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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, Melanie Rachel, Lari Ann O’Dell, and me, Monica Fairview
In the last chapter, Elizabeth and Darcy succeed in finding the cure for Georgiana’s curse. As they emerge from the fae realm, however, they encounter more than they bargained for.
“I assure you, Lady Catherine, this is where they went into Faerie. They will have to return to the same location. They were riding on that dreadful beast. A dragon. An abomination, I tell you. That woman’s magic is twisted.”
As Elizabeth struggled to gain her bearings, Bickerstaffe’s nasal voice brought her back to the human world like a dash of icy water. But it was not Bickerstaffe that drew her gaze. There, blocking their way, was Lady Catherine, surrounded by a wall of six patronesses with their familiars. Next to her, a giant wild boar watched them approach, its gaze tracking their every step.
Lady Catherine’s eyes were as cold as Elizabeth remembered, but there was another emotion lurking within them. With the heightened senses that lingered from Faerie, Elizabeth could almost smell it on her. Fear.
“What is the meaning of this?” Lady Catherine’s voice was sharp as a whip.
Elizabeth’s lips jerked in amusement. Lady Catherine’s question was calculated to put Elizabeth on the defensive. It was not hard to guess why. Darcy’s aunt needed to cover her tracks, going on the attack was the best way to avoid awkward questions. It was impossible for Lady Catherine to claim any more that Elizabeth did not yield powerful magic.
It did not take much skill in deduction to conclude that someone — or something — had interfered on the day Elizabeth was tested and prevented Elizabeth from bonding with a familiar. Lady Catherine had a clear motive to do so. She wanted her nephew to marry her daughter. Unless the patronesses were all engaged in a campaign to discredit anyone who did not win their approval.
Her ladyship was counting on intimidating Elizabeth by making her feel small and at fault. Once upon a time, she might have succeeded, when Elizabeth was young and eager to prove herself. It would not work this time, however. Elizabeth no longer needed her ladyship’s approval. Lady Catherine’s role in Elizabeth’s life had shrivelled to the tip of a pin.
“The meaning of what, your ladyship?” Elizabeth’s tone was light and careless. Half drunk on the success of their quest, her mind was still focused on the shimmering field of flowers. They had come through a remarkable experience together, and now she knew without a shadow of a doubt that Darcy loved her. Even if they could not be together, that knowledge was something she would hold inside for the rest of her life, precious and delicate as the flower that would save Miss Darcy’s life. It would keep Elizabeth warm on a winter night and help her through times of loneliness. No one could ever take that away from her.
Lady Catherine gave a condescending sniff.
“You need not bother to protest. We are not fooled by your innocent demeanor. We know about the spell you have cast on my nephew. You have bewitched him, body and soul. Bickerstaffe has told us everything.”
Beside her, Darcy growled deep in his throat, echoing Elizabeth’s own outrage. She turned to look at Bickerstaffe. What game was he playing? He was smirking, his little round eyes sharp with malice. Perhaps she was still under the influence of the Faerie, but the color of his eyes seemed to shift. She could have sworn they were brown a moment ago, but now they were green. She blinked and looked again. They were perfectly normal now – dark brown, as they had always been. She took a deep breath. She must be lightheaded from their journey.
Had Darcy noticed it? He knew Bickerstaffe much better than she did. “Is there something different about Bickerstaffe,” she murmured to Darcy, “or is it the influence the fae realm?”
“Bickerstaffe?” Darcy frowned and peered closely at his valet. He shook his head. “I cannot detect anything.”
Nevertheless, Darcy stealthily slipped the flower into the pocket of his great coat, out of sight. Elizabeth’s heart twisted as she realized just how vulnerable the cure was. Just a simple blow could crush those soft petals beyond repair.
Their close examination of Bickerstaffe turned out to be a mistake. A sly look crossed his face as he suspected they were beginning to doubt him.
“Lady Catherine!” he cried in alarm. “Did you see what Miss Bennet is doing? She is trying to bind Mr. Darcy.”
“For goodness’ sake!” Darcy’s voice was full of disgust as he looked towards his aunt. “How can you possibly believe something so ridiculous? Why would Miss Bennet do that? What could a Librarian who commands the memories of all the past Librarians gain by controlling me?”
