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From Freda Warrington comes Midsummer Night, a sensuous, suspenseful modern fantasy of love, betrayal, and redemption.
Decades ago, in a place where the veil between our world and the world of the Aetherials—the fair folk—is too easily breached, three young people tricked their uncle by dressing as the fey. But their joke took a deadly turn when true Aetherials crossed into our world, took one of the pranksters, and literally scared ...
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From Freda Warrington comes Midsummer Night, a sensuous, suspenseful modern fantasy of love, betrayal, and redemption.
Decades ago, in a place where the veil between our world and the world of the Aetherials—the fair folk—is too easily breached, three young people tricked their uncle by dressing as the fey. But their joke took a deadly turn when true Aetherials crossed into our world, took one of the pranksters, and literally scared their uncle to death.
Many years later, at the place of this capture lies a vast country estate that holds a renowned art facility owned by a visionary sculptor. One day, during a violent storm, a young woman studying art at the estate stumbles upon a portal to the Otherworld. A handsome young man comes through the portal and seeks shelter with her. Though he can tell her nothing of his past, his innocence and charm capture her heart. But he becomes the focus of increasingly violent arguments among the residents of the estate. Is he as innocent as he seems? Or is he hiding his true identity so that he can seek some terrible vengeance, bringing death and heartbreak to this place that stands between two worlds? Who is this young man?
The forces of magic and the power of love contend for the soul of this man, in this magical romantic story of loss and redemption.
Praise for Elfland:
“Prolific British author Warrington, mostly unknown in the US, puts a distinctive spin on human/nonhuman relations in this sensuous, relationship-driven story…. Solid wordplay, great pacing, and a thrilling conclusion will definitely earn Warrington some new American fans.”
“This is the kind of big, sweeping modern faerie tale that you don’t see often on the adult shelves anymore. Elfland is complex, rich, sensual, beautifully written, and sometimes heartbreaking.”
“Even the most jaded fantasy reader will quickly fall under the spell of her characters and the warm, intimate voice Warrington uses to tell us their stories. Highly recommended.”
—Charles de Lint, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Arrival. Stumbling out of a taxi, catching her balance on her painful leg, looking up at a gatehouse: a neat structure of mushroom stone with pointed gables and black window frames. A long driveway curved away beyond wrought-iron gates, but Gill could see nothing of the great house itself, only a wisp of smoke drifting up behind a green haze of conifers. The estate was fringed by woodland and softened by drizzle misting from a bleak grey sky. Inland stood the sweeping shapes of mountains, all in slate hues in the chilly gloom of the day. She could smell the sea. It was May, but felt like winter. The highland landscape looked barren, wild, hostile; nothing had prepared her for the physical rawness of it.
Gill wondered what she was doing here.
“Rotten weather for you, miss,” said the taxi driver, a Sikh with a broad Glaswegian accent. He dumped her case beside her. “Sure you don’t want me to take you up to the house?”
“No, it’s fine,” she said, startled out of her blank moment. “They said I’d be met at the gatehouse.”
She paid her fare. It was a sum that might have made the locals blanch, but she was used to London prices and thought nothing of it. As she fumbled in her purse, a small shock whipped across her stomach. Nothing waited for her in London.
With a cheery salute he drove away, leaving Gill alone on the drive. She spotted a distant church spire, but there was no other hint of habitation, only woods, heather and forest, and a silver rim of ocean to her left. That seaweed scent, mixed with the tang of gorse on a sharp breeze, was exhilarating. Several hundred miles from London on the northwest coast of Scotland—and not a soul knew where she’d gone.
I made it, I’ve escaped, she thought. Her hand convulsed on the handle of her case as the wind took her breath away.
The door of the gatehouse opened and a tall, thirtyish man with scruffy blond hair came strolling out to her. He had stubble and ripped jeans, a lazy, confident swagger, and a shrewd, unfriendly gaze. He wasn’t local, she realized as he spoke; his voice had an antipodean twang.
“Hello, there. I hope you’re not from the tax office. No one goes in without an appointment and you lot are really pushing your luck.”
She frowned. “I’ve rented a cottage.”
“Oh yeah? Think you can trick your way in? That’s new.”
“No, really.” She pulled her booking confirmation from the front pocket of her suitcase. “I’m here on holiday. Gill Sharma.”
He glanced at it, gave a quirky, one-sided smile. “Oh. Miss Sharma. Robin Cottage. Right. Sorry, just checking. You look like you’re on a mission, and that case could have been full of documents, you know?” The blue eyes came to life and his voice became friendly and teasing—or was it mocking? Her judgment on such nuances had never been great. Because she’d traveled first-class on the train, she’d dressed appropriately, as if for work; a charcoal-grey suit with pencil skirt, black tights, no-nonsense shoes with a medium heel. Her outdoor jacket was stuffed inside the wheeled case. Her hair was tied back and her narrow, black-framed glasses were businesslike. She felt exhausted and rumpled but, apparently, still looked smart enough to be mistaken for a tax inspector.
