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For those of you catching up with this for the first time, this story is written in round robin form by our authors, but the plot was chosen by readers on the Fantasy Reads for Austen Fans Facebook page. They voted on the main story line (second chance at love), magical system (animal familiars), setting (a magical library), original character (Darcy’s valet who is also his magical mentor), magical creature (griffin), and more.
Our authors are: Abigail Reynolds, Victoria Kincaid, Monica Fairview, Melanie Rachel, Lari Ann O’Dell, and me, Sarah Courtney.
Last week, we followed Galon as he raced to retrieve his skin and save Georgiana. This week, we’ll see how Darcy and Elizabeth contend with the challenges of the Faerie Realm.
Mr. Darcy stopped short, his brow furrowed.
“What is wrong?” Elizabeth’s stomach clenched. Were they lost already? Every other time she had been to the Faerie Realm, it had been with the Library to guide her and Abraxas at her side. Could she and Mr. Darcy possibly do this on their own?
“This outcropping was not on the map.” Mr. Darcy cocked his head as he examined it. “We will need to go around it, but the shape of the rocks beyond it means it will push us too far to either the left or the right. Leaving the path marked on the map makes me nervous.”
Elizabeth suddenly remembered her last trip through the realm. Abraxas had sometimes told her to close her eyes as she walked along the path.
“I think we go straight through.”
“Straight . . . through?”
She took a breath and nodded. “It is the Faerie Realm, after all. Things are not always as they seem.”
“Very well, then.”
He held out his arm, and Elizabeth reluctantly took it, although walking arm in arm seemed more suited to leisurely walks through the garden than hiking through the Faerie Realm.
Elizabeth held her breath as they strode forward directly into the wall of rock and dirt, wincing as she half expected to slam into it. But it dissolved as they stepped through like cool mist on a foggy day, and then they were on the other side.
They gasped in unison.
“Well.” Mr. Darcy turned to look over his shoulder, shaking his head. “I suppose I should have expected such things in the Faerie Realm. No wonder humans rarely make it out alive.”
At that sobering thought, Elizabeth took a steadying breath and straightened her back. They would make it through. They had to. Georgiana was counting on the cure, and the world needed her to return to her role as the Librarian. And Mr. Darcy . . . she could not think of that now.
The path ahead meandered off to the left, but Mr. Darcy continued straight, following the directions he had memorised. From the crunching beneath their feet, they continued along a packed dirt path, although it looked as though they were cutting straight through a field overgrown with tall grasses.
“This may be the oddest experience of my life,” Elizabeth mused. “I have walked along lochs in winter and batted away monstrous insects in jungles at the Library’s bidding, but I have never walked through rocks that do not exist or followed a path that can be felt but not seen.” Her stomach gave a sudden lurch. “Or perhaps I did, and the Library concealed it from me. I have been here before, but Abraxas was with me and the Library acted as guide.”
“I would not be surprised if the Library could call even the Faerie Realm to order.” Mr. Darcy’s smile was fond. “It is a powerful force in itself.”
Elizabeth smiled. “That it is. I am glad you have the talent of memorising maps. As we both know,” she said, giving him a sly look, “I never had a governess, and my father never taught me to read maps. Probably he worried I would attempt to follow one for an adventure and find myself in Essex.”
“Knowing you, I would not have taken the risk.” Darcy patted her arm, and she laughed.
“I see! I thought you were being gentlemanly in offering your arm, but now I see you are just trying to avoid my wandering off.”
Darcy smiled at her, but his eyes were ahead of them, and the crease in his brow had reappeared.
“What is wrong?”
“Well, it has occurred to me. What if the hollow tree does not really exist, or if it is masked by some magic to look like a pond or mountain or field?”
Elizabeth bit her lip. In the Faerie Realm, anything was possible. Was it not?
But wait. If the landmarks could change, how could the very human Mr. Wickham have followed them?
Before she could speak, Mr. Darcy was already shaking his head. “No, it cannot be. The hollow tree was one of the landmarks on the map. I believe that the map marked only those things that do not change, otherwise what good would the map be? We go directly from the cave through the hollow tree and turn left at the rock that looks like a bull. Then the Field of Scarlet should appear on our right after we pass a few hills. There may be other things along the way, but I believe those landmarks will hold firm. That is why they were given as landmarks for Wickham to find his way through.”
“I wonder why Mr. Wickham was given landmarks to make his way through. Why would the fae wish to help him?”
