Chapter 1 - The Prince of Elfland and the Errant Hound by A.J. Hall
On Midsummer’s Eve, four days before her tenth birthday, Molly Hooper discovered what it meant when someone only looked sad when they thought no-one was watching. She also lost her dog and met the Prince of Elfland, but those turned out to be not nearly as important, in the end.
Since Easter, Papa had been unusually cheerful. At first Molly wondered if it meant good news had come from Gondal Town. Perhaps her mother’s family, whom she had never seen, had finally decided to end their quarrel with Papa. No-one had officially told her about the quarrel, but she was a mousy little girl, who preferred to blend into the background. Furthermore, she hated it when Papa, whose paternal fondness overlooked multiple deficiencies in timing, expression and accuracy, insisted she play on the harpsichord. While cowering in window embrasures or behind hangings to avoid being called to the seat of honour she had overheard far more that Papa or his guests had ever suspected. Since her earliest and best companions had been books, and no-one had ever told her not to pull anything down from the library shelves, she had learned a great deal about how stories fell out.
From all she had heard, her parents’ marriage had been a story marred in the making.
Mama’s family had wanted Mama to stay at home and be a good widow, to devote herself to her orphaned little boy, and not think of marrying again until he was a man grown. By which time, Molly thought privately, she would have been too old for anyone to ask her. Papa, though, would have none of that. He had told her family that he would of course bring up Mama’s son as if he had been his own, and then taken her away and married her notwithstanding her family’s disapproval.
But if they had thought that would be the end of the matter, they had miscalculated. Mama’s first husband had been so great and high that her remarriage was not a matter for the parties alone, nor even for their families. No: the King himself should have been asked for permission, and his fury at being overlooked had been terrible. Nothing less than the couple petitioning for annulment would have satisfied him, and that satisfaction Papa and Mama had refused. (Molly did a little private arithmetic at this point, and felt an odd, guilty shiver run down her spine.)
The King had declared that he could not in all conscience leave Mama’s son to be brought up by a couple who so flagrantly disregarded their monarch’s commands. So Mama had lost her little boy, who had become the King’s own ward. And then, not six months later, Papa had lost Mama as well, leaving Molly as his only consolation.
It had been comforting, at first, to think that she would never be grand enough to go to Court, and so would never meet her half-brother. How could anyone stand up and talk to someone whom they had wronged so badly? More lately, though, she had begun to wonder what it would be like to have an older brother. Again, she did arithmetic. Sixteen was very nearly grown up. Papa never spoke about him, but no doubt he had learnt dancing and music and swordsmanship and the Management of the Horse and all the other things courtiers had to know. And he would, surely, understand that Molly had not meant to take Mama away, and would, perhaps, stand up as her defender and protector, and plead her and Papa’s cause to the King …
So, when Papa had started being so very cheerful, Molly at first was in hopes that her brother might be coming to stay, or, at worst, that one of her mother’s sisters might have written a note of reconciliation. But he said nothing of that,
but only ensured she and him and Tybalt, who was only just out of puppyhood and see-sawed between wild excitement and precarious, new-won dignity, drove out daily into the spring countryside. Nor were these dull drives of ceremony and visiting, with the dreaded harpsichord an ever-present threat. No; Papa took her and showed her the countryside of his boyhood, from the fortified farmhouse he had lived in as a boy, which his grandfather had defended so gallantly against an incursion from Gaaldine, to the first tree he had climbed and on which he had carved his initials, and the pool below the waterfall in which he had learnt to swim, along with all the places where his father’s keepers had shown him how to trap rabbits and catch trout.
It had, indeed, been glorious, at least at first. But then Papa, notwithstanding the warm sunshine and the good food which Mrs Higgins, their cook, put up in baskets from them to take out with them on their drives, seemed to get thinner and thinner, and more and more tired. The slight, persistent cough that had been as much a part of him as his narrow brown hands and his bushy black brows for as long as Molly could remember, now came in great fits which shook his entire body and left him pale and exhausted.