He might as well be talking to a wall. Frustrated, he turned towards the valet. “All these years, I trusted you and heeded your advice. You were my mentor. And now you are willing to turn on me, just like that?” Darcy’s voice was rough with betrayal.
“I am protecting you from her, Mr. Darcy.” Bickerstaffe gestured towards Elizabeth.
“Quite rightly so.” Lady Catherine was looking smug. “Your valet is fulfilling the task we set him. His role is to ensure that no one will take advantage of your good nature.”
Elizabeth looked on, horrified that the situation had reached this point. Was she never to be free of Lady Catherine’s meddling?
“How dare you insinuate that her Eminence is abusing her position?” Darcy stepped forward to protect her, splendid in his anger. “You cannot cast false accusations like this. Show some respect! She would not have been chosen as a Librarian if she was inclined to misuse her power.”
Despite the unpleasantness of the encounter, Elizabeth was thrilled by Darcy’s defense of her.
“Besides, do you really think I would allow anyone to cast a spell on me?” Darcy’s fists clenched at his side. “Have you forgotten that my familiar is a griffin, one of the strongest familiars any mage could have? And you, Aunt Catherine. Are you not aware of how powerful my magic is?”
“No one is immune to Cupid’s arrow.” Lady Catherine’s lip curled. “It makes fools of us all. Miss Bennet has been trying to lure you with her magic for years, and it appears she has succeeded. It is our duty to free you from the deadly web she has woven around you.”
She turned to one of the patronesses, a tall lady with an ostrich familiar. “Lady Dalwrymple, could you lead the patronesses as we agreed?”
Elizabeth braced herself as the patronesses raised their hands, but with Darcy standing in front of her, she could not quite see what they were doing. A cold sense of urgency gripped her as she realized what might happen if Darcy tried to fight against them. She was all too conscious of how fragile the bloom was, and how quickly it could die.
“Never mind what your aunt says. Just go to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy. You are wasting time here. Protect the bloom at all costs. I will stay here and deal with the patronesses.”
“I will not leave you to face them alone, Elizabeth.”
She gave a half-sob. They were so close to giving the cure to Georgiana. This was not the right time to be noble. “Please go. If you do not, everything we have achieved will be lost. Georgiana is waiting for you.”
There was no more time to argue. The patronesses were acting in unison, sketching the same signs in the air. Long thin ropes were streaming out from their fingers, snaking towards Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth reacted at once, drawing symbols of her own in the air to counter their spell, to burn away the ropes, but her movements were strangely sluggish.
To her immense frustration, she drew a wrong symbol, breaking the spell she was building, and had to start again. Her limbs felt lethargic, her magic drained from all that time in the Faerie. She needed rest to replenish her power.
She glanced frantically towards Darcy. He had not heeded her request. She could only hope that he was able to function better than she was. But as he suddenly stumbled, it was clear that he, too, did not possess his full strength. She could sense the apathy of his magic, the slowness of his spells. Normally, none of this would have mattered much, but the patronesses were among the most powerful magicians in the land. When they worked together, their magic was formidable.
Moreover, his attention was split. He was trying to weave a protective spell around the flower. Elizabeth urged him to finish quickly. Oh, why hadn’t they thought of that earlier? If it fell to the ground, if someone trampled on it—.
They should have been better prepared. They had stumbled out of Faerie, weakened by their passage, triumphant in their success. Lady Catherine knew exactly what she was doing by taking advantage of their temporary weakness. Under the circumstances, they were no match for the patronesses, who had come here fully prepared. Any form of attack might destroy Georgiana’s cure.
Elizabeth knew what she had to do. It was better for her to give up and have them take her away, than to risk Georgiana’s life.
“You need to leave, Darcy,” she murmured.
Then she raised her hands in submission. “I surrender. There is no need to fight. I will go with you if that is what you wish.”
She bowed her head and waited for them to bind her magic, smarting at the humiliation, but knowing it was their only option. She did not look at Darcy to see his reaction, but she heard him moving. Good. He was leaving.
Later, when she was rested, she would free herself. The patronesses had no idea what she was capable of yet. They were likely to underestimate her ability to escape.