Face darkening, Mr. Darcy shook his head. “There can be no pleasant reason. But I do not think all the fae wish to help. I think there must be one fae, or maybe a few, whose goals align with Wickham’s—to what purpose, I do not know. If all the fae wished it, there would be no stopping it. Their powers are incomprehensible.”
It was a relief to find the hollow tree exactly as described—a massive tree as tall as the redwoods the Library had once shown her in New Spain. The bottom of the tree was split, leaving an opening wide and tall enough for a carriage to drive through, although the split was so natural that it was as if it had grown that way. Of course, this was the Faerie Realm. Perhaps it had.
The bull-shaped rock and hills were similarly straightforward, and it seemed almost impossibly easy that they should find themselves standing before a field of bright scarlet pimpernels glowing as brightly as an orange sunset.
“This must be it,” Elizabeth breathed. “Are these the cure?” She reached for the Library’s book but remembered at the last moment. Abraxas, I think we are almost at the cure!
Thank goodness. He sounded anxious. From what I have heard, you are almost out of time. Hurry back now!
Darcy pointed mutely. There was somebody in the field.
“Pardon me!” he called.
The fae stood up and turned to face them. His bright blue hair contrasted starkly with the field of orange before him. His clothes shimmered despite their muted hues of soft greens and browns. Gardening clothes for a fae, perhaps.
“Ah,” he said mildly, “visitors! Illustrious visitors! Your Eminence.” He bowed his head slightly in Elizabeth’s direction. “Come, ask me anything you wish!”
Elizabeth bit her lip. Questions, then, would come at a price.
“My sister lies dying of the Scottish Word curse,” Mr. Darcy said boldly. “We seek the cure.”
Statements, not questions. Good, he was clever.
The fae raised his eyebrows. They were pink to match his hair. But had his hair not been blue a moment ago? “You have come here with a purpose, then. One of these flowers was used to cast the curse. That dark one, the interloper, he cast his evil magic here, leaving a trace I am working to obliterate.” He pointed to the ground, but they could not see what he was doing. “Thus, the same kind of flower must be used as the cure. Simple. And yet not.”
“There are thousands of them here. It does seem simple.” Too simple, really, but Elizabeth did not dare ask a question. The spell had led them to the faerie realm and the cave, but not beyond. Was that because the way the curse was cast dictated the cure?
The fae laughed, shaking his yellow-green hair out of his eyes. Elizabeth was sure that it was changing color before their eyes, but she could not see it doing so. “Thousands? Hardly. A dozen, perhaps.” He cocked his head, his hair now a gleaming orange. “I must away. I shall leave you to find your cure. Good luck. Perhaps.”
Darcy stared at the field of flowers. Thousands upon thousands stretched across the field, and they were to find just the right one? No, there were perhaps a dozen, but how were they to know which ones were real? Were the rest false in some way?
He took a cautious step and touched a flower. It felt authentic. The petals were soft, the leaves firm. It did not feel like the silk flowers he had seen ladies wear on their hats. But perhaps the fae had more realistic artificial flowers?
Miss Elizabeth gasped, and he turned to see.
She bent low over one of the flowers, examining it closely. “I think I know what he meant!” she said excitedly. “They have six petals!”
He looked, puzzled. “Yes, they do.” But what did that mean?
“Scarlet pimpernels have only five!”
He shook his head, bemused. “Are you certain?” He had seen the flowers before of course, mostly on trips to his Scottish estate, but he had never considered the number of petals before.
“Yes. I think these flowers are the false ones, and the true flowers have five petals.”
“But . . . is it possible that these are not scarlet pimpernels at all, but some other flower of the Fae Realm?” He thought back. “I do not recall the fae giving them a name.”
“That in itself may have been a clue,” she said thoughtfully. “But, look. Do you see the shape of this leaf? It has many veins that branch off a single thicker vein. My father has a book called the Genera Plantarum, and it describes plants as one of two types. Plants with leaves like this are dicotyledons, which have petals in multiples of four or five. It should not have six petals. These are wrong.”
Darcy was not sure he followed, but he believed her. Not for the first time, Darcy thought the Library had chosen well. Elizabeth loved to learn more than anybody else he knew.
The petals were wrong, therefore the plants were wrong. They were not true scarlet pimpernels.
“So all we need to do is to scour this field for a flower with five petals?” He shaded his eyes as he looked across the field.
Miss Elizabeth drooped. “An impossible task. Or, rather, it is possible, but Abraxas tells me that Georgiana is running out of time. We must find it quickly.”
