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Guardian of the Green Hill
By Laura L. Sullivan
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2011 Laura L. Sullivan
All rights reserved.
She Will Be My Creature
More skin than flesh, more bones than skin, the artist hunched over his easel. He added shading under the eyes and thickened the hair, then growled in disgust. It was still nothing like her, nothing like what he wanted her to be. The eyes were only wistful, not yet weak and sorrowful. The round chin looked too strong. ... It would never tremble. Even the short curling silver hair looked too tidy, nothing like the unkempt locks of one given up to despair. And that is how he needed Phyllida Ash — hopeless, self-pitying, cringing, and powerless.
He tore the paper off with a flourish and fed it to his goat.
"I am only half the artist my father was," he said bitterly, sketching out new lines on a fresh sheet.
"True," said the goat, "but you are twice the magician." He munched on the paper contemplatively. "Perhaps if you switched to charcoal."
"You just don't like the taste of ink, Pazhan," the man said. "Be glad I don't use oils. I will, though, just as soon as I can worm my way in. Into the house, into her confidence ... and into her place at last. One good sketch, and I'll have a hold on her, enough to create an opening. Then when she sits for me, when I can do a proper portrait, she will be my creature."
"Will she really do as you say, Gwidion? She'll give it up, just like that?"
"You've seen what I can do."
"Sketches to make the innkeeper give you a free night and a full flagon. Portraits to charm some gullible young woman into leaving her loved ones to follow you ... till you've had your fill. I've seen that, sure enough. But this is something else entirely. Phyllida Ash is a strong woman, bred to her role for generations, and she has powerful protectors. She may keep the fairies in check, but do you think they don't love her?"
"What of you, Pazhan? Do you love her?"
He shrugged his goat shoulders. "That is neither here nor there. I am part of your family. So long as there are Thomas men, I am yours, not hers, till such time as you strike me thrice in three days."
Which didn't quite answer the question, but Gwidion nodded. "My only inheritance. My father's only inheritance, and his father's before him, when it could have all been ours. All mine."
"Have I been such a bad bargain?" the goat asked archly, but Gwidion ignored him.
"Soon I will come into my own. No more wandering, a penniless rover. No more living by my wits, day to day, town to town. Here is where I belong, Pazhan, here at the Rookery, at the Green Hill. Whether they like it or not, I am home."CHAPTER 2
They Came to Me
Meg Morgan plucked a last plump jade-green berry from the thorny hedge just before the Gooseberry Wife could lurch her corpulent body close enough to nip. She gnashed her small, grinding teeth in pique as Meg escaped with her prize.
"You shouldn't tease her," Phyllida chided from across the lawn. "She takes her job very seriously."
The Gooseberry Wife was a lumbering, bloated caterpillar as long as Meg's arm. She haunted berry shrubs, guarding them from the marauding hands of youngsters, preserving the fruits for the cook's tarts and fools. Meg looked into her squinty eyes from a safe distance, but found herself compelled to look instead at the large black false eyespots on the top of her pale-green head.
"I'm sorry," Meg told her. "I want them for Bran."
The Gooseberry Wife shivered her segmented body in annoyance, making each spiny witch-wart hair along her back stand on end.
Meg carried her handful of berries back to Bran. He lounged on a chaise, scowling. Every few minutes he tried to rise, muttering something about wood to chop or rents to collect, but his family shoved him down again. He was restless, furious at his imposed sloth, but too weak to protest. After all, he'd died only two weeks ago.
It was teatime, a custom the children wished had followed the colonists to America. Here in England they realized how welcome a fourth meal is to someone who spends the better part of the day tramping through the woods, running, playing, and fighting. The more sedate adults, Phyllida and Lysander Ash, contented themselves with tea and thin, floating lemon slices and a few McVitie's digestive biscuits. The children — Rowan, Meg, Silly, and James Morgan, Finn Fachan, and Dickie Rhys — gorged themselves on scones and clotted cream, sardines on toast, eggs, seedcakes, nut cakes, and fruitcakes. To Phyllida's horror, they insisted their tea be served cold and sickeningly sweetened, and though they consented to lemons, they looked at them suspiciously if they weren't cut into wedges.
Now the carnage of crumbs lay scattered across the tables, and the children (save James, who was studying a small civilization of black ants) were playing croquet on the manicured lawn, making up rules as they went along. At times they seemed to confuse croquet and cricket.
"Out of bounds!" Silly shouted.
"No such thing," said Rowan, who really had no idea.
"Ow, my shin!" Dickie wailed.
"Sorry, no depth perception," Finn said, in a tone that sounded far from apologetic. "My point," he added, stopping to pull his black silk eyepatch into place. The game had degenerated into something like violent polo without the horses. Silly compensated somewhat for their lack with her raucous neighing laugh.
Dickie dropped out, joining Meg, while the others continued in deadly earnest. Rowan and Finn, antagonistic as ever, might have caused each other some serious harm if not for Silly getting between them, not as peacemaker but with her own keen desire to beat the boys. Legs were struck, feet trampled, turfs uprooted as they pounded across the lawn. Soon the rifle crack of mallet upon ball faded into the distance and peace reigned, more or less, in the English countryside.