She waited, head bowed, for her magic to be muted, surprised they had not done it yet. As minutes passed, she looked up in surprise, wondering why they had not bespelled her.
They were not looking at her at all.
There was a guttural sound next to her. She turned in dismay to find Darcy clawing at his throat. His face was turning purple, and he was struggling to breathe. Elizabeth cursed her own stupidity. She had expected any attack to be directed at her. She had never imagined Lady Catherine’s target could be Darcy. She had assumed that if they controlled her, they would let him go.
She slashed out with a crackle of fire directed at Lady Catherine. One of the Patronesses turned and absorbed the fire into her hand, snuffing it in her fist, then re-joined the others as they sketched their symbols.
Elizabeth could not bear to see Darcy straining against his invisible bonds. She ran over to try and shield him with her body, but that had no effect. Spreading out her arms, she twirled them to create a wind to disperse the attack. It eased some of his distress, but it did not put a stop to it.
Nothing she tried worked against the carefully orchestrated magic. She could not bear to see Darcy in such pain for a moment longer.
Desperately, she tried to appeal to Lady Catherine’s good nature.
“Lady Catherine. Your quarrel is with me, not with your nephew. Please release Mr. Darcy so that he can administer the cure. Georgiana’s life depends on it. Deal with me, do what you must, but I beg you, please do not hold him. Time is of the essence.”
It went against her pride to grovel, but she and Darcy had achieved the impossible to save Georgiana. She could not let that go to waste. Surely Lady Catherine would be satisfied to witness Elizabeth humiliating herself in that manner?
To her bewilderment, her urgent words were answered with mocking laughter.
She frowned. Perhaps Lady Catherine did not know what was at stake. She would spell it out so there was no misunderstanding.
“Don’t you see? There is no time to be lost. Georgiana is on her deathbed. Surely you would not want your niece’s death on your hands?
“Of course I would not. If that were true.”
Elizabeth sent Darcy a fearful look. He tried to speak, but his lips barely moved, his words the barest whimper. His limbs appeared to be frozen in place. He was no longer choking, but he was unable to budge.
How on earth was he going to take the flower to Georgiana? This could not be. Her stomach clenched, and she felt sick. She had to do something, quickly, but what could she do, when Lady Catherine did not care what happened to her own niece?
Perhaps the other patronesses could be made to see sense. She looked around at them. They were unaware of the situation. They might side with her when they realized what was happening.
“Miss Georgiana Darcy is dying. She has been cursed with the Scottish Word. It is extremely urgent for her brother to take the cure to her. We travelled into the fae realm to find it.”
Lady Dalwrymple shook her head angrily. In response to her anger, her ostrich stretched out a two-toed foot, revealing lethal claws. “No one has access to the Scottish Word. It is fae magic. It has not appeared in the human world for centuries. It is the stuff of legends.”
The other Patronesses nodded in agreement.
There was one last person she could appeal to. Elizabeth turned to Bickerstaffe. It went against the grain, but he knew the details of their quest. She did not know if he was glamored or not, only that he had always disliked Elizabeth and wished her harm. Surely he would not condemn a gentle soul like Miss Darcy, when he had known her as a child?
“Mr. Bickerstaffe, you have witnessed Miss Darcy’s condition. Could you please explain to the patronesses why the cure must be administered immediately?”
“I am sorry, Miss Bennet. I can only testify to the fact that, as a Librarian, you led Mr. Darcy into the dangers of the fae realm.”
She drew back, shocked, and stared at him in disbelief. The predatory edge to his smile was more evident now than it had been before. Not only were the colors of his eyes shifting, but the tips of his teeth were sharp.
So she had not been mistaken in her impression. Bickerstaffe was fae.
There was no time now to ponder this. What mattered was his intent was hostile. While the fae were incapable of lying, there were many ways of distorting the truth. He had simply sidestepped the question.
“Someone has been spreading rumors, I see.” Her voice cracked with bitterness.
There was one more thing she could try. She turned to the patronesses. “What if I give you my word as a Librarian that I will not escape? Will you allow Mr. Darcy to go free to help his sister?”
Lady Catherine scoffed. “And run the risk of Darcy using his magic to whisk you away and save you? Of course not.”
