"I am forced to admit," said Lucilla Marjoribanks, holding the magical sword firmly with both hands, "that this is somewhat removed from my sphere of expertise."
The Lady stood regally before the lounging, twittering, glittering glory of her court. Her own sword emerged from one draping sleeve like a deadly extension of her arm.
"Your life is not yet forfeit," she said grandly. "Acknowledge your defeat, leave at once, and withdraw your influence from these lands and that village."
The village in question was that of Marchbank, and it was not, it must be said, a particularly grand or impressive sort of village. Lucilla Marjoribanks, that unsurpassed queen of society in the town of Carlingford, had said a bittersweet farewell to the scene of her triumphs and sorrows, and moved to the manor house at Marchbank upon her marriage to her cousin Tom. She had arrived full of love for the old family property, and equally full of determination to do good works among the surly and disinterested villagers who lived in the shadow of her dwelling. It was a new challenge for her left hand to undertake while her right remained folded through her beloved husband's arm, providing comfort or gentle steering or even the both of them at once, as circumstances required.
It had been something of a shock to discover that the reason for the blank expressions and dead-voiced mutterings of the people of Marchbank, their averted eyes and their flat and ungracious refusal to have anything to do with their new squire and his wife, was neither their breeding nor (as Lucilla initially suspected) their previous lack of an experienced feminine figure of Lucilla's social genius to grace both the halls of the manor and the damp narrow lanes of the village.
The reason, in fact, was that a field belonging to one Farmer George held a tree that was also a gateway to Fairyland, and one of those supernatural folk had begun to show an interest in the region, laying claim to its people via myriad glamours and enchantments, and demanding tithes that resulted in the best of the season's crops, as well as buckets of fresh milk and the eggs of the plumpest hens, being left out on stoops for the fairies to sample and steal.
It took Lucilla longer than she was proud of to make this discovery, but she comforted herself that she might never have uncovered the truth had she not laid such thorough and thoughtful groundwork upon her arrival, cultivating through her patronage the shy trust of a handful of young women which included, by great fortune, the daughter of the village blacksmith. If Lucilla ever thought of iron-workers in her life before that time, it had been only vaguely, and in relation to the shodding of horses.
The girl in question was named Bessie, and a few hours spent in her company had been most instructive for Mrs Marjoribanks, even though Bessie herself admitted that no iron could be carried across the border between their mundane world and that of Fairy. Retiring to her own library and spending an afternoon in thoughtful perusal of a few choice volumes ordered from London had shed even more light on a subject that Lucilla had heretofore considered to be of little relevance to herself, deeply unmagical as she and her acquaintances were.
Lucilla had begun to suspect that this magical entanglement was the reason Marchbank had been put up for sale in the first place, and why the seller's agent had not bothered to quibble over terms or to wring a higher price from any negotiations.
"At least," Lucilla had told herself placidly, "it is not haunted."
One did hear stories about old houses, especially those sold hurriedly to young newlywed couples. Despite being a vivacious, fresh-faced and altogether attractive woman, Lucilla was of the opinion that she was past the bloom of her beauty, and could by no means be considered an ingenue; it would not suit her at all to go creeping about the halls and staircases of her new home in a diaphanous white gown, disturbing dark spirits and possibly meeting a grisly end.
No, the house of Marchbank itself was quite satisfactorily normal. All of Lucilla's troubles flowed from the Lady who stood before her now, who would not have looked out of place in a white gown. She would, Lucilla reflected with a pang, not have looked out of place in a gown of almost any shade. Her unnaturally tall figure was willowy and slim, her complexion a perfect white, and her black hair fell from beneath a gleaming coronet, forming a vivid blanket of darkness down the back of her silver garments. Her skirts put Lucilla in mind of the bellies of darting fish.
As for Lucilla herself, she was sensible enough to recognise that she should no longer wear the pale green hue that had so suited her in what she fondly called her youth, but she looked very well indeed in the forest green dress that she had bought last spring. She was beginning to wonder about its suitability for the duelling ring, however; its sleeves were long and tight, but the skirts did catch at one's ankles rather. At least she had had the foresight to have her hair snugly pinned that morning, so that not a single stray curl would bob into her eyes.
"I am afraid that we find ourselves in a very awkward position," Lucilla told the Lady sadly. She had a horror of social awkwardness above all things. "Asking you to withdraw your influence from Marchbank was my intention also."