Meg and Dickie drifted to the hedgerow and looked across the sunken wall of the ha-ha to the sheep-strewn meadow. The sheep, white with black faces, were echoed in the sky, deep lapis dotted with small white clouds barely tinged with a darkness that hinted at a distant storm. They grazed contentedly, unaware of the little men in green who methodically sheared the softest wool from their bellies.
"They're like chipmunks," Meg said absently, much to Dickie's bafflement.
"The sheep?" he asked, perplexed.
Meg gave a little laugh. "Oh, I forgot you can't see them. The Weavers are out among the sheep."
"And they look like chipmunks?"
"No, no, I didn't even realize I was talking out loud. I meant fairies are getting to be like chipmunks were back at Arcadia." Arcadia, sylvan seat of learning in upstate New York, was where all their parents taught. "They were pretty common, but they didn't let themselves be seen. Then when you saw one, it was always a little thrill. The fairies are getting to be like that. Commonplace somehow, not surprising anymore, but still extraordinary." She didn't think she had expressed herself very well, but Dickie understood.
"There seem to be more of them than usual," Meg went on. "Maybe it's just easier to see them for some reason. On the grounds, too. Phyllida told me, back before the war, that fairies don't generally come on the Rookery property, except for a few, like the brownie or the Gooseberry Wife. But I see other ones here every day now. The Weavers and flower fairies, and I even stepped on a stray sod yesterday, right here on the lawn."
"I wish I could see them," Dickie said.
"You can stand on my foot if you like. You said that's one way, stand on the foot of someone who can see fairies."
He sighed longingly but shook his head. "And end up like Finn, with a hazel stick in my eye? No, thank you. They don't like spies. Anyway, I have seen fairies, the ones who wanted to be seen, and for the most part I didn't enjoy it much." Despite his words, Meg noticed something like pride on Dickie's face. She remembered that evening when she was racing to the Green Hill as Seelie champion in Rowan's place. Every horror of the Unseelie Court had tried to stop her. The worst was the skinless Nuckelavee.
How brave Dickie had been that night, luring it away and foiling it with its nemesis, fresh water. He'd pooh-poohed her praise later, saying, "Nothing's so bad if you know what its weaknesses are." But Meg was still impressed by his valor. Even in bright, unthreatening daylight, when he was his pale, pudgy, sniffling self again, he possessed, in her eyes at least, the air of a hero.
"I wonder why we can all see them ... Rowan and Silly and James, I mean."
"You're related to Phyllida. It must be in the blood. Meg ..." He hesitated, not sure how to go on. "Phyllida doesn't have any children, you know."
Meg just looked at him.
"I mean, you four are it. And from what she says, it's always a woman of her bloodline who's the Guardian of the Green Hill. So that's just you and Silly. You two are the only ones left. I was just wondering if someday — it's not a nice thing to think about, but she is awfully old, and someday ..."
Meg's eyes widened in alarm. Oddly enough, it had never really occurred to her that she might be next in line. "No!" With all the chaos of the Midsummer War, she had been too preoccupied to carry things to their natural conclusion. The present was enough to fill her head, and though she had some vague idea that she had an obligation to learn about fairies, this suggestion of being Guardian was shocking.
"Phyllida will live a long time ... a very long time." Oh, how she hoped so, for love of the old woman and, now, for newer selfish reasons.
"Hasn't she said anything to you about it?"
"No, nothing." Come to think of it, there had been vague hints, mentions of her birthright, of the duties and obligations that come with gifts, of her family's heritage. But she thought it was just history, nothing to do with her own future.
Seeing how uncomfortable Meg was, Dickie wisely let it drop.
He was just wondering if asking Meg to point out which particular sheep were being sheared would count as an eye-losing offense when they were interrupted by hooves clattering on the cobblestone path that led to the croquet lawn.
A big roan horse skidded to a halt inches from Phyllida and Lysander, panting and lathered in sweat. His rider tumbled off and made the barest bow before gasping out, "Please, Lady, you must come quickly!"
Phyllida got to her feet, dusting the crumbs from her lavender frock and anchoring her rose-bedecked straw hat more firmly on her head. "What is it, Cain? What's amiss?"
"I don't know, ma'am. Young Evan came running to the stables and said whoever was fastest on a horse should go for the Lady. Jim said he was, but by the time he was finished bragging, I was on Lightfoot and away."
"Evan didn't give you any clue what it was about?" Phyllida asked even as Lysander hailed a servant and gave instructions that their carriage be readied.
"It's at Moll's house, is all I know. You're to go to Moll's house."
