by Susan Nance Carhart
Each and every spring, Underhill submitted to the demands of a most exacting lady, and guided a lad of her choosing through the human carnival known as the Season. Keeping secret his nature and the nature of his charge, he brought each of them to a different watering place. One year it was Weymouth; another, Scarborough. Lyme, Cromer, Southend, and Brighton were each visited in due order. This year witnessed his return to the ancient city of Bath.
Bath was, in many ways, his favorite–both for its history and the elegance and comfort of the lodgings there. He had taken a house in Catherine Place, and was very pleased with it, as was Mr. Wight, his latest traveling companion. A single glimpse of the drawing room ceiling confirmed that this was the place for him. There, wreathed in artful whorls of plaster, the naiads danced for the edification of Sulis, Lady of the Waters, the genius loci of Bath itself.
To the house’s own charms Underhill added his personal possessions: gilt-edged china, well-hammered silver, glittering crystal, leather-bound books, fine old paintings for the walls, and marble busts of goddesses for the mantelpieces.
Gillyflowers grew beneath the windows of the study, spicing the air with just the right hint of unfettered nature. The two gentlemen always lounged there in the afternoons, and today was no exception. Mr. Wight put the final touches on his appearance. Mr. Underhill pondered their plan of attack, while organizing his private trophies in a painted cabinet. The task always calmed him.
Mr. Wight gazed into the mirror, delighted with himself. “Really, Underhill, you’re worse than a jackdaw for collecting shiny things! What’s in that drawer you’ve got there?”
“Ladies’ chatelaines,” Underhill replied, fingering the delicate chains thoughtfully, reminiscing. “Each one is different. One woman might attach a needlecase, or a key, or perhaps a crystal vial of smelling salts. Another might prefer a snuffbox, or a pair of jeweled scissors, or a family portrait in a case. Or a lorgnette, like this one.”
Wight shook his head, chuckling. “And that?” he asked, pointing to the one above.
“Cameos, intaglios, and gold hatpins.”
“Have you ever seen a piece of women’s nonsense you didn’t fancy?”
“I keep only the best,” Underhill maintained, gazing through the lorgnette. The frame was quite exquisite, golden flowers with bees buzzing in them. It brought back pleasant memories, memories of success. He could not linger in the past, of course. There was work to be done.
“Have you seen anything here that you fancy?” he asked. “That’s the real question.”
“The elder Miss St. Leger has possibilities, I think.”
A contemptuous snort. “Miss St. Leger has a watchful mother and twenty thousand pounds! My dear fellow, don’t you think you’re aiming a bit . . . high?” He glanced at the clock. It was time. “Come along. The Pump Room awaits.”
Outside the handsome door of Catherine Place, Spring was in the air–or tried very hard to be, as it fought its eternal battle against the sordid odors of a town. It was a bother to have such an excellent sense of smell, for the streets were littered with horse dung and dog droppings. Underhill grimaced, and sidestepped to avoid the unpleasant sting of a wrought-iron rail.
The walk to the Pump Room was not a lengthy one. They strolled, in no hurry–two handsome young men-about-town. Still thinking about their earlier conversation, Wight said, “Well, then, how about Miss Mayfair? The little, shy one—you remember?“
“Miss Mayfair might do, I suppose. A nice little face, if not very striking. Chat her up, ask her to join you in a jig. Tell her that she looks as fresh as morning dew. Girls like that.”
“Don’t know what I’d do without you, Underhill.”
“I don’t either.”
“Mamma won’t be put off anymore. I’m to present a girl to her, preferably by the end of the Season, and absolutely before Midsummer’s Day,”
They turned the corner at Stall Street, and the handsome neoclassic façade was before them: the noble pediment set above the Corinthian half-columns. It looked every bit the temple to the natural world that it should. Underhill smiled to himself as they entered. This was always the best place to begin the hunt. Everyone who was anyone would sign the visitor’s book on his . . . or her . . . first day in Bath.
Underhill smiled, looking about him. It was an atmosphere he found pleasant: well-dressed people in groups or in couples or alone, lounging and chatting and sipping glasses of the famous Bath water. A low hum of conversation filled the room, occasionally punctuated by laughter.
“Let us look over the new arrivals,” he muttered to Wight, making his way over to the book, set on its pedestal between the doors. His finger traced the lines as he read. “Hmmm . . . Admiral Sir James Halyard, Viscount Greystoke of Blackfriars Abbey. Mrs. Hawkins of Eastscombe Park, Somerset, Miss Hawkins, and Miss Merrow of Bristol . . .” He looked up quizzically at Wight.
