I'v edecided I'll begin to post irregular excerpts of my work-in-progress, Lord of Legend. This is, of course, the first draft and subject to change between now and final edits, but here goes:
Cambridgeshire, May 1884
Mariah Marron crossed the well-groomed park, her walking boots leaving a damp trail in the grass. Tall trees stood alone or in small clumps, strewn about the park in a seemingly random pattern that belied the perfect organization of the estate.
Donbridge. It was hers now. Or should have been.
It is. No one will ever know what happened that night.
The maids had blushed and giggled behind their hands when she had descended from her room into the grim, dark hall with its mounted animal heads and pelts on display. She had run the gauntlet of glassy, staring eyes, letting nothing show on her face.
They didn’t know. Neither did Vivian, the dowager Lady Donnington, for all her barely-veiled barbs. Giles had left too soon ... suspiciously soon. But no one would believe that the lord of Donbridge had failed to claim his husbandly rights.
Was it me? Did he sense something wrong?
She broke off the familiar thought and walked more quickly, lifting her skirts above the dew-soaked lawn. She was the Countess of Donnington, whether or not she had a right to be. And she would play the part. It was all she had, now that Mother was gone and Father believed her safely disposed in a highly advantageous marriage.
Lady Donnington. In name only.
A bird called tentatively from a nearby tree. Mariah turned abruptly and set off toward the small lake, neatly oblong and graced by a spurting marble fountain. One of the several follies, vaguely Georgian in stark contrast to the Elizabethan manor house, stood to one side of the lake. It was circular, with white fluted columns, a domed roof and an open porch, welcoming anyone who might chance by.
Mariah was sorely in need of a welcome. She set off, her eyes fixed on the structure as if it were the very gates of Heaven. As she drew nearer, a large flock of birds flew up from the lakeshore in a swirl of wings. She shaded her eyes with one hand to watch them fly, though they didn’t go far. What seemed peculiar to her was that the birds were not all of one type, but a mixture of what the English called robins, blackbirds and thrushes.
Closer to the folly, she disturbed a pair of foxes, several rabbits and a doughty badger. The fact that the rabbits had apparently remained safe from the foxes was remarkable in itself, but that all should be congregating so near the folly aroused almost enough of Mariah’s interest to help her forget her wedding night completely.
She proceeded the rest of the way with greater caution, only vaguely aware that the hem of her walking skirt was soaked through and dragging against her boots. Something was pulling her, tugging at her body, whispering in her heart. Not a voice, precisely, but something ...
Her heart stopped, and so did her feet. You’re imagining things. That’s all it is.
Perhaps it would be best to go back. At least she’d have the servants for company. But then she’d have to endure her mother-in-law’s sour, suspicious glances. You drove him away. What is wrong with you?
Mariah pressed her hands to her mouth. Coward. She would not stand here, undecided, like a weakling. She wouldn’t shame herself any more than she already had.
With a grim sort of humor, she continued toward the folly. There were no more unexpected avian or animal visitors. The area was utterly silent. Even the birds across the lake seemed to stand still and watch her.
Neck prickling, Mariah climbed the several stairs to the peristyle and stood there listening. It wasn’t only her imagination, or worse; she could hear something. Something farther into the small building, inside the door that must lead to its interior.
She tested the door. It wouldn’t budge. She walked completely around the enclosed rotunda, finding not a single window or additional door. Air, she supposed, must enter the building from the domed roof above, but the place was so inaccessible that she might almost have guessed that it had been built to hide something ... something the Earl of Donbridge didn’t want anyone to see.
Immediately she suppressed such thoughts and returned to the door. It really wasn’t any of her business what might be inside. Perhaps this was where her prodigal husband stored the vast quantity of guns he must need to shoot the hapless game he so proudly displayed on every available wall.
But I am Lady Donnington. I need to know everything that goes on here.
And she was used to knowing everything that went on in her own home. Years of playing her father’s hostess during Mother’s absence and disability had made such knowledge an absolute necessity.
This is not and can never be my home. But once again she pushed aside such dark and unproductive thoughts and began searching the porch and then the general area around the folly. Experience prompted her to look under several large, decoratively placed stones.
The key was under the smallest of them. She flourished it with an all-too-fleeting sense of triumph, walked back up the stairs and set the key in the lock.
The door opened with a groan. Directly inside was a small antechamber with a single chair. It smelled of mice.
That was what you heard inside, she thought to herself, laughing at her own stupidity. She also detected the scent of stale food. Someone had eaten in here, perhaps sitting on that rickety chair.
She stood facing the second door, wondering if the key would fit that lock as well. There was certainly no reason not to try. She walked slowly to the door, bent, and pushed in the key.
It worked. Though the lock grated terribly and gave way only with the greatest effort on her part, the door opened.
The smell washed over her like the heavy wetness of New York summer afternoon. A body long unbathed, the stale-food odor, and something else she couldn’t define. She backed away even before she saw the prisoner.
He crouched at the back of the cell, behind the heavy bars that crossed the semicircular room from one wall to the other. The first thing Mariah noticed was his eyes ... black, a deeper color than her husband’s and twice as brilliant, like the darkest of diamonds. They were made even more striking contrasted with the prisoner’s pale hair, true silver without a trace of gray. And the face ...
It didn’t match the silver hair. Not in the least. In fact, it looked very much like Lord Donnington’s. Too much.
She backed away another step. I’m seeing things. Just like Mother. I’m ...
With a movement too swift for her to follow, the prisoner leaped across the cell and crashed into the bars. His strong, white teeth were bared, his eyes crazed with rage and despair. He rattled his cage frantically, never taking his gaze from hers.
Mariah retreated no further. She was not imagining this. Whoever this man might be, he was being held captive in a cell too small for a dog. A violent captive who, should he escape, might strangle her on the spot.
It had been no marriage at all.