Lucilla's arms were beginning to ache. The sword was not as heavy as she had expected when it had been handed to her by a grinning fairy courtier, but it was long and unwieldy and the filigree cage that served to protect her hands was woven with cunning, decorative silver leaves, which had the unpleasant secondary effect of scraping their edges against her fingers whenever she adjusted her grip.
Duelling, Lucilla thought with an inner sigh, was not at all a ladylike occupation.
But of course, she then reminded herself, it was not so very different from being on the Continent and kissing one's acquaintances on both cheeks, or learning the subtle variations in play permitted at the card table. It was only good manners to adjust one's view of the proper and correct when one was a guest in a place where the customs differed from one's own.
"You are an enterprising, meddling sort of woman," said the Lady, whose eyes had further narrowed at Lucilla's declaration. "Do you seek some of my power, as well, to use towards your own ends? To gain glory and love and riches?"
"Oh, no," Lucilla said, with every appearance of modesty. "All those who truly know me will tell you that my dearest wish is only to be a support to my dear Tom in his advancement."
All those who knew Lucilla would have had to be buried head-down in Farmer George's muddy pigpen not to have been aware of this fact. Indeed, she repeated it so often that one might have forgiven the husband in question for feeling a little anxious, lest he not be advancing at quite the pace merited by such steadfast devotion.
Word of Lucilla's second great purpose in life seemed to have reached even the Lady's pointed ears, because her fair brow clouded and her pale eyes took on a stormy cast.
"So it is true, then," she said. "But your dear Tom is yours no longer."
She waved her free hand in the direction of a gauzy bower which Lucilla had politely been ignoring; after all, perhaps it was the custom in this land to entertain guests in a large outdoor space which served every function that a room could be called upon to serve, but it did not mean Lucilla felt at all comfortable directing her gaze towards another's intimate sleeping area. Equally, she had been averting her eyes from a steaming pool of water nearby, whence came the occasional splash and tinkling peal of laughter.
At the languid flap of the Lady's slender hand, some shimmering mossy curtains were pulled back from the bower’s entrance, revealing Thomas Marjoribanks, eyes closed, draped across a bed of wildflowers in an attitude of motionless repose. The icy hand of dread clutched at Lucilla's heart, but was swiftly melted when Tom shifted in his sleep and gave a faint snore.
To Lucilla's intense relief, her husband was still clad in every layer of his accustomed garb, including the simple but neat folds of his cravat. Tom was no dab hand with his own cravat, and disliked the old-fashioned flourishes that Simpson insisted upon adding. Lucilla cherished the small morning ritual that was Tom knocking upon her dressing-room door, cravat in hand, his eyes sheepish and fond.
Lucilla would have comfortably wagered half the furniture in Marchbank that the pale and elegant creature standing across from her had never tied a cravat in her life.
Now, Lucilla allowed the tip of her sword to droop despondently to the ground. "Oh!" she said in a sad little gasp, her eyes beginning to mist with tears. "Do you mean to say I am too late to win him back?"
The Lady looked nonplussed. "No," she said. She rallied. "Merely that your chance of success is so small as to be insignificant. Countless mortals have come here in the foolhardy belief that I can be vanquished, and all have fallen. Gaze upon your husband all you wish; soon you will join their ranks."
Lucilla brightened. "Ah, there," she said. "I knew I could not have mistaken your meaning in taking Tom from me. You did desire to issue a challenge."
"Indeed," the Lady said, with the first hint of impatience.
"I do beg your pardon," said Lucilla. "I am just a woman, you know, and my poor dear father wished me to be educated in Political Economy above all things; though I am convinced if he could have foreseen all the events of my life, he might have allowed me a small course of study in all things Magical."
The Lady's hand was beginning to tighten around the hilt of her sword in a way that Lucilla, that consummate hostess, recognised as a warning. She had seen a similar grip around the butter knife held by elderly soldiers seated beside bubbly young women whom Lucilla had hoped would enliven their evening, but instead had the unfortunate effect of boring them nearly to tears. That grip on the butter knife indicated the need for Lucilla to hastily re-grasp the reins of the table's conversation, in order to avert the social blights of awkward silence or discourteous outbursts.
