This happens the Winter Solstice after Elinor is engaged to Sir Christopher. I’m still working on cementing the plotlines and everything, but this scene was itching in my brain and had to be put down. Let me know what you think!
Chp 2 – Solstice
The mask is stifling. Each breath seems to make the next more difficult. But he likes the power it gives him. Anonymity, of course. And an edge of something like magic. It zings through his blood with every step he takes through the tame little country woods. The wind slices through his great coat like bladed ice, giving him more reason to bless the mask that shields his tender skin from the brittle cold and curse the silly velvet costume he had donned for the Solstice Ball. Stylish, yes. Practical, no. There is a chill seeping up through the souls of his tall hunting boots as they whisper over dead pine straw. He ignores it, endeavoring to focus on the end of his task. The knife is safe in its sheath, the blade steeping in deadly poison. Soon enough, he could discard the suffocating mask and breathe in something besides his own fetid air.
Lily lounges at the base of her mother’s tree listening to stories. In deference to her new white dress, there is a thick blanket acting as a barrier between nest of dirty roots and the delicate muslin. In deference to the cold, Henry tends a fire a safe distance away. Above them both shines a golden moon, which her father’s people call the Golden Cauldron and her mother’s call Odin’s Eye. Or so the tree tells her. She does not know if the voice she hears is truly her mother or if it is some wood sprite speaking for her. No one else hears it. The voice is sleepy now, this late in the year. It murmurs softly, sometimes lost among sighing of branches and crackle of ice settling down the forest. From it she learns all that her mother would have her know about her heritage.
Henry prefers to learn from books and his father’s library is extensive. Normally, he would be there, peaceful among the dusty shelves. But the Solstice celebrations are a disruption he can’t abide. Other boys his age are running through the halls pretending to be knights and dragons and pirates. Revelers of all ages invade the family home, drinking and singing and dancing at their leisure. He simply can’t abide the noise saturating his private places. The smell is even worse and permeates everything. Smoke and sweat and wine and other odors for which he has no names. It bothers his dogs as well, which is why the pack is settled around him and his little book. Occasionally, he reads a passage to the bitch, Lady, as she appears to enjoy history as much as he does.
As far as they are from the festivities, music can still be heard drifting through the bare branches. Mostly, though, it is quiet. Just the crackling of the fire, the breathing of the dogs, and the creaking of a forest deeply asleep. And then footsteps. Clumsy, heavy boots breaking twigs and crushing dry leaves. Then clouds pass over the moon, leaving the twins with distorting firelight for company.
The firelight is as reassuring as it is troubling. It provides a beacon to guide him through the confounding woods, yet also indicates that his task might have an obstacle. Still, his task must be completed tonight to give him any chance of success. Even in the dead of winter, the Lady’s power is stronger than he expected. That, he belatedly realizes, is the tingle of magic he feels fizzing through his nerves. He is not welcome on these grounds. She is trying to frighten him with the cold, so he stares at the hot flames and allows his body to instinctively fight toward the desired heat.
At the edge of the clearing, he pauses. He can see the gate to path off to his right that must lead to the manor and the bright little fire near its dark arch. The tree centered in the clearing is an oak, he thinks, never caring enough about plants to learn their names. It towers over the faerie circle of dead grass, taller than the other trees in the woods by at least fifty feet. He tries not to think of the branches as limbs reaching toward him and turns his gaze to the base of the trunk.
There is a corona of golden red among the roots. It seems a trick of the firelight, until it moves. A little girl sits up and stares directly at him with huge, dark eyes. He can just make out her features in the shifting light, a pretty thing with smooth skin and large, auburn curls framing her round face. Beneath the mask, he smiles. She is a tad young for his tastes, but he can think of no better way to defile the sacred ground of the circle.
He focuses on her eyes, willing her to stay, to be unafraid. There will be plenty of time to be afraid later, but he simply cannot have her running off like a scared bunny. She fights him, standing up but unable or unwilling to run. Her dress dances around her knees. He almost laughs when she balls up her plump, dainty fists and hardens her face into a scowl. She thinks she is safe here, silly thing. That is a delusion of which he will happily relieve her.
But no, best not to get ahead of himself. His task must be completed first. Then he could play. The knife is an unaccustomed weight in his hand, yet the mask revels in how it fits perfectly in his gloved hand. Each stride puts him more into the mask; strong, dark, deadly, and filled with righteous purpose unmatched in the daylight world. A half a dozen steps to the tree, staring down the witch-child and glorying in this new persona. The blade rises just as the clouds recede and a dark shape leaps over the fire, latching razors into his forearm and bowling him over the twisted roots of the tree.
The monster growls and slathers over his arm, shaking its blunt black head as he tries to scramble away. The pain initially paralyzes him, but then fury sears through his panic and his right fist slams into the hound’s head. The bitch doesn’t release, so he imagines dark river weeds and still deep waters. The dog begins choking almost instantly and his knife hand is free. The girl is screaming, dogs are baying, and his arm is bleeding badly. With a final spiteful look at his would-be victim, he plunges the knife into the base of the tree and bolts for the woods. He is miles away before he abandons the mask, dropping it into a swift river by the road and riding away on a stolen horse.
