An excerpt from
Titania's GiftA new novella of Faery in Regency times.
Available now in the collection, Faery Weddings.
(Sarah, Lady Jardine, is attending a house party with her husband, a successful politician. In the world's eye their marriage is perfect, but there are problems, which a wild local festival is about to bring to the surface.)
She opened the casement in search of fresh, cool air and was assailed by distant laughter and the compelling beat of a drum. The night was spiced with wood smoke, and golden fire-sparks danced up toward a huge full moon, making her think of fairies in flight.
Where had that fancy come from?
From the insistent drumbeat and the cavorting figures.
All because of Lady Day? The name came from it being the feast of the Annunciation, but nowadays it was one of the quarter days for the settling of rents and such. Lady Day, Midsummer Day, Michaelmas, and Christmas Day. No great reason for revelry on any of them.
Then she remembered that until fifty years or so ago Lady Day had been the beginning of the year, rather than January the first. Yes, that must be it. She was witnessing an ancient celebration of New Year's Eve. Country people clung to such traditions, especially if they involved drink and dancing and their employers were obliged to give them permission to indulge.
Sarah watched the fire and the figures and felt the drumbeat, envying them a little. Her life was much more comfortable than theirs, but what would it be like to be one of those dancers, whirling with abandon around a blazing fire?
She laughed and moved back.
What a strange mood she was in.
She'd made an excuse to leave the drawing room, but she wasn't tired. At home she would have settled to some household task. She would have gone over accounts, written letters, or planned an entertainment. She picked up the book she was supposed to be reading -- A Report on Charitable Infirmaries. Dull stuff, but she was on the board of one. She might as well be comfortable to do her reading duty. She put the book down again and rang the bell.
Her maid came promptly, bearing a ewer of steaming water.
The young woman, Jilly Mote, wasn't Sarah's usual maid. Ellis, who seemed to think being referred to by her surname gave her dignity, had begun a bad cough and been left behind in London. Jilly Mote was a Maberley Hall maid who'd been instructed to attend her. She seemed pleased to do so, and to be called Jilly.
Lady Stoneycroft had said, "Jilly's not fully trained as a lady's maid, Lady Jardine, but we're not keeping grand style here so I think she'll do and it'll be good experience for her."
Jilly was trim and full of energy, with bright eyes, bubbling brown hair, and an air of expecting wonders from life. She'd be better suited to Miranda Hoyt-Grenville, who instead had an elderly dragon of a maid. Perhaps Sir Launceston wasn't completely addled.
Jilly put the jug by the washstand and asked, "Shall I close the window, milady? The air's cool if you're to wash."
"Yes, of course. I was listening to the music. The village celebrates this way every year?"
"Yes, milady," The maid closed the casement and drew the curtains, and then came over to unfasten Sarah's gown. "It's Lady's Day Eve, after all."
"Lady Day," Sarah corrected gently.
"If you say so, milady."
A rather impudent response, but if the maid didn't want to be improved, but so be it.
As Jilly eased off her silk gown, Sarah said, "I assume the bonfire and dancing is because March 24th was once New Year's Eve."
"Was it, milady?" Jilly set to work on the stay laces, "Did that change back when they stole eleven days from people?"
So many people still worried about that, even though it had been decades ago.
"They merely adjusted the calendar. Days can't be stolen."
"All the same, milady, it doesn't serve to go changing things. Brings trouble, that does."
"Have we been particularly troubled since 1752?" Sarah asked, amused by local folly.
"There was the revolutions, milady, and then Napoleon."
Sarah was startled by the truth. "There have always been wars, but two revolutions and then Napoleon have been extraordinary."
"So it's best to keep to the old ways," Jilly declared.
"Yet I like the improved roads," Sarah said as the stays came off, "and the gas lights in Pall Mall. They say soon many streets will be lit."
"I'd like to see that, milady." Jilly poured hot water into the bowl and stood by to assist with the washing. Sarah waved her away and drew the screen around the washstand so she could take off her shift and wash with propriety. Only when she was in her nightgown did she emerge.
Jilly had put away her clothes and turned down the bed. She'd also added some wood to the fire, for it burned high. Like the bonfire, hidden now by drawn curtains.
Sarah sat so the maid could release her tightly-pinned coils of hair. As it fell loose, Jilly said, "My, but it's long, milady. And such a pure blond. You don't often see that." She began to brush it almost reverently.
Sarah's hair was her finest feature. Her figure was slight and her face rather long, but her hair was effortlessly thick and healthy. She'd recently had it cropped at the front because the fashion was for curls there, but it had obliged by curling without irons. The rest merely waved down to her hips.
It was her finest feature, but it required firm handling for day-time decency. "Will you be able to arrange it for me tomorrow, Jilly?"