"I mean to say," Lucilla said hastily, "that the etiquette of this situation is as unfamiliar to me as, I am sure, the ordering of candles and curtains and table linens is to you. I had assumed that--but no, I am sure I am mistaken."
"What had you assumed," said the Lady coldly.
Lucilla folded her shoulders, looking as meek as it was possible for a woman possessed of more than the usual doses of spirits, self-belief and good health to look.
"If, by abducting my husband to your own realm, you were issuing a challenge," she said, "then I am the one to whom the challenge has been issued?"
"That seems self-evident," snapped the Lady. "Your cowardice grows tiresome; pray, lift your sword."
A small furrow marred Lucilla's brow. "Then am I mistaken in thinking that the code of duelling, or indeed of any such challenge, leaves the choice of weaponry in the hands of the person who has been challenged?"
A wintery sort of silence fell over the court. Into it rose another snore from the slumbering Tom, followed by a cough from one of the fairies.
"You are not mistaken," said the Lady at last. "A sword is...traditional. Do you fear the prospect of pain?"
"Perhaps a little," Lucilla said humbly. "It is only, as I said, that I have no experience in fencing, and I see by your stance that you far outclass me."
"Choose your contest, then," said the Lady. Some of her grandness had returned. "The stakes remain the same: the victor retains the mortal man Tom Marjoribanks, and in addition, the vanquished leaves Marchbank forever. What is it to be? Archery?"
"I would prefer something less military," said Lucilla.
The Lady nodded. "There was once a hero who fancied himself a bard, and challenged me to a duel of music. He was as soundly defeated as any of the warriors."
"Oh! I play very indifferently," said Lucilla, "and I am sure my voice is suited only to accompanying others. There is only one sphere in which I am really certain of my gifts, and that is the social. I accept your challenge, ma'am, and nominate entertainment as the manner of contest."
"The entertainment of guests?" the Lady said, with more than a touch of dubiousness. "You mean the hosting of banquets, and such things? I would not have thought you could fit a bag of sugar into your pockets, let alone a set of silverware."
"A true hostess makes do with what she has," Lucilla said, with lifted chin. "I acknowledge it is more difficult to appoint a victor in this case than in a more traditional duel. Can your ladyship suggest an impartial onlooker, to act as judge? A member of your own court might be expected to be sympathetic to your own cause, and my husband to mine."
The Lady exhaled through her shapely nostrils and looked over her shoulder. "Put out the call for Riobard," she said, and almost at once the sound of whistling birds filled the air, mingled with something like the music of panpipes. "This is a changeling sprite not of my court," she told Lucilla, "though he has been known to visit us. He owes allegiance to no one, and bears especial love to neither mortals nor fae. Anyone will vouch for his objectivity in these matters."
Riobard, when he appeared, transpired to be a smallish young man with a head of brambly curls and a grubby outfit not dissimilar in hue to Lucilla's own. He gave a bark of laughter closer to the bark of a dog, when the terms were explained to him, and with a snap of his fingers created a large, polished table with two high-backed chairs. The setting was lovely; Lucilla was instantly covetous of for her own dining room, and felt it would be better suited to a wood-panelled room lit by candles than its rather incongruous placement in this pastoral paradise.
The Lady and Lucilla took their seats.
"The challenger has first shot," said Riobard cheerfully.
The Lady inhaled and lifted her hands. She began to speak under her breath in a language that Lucilla had never heard, and as she spoke there appeared on the table the most lavish and complete feast, ices and roast meats and fruits and jellies and every kind of dish desirable, all at the perfect temperature and all accompanied by goblets of wine, jugs of cordial, and steaming pots of both tea and chocolate.
It looked effortless, but the Lady was breathing hard when she lowered her hands and looked at Lucilla across the fantastical spread, and there were the first signs of colour in her alabaster cheeks.
"It all looks so perfectly beautiful," Lucilla said admiringly, "it seems a shame to eat it."
"Surely a sampling of the food provided is necessary," said the Lady, "in order to say that one has been adequately entertained?”
Lucilla inclined her head and picked up a small cake, smelling divinely of butter and lavender and topped with a butterfly in delicate spun sugar. She took a genteel bite which nonetheless demolished half of the cake, and savoured the taste; it had been a good few hours since breakfast. She did not miss the murmuring from the fairies off to one side, and the glint of triumph in the Lady's eyes.
