beauty left her breathless. Spikes of strawberry foxglove had taken over the clearing, growing in clumps that hosted both bees and fluttering moths. A fallen tree lay upon the remnants of a cottage, evidence of a secret disaster that ivy would soon obliterate entirely. 'Twas a tranquil place -- quiet, soothing -- and as she waded through the flowers, pleasure filled her. But when she leaned down and plucked a piece of lavender, her smiled faltered. A bloated spider had attached itself to the flower and was spinning its web around a butterfly.
She dropped it. Something about the spider bothered her. It seemed to represent more than Nature at work. Indeed, her instinct suggested the spider was part of a larger pattern of corruption she hadn't yet discerned.
Evil had come to her small glen.
She forced a laugh. What fancy!
Her stone ring, used to keep fires within bounds, glinted dull gray in the sunlight. She walked toward it and dropped her sack. The smell of balsam and fresh earth filled the glen, reminding her of the reason she'd come. Determined not to ruin her celebration, she thrust the dark thoughts aside.
The ground appeared drier in the clearing. With a little sigh she flopped onto the grass, her sprigged muslin skirt and petticoats billowing around her. She was thin enough to forgo a corset -- too thin, as Uncle George would have it Lucinda, for her part, found her slenderness quite gratifying. Without the device she was able to sit and stand and stretch, impossible feats when properly rigged.
Her drawers began to feel damp. Perhaps the ground wasn't so dry. This little adventure might well cost her one of her spring gowns, and she hadn't many to spare. Still, fussing wouldn't dry her out. She might as well enjoy herself, wet seat and all.
She removed a length of ivy from her sack, twined it through her hair, and tucked a few violets behind her ear. Next, she poured herself a glass of May wine, spiced with woodruff, and sipped. It tasted as sweet as spring itself but still retained the bite of winter Her stomach grew warm and she sipped again, chuckling this time.
If Uncle George could see me now.
Abruptly she threw back her head and finished the wine. Pshaw on Uncle George.
Humming Schubert's Serenade, she stood up, shook her skirts, and began to gather bits of kindling. When her arms were full she set the kindling into the fire ring. After a few strikes on a flint and a bit of nurturing she had a fire that popped and spit at her. The acrid scent of burning wood filled the glen, overpowering smells of wet earth and sunshine.
Her lips compressed into a moue of distaste. Burning wood, the essence of winter. Horrible! Quickly she pulled a few hemlock cones -- symbols of fertility -- from her sack and tossed them into the flames. Next, she lit two wax candles, both blue, and arranged some violets and lavender around them to create a makeshift altar.
Softly she murmured the words of Beltane and welcomed a new year of growth and prosperity. "From frozen ground to soft, rich dirt, from dreary skies to azure blue, from icy ponds to flowing streams, the Earth will change from gray to green."
Lucinda closed her eyes and focused on the sunlight falling across her face, warming her skin. She concentrated on the taste of May wine on her lips and the smell of burning hemlock cones in the air. She opened herself to the magic in the trees around her and the promise of life in the mud that dung to her boots.
For one moment she was no longer a lady of property and connections. She was no longer a human being who lived with and talked to and loved others, but at the core, always remained alone. She became a part of a greater, timeless truth, a consciousness not bound by the physical limitations of the human body but universal, filled with thoughts of minds long dead and those yet to come, vibrating with the spirit of Nature.
Lucinda thought of the place she'd entered as a dark garden, where past and present swirled together and became a little of both. It echoed with mysteries and voices of old, and 'twas there that the source of her magic rested. Now, as she walked through that dark garden, its magic renewed her spirit just as winter passed and the Earth awoke from its long cold sleep. Even thoughts of the spider who'd spun a web around a butterfly couldn't dampen the appreciation and gladness that buoyed her soul --
Heat invaded her chest without warning. It wrapped around her heart and sizzled its way across her lungs, leaving her gasping for air. Her eyes snapped open. The sunlight suddenly seemed too harsh, the trees dark and huddled together, menacing.
No, not again. Not today.
The heat crept up to her shoulder blades. It became a burning pain. Red dots swirled across her field of sight and she fell to her knees, her head clutched in her hands.
"No," she begged, but the vision cared not for her desires.
Somewhere in the distance, on the other side of the forest, a hound bayed. A hunting party, perhaps. Panic mixed with the fire slowly flooding her neck. If someone found her hunched over, wet, disarrayed, and in the throes of a vision, there'd be no end to the trouble. Still, as soon as the panic had come to her, infernal fire charred it to nothingness.
Heat blasted up past her mouth and nose to settle in her brain. She bit her lip. Pressed her fingernails into her palms, drawing blood. The months ahead coalesced into a single image and assaulted her senses until a moan of pure agony ripped from her.
The vision roared in her mind, beginning in its usual way. She saw a man who looked familiar but defied naming. Hazel eyes, strong nose, full lips, and a damaged hand where the first two fingers ended just past the knuckle. Whimpering, she tried to sort through her impressions of this man. Intense longing for him nearly drowned everything else out.
Who was he?
Handsome and strong at the core, yet damaged somehow, and vulnerable, he was her protector. Her "Lancelot." He would save her even if it meant sacrificing himself. She knew this with absolute certainty. At the same time, she understood that love between them, if it grew, would mean nothing but death. That knowledge was the source of her longing, for she wanted him terribly but could not have him.