The idea that she was incapable of saving herself should have rankled, but she and Darcy had just returned from Faerie and faced far more difficult obstacles than Lady Catherine and her minions. Elizabeth had faith in her abilities, and she had no doubt she could defeat them, given enough time.
Unfortunately, time was not on their side.
Elizabeth was remarkable. Darcy had always known it, but seeing how she handled this situation filled him with admiration. How had he let her slip from him when he had the chance to marry her? She was perfect. Not only was she witty, beautiful, and powerful as a mage, but she was resourceful, too. She was fighting for him, fighting for Georgiana, and using that sharp intelligence to find a way to set him free.
The fact that nothing had worked yet did not matter. At least she was doing everything she could. Unlike him. He did not deserve her love. He was trapped in a body that was controlled by others. He could not do anything to help himself. He had tried to use magic, but without the ability to move his hands, he was at the mercy of his aunt and her cronies.
He had never felt so angry or desperate in his whole life. Every moment he spent under the influence of this spell was a moment taken from Georgiana’s life. That was what it amounted to. He did not know how long it would take for the cure to lose its effectiveness. He only knew that, placed as it was so carelessly into the pocket of his greatcoat in less-than-ideal conditions, it could not last very long.
He tried once again to find a way to loosen at least one hand so he could form a spell, but his arm would not obey. He had been transported from the beautiful fae world into a nightmare. His throat hurt. His head felt as if someone had set to it with a hammer.
There had to be something he could do, but no brilliant ideas had yet sprung to mind. Georgiana was going to die.
An unfamiliar screech from above drew everyone’s attention. Darcy could not move his head enough to look up, but a winged shadow crossed the ground. He felt a ridiculous sense of satisfaction at the expressions of confusion and consternation on the patronesses’ faces. Whatever it was, they were not happy to see it.
The winged shadow swooped down, dropping abruptly downwards, solidifying into a large gold and silver bird. Lightening skirted the span of its wings, and the sound of thunder rumbled around it. A thunderbird. The patronesses ran in all directions, scrambling to get out of the creature’s way. It landed a few feet from him. He could only hope the new arrival would help him.
Before he could discover the identity of the newcomer, Elizabeth was at his side. Taking advantage of the distraction, she sent a spiral of light spinning towards him. The light blinded him, but when he could see again, he was free to move.
He stepped forward, ready to do battle, but Elizabeth shook her head.
“You must get away, Darcy. When I give the signal, I will draw everyone’s attention, and you can escape.”
As if he would ever leave her alone with the patronesses and this new source of danger, whatever it was! He grunted in response, not willing to make any promises he would not keep, then turned his attention to the thunderbird and its rider.
The rider was fae. She was a graceful, beautiful being, but Darcy distrusted her on sight. He could not account for it. She was unusual, that much was certain. Darcy had never seen a fae woman so indifferent to her appearance. Was she a wild fae? He did not even know if there was such a thing, but with all the turbulence and strange events of the Year without Summer, it would not surprise him. Her silken clothes were once elegant, but they looked as if she had worn the same ones until they lost their shape. Her long dark locks were unkempt. They shimmered as they met the sunlight, turning silver. Her eyes shifted to a blue that was so pale it resembled frost.
As her gaze locked on Darcy, her eyes turned red and menacing. She had come because of him. He was sure of it. His whole body tensed as he thought of the flower hidden in the folds of his coat.
Bickerstaffe strode quickly over to the fae woman. He bowed, then went down onto one knee. “You have come at last, Princess Alaine. I see you received my message, your highness.”
“Of course. I would not have missed this occasion for anything.”
From the vantage point of the thunderbird, she looked around at all those assembled, one by one. The patronesses had regrouped to form a line, their eyes watching warily, their familiars shifting restlessly.
“What do we have here? The most powerful human mages in one place? How positively delightful.” She gave a little laugh and clapped her hands with glee. Her little white teeth were like those of a child, except that they ended in points. She put her hand on Bickerstaffe’s head. “You have done well, my faithful servant. You will be well rewarded for your patience. How long has it been since I sent you to work with Lady Catherine? I forget how short the lives of puny mortals are. It has been endlessly amusing to watch you trick them into trusting you. I will commend you to the Fae Court, Bix. Or should I say, Bickerstaffe? Aptly named, wouldn’t you say, when humans love to bicker amongst themselves? Could I have made it any more obvious? You humans cannot see what is under your very noses.”