Darcy blanched. Georgiana! What if, after all of this, they returned to Pemberley to find they were too late?
They could not be too late.
Elizabeth’s movements were jerky, frantic, as she looked from one flower to another, and Darcy felt a sudden sympathy for her. They had to hurry, but the task was best accomplished with a clear mind and a cool head.
He spoke softly as he began, his eyes moving quickly from flower to flower. “I am rather good at this.” It might sound like boasting, but he also felt comfort in reminding himself of the fact that this was something he could do. “When I was a child, my nurse told me that four-leaf clovers are good luck, but I despaired of the impossibility of finding one in a field of three-leaf clover.” For one heart-stopping moment, he thought he glimpsed a flower with five petals, but a closer examination proved him wrong.
He sighed and went on. “My father told me that four-leaf clovers are rare, but not as rare as most people think. Almost any reasonably large patch of clover will have at least one, sometimes several. It only requires a careful eye to spy it out amidst its friends.”
“At least the flowers do not grow in bunches. Or imagine if we needed to find daisies with one more or fewer petal? It would be impossible.” Her voice sounded stronger, and Darcy was pleased to think that he had encouraged her in some small way. “I am glad that one of us is an expert, then.”
“I have found many four-leaf clovers in my day,” he assured her with a smile. But what good luck had they brought him?
Darcy had to force himself to keep his mind on his task and not let it wander to Pemberley, worrying about whether Georgiana had slipped deeper into the sleep, whether Richard was protecting her, whether Wickham would attempt to attack her again. Dreading the moment when he and Elizabeth would have to part. Because once they found the cure—and they would, he was determined, find the cure—they would have to part. He to Pemberley, she to the Library. And the chance of ever meeting again in this life was almost nothing.
Blinking, Darcy looked again at the flower he had just passed. Had he seen . . . yes! It had only five petals!
“Elizabeth!” he called, and quickly amended himself. “Miss Elizabeth, I think I have found it!”
He was about to pick it and hold it aloft in triumph when a voice cried, “Stop!”
His hands dropped to his sides, and he spun to see the odd fae back again, this time leaning on a walking stick, his hair an unnatural red.
“You have found it, then,” the fae said, his eyes on the flower. “That shows you have a good eye.” His gaze moved to Miss Elizabeth. “And a good mind, although that is to be expected from one called by the Library.” He turned back to Darcy. “But there is a price for picking a flower from my field.”
Darcy held back a sigh. Of course there was. Everything had a price with the fae.
He almost asked the price but remembered at the last moment not to phrase it as a question. Before he could think of the right approach, the fae spoke again.
“The Librarian cannot leave the Library,” the fae said, his eyes again flicking to Miss Elizabeth. “The result would be utter disaster, Your Eminence, especially as you have no master or apprentice.”
Miss Elizabeth bowed her head solemnly.
The fae’s furrowed brows and hair were violet now. “She is bound to the Library, and you are bound to your estate. I have seen the affection between the two of you, but it cannot be. And so my price is more of a gift.”
He dug through the pockets of his shimmering robes and held aloft a bottle of clear liquid.
“While you searched my field, I made a little journey of my own. This bottle contains waters from the River Lethe.”
By Miss Elizabeth’s gasp, Darcy knew that she, too, knew the mythological reference. At least, he had always assumed it was mere mythology.
“The waters of forgetting,” the fae said, silvery eyes now boring into Darcy’s. “You will take a drink, and all memories of Miss Elizabeth Bennet, formerly of Longbourn in Hertfordshire, will be erased from your memory.” He smiled, and his teeth showed. A little too numerous, and a little too sharp, they were a reminder that the fae were not to be trusted, for all that they could not lie.
“You will, of course, remember your quest, but you will remember only that Her Eminence, the Librarian, aided you in your quest. Any more . . . personal details will be forgotten. That is the price of picking the flower.”
Darcy turned to Elizabeth. Her face was white and pinched, but she met his gaze steadily. “You must do it,” she said, her voice husky. “Georgiana’s life depends on it. And . . . and it is not as if we can have a life together, even if we could bring ourselves to . . . to start anew.”
Pain ripped through Darcy’s chest at the thought. No. It was impossible for them to be together. He had Pemberley and his responsibilities there, and Elizabeth had the Library.
But if he had to force himself to give her up, must he give up his memories of her, too? It might make it easier, but it would be like cutting off a limb. Would he not always be haunted by the wisp of something missing, something as important as his own life, something he could never quite remember but would always long for?