"In a simple style, yes, milady. But it's a right shame you can't wear it loose sometimes for it's a pretty sight. You wear it in a plait at night, milady?"
Sarah agreed, and the maid deftly plaited it and tied the thick rope with a ribbon.
"Is there anything else, milady?"
Something in the maid's tone alerted Sarah. The service might be lacking because the local people would be at the Lady Day revels.
"If you were free, would you be allowed to go into the village and enjoy the celebrations, Jilly?"
The bright eyes were answer. "Yes, milady."
"Then go. I won't need you any more tonight."
Jilly's smile was brilliant as she curtsied. "Thank you, milady!" The maid poured the used water into the jug, picked it up and went to the door. She paused there to say, "A Lady's Day blessing on you, milady." Then she left, light of step and full of anticipation.
A Lady's Day blessing.
Another local custom, and who could be offended by a blessing? Sarah was smiling, but realized that tears lurked. How ridiculous. She was envious of a maidservant's joyous expectations. A bonfire and dancing, and probably ale and cider, might lead to flirtation and kisses. And maybe more. A more that Jilly, or girls and women like Jilly, would enjoy, whereas she dreaded it.
She put on her wrap of peacock blue silk and went back to the window. She slid inside the closed curtains and studied the cavortings around the bonfire as if she could see more detail if she tried.
Were they just dancing?
If so, was it as decorous as a minuet or worse?
The truth was, she was tormented by the thought of pleasures. Pleasures she had never known.
(Sarah can't resist the temptation to leave the house.)
She rubbed her arms. Even with long sleeves she felt the chilly dampness. You'll catch your death! she heard in her old nurse's voice.
It would be warmer by the fire, so she hurried that way, thankful for some moon to show the path and warn of any obstacles. But then the path turned left to go along the house and her goal lay ahead, across grass.
She must leave the well-trodden ways. She who'd never before been out in the night like this, without escort and someone to light her way. Alone in the moonlit night. In danger.
What likely danger threatened here other than a mole hole twisting her ankle?
Gingerly, she stepped onto grass, so soft and springy beneath her boot. It felt magical. Smiling, she hurried toward fire, music and laughter. She was free of all trammeled ways. She might regret this later, but for this brief moment she was free.
As she drew closer she realized the bonfire wasn't in the village, but in a field to one side, at the base of the hillside. She turned away from the buildings and civilization fell away.
The fire roared against the backdrop of the dark hill, circled by a line of dancers. They moved to the rhythm of flute and drum, but not as in a line dance in a ballroom. Each dancer seemed to choose his or her own steps. Some were in couples, hands joined or elbows linked, occasionally twirling in one another's arms, but others danced alone to the common beat.
Sarah felt that rhythm in the earth and bounced in place, wishing she could join in. Even if she were brave enough it might not be allowed. This event might look chaotic but there would be rules. There were always rules.
Not everyone was dancing. People stood in clusters, drinking, talking and laughing. A few sat on the ground in groups, but they must have come prepared with something to sit on for the grass was damp. It looked as if the whole village was here, though perhaps the dancers were mostly young men and women. Children ran about playing inexplicable childish games.
Where were the two ladies from the hall?
She saw them, hoods thrown back to reveal Miranda Hoyt-Grenville, as expected and -- surprise -- Amanda Stoneycroft! They were part of a group of women, at ease and welcomed. Sarah wished she could join them, but how could she as she was -- in her plain gown, without stays, and her hair hanging down her back?
She began to back away from the firelight. If she left now, perhaps no one would ever know.
"Pretty lady, dance with me."
She started and turned to see a man by her side. Where had he come from?
He spoke like a gentleman but no gentleman would go about in an open-necked shirt. Not even tonight? she wondered. He was certainly a handsome rascal with broad shoulders, a chiseled chin, and thick, ruffled hair, but he knew it too well. His smile told her that.
She responded as she might in a ballroom. "I'm sorry, sir. I'm not dancing."
He had a flagon in his hand and drank from it before asking, "Why not? You seem to have working limbs."
To speak of her limbs!
"We have not been introduced," she said frostily.
He laughed. "Then by all means let's observe the proprieties. My name is Justinian."
"Really?" she asked skeptically.
"On my honor, sweet lady. My parents had high expectations. Call me Just if you like."
"But are you?"
He grinned. "I try at least to be fair, which you are without effort. Your name?"
His quick wits amused her, but she lied. "Lucilla." She'd always wanted a classical name instead of a Biblical one.
"No village maiden she!" He tossed his flagon to roll on the grass. "Come, fair Lucilla, dance!"