"Is it the baby? Oh, dear, has the doctor been sent for? I don't know why folk will still call me before the doctor for scalds and chicken pox. Cain, if your horse isn't done in, please ride for Dr. Homunculus and send him after us, just in case. Lysander, the coach —"
"Nearly ready, my dear," he said calmly. These little emergencies cropped up all the time and might be anything from a broken leg to a cow gone dry. If a pretty daughter stayed out all night, Phyllida was called, on the certainty that the fairies had snatched her. If a man went astray, they looked to her for a charm to win him back from what was undoubtedly a glamour of some sort. If dishes broke a bit too often, it was surely the result of mischievous bogies who had to be banished. Phyllida had some serious duties to perform as Guardian of the fairy sanctuary, the Green Hill, but more often she played a role somewhere between patron and witch doctor for her tenants and the villagers of Gladysmere.
Bran tried to push himself up, but Phyllida was instantly at his side. "Stay, Bran dear. You'll open your wound again." She might be his daughter, grown old in the real world while he was trapped by the fairies under the Green Hill, but sometimes she had to scold him like a mother. The arrow hole in his chest — mark of his great sacrifice in the Midsummer War — had nearly closed, but any vigorous movement still caused him great pain. If he wasn't very careful, the injury seeped thin pink-red blood through the bandage.
"But if it's the fairies —"
"If it's the fairies, I can handle it myself," Phyllida snapped. "I did it for seventy years without you."
Bran flinched, and Phyllida looked abashed. She hadn't meant to remind him how he had abandoned his wife and children for the twilight world under the Green Hill.
"It's likely nothing. You stay here and heal. Let May bring you some more tea."
Bran mumbled something about tea coming out of his ears, and that he'd had enough mollycoddling, but he settled back into the chaise.
"Can we go with you?" Meg asked as her great-great-aunt and -uncle made their way to the circular drive at the front of the Rookery.
"I don't see why not," Phyllida said. "It will be good for you. You can see a bit more of the countryside, meet some of the tenants. It's best to know the ins and outs of those who live and work on your land. Makes everything run so much more smoothly."
But it's not my land, Meg thought.
"Can James come too?"
Phyllida assented, but when Meg asked if he wanted to go, he told her with great brevity that he was still delving into ant culture and couldn't be disturbed in his scientific and anthropological endeavors. He explained this all with the word "no." At four years old, he was exquisitely single-minded.
"He'll be fine there," Lysander said. "May and June will look after him." May and June were maids, twin sisters born an hour apart, but in two different months.
Meg, less trusting, called out to her brother and sister in the distance where they still sported in their frenzied game with Finn. "Rowan! Silly! We're going on a drive with Phyllida." They answered with shouts and screams. "Did you hear me? Watch James, will you?"
Rowan waved and called something that sounded like an affirmative, so Meg ran back to the drive where the carriage, driven by a liveried coachman, was just rolling up. The two dapple-gray horses stomped and flicked their tails, annoyed at having been taken from their oats on such short notice.
With the wind whipping her hair and the bright July sun browning her neck and freckling her nose, it felt like a festival day. Though she loved the Rookery, and the grounds (and the house itself) were vast and varied enough to entertain almost without end, it was good to get away and catch a glimpse of the rest of the world. The Rookery was nestled against the deep woods, but as they went east, they came to more open country, rolling fields of high golden hay. They passed houses that seemed to be from another time, half-timbered cottages with dormer windows, flowers trailing over the sills, pear trees climbing the walls. Where the river ran parallel to the road, she saw a mill with a great wooden wheel turning eternally in the flow. Fields were divided by hedgerows or by dry stone walls made with rocks removed in the first plowing centuries before, stacked without a drop of mortar to hold them in place. From some of the fields rose little hills, like the Green Hill in miniature, some the size of giant tortoises, some as big as cars, some oblong, as large as a bus. Meg pointed them out to Dickie.
"They're tumuluses, I think. Tumuli? I'll have to ask the Wyrm." That learned but forgetful beast had fallen asleep in the sun-warmed carp pond back at the Rookery. "Graves, in any case, or barrows, as they call them here. They could be from the Neolithic. That's the Stone Age," he added, seeing that she didn't know but wouldn't ask. "They were probably a lot bigger, but have been worn down."
"You mean there are ... bodies ... under all of those mounds?" Fairies were ceasing to scare her, but she shivered at the thought of ghosts.
Lysander, overhearing, said, "Don't be silly, girl. There are bodies all around us." Meg looked, half expecting to see a field of corpses. "People have been treading this earth, and falling on it, for centuries ... millennia! Our tiny lives are but an ant's step along the long road of human history. Every man who has ever lived in this green and pleasant land, save those alive now, is dead and buried. Only think how they outnumber us! Makes our troubles seem wee, doesn't it?"
"I don't like to think about it," Meg said in a little voice.
"Lysander, leave her alone," Phyllida chided.
The sun was as warm as ever on Meg's shoulders, but beneath it blew the first breeze of impending evening, and Meg felt suddenly chilled. She made herself look at the barrows again, trying to dispel the feeling of doom. You're just being silly, she told herself. Dead people ... ghosts ... bosh! There, that's just a hill with sheep-cropped stubble on it, nothing more.
Excerpted from Guardian of the Green Hill by Laura L. Sullivan. Copyright © 2011 Laura L. Sullivan. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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