On St Methodius’ day, for the first time since the warmer weather began, they did not take their daily drive. Papa ordered a cushioned wicker couch to be placed on the terrace, and the old walnut writing table with the secret drawer brought out and placed beside it. Papa tackled his letters, which had mounted up somewhat during the previous weeks of leisure, while Molly amused herself by trying to teach Tybalt tricks, and, when the dog bored of that, by looking out over the countryside for signs of activity and making up stories about the people she saw on the road, where they might be going and for what purposes.
Netherfield Hall had been built on a hill, on the foundations of a fortified farm burned out in a raid from Gaaldine. From their position on the terrace they could see for miles, down the white dust road which led to the village and beyond that to Gondal Town. Though she herself had never ventured past Meryton, Molly knew the road carried on through the capital, onto and over the high passes of the Skogull Ranges and into Gaaldine. That was the road up which Grandmama had travelled on her wedding journey to wed Papa’s father, an infinity ago. Some of Molly’s earliest memories were of Grandmama telling her about the old house in Gaaldine in which Grandmama had grown up with her brother and sisters, those ghostly aunts and uncle now lost to congestion of the lungs and mischance, so that the old house amid the fruit trees on the far side of the mountains had become Grandmama’s marriage portion, she being the only one of the six to live long enough to require one.
“And it will be your dowry too, my little bird, when I am gone,” Grandmama had whispered to Molly.
Now the fig tree they had planted to shade Grandmama’s grave was showing the hard buds of its first fruiting and Molly would infinitely rather have had Grandmama than an unknown house in a foreign land. There had been, of course, no question of going to see it, even before Papa’s cough had worsened. Relations between the two countries were worse than they had been in years, everyone knew that. Old Amos, the head gardener, whose habitual gloom sharpened into apocalyptic prophecy whenever the North-East wind set off his rheumatics, had proclaimed that the King of Gaaldine would be across the border and into Gondal Town before this season’s grapes were picked. Few were hardy enough to contradict him.
Molly looked along the road, picturing columns of soldiers of Gondal marching along it. Papa’s quill scratched in the drugged silence of late afternoon and Tybalt, curled beneath the writing desk for shade, whimpered and pawed after rabbits in his sleep.
After some minutes writing, Papa summoned the butler, and pressed two letters into his hand with low-voiced, urgent instructions. Not long afterwards, Molly heard the sound of hoofbeats and looked up to see one of the grooms riding Mahmout, the fastest horse in the stable, full pelt for the road. She expected Papa to say something or even shout; he was the last man to condone carelessness with his beasts. But he looked ruefully after Mahmout’s disappearing rump, and, when he caught Molly’s eye on him, said, “It does young things good to stretch their legs from time to time. Speaking of which, why don’t the two of you go for a run down by the lake while I finish the rest of these letters?”
So she and Tybalt had trotted off to the lake edge, delighting in the freedom. She had never been allowed alone by the lake before. As she reached the crest of the slope that led down to the water, she turned to wave at Papa, by way of assurance she would take care. She had expected to see him back at his table working, but instead he was leaning against the terrace parapet — not just resting his hand on it as he often did, but leaning as if without it he might not be able to stand. There was something so desperate, so heartbreakingly defeated about his pose that for a moment she wanted to turn and run back and fling herself into his arms.
He saw her looking back, and on the instant his entire manner changed; he straightened up, trim as a footman, and blew her an extravagant kiss. At that moment Tybalt decided to take off after an imaginary rabbit, and all her attention was taken up by calling him back. When she looked back again, Papa had vanished indoors.
The drives did not resume. Papa rose later and later, and spent the whole of each day on the couch on the terrace, while Molly sat on her stool with a book, trying to keep Tybalt quiet at her side. She tried not to let Papa see her casting sidelong glances to see if all were well with him after each coughing fit. Each time, however bad the cough, she saw him smile at her, with a brightness so hard and gleaming it hurt inside her chest, as if it were pierced with glass shards, and she had to avert her head and run to look at the road again.