Nanny is the first to make it to the clearing. She had kept her distance from the celebrations, especially the bonfire (which in other times would traditionally been built around someone of her profession) and so had heard the dogs and Lily’s screams. Her calls alert Sir John and the village men stumble upon the scene only moments after her, all brandishing the weapons of farmhands. By that point, she has quieted Lily who is crying and clinging to the base of the tree. Henry kneels nearby staring blankly at the trees the demon had disappeared into and holding Lady in his lap. It takes a resounding slap from his father to wake him back up to the world.
“Henry, lad, do something about the dogs,” Sir John shouts over the howling. Henry gives a brief whistle and the hounds are quiet, though they still prowl the edge of the clearing. “What happened?”
At first, the boy can say nothing, but once he focuses on his father’s face, sees the fear in his eyes, he finds his voice. “There was a demon. Kelpie, I think. Came out of the woods for Lily. Lady,” his voice wavers and tears leak down his reddened cheeks. “It had a knife and Lady attacked, to protect her.” He had been stroking the fur of the dog and here he compulsively holds her closer to his chest. “It shook her off and then, then it stabbed Mum and ran off to the woods. They wanted to chase him, but I was scared he would come back so I made them stay. Did I do alright, Father?”
Sir John realizes Henry was referencing the dogs and is at once pleased and angry with his son. The dogs might have chased down the brute, but the thought of the demon circling back for his unprotected children froze his chest. “You did exactly right, Henry.” He cradles the boy as he weeps and then sees the dagger protruding from the trunk of the tree. “Martin, take Henry to his rooms. Susan, you take Elinor and Lily. I need to speak with Nanny. You are all to stay in your rooms. Mr. Oakley, make sure none of our guests has disappeared, will you?” He would not believe this sort of attack came from his village, but it would be foolish not to be sure.
It took time to clear the area. Lily did not was to leave the tree and Henry would not relinquish Lady until Sir John had sworn to bury her properly. The servants swiftly led the children away and the butler, Mr. Oakley, enlisted some of the village gentlemen to search the park before making an inventory of the party guests. Then Sir John had to organize a watch of his men on the house and send word to the council members of the incident. Sir Christopher had come up with the rest of the outdoor revelers and the other two Seats join them soon after bearing lamps and heavy cloaks. It is getting late, but some things can not for daylight.
“No one touch the knife,” Nanny says when all have assembled. “It’s poisoned.”
“Are you sure?” asks Lady Teine, her red sash the only color among the black and white party clothes. She is the also the only person in the group unaffected by the chill.
Nanny decides that the woman is not being deliberately rude and answers, “I can smell it. And the tree sickens already. Would have been more effective ‘ad he stabbed her heart, but a nick would do with that black magic.” She spits the words and Lord Gaoth snorts, but chooses not to contradict the witch. Magic is merely peasant superstition, after all.
“Sir Christopher, Henry called it a Kelpie,” Sir John says before anything derisive can be said. Normally, he would laugh at words like magic along with his comrade, yet the events of the evening make him less sure of its being nonsense.
Sir Christopher, examining Lady, starts at being addressed. “Oh? Yes, they’re quite a bother. Or they were according to the old texts. Haven’t seen one in my time.” Seeing the blank stares of the others, he clarifies, “Horse-type demon. Said to invite riders on its back and then dive immediately into the river and drown them. Modern theory says they were probably beast-gifted, either someone controlling a horse or making a good illusion. The drowning is likely a wives’ tale to scare children away from rivers.”
“So not likely an actual demon, then,” sneers Lady Teine. With a snap of her wrist, she opens her lace fan and irritably whips it to cool her face. “I saw several horse masks at the ball.”
“It was a masquerade, my lady,” Sir John says patiently. “An interloper might have easily snuck in amongst the guests. It needn’t have been a gifted man at all.”
“The dog drowned,” Sir Christopher says quietly. He presses gently on the chest of the body and a pool of water dribbles out of the mouth. A powerful odor wafts up from the pool, that of decay and fetid darkness.
Lady Teine fans herself harder and covers her nose. “What is that stench?”
“Swamp water,” Sir Christopher says, standing and brushing off his knees. “A water-gifted did this.”
“Aye,” grunts Nanny. “He came to kill the Lady. Only reason to bring a poison blade to this place. No way of knowin’ the twins were here. Shoulda been down at the ball. And he weren’t a guest or you woulda known ‘im,” she gestures at the four gifted before her. Four Seats to balance the power and protect the land. Earth was the weak link, with the Lady’s death and Lily being too young for the power. And the attacker knew it. It was only her continued link to the land through the tree that kept the balance. Now that was gone. The tree would be a husk by the dawn.
“I certainly would have known a water-gifted among the guests,” Sir Christopher sighs. “And if I meet this one, I will know him by the stench he leaves here. You have my word, Sir John, I will seek out this monster.”
“We all will,” Sir John affirms. A cursory search around the circle gives no further clues and the search parties return empty-handed. With nothing else to do, the four Seats and the witch file out of the circle, Lady carried gently by Sir John. He locks the gate to the clearing behind him.