“Merrow . . . that’s a nice name. You don’t suppose. . .”
“Rubbish. It’s just a name. It is nice though.”
“You never know . . . I heard that once–” Wight broke off, with a start. “Oh, I say!”
Underhill saw her reflected in one of the long mirrors. She saw him too, her gaze fearless and direct, silver-grey and pellucid.
Wight whispered furiously, “I saw her first. She’s mine!”
“Wait! You cannot speak to her without an introduction. Let me have a word with the Master of Ceremonies.”
That useful functionary was called upon, and performed his duty faultlessly.
“Mrs. Hawkins, Miss Hawkins, Miss Merrow: may I name to you Mr. Underhill and Mr. Wight? They come to us from the North, and most particularly wish to make your acquaintance.”
There were bows; there were smiles. Mrs. Hawkins was a well-preserved matron of a certain age. Her daughter seemed pale and savorless. Their companion, the charmingly-named Miss Merrow, however . . .
Underhill, more experienced at these matters, took the lead.
“Mrs. Hawkins, we are honored to make the acquaintance of so fair a lady and her delightful young charges.”
“Honored,” echoed Wight, his handsome face near to smirking. “Delightful.”
Underhill refrained from rolling his eyes. “I noted that you live here in Somerset, Mrs. Hawkins. Your home is not far from Bath?”
“Not at all, sir,” the lady said, smiling. “Louisa and I come here very frequently.”
A pause. Underhill turned to their quarry. “And I believe I read that you are from Bristol, Miss Merrow. Am I correct?”
“From there and other places. I have lived with Mrs. Hawkins and her daughter for the past year. So you and Mr. Wight are from ‘the North?’ Rather a large estate.”
The two young men laughed immoderately. “Not quite the entire North, alas,” said Underhill, “but we do quite well. Is this your first visit to Bath?”
“Indeed it is.”
“I hope your acquaintance with the city gives you pleasure.”
“Thank you. I suspect it shall give me a great deal of satisfaction.”
Underhill was taken with her–quite taken; and it was clear that Wight was equally charmed. She was a fetching young woman indeed. Her light brown hair was remarkably glossy under a very pretty turban-like affair of shot silk, which iridesced alternately in blue and dove-grey. It was secured by a long gold pin inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The colors she wore enhanced the grey of her remarkably fine and intelligent eyes. Wight’s mamma would be very pleased.
“She’s an orphan!” Wight told him, ecstatic at the news. “An orphan! No family at all. Her mother died last year, shortly after she lost her only sister. Mrs. Hawkins told me she has a fortune of two thousand pounds. I love Bath. Everyone wants to make it all as easy as possible.”
Underhill nodded. He had cozened Miss Hawkins into disclosing Miss Merrow’s Christian name, which was Sabrina. That was useful information to him, though most men would find the amount of her dowry rather more important.
“Will your charmer be at the Assembly Rooms tonight?” he asked.
“Ha!” Wight’s eyes gleamed. “Not only there, but I have secured her for the first dance!”
“Well done.” Underhill sipped his water slowly, respectfully. It was sacred to the goddess Sulis, after all, and still retained a vestige of her ancient power. “We shall see if she’s amenable to a pleasant ride in the country.” He cocked his head. “We might even take Miss Louisa and her Mamma with us, at least the first time.”
“I see ! Clever fellow! We wouldn’t want Miss Merrow to feel she was doing wrong.”
Mrs. Hawkins and her young charges made their anticipated appearance at the Assembly Rooms. No one could find fault with their appearance. Mrs. Hawkins clearly had an eye for the finest silks and muslins, and knew what best became a woman of her age and figure. Even Miss Louisa, whom Underhill considered rather dull, had bloomed at the prospect of a ball. As for Miss Merrow, Underhill thought she looked remarkably elegant. Once again, her hair was arranged under a striking turban, and the headdress was secured with the long gold pin.
Wight stepped forward to claim his prize, and Underhill, to smooth things along, found that Miss Louisa was quite free to accept his kind invitation to dance.