On this particular occasion Molly’s subterfuge paid off; she saw a white cloud of dust which denoted a carriage coming down the road towards them, from Meryton. Turning to Papa, she saw he had seen it too. There was a hint of apprehension in his face, which was odd. So far as Molly knew, Papa liked all the neighbours with whom they were on visiting terms, even Clarence Duplessis, who said odd, harsh things which were apparently intended as jokes, but which sounded like cruelties to Molly.
The carriage turned into the gates of Netherfield, covered the curving sweep of the drive and drew up before the hall front. A sandy-haired man, wearing the dark robes of a physician, emerged from inside the carriage and was greeted by the butler. Papa rose from his seat. He stumbled as he did so, and instantly there was a footman at his elbow, supporting him.
Molly’s heart turned over. Papa’s face was paler than she had ever seen it, apart from a small brown stain at the corner of his mouth, the colour of dried blood. Nonetheless, his lips curved in the familiar smile, and his eyes twinkled.
“My dear, this is an old friend arrived from the capital. I must go down and see him. We have much to talk over together, and I fear it will be dull for you. Take your dog and go and have a proper run together in the park. I shall ask Mrs Higgins to put up a basket for you, so you need not return for nuncheon. Be sure to be in before firefly time, that’s all I ask.”
“Can’t I stay, please?” She dug deep, and offered up all she had. “Perhaps your guest would like to hear my new piece on the harpsichord?”
Papa’s smile deepened. “I fear it is unlikely. Hamish Watson is no more an admirer of the harpsichord than is his daughter.”
She looked at him, puzzled. He laughed, though it ended once more in a fit of coughing which doubled him over.
When he could speak again, he said, “My old friend has family in the district; his daughter is Mrs Duplessis of Longbourn, who was recently brought to bed of a daughter. I ventured to hope he might be visiting them soon, and sent a letter asking him for the favour of a visit, should he be in the neighbourhood.”
The image of Mahmout galloping down the drive rose up before Molly’s eyes. So, too, did the glimpse she had caught of their visitor, who must now be waiting below. Surely even the King’s physician (no-one who had ever spent a quarter of a turn under the same roof as the parrot-voiced Mrs Duplessis had been left in ignorance of her father’s most illustrious patient) would not wear his robes of office on an ordinary social visit?
Quietly, Molly nodded and told her father she and Tybalt would make the circuit of the lake. Quietly, she went down to the kitchen and collected Mrs Higgins’ basket. Then, even more quietly than before, she shut Tybalt into the still-room with a pig’s ear begged from the kitchen to keep him occupied, left the basket on a high shelf out of Tybalt’s reach, and stole up the servants’ stair to the concealed door behind the panelling in the main receiving room, where servants were wont to await their signal to clear the dessert and fruit plates. She eased it open just a fraction.
She could see a long narrow strip of the room within: Papa, sitting on the end of one of the sofas. He looked ever sadder than he had on the terrace.
The physician, Mrs Duplessis’ father, was quite out of sight. She could hear him, though.
“I cannot deny the seriousness of the position. I have seen great feats of recovery in the human body, and even if it were not a sin in the eyes of our Church I should never counsel anyone to abandon hope. Nevertheless, since you have a child —”
He paused. The thud of Molly’s heart sounded so loudly she wondered Papa or the physician did not hear her.
“I do, indeed, have a child.” Papa’s voice was heart-breaking. “And I am not unaware of the importance of making arrangements against — against the future. I wrote to Lady Anne, but I have yet to receive a reply.”
“Ah.” The physician cleared his throat. “I would not expect one. She and her husband and the little boy have already departed the capital on their journey North. They left the day after the Easter celebrations ended.”
So that, Molly thought, was how defeat sounded.
“Lady Catherine remains in Town,” the physician proffered.