A tinkling laugh filled the air, the sounds of dissonant bells. Darcy shuddered. He wished he had listened when Elizabeth had expressed her suspicions about his valet. Perhaps they could have done something to prevent him from bringing her here. But how were they to know what he intended?
In a capricious shift that was typical of the fae, Princess Alaine pouted suddenly, losing interest in the conversation. Irritation crossed her face, and she tugged at Bix’s hair, forcing him to stand up. “You should not be grovelling before them. You are fae. And get rid of that ugly glamor you are using to conceal yourself.”
“Of course, your highness.”
The air around Bickerstaffe thickened and swirled with a thousand crystals. The fae that was Bickerstaffe elongated and twisted until it took its final form. Darcy stared at the stranger who replaced him. Bix was willowy and fine-boned, like most fae, and bore no resemblance at all to his valet and mentor. How could Darcy have dealt with this man – or rather, creature— for so many years, and never suspected anything was wrong?
Here before him stood living proof that it was impossible to truly know what lies in the heart of others.
“So, where were we?” The princess slid off the thunderbird and set her feet solidly on the ground in an arrogant stance. “I believe we were at the part where the human mages were about to fight each other. I cannot wait to see what happens.” The princess smiled, her eyes dancing with spite. “I would love to discover how Lady Catherine intends to control the Librarian. You cannot channel her magic into a tree this time, Lady Catherine, as you did at the Summoning Ritual.”
Rising bile burned Darcy’s throat. So it was true. These last five years of pain – all his suffering and regrets – were all because of his aunt. He and Elizabeth could have married and lived happily together. How could Lady Catherine live with herself?
Lady Catherine started to say something, but the princess made a gesture, and snakes came out of her mouth instead of words. The other patronesses raised their hands to sketch magical symbols, preparing to defend Lady Catherine. Princess Alaine snapped her fingers and twisted her wrist. She lifted the patronesses until they were suspended several inches above the ground by the scruff of their necks. They kicked and wriggled, but to no avail.
Darcy began to edge sideways. It struck him that he and Elizabeth might be able to run to the cave and escape to Faerie while the princess’s attention was still on the patronesses. At least it was worth a chance. Darcy touched Elizabeth’s hand and indicated the cave with the minutest of gestures, hoping she would understand his intent.
The princess was still toying with the other mages, snickering as they tried to communicate with each other.
“Why are human voices so ugly? I cannot bear the sound. You can speak again when you are about to fight – when I command you to do so. Until then, you will remain silent.”
A flick of her hand cut off their voices.
Then, without warning, the princess turned to Darcy. Her disconcerting violet eyes were full of mockery. His pulse quickened. Had she seen his gesture to Elizabeth and guessed what he was planning?
“I did not come all this way to watch you fight, you know, however satisfying it may be to see you at each other’s throats.” Her dark locks rippled and swayed, turning orange, then purple. “I am sure you can guess why I am here. I have come for the cure to your sister’s curse. Hand it over, Mr. Darcy of Pemberley. In return, I might allow some of those squirming idiots to go free.”
Darcy’s heart skipped a beat, and his throat went dry. Any hope he may have harbored that she did not know about the flower was lost.
“I am not so foolish as to bargain with a member of the fae, especially one who is so proud of her own trickery. And I will certainly not bargain with the life of my sister.”
“I think you will find you have no choice,” said the princess, baring her teeth.
He felt a strong force tugging at him, but it did not quite take hold. The fae frowned. Some remnant of the patronesses’ magic was working against her. The two forms of magic were competing, both determined to control him. Eventually, he sensed, the princess would win. But it gave him a few seconds to plan.
He threw a frantic glance at Elizabeth. It was now or never. To his astonishment, Elizabeth smiled and put her finger to her lips. She had found a solution.
He hid his expression quickly so as not to give her away. He had no idea what she was up to, but he trusted her with his life.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Can you take a guess at what Elizabeth’s plan might be?