Bath was in full flush this time of year, and consequently the floor was a bit crowded. It took quite some time to dance all the way down the long double line of dancers in the set. That was always an advantage: it gave one plenty of time to chat up the young ladies. Wight might not be the cleverest fellow, but he was a brilliant and graceful dancer. Well, for that matter, they both were. No steps were too difficult or fanciful, no exertions too fatiguing. While others grew red-faced or pale–or even a bit green–he and his friend remained impeccably groomed and smiling. Ladies liked dancing, and they liked men who could dance.
Miss Merrow was laughing about something. Wight must not be doing too badly–or perhaps she was pleased by his good looks.
After that first dance was over, Underhill immediately asked the charming Miss Merrow to honor him. They moved through the steps of the German effortlessly, as if they had had years of practice together. He admired how she gleamed: hair and silks and jewels and all. And amidst the exhalations of a ballroom, she alone had not lost a certain air of freshness. It was not the purchased scent of lavender-water, or rose-water, or eau-de-cologne, but something native to her that recalled to him a cool, swift stream tumbling among the rocks in summer . . . she dipped under his raised arm in a liquid movement, and the pin in her turban brushed his chin.
Underhill liked the pin a great deal, and thought that it would be a pleasant addition to his collections. It was long, about the width of his hand. A little tassel of pearls dangled from the head, swaying with her every movement. The head itself was cunningly inlaid with mother-of pearl in the likeness of a woman’s face.
Or the face of a goddess, Underhill decided. It is so very serene. I do like that pin.
Underhill and Wight sat with the ladies at supper, and paid all the little attentions that are said to endear one to the fairer sex. The only awkward moment occurred when Miss Louisa handed him her reticule to hold for a moment, and he found that the clasp was not silver, as he had thought, but iron. He hissed, hastily depositing the item on the supper table and rubbing his hands.
“Cold,” he said, covering his confusion. “The clasp is cold.”
Miss Merrow smiled sympathetically.
The next step, in any proper courtship, was to call on the ladies at their home. As Miss Merrow was under the chaperonage of Mrs. Hawkins, it would arouse tiresome suspicions if they tried to seek her out clandestinely. No, indeed, this would all be achieved in the accepted way.
It was the usual scene: the matron pretending to work at some sort of embroidery, of little use and no beauty; the daughter pretending to have been caught reading a book of poetry.
Only Miss Merrow was absent. To the gentlemen’s relief, she soon swept into the drawing room, smiling in her cool, reserved way, smoothing her blue muslin gown.
Underhill mourned the absence of the remarkable pin, but approved of her appearance otherwise. He greeted this vision with a bit of poetry. He had tried to teach it to Wight the night before, with a deplorable lack of success. It was left for Underhill to push the courtship along. It was, after all, his special skill.
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honour’s sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save.”
“Oh!” cried Miss Louisa, delighted. “How perfectly charming! Did you make that up yourself, Mr. Underhill?”
Underhill smiled and gave the girl a gallant bow. “Not I. The thought may be mine, but the words are John Milton’s. I detect, from Miss Merrow’s expression, that she knows the poem well.”
The lady laughed. “I confess it is a favorite of mine. Do you think me very vain? I love the reply of Sabrina herself:
“By the rushy-fringed bank,
Where grows the willow and the osier dank,
My sliding chariot stays.
Whilst from off the waters fleet
Thus I set my printless feet
O’er the cowslip’s velvet head,
That bends not as I tread;
Gentle swain at thy request
I am here.”
Miss Louisa was awestruck by her friend’s erudition. “That is lovely, Sabrina! How clever you are to know it!” She gushed to Underhill, “Sabrina knows all sorts of things about poetry and history! How I wish that my name were in a poem.”
Underhill smiled. This was something he always had prepared, if possible.
“Indeed, Miss Louisa, your wish is my command, for Mr. Wordsworth has written charmingly of you:
“I met Louisa in the shade;
And, having seen that lovely Maid,
Why should I fear to say
That she is ruddy, fleet, and strong;
And down the rocks can leap along,
Like rivulets in May?”
“I’m not so very ruddy,” she protested, “but sometimes Sabrina and I do like a run . . . when no one can see us and laugh. Do we not, Sabrina?”
Miss Merrow smiled slightly, and granted that it was so.
“Such active, intrepid girls,” Mrs. Hawkins remarked fondly.