Eyes squeezed shut, she gave herself over to the next portion of the vision, the part that reared its head in her nightmares. The woman came, just as she always did, her wheat-colored hair blowing in a crisp autumn breeze, her eyes blue and icy, and a gold filigree locket around her neck. Hers was not a mortal fury but something much stranger and deadlier. When Lucinda met the woman's gaze she saw a soulless desire to inflict suffering of the worst kind.
A witch, Lucinda thought.
The witch turned and stretched out her hand, palm up, seeking something. Lucinda began to shudder. For a moment she was no longer hunched by her Beltane fire. Instead, she was in the vision, feeling the cold emptiness of the witch's stare and clutching a small, hard statue in her hands.
The witch wanted Lucinda's statue, some sort of bird. Lucinda held the bird tight, caught in indecision. The witch, she sensed, would become evil incarnate if she gained the statue. But Lancelot would die if Lucinda refused to relinquish it, even as he saved her life.
The heat and pain abruptly receded from her head, flowing downward before fizzling out entirely. Lucinda stood on trembling legs and looked around. Her sight cleared. Mist had invaded the glen, but otherwise, everything appeared unchanged. She wiped away the tears she hadn't even known she'd been crying and struggled to her feet. Despite the ferocity of the vision, her body remained unharmed.
Scowling, she kicked dirt onto the fire. That was the third time in as many months that the vision had ambushed one of her ceremonies. It always played out the same way and left her with a choice. She could choose the man and allow evil to go unchecked through the world, or she could sacrifice the man and prevent the witch from hurting others.
Heaven help her, was it true? Were these things that might happen, or were they already fated to occur? Despair settled into her like the chill of winter. Never before had she felt so alone and completely out of sorts.
Uncle George. The time had come to tell him about the vision. Granted, he didn't approve of magic and had forbidden her to practice it, but she was desperate and needed his wisdom. He would not turn her away, not when she suspected her life was about to go very wrong indeed.
Something rattled in the thicket to her right, where the edge of the forest met the clearing. Without warning, a barrel-chested dog jumped the bushes, bellowed a deep, throaty woof, and trotted up to her.
Lucinda stepped backward, hand pressed against her chest. "Upon my word, Samson, you startled me. I see you've sniffed me out. Where is your master?"
She scanned the trees, looking for Sir James Clairmont. They were neighbors, separated by miles of woodlands and fields that precluded close association. Even so, she and Sir James shared a love of nature that occasionally brought them together in the woods. Today, however, she would rather the baronet not see her in this condition. He'd ask questions she couldn't possibly answer.
The huge, slobbery hound wandered over to the embers in her fire ring and sniffed. Lucinda ran a hand along Samson's thick, black-and-white fur, noting that mud covered his withers. The dog was so large she didn't even have to lean over. "Playing hard, eh, Samson? Well, I don't know where Sir James has gotten to, but I believe I shall escape before he discovers me."
Samson trotted away to the far corner of the clearing. He snuffled in the leaves and sent a squirrel up a tree.
Hurriedly she gathered up her flask of May wine and dropped it into the sack. The sun drooped lower on the horizon, suggesting the hour had grown closeto teatime, a perfect opportunity to corner her uncle and insist he listen to her story. Just as she snuffed her two candles and congratulated herself on her escape, a figure cloaked in black appeared at the edge of the woods.
Lucinda froze. "Sir James?"
The figure stood perfectly still while the mist ebbed and flowed around him, obscuring his features. She'd never seen Sir James in a black cloak. He preferred a red hunting jacket. She took a step backward and cast a wary glance toward Samson. The hound, unconcerned, was rooting around in a thicket.
"Sir?" she said again, and this time her voice quavered a little. She would give him exactly ten seconds to answer before she left the glen as swiftly as her feet would allow.
The man put one hand to his mouth and whistled, once, twice. Samson woofed in response and ran toward him. The man stepped forward to meet the hound. As he left the shelter of the trees, sunlight played upon his countenance.
Lucinda pressed her hand against her chest.
The world seemed to tilt on its axis.
Tall, one hand shoved into his cloak pocket, he pierced her with a brooding hazel gaze. Mud clung to his trousers and boots, and his shirt bagged where he'd tucked it into his waistband, suggesting he'd had a lengthy tramp in the woods. He sported perhaps a day's growth of beard, and he'd tied his black hair in a queue, much the way gentlemen had a century earlier.
She'd seen him mere minutes before.
In her vision.
Heat suffused her face as she stared up at him. just as quickly it drained from her. Every nerve in her body began to sing with his nearness. He's come, she thought.
Silence stretched between them as he measured her with a single glance. Evidently he found her wanting, for he turned to go. Lucinda reached out to him, begging him to stay, to be the Lancelot she'd expected and rush to her side, offering aid.
He hesitated, lips compressed into thin lines. Even as she trembled beneath the intensity in his eyes, she wondered why he hadn't at least stepped forward to introduce himself.
Who was he?
His easy command of Sir James' hound suggested he knew the Clairmont family well. A friend of the family, perhaps? He might even be Richard Clairmont, Sir James' only son. The younger Clairmont had supposedly just returned from the Crimean War, but she didn't know what he looked like. Richard had left for boarding school while still a youth and had returned for a few brief holidays before attending Eton and joining the army.
Another question, one even more mysterious, nagged at her.
What had she done to offend him?
Before she could utter a word, he turned his back on her and slipped into the woodlands, Samson at his side. Open-mouthed, she watched him disappear from sight. Once he'd gone, outrage replaced the strange sense of connection she'd felt toward him.
If he was her Lancelot, then only God Himself could save her from the witch.
Copyright © 1999 by Tracy Fobes