"I am not one for sweets as a general rule," Lucilla said. "But that was truly delicious. Now, as your ladyship has pointed out, I did not bring any crockery with me. May I?"
It was the Lady’s turn to incline her head as Lucilla picked up the teapot and poured its contents onto the grass near her feet.
"A good hostess," Lucilla repeated, "makes do with whatever poor fare is available to her."
She rose from the table and crossed to where she had seen herbs growing in a lush bed, mint and rosemary and various others which were less familiar. She bent and began to pick leaves, which she tossed into the empty teapot.
Riobard was by her side. He smelled of dirt and of something floral, perhaps roses, perhaps not.
"Mortal fool," he said, sounding bemused. "Why did you eat her food? Now, even if you win the contest, you cannot leave this realm as long as the Lady holds sway here."
"Well, in any case, I am sure I would rather know that my dear Tom is free," Lucilla said bravely.
Once her teapot was half-full of herbs and flowers, she braced herself and crossed to the pool of water so hot it was steaming. She kept her eyes on the grass at the edge of the pool.
"Do excuse me," she said. "Is this water safe to drink?"
Nothing but giggles emerged from the centre of the pool. At her elbow, Riobard said, "Safe enough."
"You could make yourself useful," Lucilla told him. "I saw some beehives; perhaps there is no sugar available, but I think this tea will be the better for some sweetening."
In her career thus far Lucilla had served tea to vicars, politicians, lords and elderly aunts. She swirled water around the blossoms and herbs in the teapot, accepted the small pot of honey from Riobard’s hand with a gracious nod, and arranged on a saucer slender slices from the fruit on the table that looked most similar to lemon. The resulting tea service was impeccable, as was the angle of Lucilla's wrist as she poured tea into two cups, mixed in a little honey, and raised her own cup to her lips. She took a slow sip, and was not displeased at the flavour.
Once Lucilla had swallowed, the Lady took a mouthful of her own tea.
"It is pleasantly fragrant," she said, in the voice of one humouring a small child. "I have always enjoyed mint tea. But do you really believe--"
Her voice cut off abruptly. She set the teacup down with equal abruptness, revealing an ashy grey tinge to her thin, beautiful mouth.
"Is everything all right?" Lucilla enquired anxiously
"Iron does not exist in this realm," the Lady snarled. "It cannot."
"No," Lucilla agreed. "However, isn't it the funniest thing? The bark of an oak tree, felled at midnight with an iron-headed axe, and then ground to a powder that is stored three days in an iron box before being tipped into a fabric bag, can be tucked into one's sleeve and carried across the border with no difficulty at all."
A furious noise of whispering and exclamation arose from the watching fairies. The Lady stared at Lucilla, her mouth entirely black now, her slim fingers gone to white claws at her throat and her willowy form teetering.
Lucilla took another sip of tea.
"Personally," she said with a hint of regret, "I think it would benefit from a dash of milk."
The creeping greyness spread and spread, until the Lady looked as though she had walked face-first through an unusually large and dirty cobweb. Her eyes rolled, her breath crackled like dry leaves, and then she fell to the ground and gave not so much as the smallest snore.
Lucilla set down her cup, stood, and brushed down her skirts with a sigh. "If only she had not insisted upon the sampling being necessary," she said.
"One might accuse you of not playing fair, Mrs Marjoribanks," said Riobard. "The contest was in entertainment; it is hardly the mark of a good hostess to kill one's guest."
"The Lady informed me upon my arrival that my life was forfeit," said Lucilla. "At no time did she withdraw that clause. A contest not involving weaponry performed à l'outrance is unorthodox, I will admit, but is it incorrect?"
Riobard gave a smile exposing his teeth, which were sharp and unpleasantly brown. "It is not," he said. "And I suppose you are also aware that the fact of your having consumed her food matters not at all, now that she is dead."
Lucilla was busying herself with the teapot and the half-filled cups. With a small bow in the direction of the silent fairy court, she once again poured the teapot to emptiness and tossed the contents of the cups onto the grass in the same spot. The lush lawn sizzled and whitened on contact with the liquid.
"There," she said. "I wish none of the rest of you any harm, I'm sure."