“Let me see . . .” Underhill pretended to be drawing something, cherished but long forgotten, from the depths of his memory. “I believe I remember a bit more of it . . .” He smiled and recited:
“Take all that’s mine ‘beneath the moon’,
If I with her but half a noon
May sit beneath the walls
Of some old cave, or mossy nook,
When up she winds along the brook,
To hunt the waterfalls.”
“Oh!” cried Miss Louisa, “Oh, I do love caves, and so does Sabrina! Do you remember, Sabrina, what fun we had that time by the sea?”
“I remember it well.”
Wight spoke up. “I can see that both you young ladies are true devotees of Nature. It would give us such pleasure if you would consent to join us for an outing tomorrow. We might go to the top of Bathwick Hill to see the view.”
“Or, since you are interested in history,” Underhill said smoothly, “you might want to see the ancient fort nearby, called Berthewycke. It predates the Romans.”
“I had heard of it,” Miss Merrow replied, “but it was my understanding that little of it remains.”
Wight said, “It depends upon how knowledgeable one’s guide is. I know the site well. There is the usual ring around the hilltop, and there is a cave . . .”
“How delightful!” Miss Louisa cried. “It is deep? Does it go in very far?”
Underhill smiled. “It penetrates very deeply into the Earth.”
“All the way,” Wight added, carefully straight-faced.
“Oh, I should so like to go all the way,” sighed Miss Louisa.
The plan had animated her to such a degree that Underhill looked at her again, finding her much improved. He wondered if it would be too daring to alter their plans, and present two girls to Wight’s mamma.
Wight turned to Miss Merrow. “And you, Miss Merrow? Are you inclined to join us in our exertions?”
She nodded calmly. “I am indeed. The dark places under the earth fascinate me.”
“Well,” Underhill said agreeably, “then we shall have a delightful adventure.”
“Oh, might we, Mamma?” cried Miss Louisa. “Might we? I should like it of all things! It will not rain tomorrow. The weather could not be so cruel!”
“Nature,” Miss Merrow observed, almost to herself, “is often cruel.”
“Well, my dears . . .” Mrs. Hawkins ventured. “I’m sure I don’t know . . . out-of-doors . . .” She was a silly woman, but not so silly as to let her daughter go gadding about the landscape with young men barely known to her. “Such a small party . . . and I could not possibly manage it myself . . .” The verdict came swiftly.
“I think . . . not, my dear,” she said at last, and smiled with gentle sympathy at her daughter’s dashed expression. “We are much better inside.”
Louisa clearly knew her mother’s “No” meant “No,” and that she would have to learn to live with disappointment.
Not so Miss Merrow, necessarily. Underhill read some poetry aloud to distract the Hawkins ladies, while Wight made his case for a ride to look at the ruins of Berthewycke.
“And you, Miss Merrow,” he whispered. “Are you so easily commanded?”
She shook her head slightly, pretending to attend to Underhill. “I am not, Mr. Wight, but I cannot openly defy my chaperone.”
“Such a pity,” Wight mourned. “Your fine mind would have truly appreciated the mystery and antiquity of the spot. It seems a pity to spend your days indoors with only your embroidery for stimulation.”
Regret clouded the pretty face. Regret and a little lady-like rebellion. Underhill smirked a little. She was weakening already. Wight was a charming fellow when he exerted himself.
“As I say,” she sighed, “I cannot openly defy my chaperone. However . . .”
Wight leaned closer, eyes gleaming. “However . . . ?”
She murmured, “Mrs. Hawkins has been asked to a card party that evening at the house of an old school friend. Louisa and I are to accompany her, naturally. We would stay late—certainly until after a late supper.” She smiled, full of mischief, and breathed, “It would be the easiest thing in the world for me to feign a headache!”
“A capital idea!” Wight burst out.
Underhill, still reading in his most mellifluous tones, frowned mildly in rebuke. He raised his voice slightly, recapturing the attention of the Hawkins ladies. Wight was making progress, it seemed.
“I shall prove my devotion,” Wight said, speaking very low. “I shall come for you in my gig, and you shall see the ancient place for yourself. We can be back before your companions return, and no one the wiser. Why come to Bath at all, if not to experience the world?”
“Then, sir, come for me at six. I trust in your honor to say nothing to anyone of this escapade, for I should certainly be ruined.”
“Not one creature in Bath shall know where you have gone,” Wight assured her with complete sincerity. “What an adventure we shall have!”