Georgiana needed him. She needed the cure. Even now she was on the brink of death, and the cure might be too late. It was selfish to want to hold onto his memories of his beloved Elizabeth—a woman he was destined to leave again—at the expense of his sister’s life.
He opened his mouth to answer, but he could not.
Elizabeth was looking at him now, her dark eyes warm and sympathetic. She knew, she must know, what this would cost him.
“I give you leave to forget me,” she whispered. “It will be better, really. You can move on. Marry. Live the life you were meant to live. It would comfort me to see you happy, even if we must be apart.”
He recoiled at the thought—marry another? His heart pounded in agony. She would not forget him, though. She still loved him. She loved him enough to give him up and wish him joy in a life without her.
“No,” he said, the words bursting out without further thought. “I cannot—I cannot. Not even to save Georgiana, not even . . . I cannot. Please, please, there must be another way.”
“Darcy!” Elizabeth cried. “But Georgiana—”
The fae held up a hand. A peculiar smile crossed his face.
“So be it,” he said, and he tossed the bottle far into the air. They watched as it reached the top of its arc and fell, hitting the ground with a tinkle, the water trickling into the soft earth between the plants.
The fae smiled. “You have proven yourself true, Fitzwilliam Darcy. You once abandoned your love with very little effort, but now . . . now even at great personal cost and heartache, even when that love is doomed, you still chose not to abandon it. And you, Miss Elizabeth Bennet. You once had your love torn from you, and you were embittered for it. But now you have also proven yourself true, willing to forgive and to love unselfishly, to give up your love when it would cost him all.” He bowed to each of them in turn. “More I could not ask for. I will give you the cure.”
He reached out with long fingers tipped with sharp nails and plucked the five-petaled scarlet pimpernel.
“I cannot allow you to pick the flower without paying in forgetfulness,” he said, his smile devious, “but I can pick it for you in exchange for this afternoon’s entertainment. After all, the truth delights us fae. Truths told to cross on stones, true flowers found in a field of lies, and true hearts that love completely. Mind you, you have not chosen the easy path, but you have chosen the true path.”
“Thank you,” Darcy almost breathed, but he remembered at the last moment that it would be disastrous to thank the fae. What was the phrase Bickerstaffe had once taught him? The man could be a menace, but he had taught Darcy a great deal of magic and a number of helpful elements of courtesy for the various magical races.
“I am pleased with the flower,” he said cautiously.
The fae’s smile grew wider. “Good, very good. Now, my little humans, I will escort you to the edge of our realm, and there we will part. Your cursed one does not have much time, and the princess has learned you are here and is furious, so we will take the shortest route.”
He grasped one of them with each arm and propelled them forward. Each step was like a leap, and as the air rushed by, Elizabeth had the odd sensation that she was riding on Abraxas.
They found themselves in a wood, and the fae slowed and released their arms. The forest was dark around them, but there was an odd shimmer ahead. Trees from both sides of the path leaned in and twisted overhead, making an arch.
Darcy blinked at the arch. The air within seemed to shift and move like smoke or fog, and it gleamed as if it had its own light source.
Taking Elizabeth’s arm, he stepped cautiously towards the passage.
“Oh, you humans,” the fae said with a laugh. “Always so careful. But there are times when caution is the more dangerous choice. Now go!”
A hard shove at their backs knocked Darcy and Elizabeth through and broke them apart. Darcy landed on his hands and knees, feeling as though all the breath had been knocked from him. A heavy fog filled the air, blinding him and making him cough.
He was about to call out for Elizabeth when the fog lifted and he saw her crouched beside him, gasping.
They had done it. They were out of the Faerie Realm. Only now did he realise how strange the colours had been there, how thick the air had felt. He breathed in the fresh air of his native Derbyshire.
A sudden thought had him glad he was already on his knees. He had the cure. They had escaped the Faerie Realm.
This was where they would have to part. She would return to the Library, and he to Pemberley. He would save Georgiana’s life. And then . . . what then? How could he ever return to life as it had been before?
“Elizabeth,” he said, reaching for her hand. “I have to tell you—”
But she was not looking at him. Her eyes were wide with dread as she looked at something beyond his shoulder. He turned slowly, reluctantly, to face the last person he had ever expected to see on a hilltop in Derbyshire.
“Lady Catherine!” he gasped.
They may have the cure, but will this surprise appearance delay them their return to Pemberley? Join us next week for the next installment of Mr. Darcy and the Enchanted Library with Monica Fairview!