She then gathered up her forest skirts, showing a greater expanse of leg than she would have done had she not been overcome by emotion. She had released the gates on the anxiety that now flooded her heart, and she dashed across to the flowery bower, where she flung herself on her knees by her sleeping husband's side.
"Tom!" she cried. "Oh, my dear Tom, you can awaken now. She and her magic are gone; she has no claim over you!”
Tom was always a sound sleeper, but neither Lucilla’s tight grip on his shoulder nor her increasingly rough shaking served to persuade his eyes to open.
"He drank nectar of primrose, milady," said a voice. Lucilla turned to see a nervous-looking fairy hovering by the bower. "He will sleep another few turns of the glass, but do not fear. He will awaken none the worse for it."
"Oh, thank goodness," said Lucilla, and for a few seconds she considered the luxury of bursting into tears.
But she was a deeply practical woman at heart, and she had been telling her Tom only the other day that she was sure he did not sleep as many hours as he should. The rest would do him good.
Lucilla rose to her feet and looked around herself. Somewhat to her surprise, the crowd of fairies was watching her with quiet deference. When she glanced at the closest two green-tinged girls (or at least, she was fairly confident they were girls), they gave angular curtseys and scurried backwards a few feet.
"A duel is only one sort of tradition," said Riobard. He was now lounging with his feet in the steaming pool, looking both relaxed and interested in the proceedings at hand. "There are older and truer ones among our kind. By defeating the Lady in single combat, you have earned yourself first claim to her lands and titles."
"My goodness," said Lucilla, who, it must be said, had not set off on this endeavour with any idea of inheriting a court of fairy folk. Though they had clearly been allowed to fall into an appalling state of social disarray. And then there was the not insignificant matter of restoring good relations between the people of Marchbank village and these their more magical neighbours.
For a moment even the formidable genius of Lucilla Marjoribanks wavered, wondering if perhaps it were unwise to overcommit herself. After all, such projects would by necessity divide her time and attention, leaving her less to spare for the chief duty of her life. But she had a very fair nature, and she recognised that it would hardly be polite to leave these poor creatures without a firm guiding hand at their rudder, when she herself was responsible for leaving them adrift. Besides, she reflected, brightening, there might yet be some gems, some masters of conversation or flirtation to be found among her new subjects, who could make for some very satisfactory dinner parties indeed.
A sudden commotion arose among the fairies, and the air seemed to grow both heavier and lighter at once.
"What is it?" Lucilla inquired.
"Oh, drat," said Riobard, and in the next instant a rider on a gleaming horse burst through the trees and trotted to an imposing stop not six feet from where Lucilla stood.
Lucilla noticed three things in quick succession: firstly, that the fierce-looking antlers emerging from the top of the horse’s odd, leonine head pronounced it to be no true horse at all. Secondly, that the creature’s rider was a woman clad in an impeccable dark red riding habit and a splendid red hat atop hair nearly as dark as the Lady’s had been. The woman looked every inch a model of City fashions except for the mass of golden bracelets that jingled in a lively fashion at one wrist, as though conducting their own conversation, and the row of golden rings that adorned the shell of one ear. She had brown skin and very keen eyes with deep lines at their corners, but apart from those lines and a broad streak of white at one temple, there were almost no clues to her age. Thirdly, perched on her shoulder was a creature that Lucilla at first took for a parrot, but which had the face of a child nestled within the jewel tones of its plumage.
The Sorceress Royal slid from the back of the unicorn Yuoko, paused for a moment with her keen gaze fixed on the dead fairy, and then came to stand in front of Lucilla Marjoribanks. Her manner was so commanding as to be almost regal, and there was an undeniable glow of like calling to like as the two women gazed at one another.
Lucilla dropped a deep curtsey which served very well to cover her emotions.
"My name is Prunella Wythe," said Prunella Wythe, once Lucilla had straightened both body and face. "Might I ask yours?"
"Lucilla Marjoribanks, ma'am."
"And do you know who I am?"
"Oh, yes!" Lucilla folded her hands in front of her. She would have been more at ease had the Queen herself appeared in this glade; it had never occurred to her to consider what position in her impeccable conception of social standing the Sorceress Royal should be expected to occupy. "I--I feel an explanation is owed to you, ma'am. This lady has been wreaking havoc upon my village, and bewitching my villagers. And she took my husband from me," Lucilla added, with an aggrieved wave of her hand towards the sleeping Tom.