When informed of the plan later, Underhill was pleased. He had not thought Miss Merrow simple enough to entrust herself to a young man after dark. However, while she had a good mind, Underhill judged her to be still an innocent, who expected everyone to be as virtuous as she. She had no way of knowing what awaited her at Berthewycke. He hoped she would wear her pin.
Their gig was elegant and fashionable, and the horse a strong and clever creature. They arrived at the hour appointed. The lady dashed out the door, then came to a sudden stop. “Mr. Underhill!” she said, startled—though not as startled as he might have expected. “Have you come to join us in our explorations?”
“I have indeed, Miss Merrow. I could not bear to miss something that promises such pleasure.”
“Well . . .” She laughed lightly. “There is room for three in the gig, after all.”
Wight stepped out, and handed her up with conspicuous gallantry. Underhill took the opportunity to admire her appearance. The long gold pin looked very well against the blue velvet of Miss Merrow’s spencer. Blue also were the ribbons and the lining of her elegant bonnet, a subtle blue that hinted of deep waters.
They left Bath quickly, at a swift trot. Into the hills they drove, chatting idly of the weather, of the new play at the Theatre Royal, of the sights that met them on the way.
The horse, patient and knowing, was at last reined in, and left untied beside a stile. With Underhill on one side and Wight on the other, they led the young lady around the fading remains of the old hill fort: once, twice, thrice; carefully going widdershins to the sun. Each time new things were pointed out to her. Day dissolved swiftly into twilight, and as the light dimmed, the sounds seemed yet more clear: the calls of nightbirds, the soughing of the evening breeze. Their boots made a crunching noise as they walked.
“Potsherds, I suppose,” Underhill remarked. “This site was occupied for many hundreds of years.”
Wight grinned. “Or perhaps . . . bones?”
Underhill scowled at him. It would not do to alarm the lady.
“And where is the entrance to the cave?” Miss Merrow asked softly. “Will we not need lanterns?”
“I brought lanterns!” Wight assured her cheerfully, waving in the direction of the gig. Within a short time, he was there and back, with a bag slung over his shoulder. “You will find I have planned it all out to a nicety!” A little anxiously, he asked her, “So you do wish to see the cave? You wish to proceed farther? If you say no, I shall not force you.”
This was the critical moment. The young lady must consent. She must go on of her own free will, or it would all be in vain. Afterward, of course, she might have regrets, but by then it would be too late.
She paused, as if thinking, then took a deep breath. “Yes, of course. Let us go forward.”
The earth was open for them, though it would not have been for anyone else. Miss Merrow did not seem to notice the strange appearance of the entrance; or if she did, she did not remark on it.
Underhill took the lead, carrying one of the lanterns. Soon enough, they would not be necessary.
“With your permission,” Wight said, offering his arm. She took it without hesitation.
They stepped into the crack, and moved along a narrow passage. Pale tree roots protruded from the walls of the cave like questing fingers. The path before them was rocky and uneven, and fanged with flints. Miss Merrow had had the foresight to wear stout half-boots, and picked her way carefully, with an admirable lack of complaint.
They made their way carefully, in single file, and after a half-mile or so reached a small chamber. Underhill was rather surprised by Miss Merrow’s resolution. Most young ladies would have been complaining of the dirt and their fatigue by this time. Wight set down his lantern.
“Whew! This is harder work than I expected,” he said, with false cheer. “I find myself in need of some refreshment.” He produced a flask and some apples from his bag, and offered her one of them. It was round and shining; unbelievably, radiantly red amidst the grey of the underworld. “These are excellent, Miss Merrow, do have a bite. Or perhaps a swallow of wine? Or both?”
She smiled oddly. “Nothing. I thank you. Do not stint yourself on my account.”
“Are you sure? A single swallow of the wine? No? Surely just one bite of the apple would refresh you!”
Underhill murmured, “Do not press her. When she is thirsty, she will drink.”
“Quite right,” the lady agreed. “I shall just sit here while you have your snack.”
“No need for that,” Underhill said. “Let us continue. I think you will find the way easier from now on, Miss Merrow. From here, the passage is wide and straight.”
“So I see.”
Wight munched his apple slowly, enticingly. It sounded crisp and juicy, and he made little sensuous noises of appreciation from the back of their party.
The flames in the lanterns hissed, as if in response to a change in the air. A trickling sound of water came from ahead, where a branch of the River Avon traveled underground, and was partly diverted into a series of still, crystalline pools. Miss Merrow moved toward the stream and briefly removed her gloves, dabbling her fingers in the chilly water. She whispered to herself, and then straightened, giving Underhill a cool smile.
