Henry Forster had the unfortunate condition of being a very large boy with a very gentle temperament. While his cousins enjoyed sports and hunting, he found contentment in his mother’s vast library and was the favorite of his tutors. His twin sister, Lily, though she shared much in the way of physical similarities, did not share his love for dusty knowledge. No amount of cajoling or threats could induce her to remain indoors when she so desperately needed to be outside. Her father bemoaned her ever being properly educated while her step-mother lamented only that the sun turned her so dreadfully brown. The new Lady Forster was ever ready to coddle her step-children. She had heard too many tales of wicked step-mothers to feel any sort of security in her present position and was only too aware that were it not for her handsome fortune she would have little to recommend herself in the ways of intelligence or skill. So while she had no talent for art or music and was eminently stupid, at least she was kind.
Miss Forster had no great liking for her step-mother, conscious that the woman was barely ten years her senior as well as being dull and silly. But she endeavored to be civil, if only because Lady Mary doted so genuinely upon the twins and was so humorously discomfited by Elinor’s presence. It was perhaps cruel that she did nothing to alleviate that discomfort, but at least she was aware of that cruelty and mildly ashamed of it.
The twins, for their part, could not understand the coldness exhibited by their elder sister and loved Lady Mary with all the ardor of small children who have all their wishes acquiesced by someone who should be controlling their behavior. So it was that Henry was allowed to neglect his physical education while Lily was allowed to wander the grounds without escort and often (to Elinor’s horror) without shoes.
“Lily, I shan’t speak with you like this. Civilized persons do not converse from trees.” Lily was in her mother’s tree, which had grown to be a great oak over the last ten years. Since she could walk, she had been drawn to the clearing and her first clear utterance was concerning its origins. The bark, though strangely smooth, still bore three scars on the trunk which looked very nearly like the hand prints of a small child and two infants.
“I don’t see why you cannot join me. If I can get Henry to read outside, surely I can tempt you to greater heights,” she called from among the branches, her bare legs dangling carelessly. Henry looked abashed and hid behind his ornithology text. He had never been tempted to the heights of those branches, but he did admit to a certain comfort in reading at its base.
“You know very well how inappropriate it would be for a lady of my standing to behave like such a buffoon. You continue this way and the whole village will think the faeries exchanged my sister for an ape.” Both twins blushed at this remark, Henry in embarrassment and Lily with anger. Elinor immediately regretted the insult. It was said in temper by the spiteful part of her which knew exactly the best way to cause the most harm.
“Well, if I am the changeling chimp of your real sister, then perhaps I should start acting like it. Henry, fetch me some manure. I am certain I have a strong desire to fling it at unsuspecting ladies.” Henry did his utmost to disappear into the trunk of the tree.
“Oh, Lily!” A dozen threats skittered through Elinor’s mind. Why was she given such an unruly sister? What would happen to the twins without her to give them some semblance of order? With that thought, her anger dissipated and she was left only with the deep melancholy with which she had set out to find her siblings. “Lily, please. I have some news and I would like very much to speak of it with dignity, not scream it into foliage.” Lily responded with ape-like shrieks and some rude noises, so Elinor placed one slim hand on the tree trunk and asked her mother to dislodge her troublesome sister. Moments later, Lily found herself unceremoniously tossed to the ground next to her brother. Henry, seeing the resigned set of Elinor’s shoulders, reverently put down his book and draped a massive arm over Lily’s shoulder to keep her from scurrying off again. Lily resigned herself to sulking.
Elinor paced from one side of the small clearing to the other. Now that it had come to it, she couldn’t quite bring herself to blurt out what she had come to say. She really wished the twins had found some place less personal to seclude themselves. For all that she didn’t want to tell the twins, she was especially reticent for this news to reach her mother.
You are lucky, dear Elinor. You are the eldest, yes, but you are not the heir. I married out of duty. Fond of your father as I have become, our wedding was the bitterest of days because my heart felt nothing for the stranger I was joined to. You have no duty to this house but to leave it. They will tell you to marry well and I urge you to do so by marrying him to whom you may give your heart. You have no other duty. To do less would break my heart.
“I’m to be married to Lord Riverton twelve months hence.” The admission gave her no relief, only adding to the oppression she felt with her father’s announcement.
“But…Nathan is only twelve this year,” said Henry slowly.
“Good God, you can’t mean Old Riverton?” exclaimed Lily with undisguised revulsion. “Why, he’s older than father!”
Elinor colored at this remark. “Lord Riverton is a very fine gentleman and father says it is a most desirable match for me. I have little enough to offer a suitor.”
“But you cannot seriously accept that old man as your husband. He’ll be dead and buried before an heir is born.” Elinor was shocked so utterly by this inappropriate statement that all manner of composure was forgotten.
“Fortuitously, as Henry pointed out, there is already an heir to the title. I, at least, am not only a broodmare to carry on the family affliction!” The words passed her lips with no input from years of genteel upbringing, or she never would have uttered them. Lily’s face paled, but instead of lashing out, she shook off her brother’s arm and dashed further into the forest in a flash of copper curls. There would be no finding her now. The trees would hide the girl until she chose to come home. Without the least concern for her skirts, Elinor sat on the grass with a heavy sigh.
“Wish you wouldn’t fight,” Henry moaned into his chest.
“I know.” Silence but for the chirping of some songbirds and the clicking of insects. “I’m nearly seventeen, Henry. This is the only offer I may ever get. I have no fortune and I have no gifts.” She hesitated to share her full reasoning with her brother. It might hurt him, yet she could not leave him with only the impression that she sought only security and fortune in this arrangement. “Young Nathan has taken the iron testing* and shown great promise, so there is no pressure for me to provide an heir, as I said. Can you understand the fear this alleviates? I have lived in terror of the birthing room my whole childhood. Thrice did I watch my mother suffer through it, each time more painful and more prolonged. Last of all I watched the iron take her to madness. I heard my gentle mother, who never raised her voice or spoke a harsh word, ranting and shrieking as I lay in bed in the dark. And after all the screaming and pain, when it was over, she was a stranger to me, the life drawn out of her into those hated bracelets.” She wiped her face with a kerchief. “At least Lord Riverton is kind.”
To this, Henry had no reply. He had always been in awe of his sister, who had seemed like an adult from his earliest memories. She had acted as their mother in a way that nursemaids and tutors could not. While she and Lily were constantly at odds, he had every confidence that Elinor always acted for their betterment. To see her so resigned, so helpless, so defeated by her circumstance suddenly made him feel much older.
“He does have a nice estate. A very fine library, I understand,” he ventured at length. To this she smiled, acknowledging that from him it was high praise indeed. It was only when she smiled that Elinor took on the visage of her mother, the only one of her children to take after her in looks. Henry and Lily both took after their father in figure, though only Henry has his blonde hair and brown eyes. Lily’s eyes are a shocking shade of emerald like her mother’s, an early indicator that she inherited her mother’s power.
“Next time, I suggest you start with that information. Lily is always more amenable to Nanny’s opinions.”