"You've not a scrap of magic to you," said Prunella, looking Lucilla up and down. "How did you cross the border?"
Lucilla gnawed her lower lip for the space of a breath, and then released it. She explained to the Sorceress Royal that, having done a little reading on the matter, she realised that as a non-magical mortal she would have to be invited into Fairyland, and that responding to a formal challenge constituted such an invitation. She had therefore dropped the word into a few choice village ears (as a great secret, of course) that she wanted nothing more than for her husband to advance to a position befitting his great gifts, and she had begun to wonder if any seat in the English Parliament could compare to something like the throne of a magical kingdom.
Prunella's mouth twitched in a most unladylike way. "Do you mean to tell me that you baited a fairy noblewoman into abducting your husband, simply to have an excuse to go charging after him?"
Unfeigned warmth filled Lucilla's voice. "I will brave any danger if it's for the sake of my dear Tom."
"Quite proper," said Prunella. Her own voice was simmering with laughter. "And a neat skirting of the question, too. You've reminded me that it's been months since anyone tried to hold my husband hostage."
Lucilla's eyes widened. Prunella's husband was known to be a prodigiously clever sorcerer in his own right, and the couple were held up in all corners as a triumph of the love match, even after decades of marriage and five children. The very notion of abducting Zacharias Wythe seemed to Lucilla to be foolish in every respect. However, she was not quite sure of the proper sentiment to express, especially in light of the fond nostalgia in Prunella's face.
"It must be very trying for you, ma'am," she decided upon, "if it is such a regular occurrence."
"Oh! It can be quite the diverting way to spend an afternoon." said Prunella cheerfully. "Not that Zacharias sees it that way, of course; poor man, he's always so irritable at the interruption to his research." She lifted her riding habit in one fist and took a few strides across the grass until she was standing over the prone form of the Lady. The eyes of every fairy in the glade followed her. "Ah, Carlotta," the Sorceress Royal sighed down at the corpse. "Georgiana did warn you about these silly habits of yours. And now I shall have to tell her that you are dead, and that a minor duchy of Fairyland has become the property of a mortal."
Lucilla thought it wise to interject another deep curtsey at this point, and apologised for any diplomatic unpleasantness that her actions may have caused, feeling keenly the prospect of such a black mark against her impeccable record as a political spouse if this were the case.
"It's a piece of awkwardness," Prunella said frankly. "But all perfectly legal so far as I can see. She challenged, you responded. You probably need not have gone so far as to kill her," she added, eyes glittering, "but then, Carlotta's never been one to play by the rules. She'd likely have found a way to cheat, if you'd left her alive. And no matter! It's done now."
The garuda had been fluttering by the Lady's body. Now it returned to Prunella's shoulder, and Prunella's sharp black eyes spared it an interested glance, as though listening to something.
"Oak bark?" Prunella said.
Lucilla admitted that this was the case.
"The result of more reading, I expect?" Prunella smiled. "I've half a mind to have you lecture at the Academy. The pupils there are all full to bursting with magic, but some of them could do with a lesson in cunning and common sense."
Lucilla lowered her eyes. "I'm sure it would be an honour to be involved, in any small way, in the great work that your ladyship is doing to advance the education of our sex; for myself, you know, I never aspired to any subject higher than Political Economy. Perhaps you would allow me to discuss it with my husband? I know he would be equally as anxious to be involved in such a worthy cause."
Lucilla's busy mind, which had been turning the word duchy in all directions and finding it very pleasing indeed, was reminding her that to be seen as a patron of England's premier school for magic, and to be on friendly terms with the Sorceress Royal, could bring nothing but further prestige for Tom. And Lucilla was, of course, ever mindful of the duty she owed to the advancement of her husband's career.
Prunella gazed at her for a little while. None of the laughter left her face.
"And why not?" said the Sorceress Royal, finally. "Call on us when you are next in London, Lucilla Marjoribanks. I look forward to making your further acquaintance."
"You are so kind," said Lucilla. She cast a glance at her insensate husband. "And I am sure my dear Tom will be only too delighted to thank you in person."
"Thank me?" said Prunella, resting an absent hand on her familiar's feathered head. "For what? I arrive to find the matter all concluded! Indeed, it seems to me, he should be thanking Providence and all the spirits for such a wife as you."