“The water is quite pure here, Miss Merrow,” Wight assured her. “If you wish to drink some, I have a cup . . .”
“No, thank you,” she shook her head. “I was simply admiring it. I need nothing.”
“We will end in a broad chamber, not far ahead,” Underhill told her. “I think you will find it interesting.”
“I am sure I shall.”
As they moved on, the passage left off being a mere dirty tunnel, and became beautiful. The layers of rocks grew colorful, the formations twisted like artful pillars: some glittering with crystal, some glowing with a light of their own. The floor of the cavern smoothed under their feet, and the way forward was an easy, shallow descent.
Wight spoke up. “I daresay we shan’t be needing the lanterns any more.”
“No,” said Underhill. He blew out the light, and turned to the young woman. He set aside all disguise, and his voice grew rich and musical, pronouncing the words of the ancient rite. He would soon be finished with this part of the charade, and could return to town to pack up her belongings, the better to keep up the pretense of an elopement with Mr Wight. Then Underhill would have the pleasure of going through them at his leisure, and seeing what would best enhance his collection of trophies.
“Your journey has been a long one, and here it ends. Welcome to the realm under the green hills; welcome to the realm of the Queen under the Earth; welcome to you, mortal, chosen from all other maidens, welcome to you who shall serve below hereafter.”
To his surprise, she did not laugh nervously, or scream, or stupidly wonder what he might mean. She fixed her sea-grey eyes on him, and snarled, “Is that what you say to all of them? All the young women you steal? Is that what you said to my sister?”
Underhill gaped at her, taken aback, the rhythm of the ritual quite thrown off. “Your . . . sister? I thought she was dead!”
With sweet venom, she hissed, “I never said she was dead. I said she was lost! My sister, Lucy Maidstone!” She smiled at him coldly. “My half-sister, for we had different fathers, but my sister, and dearest to me in the world! I have it on good authority that it was you—and some other worthless young rake—who lured her away from her friends in Brighton last year. Some absurd story was given out about her eloping to Gretna Green, but we never heard from her again. Did you think yourself above retribution?”
Bewildered, Wight blew out his own lantern, complaining, “I thought it always went smoothly from this point? What sister? How could she know anything about us . . . I mean . . . er . . .”
He stopped, and bit his lip. In the elflight of the cavern, their skins had luminesced with the bluish-green tint of Faerie. With the harsh fire of the lanterns doused, it was quite clear that Miss Merrow’s skin did as well.
Underhill groaned. Merrow! I should have known! I should have known all along!
“Look at her!” Wight fumed. “She’s one of us! We have been tricked! We’ve been outrageously imposed upon!” He turned on Miss Merrow and shouted, “You have deceived us!”
She only sneered at him, and spat out, “Hypocrite! You were doing your best to deceive me! Trying to entice me to eat your nasty underground food, indeed!”
“Enough!” Underhill put up a hand. “The game is over. You!” he growled, not bothering to stand on ceremony with her. “You can trot back out the way you came.”
Wight glared at her. “Who are you, anyway? “
Underhill shrugged off his friend’s ignorance. “She’s a Childe of the Waters. I should have known from the name. Not that it matters. Off you go, fish-girl!”
“I have come for my sister,” she growled back, “and you shall give her up to me!”
He barked a sharp, scornful laugh, and turned away. Instantly, she was upon him, her shockingly strong hand grasping his shoulder. A needle of pain, so cold it burned, pricked him at his temple. From the corner of his eye he saw she was menacing him with the very goddess-headed pin he had so admired.
“Cold iron is the only way to deal with the Unseelie Court, so I been told,” the fair Sabrina whispered, her cool breath teasing his ear.
“The pin!” Underhill gasped, “but . . . it is gold!”
“Gold-plated,” Sabrina replied sweetly. “All but the tip—the very sharp tip! Shall we see how sharp it is? Stand aside, Mr. Wight, or I shall thrust this pin into what Mr. Underhill is pleased to call his brain. I think we all know what follows next.”
Underhill hissed through his teeth, “Stand back! She’ll do it!”
“I certainly shall. Mr. Wight, I would be obliged if you would fetch my sister for me.”
Nonplussed, Wight gabbled out, “But I can’t . . .”