He didn't wait for permission but seized her hand and pulled her forward. Sarah said, "No..." but then suddenly surrendered and ran with him into the warmth and light of the fire. This was what she'd wanted after all. They wove into the line together, but he immediately released her hand and stepped lightly by himself.
"Dance!" he said and Sarah did, but still trying to follow one of the many dances she knew well. After a few steps she abandoned the attempt and simply danced. She didn't dance with her partner, but she welcomed his bright-hearted presence.
"Who are you?" she called as she twirled, one arm in the air as if a gentleman turned her.
"I told you."
"I mean, what? You're a gentleman."
Again the grin. "That rather depends on the definition, fair Lucilla. You are a lady."
"Not at the moment," she replied and surrendered to the dance, aware of laughing with delight as if mad drunk, yet she'd hardly touched the ratafia.
She caught sight of Miranda and Amanda and a bottle being passed around to top up glasses. The group was standing near a table which held glasses and cups and tankards and a cask of something, cider or ale. If Amanda Stoneycroft had brought a bottle of her ratafia to the revels, who knew what might happen here?
Then she progressed to the far side of the fire, away from the women and the village, but close to the edge of the rising ground. In front of her, a couple spun out of the dance and ran up the wooded hill.
"Don't look so shocked," her partner said. "There's no shame to it, especially tonight."
Sarah knew enough of country ways to understand. That couple would be sweethearts already and would marry as soon as a child started. If no child came, in time they'd try with someone else. Country ways might have served her and Edward better.
Her partner captured her hands and swung her round. "No sadness, Lucilla! Not on Lady's Day Eve."
"It's Lady Day," she objected.
"For a millennium. It's the feast of the Annunciation."
"You don't know?"
"Better you don't, then." He put an arm around her waist and jigged her along to the demanding drum beat, but she dragged him out of the dancers.
He considered her, then said, "The Lady celebrated tonight isn't Mary. She has many names, including Mab, but you can call her Titania."
"As in A Midsummer Night's Dream?" she scoffed.
"Midsummer is another quarter day, is it not? But that one belongs to Oberon. Michaelmas belongs to the Lady again, and Christmas to the Lord, though he prefers it to be celebrated on the old date, Twelfth Night."
"With a bonfire and drunken revelry," Sarah said, for that was the custom in many parts. But she came to her senses. "Mere folly and superstition."
"It makes as much sense as most human celebrations. Been to the Court in London recently?"
"Yes, have you?"
"For my sins, powdered hair and all."
If true, he was much more of a gentleman than she'd thought.
"So, fair Lucilla, do you want to continue to celebrate the Lady, or flee as if from the jaws of hell?"
"What's wrong with that?"
"Let's try a pagan kiss."
He pulled her into his arms and kissed her.
Sarah froze with shock, and then pushed at his broad chest, panicked by his strength. But then the sweet play of his mouth against hers stole all resistance.
A kiss, that was all, and not unlike a kiss or two she remembered from when young men had wooed her, in fun or in seriousness, alarming her occasionally with the persuasive sweetness of their lips. Perhaps that alarm was why she'd sought the safety of age and steadiness with an older gentleman. Edward's kisses never alarmed.
Then he deepened it. She resisted again, then melted again. She'd never been kissed like this, and never responded like this, with heat and a deep shuddering ache, so that she gripped the shirt against his back with need.
"Not here," he gasped, and taking her hand he raced her up toward the woods.
Part way, she came to her sensed and broke his hold. "No, I can't!"
He looked back at her, wild but smiling. "You need further introduction? My surname is Maberley."
"Be sensible. Even introduced, we can't!"
"I am very sensible of the need to love you, fair Lucilla, and of your need to love me. Why not?"
"Common decency. I'm married."
"Then why are you dancing?"
She'd known there would be rules. "You dragged me into it. But even if I weren't married, it wouldn't be decent. Not for people like us."
He put his hands on his hips. "Fine for coarser folk? People are the same beneath the sheets. Or in a faery bed."
"A faery bed?"
"That's what I'm told." He took her hand again, enclosing her fingers warmly, protectively, then bringing her knuckles to his lips for a kiss. "We could find out."
She pulled free again. "I can't."
"Then why are you here?"
Because I wanted to be brave.
Because I wanted to be free.
"If we never did anything we shouldn't, life would be intolerable dull."
Oh, the sharpness of the truth.
When he again drew her toward the woods, she went. It was only a wooded hill, after all, and not that dense with many trees still only in bud. She wasn't committing to anything.
I hope you've enjoyed this excerpt. You can buy this e-book through the links below. And don't forget to sign up for my newsletter just below that.
Faery Weddings also includes the novellas The Marrying Maid and The Lord of Elphindale, which have been previously published, though The Lord of Elphindale has been long out of print.
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