Papa made a grimace, like Tybalt when one of the stable cats approached too close. “So I should imagine. What are the heats and smells of Town compared to the scope it offers for interference in the affairs of others? But in any event, writing to Lady Catherine would be otiose. She told me almost ten years ago that I should never expect the smallest particle of notice from her, and Lady Catherine, as the whole Court knows —”
“—prides herself that she will not swerve by any fraction of a degree from any resolution to which she has once set her mind,” the two men finished in chorus. Papa essayed a weak laugh, which turned into a coughing fit. For the first time, the physician crossed into view, holding out fine linen and a glass of some deep green tincture. When Papa had finished coughing and was gulping down the tincture, the physician recaptured the soiled linen and stared thoughtfully into its depths.
“Nevertheless,” the physician said. The note in his voice recalled the time Molly and Tybalt had spent the whole of All Souls Eve on vigil by the chapel door, in the hope of seeing the shades of all who would die during the coming year pass through it when the bell chimed midnight.
“Nevertheless?” Papa’s voice was harsh from the coughing fit.
“She is the child’s nearest relative.”
Papa grimaced again. “Not quite.”
The physician let out a low gasp. “You could not possibly think of — In any event, he is not at Court.”
“So I am aware. And no: I should not think of surrendering my daughter’s dog to him, let alone my daughter’s person.” There was a speaking pause, and then, in a low, rasping voice, Papa added, “We live secluded here, but I make it my business to keep informed. Had I only had my way at the outset —”
The physician shook his head. “You would have broken your heart, and made little difference, if any. You did not know Prince Gerald.”
“Through Elaine, I almost feel I had,” Papa murmured. The physician laid a hand on his arm.
“Let that be your answer, then. But let me speak on your behalf to one who has the power to sway even Lady Catherine from her course.”
Papa paused. Then, slowly and painfully, he said, “But he would not —”
“He would not. But she would. I am bidden to say as much. Write me a letter to Lady Catherine, and I shall see it delivered by one who cannot be repudiated as your messenger.”
“My thanks will be eternal. Though I wish it could have been Lady Anne…”
“These things arrange themselves, I find. And now, let me advise you as your physician. Husband your strength. You should have been in your bed days ago. Retire there now.”
“And have the child suspect how bad things are with me? That moment will come soon enough. Let me at least delay it for her, so her summer is as long as I can make it.”
Abruptly, Molly found the air too stifling, the buzzing of a blowfly against the tall casement too loud, the sickly-sweet smell from Papa’s couch too nauseating. She left as quickly and as silently as she had come, caught up Tybalt from where she had left him, abandoned the picnic basket for the maids — the way her mouth felt, she did not feel she would ever be able to eat again — and ran out into the park, as far and fast as possible, Tybalt tumbling at her heels and then, when no-one shouted, running ahead of them both, sniffing out the way, diving through the high grasses and into the edges of the copses on the far edge of the park, barking as if his lungs might burst.
The need to run possessed Molly so absolutely that it was only when she was spent and could run no further that she realised she was far past the lake, bent head between knees, heart thumping in a part of the grounds where she had never ventured before, and that Tybalt had vanished utterly from view.
Despair overwhelmed her like a black cloak. Beneath the shade of the sweet chestnut trees all was green and golden, dappled and dancing with shadow. the shadow was alive with movement, and none of it belonged to a snub-nosed, floppy-eared black-and-chestnut dog, barely out of puppyhood, who would soon, if the physician from Gondal Town and her own instinct spoke true, be the only family who recognised her existence.
She ran backwards and forwards, calling for Tybalt, and then, at length, when Tybalt failed to appear, crying: not just for Tybalt, but for Papa and Mama and even for Mama’s little boy, who had been abandoned so young he could hardly have stood taller than she did now. Great waves of misery rose and choked her, branches whipped across her face, nettles stung her legs and clouds of biting insects rose up all about her, choking her nose and mouth.
How long she might have continued, she could never have said. A tree branch caught her foot and brought her crashing to the ground, winding her. She drew a deep breath and some vestiges of self-respect returned. She gingerly sat up, patting at various sore places. Nothing broken or even sprained. She ran her fingers through her disarranged hair, and realised she was very thirsty.
In the silence of the summer wood she could hear the faint tinkling of a stream. She pulled herself to her feet, and trotted towards the sound of the water.