The pin pricked deeper. A little desperately, Underhill explained, “You know it is not as easy as that. The queen herself must release your sister.”
“Then she had better do so, unless she values a mortal servant more than you.”
Wight ran ahead. Great doors manifested and opened, and a fierce blue light poured out. There were murmurs and rustlings, and Wight frantically motioned his companions on. Underhill moved carefully, guided by the small, strong hand on his shoulder, prodded by the icy pricking at his head. The gloomy splendor of the Queen under the Earth’s throne room was revealed, but he had eyes only for the young woman and the glittering weapon in her hand.
Wight was complaining bitterly, but Underhill could hardly comprehend the words, so fixed was he on the pain boring into his skin.
“She tricked us, Mamma! Underhill was completely taken in by her. She made us think she was a mortal, and she’s really one of us, and we’ve wasted days and days on her . . .”
The voice Underhill knew best was rich with amusement. Clear as crystal, hard as stone, strong as the Earth itself–the music of the tones rang out throughout the chamber, the sibilant echoes whispering in odd corners.
“Hush, child! Your friend will make good his error, or bear the consequences. I must acknowledge our visitor.”
Underhill felt his captor stiffen warily as the beautiful voice offered a civil welcome.
“Welcome, cousin! I see that our kinsman has displeased you. Do withdraw your mighty sword of power, lest his brain soil the floor.”
Sabrina Merrow called back, unafraid. “A greeting to you, Dread Queen. I shall lay down my weapon when my sister, Lucy Maidstone, is returned to me, and the two of us are permitted to leave unharmed and in peace, both now and forever.”
Underhill heard a male voice raised briefly in annoyed protest. Calothan was pleased with his handmaid. A silence fell. Underhill knew that the queen was weighing his own worth against the value of a mortal serving maid and Calothan’s good will. Surely . . . he had brought so many maidens to the Unseelie Court . . . no one knew the mortals as he did . . . .
A longer silence, and Underhill fought not to tremble.
“Lay down your weapon, Merrow-maid,” the queen repeated. “I give you my word, sworn on the bones of the earth, that you shall be allowed to go in peace, unharmed and unhindered. I consider it a proper courtesy, as between cousins. As to your sister . . .”
Another pause. Underhill winced, drawing his head back as far as possible from the prick of iron.
“As to your sister . . .” the queen considered. “She came to us of her own free will. Yet you shall have her, if you can recognize her and lay hands upon her. This, I swear. Lay down your weapon. At once.”
The needle of ice and fire was withdrawn from his flesh, and Underhill drew a deep grateful breath of relief, shaking free from the merrow’s grasp. She smiled her cold smile at him, and, careful to avoid the sharp iron tip, replaced her pin in the lapel of her little velvet spencer, with a triumphant flourish.
The queen regarded them from her throne of polished crystal. Under her glittering crown, the dark eyes, blue as the deepest rock, considered them all. Before the throne, a crack opened in the floor. It widened, until a round, deep pool of clear water appeared. By the dozens, by the scores, the Unseelie Court backed away from the water’s edge, as the pool swelled and deepened. The elflight gleamed blue on the still surface, and reflected the queen on her throne, as if she had a twin under the water.
“Your sister is before you,” the queen murmured, “if you can find her.”
In the depths of the pool, a bright wave shimmered. A school of pike flashed past, darting together as one. Their shining scales, like silver mail, caught the blue light, and they vanished for a moment, and then rose again, skimming under the surface.
The queen would have her diversions, Underhill mused. A test of love? A test of will? It was all calculated, certainly, to humiliate the intruder.
But the merrow did not appear to feel humiliated. She gave the queen a courteous nod, and stepped up to the edge of the pool, disrobing with brisk unconcern.
The bonnet was untied and laid carefully on the shining stone. The stout boots were unlaced and arranged neatly, side by side. These were joined by the blue velvet spencer, by the fragile muslin gown, by a pair of pretty blue garters, and a pair of white stockings. The merrow, with a contemptuous look about her, swept off even her dainty chemise, and cast it aside. She smiled at the court, spreading her fingers wide, and the webbing between them thickened with the gesture. Then she twisted sideways, and dove into the pool with scarcely a ripple.
Delighted with such an entertainment, the whole of the Unseelie Court rushed to the water’s edge. Underhill pushed a bogle aside and ignored its snarl, leaning over eagerly to watch the fair Sabrina under the glassy, cool, translucent wave.
