Read the Prologue here
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Mary thought that she would like her younger siblings more once they learned to communicate without screaming.
How Jane managed to not only stand it, but even focus on her lessons at the same time, Mary had no idea. Lizzy was active and forever trying to escape the schoolroom for Papa’s bookroom or the outdoors, but completed her lessons first, much faster than even Jane. Mary was not unintelligent, but she struggled to focus as soon as the first piercing wail disturbed the peace.
By the fifth or sixth, the noise was overwhelming, and Mary put down her pen in favour of covering her ears until either the noise stopped or the governess turned her back long enough for Mary to escape.
Lizzy liked to monopolise their father for long walks through the countryside when he could be coaxed out of the bookroom, or a footman when he couldn’t. Jane enjoyed riding, particularly when it meant escaping her reading lessons. Mary, quiet enough to slip off on her own, preferred to stay closer to Longbourn.
When their father had been a child, Longborn had employed a hermit. Mama had done away with what she saw as a needless expense years ago, but while the hermitage had fallen into disuse, it was still in good repair, concealed in the grove around it. Mary had spotted it through the trees while toddling after Mama as she examined the rosebushes, and it quickly became her own little sanctuary of peace and solace.
There was little furniture - a bed, a chair and table, a chest of drawers and a window box or two filled with marigolds - but it wasn’t as though Mary planned to live there.
Today, there was also something else. To be more precise, someone else.
A boy, about Mary’s age, but as different as night from day. He was small, dirty, and bruised rather more than Mary thought boys were supposed to be, even from Mama’s complaints of the tennant boys running wild over the estate. Mary glanced around the hermitage, wondering if there was anything she could offer to clean him up. “Are you all right?”
The boy scrambled to his feet, ready to bolt like the skittish colt he so resembled, but stumbled and nearly fell.
Mary knelt beside him, checking for major injuries. She didn't offer her name, or ask for his - even at the tender age of six, some instinct warned her against it. Names were important, and not to be given away lightly.
Instead, she tried to put him at ease by humming a soothing lulluby that she wasn't sure ever had words in English. The boy looked startled, seamlessly joining the melody. Mary fought back a stab of jealousy that he had a much better voice than hers. “What happened to you?”
The boy shrugged, not meeting her eyes. “I ran away. Had to, really, when they started talking about priests and exorcisms. I heard tell from the next shire over, that a lot of priests believe in burning to drive a Changeling out.”
Mary shuddered. “That’s horrible! Of course, you can stay here as long as you need. It’s not ideal, but-”
He cut her off. “It’s got four walls and a roof. Unless I can find a way to be switched back...”
Well, that wasn’t asking for much, was it? Mary was still getting used to the concept of sarcasm. “I don’t think they’ll give up a stolen child so easily as that, but perhaps if we both ask, they’ll take you home.”
It was both strange and the most natural thing in the world, to imagine some far away land as ‘home’, rather than Longbourn, the place that held her family and memories of her childhood so far. Perhaps it was merely the fantasy of somewhere where she actually fit in. The boy, at least, had no such quibbles in mind. “How? My parents - the couple who raised me - were travelling when the babe I replaced was born, and when the switch was made. I don’t know where the gateway is.”
Mary gestured out the window, wrapping her shawl more tightly around herself, the weight and pressure grounding her. “There’s a fairy ring, not far that way. I saw it last week, after the rains. I don’t know if it will let you go Under the Hill, but perhaps someone will hear.”
Mary tried not to feel offended when the boy looked profoundly... skeptical? Doubting? Disbelieving of her suggestion. Mary didn’t have Lizzy’s gift for identifying emotions in other people, and she was still learning the meanings attached to longer words.
Still, he didn’t argue, like her sisters might have. “Better than staying here to be burned alive or locked away.”
There was the sound of crashing in the distance, louder than the occasional tenant poacher from the Masterless (and therefore charity-less) neighbouring estate of Netherfield that Papa turned a blind eye to. The two children exchanged concerned glances, both less and more impactful with the boy’s swollen blacke eye. “We had best hurry, I think.”
The Fairy Ring was still where Mary had last seen it, a medley of mushrooms standing out stark and bright against the lush grass, even under the shadow of the trees.
They stood in awkward silence for a moment, neither sure what to do next, before the boy sighed, “You’d think that with so many warnings about being stolen away, they might have been a bit more specific about the how.”
Now that Mary thought about it, ‘don’t cross through a fairy ring’ was unhelpfully vague. Of course, it was a warning for children, not a guide for endangered changelings, so perhaps the storytellers saw no need for fine details. “Perhaps you might stand in the ring? We recognized the lullaby, perhaps someone else will, too.”
The boy’s expression clearly conveyed that he was well aware how foolish he looked. He began to hum, Mary joining in on the second repetition when the crashing from before started to get louder, loud enough to distinguish rough voices and the barking of dogs. The boy looked ready to give it up as a bad job and bolt, when a soft glow came from behind Mary, and the boy vanished.
Mary spun around, eyes wide. The figure before her seemed young, about the age of the younger footman at Longbourn, yet somehow ageless. He wore shining armor, very different to the clunking suit that Sir William had been showing off when Mary was permitted to join Jane and Lizzy in a visit to one of the Lucas boys.
Mary should probably do or say something, but the words wouldn't come.
The Fair One - for he could be nothing else - smiled in an understanding fashion, and spoke in a clear, smooth voice that reminded Mary of distant bells. “He will be safe, and I will deal with his pursuers.”
He lifted a hand, a ball of light forming above his palm, then darting into the forest like a very large firefly. The warrior smiled as if sharing a secret, though it was unlikely to be a surprise that the other Changeling's hunters would enjoy. “A tangle-foot spell. A few days running in circles and unable to find their way out should do them a world of good.”
Mary certainly hoped so, and it wasn’t really mean-spirited if it was done to help or teach a lesson.
Like when the governess placed Lizzy’s books on a high shelf until she finished her embroidery lesson. Lizzy always had much to say about that, but Mama insisted that she needed to learn other things, too. The boy might never get to thank the warrior, so Mary had better do it for both of them. “You have my sincere gratitude.”
He smiled again, this time fondly, like Charlotte did at her younger brothers. “You are the Longbourn child, yes? I’ll walk you to the edge nearest your garden.”
In the novel Lizzy had borrowed from the Wandering Library, warriors walked young ladies home a lot. There was something different about this scenario from the fictional one, but Mary could puzzle it out later. She accepted his hand, walking away from the fairy ring.
In all too short a time, Mary could see Longbourn, and the Fair One’s hand slid from hers. “Be cautious, young Changeling. Try not to stand out more than you must.”
He vanished, and Mary followed the sound of Nanny’s anxious calling. While Nanny scolded her for running away from her lessons, Mary plastered on an attentive mask and let her thoughts wander. The Fair One had said that she must not stand out more than she could help, and while that would be less of an issue until she came out into Society, it was a concern.
Perhaps she should stop following Lizzy’s example and imitate Jane, instead. Surely there was a book somewhere that listed the qualities of a proper young lady...
Read Part 2 here...