The stream was clear and inviting, running over bright pebbles. She cupped her hands beneath a little waterfall, drank, and then splashed her face and hands. Upstream, an arrow of blue showed as a kingfisher darted across the water to its nest in a sandy bank. She sat back on her heels, waiting for it to return, but it did not. Presently, it occurred to her that the stream would run downwards towards the lake, and that if she followed it she would emerge into the known parts of the grounds, and be able to enlist the help of the gardeners in looking for Tybalt.
That thought felt, for a moment, almost as cheering as if she had found him already. She followed along the bank, tracing the windings of the little stream.
Here it took a particularly large curve around a great boulder — in truth, a small cliff — which Molly could not clamber over, but had to cast back into the woods. Having navigated that obstacle, she encountered a bramble patch, which forced her back yet further from the water. For a moment she began to panic again, but the reassuring sound of the water showed her the way to go. She followed her ears, and shortly emerged onto a grassy lawn, shaded by broad-leaved sweet chestnuts and limes, along whose edge the stream meandered, now broad and sluggish.
Molly caught her gasp half-uttered. She was not alone. By the stream’s edge a tall figure was lying on his side, his back to the water, propped up on one elbow. Tybalt was curled in the crook of his other arm, asleep.
She swallowed. The other inhabitant of the glade might bear the appearance of a man: dark-haired and surprisingly slender for his height, but her nurse had taught her about the Nice People, who lived inside the haunted places of the woods and mountains.
Nothing about this apparation appeared human. The fractured light of the glade danced across his body to create the illusion that he was himself no more than part of the forest floor given temporary animation, an illusion reinforced by his hunting garb, which had been dyed in broken, irregular patches of greens and russets. No mere forester, though: the huntsman’s knife at his side hung in an exquisitely tooled green and gold scabbard. Close by his hand was a stringed instrument of some sort, a lute or a saz, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory in complex patterns of animals and flowers, the work of a master craftsman.
More than both of those, his whole bearing had a kind of casual authority — even now, even in repose, when for all he knew his only audience was a small dog — which told Molly that wherever this apparation hailed from, he was a prince there.
He looked up and the hair rose on the back of Molly’s neck. If she’d had any doubts about his being one of the Nice People before, they were gone now. His eyes were changeable as water running over pebbles. They regarded her with an intense, assessing stare which went straight through to her bones.
He rose to his feet with a grave, formal elegance, scooping the dog up as her rose. Tybalt made a small protesting whimper at the disturbance, but settled back into the crook of his arm, extending a small triangle of pink tongue to lick his hand.
“I believe, my lady, that this would be your dog?”
His voice was as other-worldly as his eyes.
The Nice People were known to filch babies, leaving in their place changelings who did not thrive, being made principally of dried leaves. Molly had not heard that they took dogs, but Tybalt looked very securely tucked into the stranger’s arm. She could not pull him back by force, so if the stranger took a fancy to leave she would have to follow. Tybalt must not be left alone and lost when taken where the Nice People lived. But that would mean Papa would lose them both, at least until she could break free. If she could break free. If she could break free in time.
Sometimes people who were taken by the Nice People never returned. Sometimes they came back decades later, to find the babe born yesterday was now a withered old crone on the point of death. In the most hopeful of the songs, it was only seven years, but in Papa’s case even seven weeks —
She swallowed, hard. Mama had had to choose between her little boy and Papa, and had chosen Papa. But then death had taken her, so her choice had proved illusory. So in the end, when one had to make a choice, the only thing to do was first pray, then hope it was the right one. But could it ever be the right thing, to abandon something small and helpless in the hands of almost unlimited power and authority?
Molly’s chin went up. “Yes. He is my dog.”
She could not have said how she knew that the Prince of Elfland had, in that moment, abandoned any intentions he might have cherished regarding Tybalt. He surrendered the dog — Tybalt took the transfer from the prince’s arms to hers with a sleepy noise of protest — and reached into his pouch.
“In that case, you should keep him close about you.”