The pale form, slender and muscled, swam smoothly, driving the silver pikes before her in a panicked flight. The gleaming curves of her graceful flanks and shallow breasts attracted admiring comment. The webbed hands reached out to catch one of the fish, which darted away teasingly. The court murmured with laughter.
Underhill smirked, enjoying the chase. The merrow might have recognized her sister, even in the form of a fish, but could she catch her? He was vexed with her. He had been threatened by her, but such things happened, and he was a man of the world, after all. He could appreciate a game well played.
“How long can she stay down there?” Wight wondered aloud. “She had a mortal mother, after all.”
That was certainly a question. Even a full merrow needed rest and food, though they could breathe both underwater and above it. “She’s quick, I confess,” Underhill said, peering into the depths. “Quicker than I expected.” He had thought the merrow’s human blood would weaken her power over water. From the frown on the queen’s face, it was clear that she had thought the same.
She grimaced briefly, then affected a look of boredom. Underhill glanced away, lest he vex her. A sudden eddy had startled the pike into the merrow’s deft grasp. The water stirred and broke, obscuring the scene. The queen’s court crowded closer, curious about the outcome.
Wight pointed. “There she is!”
The merrow was rising to the surface, pale face aglow, hair streaming in tangled elflocks. A webbed hand burst out of the water, a pike thrashing in its grip. A second later, the long sleek arm followed, and then the rest of the merrow herself. The court backed away, grumbling and laughing, hissing and growling, and the merrow pushed herself up from the edge and rose from the pool, dripping and victorious. The silver fish, as long as her forearm, flopped and fought.
The merrow approached the queen’s throne, and inclined her head.
“I have fulfilled your test, have I not, Queen under the Earth? This is my sister, for her blood sings to mine. Return her to her rightful form, and let us be on our way.”
The queen granted her an unkind smile. “Though nothing was said in our agreement about changing your sister to her rightful form, I shall do so, since leaving her to live as a pike might well be construed as harming her, by the judge of such contracts. Your sister may have her human form, but she must not break our ancient laws. Perhaps your true nature was not known to her? Then it would certainly be in your interests to impress upon her that if ever she speaks of her time in Faerie to anyone not of the elvenborn, she shall never speak again of anything.”
The pike thrashed frantically, distorting back into a young mortal woman, her skin the dull white of those without elven blood. She was fair enough, though. Underhill remembered Lucy Maidstone now; she had golden curls and sang pleasingly, considering her human origins. Calothan was grieved and outraged, and the girl cast him a look of confused regret as her sister clothed her in her own gown and bonnet. The merrow . . . Sabrina . . . dressed herself quickly in the thin chemise, stockings, boots, and the spencer, and then took her sister by the hand, snatching up a discarded lantern.
She whispered something to Lucy. The protocol of the Unseelie Court must be observed. The two girls bowed to the queen, and backed away. At the door they bowed again, and then were gone.
Wight blew out a breath, and renewed his complaints, this time to his friends. “What a complete disaster! I shall have to start all over again . . .”
Underhill glanced at the queen, who shrugged. He ran through the doors, and hurried to catch up with the departing young women.
“Wait!” he called.
Sabrina turned on him, glaring in the blue elflight. “What do you want? The queen has given us leave to go.”
Underhill spread his hands in a gesture of peace. “As a gentleman, it is my duty to see you home.”
A pause. A quick, incredulous laugh.
“Very well,” Sabrina finally agreed. “There is room for three in the gig, after all.”
“You are generous,” he said, bowing gallantly. “Indeed, why should we two quarrel over a human?”
Sabrina raised a brow, and her lovely sister looked at him in fear and suspicion.
“Unless that human is personally dear to us, of course,” he amended. “I have my obligations to the Queen under the Earth, you understand.”
The fair Sabrina grimaced, but understood him. “As long as your ‘obligations’ do not cause harm to me or mine.”
“Well, that’s all right, then!” He smiled, equanimity restored, and once they were out of the cave, he handed them up into the gig with great good will. The horse obeyed him without whip or word, and soon they were rattling through the streets of Bath once more.
Underhill smirked, wondering how in the world Sabrina would explain the unforeseen appearance of her sister to Mrs. Hawkins. That was not his problem, but hers. He was still faced with finding a young lady for the Unseelie Court before Midsummer. Perhaps Miss Mayfair would prove suitable, after all . . .
©Susan Nance Carhart