The hint of rebuke in his voice made Molly’s face flame. For a moment her eyes blurred with tears. They cleared, and she saw he was holding out to her a belt of tooled brown leather with a buckle of gold, its prong cunningly worked in the form of a sword, the frame in the form of a sunburst. She took it in silence, bewildered. The Prince of Elfland seemed somewhat impatient with her.
“Put it round your dog’s neck. Buckle it in place. Hold tight to the other end. The time is coming, as you already know, when you will have little else to cling to.”
Pain and anger, Molly discovered abruptly, were twins. She clasped the belt around Tybalt’s soft, black and chestnut neck and stood up, summoning all the dignity at her command.
“You should not say such things.”
He shrugged. “Why not? Truth is truth, whether spoken or unspoken.”
The Queen of Elfland had, Molly recalled, left one of her captured mortals without the ability to speak except truly, which had caused him considerable professional disadvantage, he being a poet by profession. And while little girls were, of course, exhorted not to lie by priests and nursemaids and governesses and every member of their families, nevertheless she would die rather than betray to Papa what she had overhead him and the physician say that day, even if asked a direct question.
But she could not put off the Prince of Elfland with a lie, and most surely he expected her to say something. Her mind flailed, and her tongue seemed to speak of its own accord.
“My dog is not all I have to cling to. I have a brother; a brother who is almost a man grown. A brother who is a ward of the King himself.”
Those extraordinary eyes raked her from head to toe.
“Your brother is not at Court. He is travelling abroad, far from here. Also, it is poor policy to count someone as an ally whom you have never met and of whose disposition you know less than nothing. Especially someone who might — with no great logic, but even so — consider himself an aggrieved party at your hands.”
This time the tremble of her knees was visible and she knew he had seen it. He blinked, and then a smile, unearthly as the rest of him, spread across his face. “If, however, you wish to select your allies more circumspectly, the answer lies in your own hands.”
He nodded at the improvised lead. The dog, feeling the attention, rolled over onto his back and presented his belly for rubbing. The Prince bent down and obliged. Tybalt gave a small, trusting whimper.
He straightened up. “I should not, if I were you, show that belt-buckle to anyone: certainly not to your brother, should you chance to meet him, or to your Aunt Catherine. But should occasion arise in which you are in desperate need, go to your Queen, show her the buckle and request her help in the name of the bearer of that device. I once did her some small service against one who called himself a necromancer, and she will recall it.”
“The Queen owes you a favour?” Molly squeaked, tamping down her instinctive, robust urge to ask And how do you suppose I’m ever going to get to the Queen, let alone request anything?
That unearthly smile again. “Oh, no. She is a Queen, and a true ruler should not allow personal obligation to constrain their actions, any more than they should requite personal debts from the public treasury.”
That puzzled Molly; from what she had overheard Papa and his guests saying at dinner, in particular Clarence Duplessis, plundering the treasury and squandering it on —fetes and fireworks and nonsense — was exactly what the King did.
The smile lingered on the Prince of Elfland’s face, as if he read her thoughts. “I had forgotten that this Hall was deep in the heartland of His Grace’s loyal opposition.”
Loyal opposition? Molly felt her brow furrow at the paradox. The Prince raised a hand in an airy gesture.
“Let that be. What the Queen might not do for obligation, she may do because I have given her reason to trust my judgement.” He paused for a measured beat. “And because she loved your mother and saw two great wrongs done to her, and was powerless to intervene in each case.”
From somewhere close at hand a horn sounded: loud and urgent. The Prince lifted his head.
“Ah! The physician’s carriage is leaving your father’s hall. I must be elsewhere.”
With that, he bent, picked up his lute, and faded into the dappled woodland. The strange broken hue of his woodsman’s garments became one with the shaking leaves and dancing sunlight. She heard the faint, mocking echo of his voice.
“Hold tight to that dog. And let no-one see the buckle, save for the Queen’s Grace alone.”
He was gone.
The physician’s carriage is leaving your father’s hall.
“Come, Tybalt!” Molly cried. “Come, run. Papa is waiting!”