“Am I in the right place?”
“You certainly are, Miss Sharma. Hi, I’m Colin, apprentice genius and general dogsbody. You’ve booked Robin Cottage for six weeks. So, no car.”
She shook her head, opening one hand to emphasise the self-evident fact that she was on foot. Colin raised an eyebrow. “Come on, jump on the buggy and I’ll take you over there. Welcome to Cairndonan.”
He let her through a side gate beside the wrought-iron main gates and flung her bag onto a golf cart that was parked just inside. As she climbed up beside him, her hip joint zinged with pain and she gasped. It would sometimes catch her like that, a stab of fire, so sharp that she couldn’t hide her reaction.
“You all right?” Colin asked cheerily.
“Fine,” she said through her teeth. “I’m getting over an accident. It seizes up sometimes.”
“Wow, that’s not good.”
Stiffening her face to a mask of calm, Gill pretended the heavy throb of her leg belonged to someone else. She watched the landscape sliding past; deer grazing the rough parkland, distant hills reaching steep arms towards the sea. She waited for a glimpse of Cairndonan House but it remained hidden behind folds of land and forest.
Colin swung onto an unexpected right fork. The buggy began shuddering its way along a narrow track with a meadow on the right and thickly tangled woodland on the left. Gill swallowed a twinge of unease. “Don’t I need to check in at reception, or something?”
He smirked. “We don’t have anything as grand as reception. Just an office and three slaves; me, Flora and Ned Badger. You can drop into the office later. Get settled in first, eh?”
They were descending a slope, steep enough to make her hang on to her seat. She heard the music of running water. As they passed into the damp shadows of a wood, she saw a stream ahead, running between the rugged sides of a gorge. Trees grew out of the rock itself to form a lacy tunnel above the flow. This was as isolated as she could have dreamed.
“And where’s the office?”
“Up in the big house. There’s a footpath up through the woods, about half a mile. Hope you brought your walking boots.”
“I did,” she said. The smell of the stream reached her, a fresh scent of wet rock and leaf mold. In response to all the damp and cold, her leg began to ache fiercely. ‘Not that walking is my strong point at the moment.”
“So, you’re not booked on the course, then?” he asked.
Puzzled, she hesitated. “No. There’s a course?”
“Oh, yeah.” He inclined his head over his shoulder, as if to indicate the unseen mansion. “Annual art school. Three weeks. Starts today, goes until the fourteenth of June. You know who the owner of Cairndonan Estate is, don’t you?”
Gill felt a twinge of dismay. An art course meant people, when all she wanted was solitude. She should have realized, or at least read the website more carefully. “Dame Juliana Flagg,” she answered quietly. “I didn’t see anything about it when I made the booking.”
“Well, you wouldn’t. She doesn’t need to advertise. You know she’s mega-famous, don’t you? She’s a living bloody legend!”
“So I gather, but I’m not really into art.”
“That’s a shame.” He sounded disappointed that she wasn’t more impressed. “That’s a bit like visiting Buckingham Palace and saying you can take or leave the Queen.”
Gill bit her lip, annoyed but forcing herself to smile. “I’m sure Dame Juliana would rather not rent cottages to gawping fans.”
“Fair point,” he said, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. “Have to admit, I’m a fan. I’m her student. I work for her—odd jobs, estate maintenance, studio help—and in return, I get a few precious hours of tuition. That’s the deal.”
“Sounds like a tough apprenticeship.”
“She doesn’t take any prisoners,” said Colin, with a grimace.
“You don’t look like an artist.”
“Well, what’s an artist supposed to look like? I’m a sculptor, big-scale. You need a bit of muscle for that. Never had a chance to go to art school; what you see is raw talent.” He grinned; she rolled her eyes at the way he managed to be self-mocking yet full of himself at the same time. “Bet you can’t guess where I’m from.”
“New Zealand?” she said.
Colin looked impressed. “Spot on. People usually say South Africa, or Australia.”
“And I suppose they ask if you got the muscles from sheep-shearing?”
“Always. That gets a bit old. So what’s your story, then? Up from London, aren’t you? Long journey.”
“Endless,” she sighed. “My story is that I’m knackered, and dying for some peace and quiet.”
“Sure. Don’t mind me, I’m just nosy.” The path meandered downhill until it reached a stone bridge. The golf cart negotiated the span, the torrent swirling over rocks beneath. Turning left, fifty yards along a gravel track that ran along the far bank they came to a tiny cottage. A tall rock face rose behind it, seeming to shelter and cup the building. All over the rocks and around the cottage itself grew gnarled trees, briars and ivy.
Gill took this in only superficially because she saw someone there; a skinny man, wearing faded black trousers and jacket, who seemed to be fixing something on the front door. She tensed. “Who’s that?”
“No worries,” Colin said dismissively. “That’s Ned Badger.”
“What’s he doing?”
“Lord knows. Nothing I couldn’t have done, I’m sure. Here we are, Robin Cottage. Mobile phone reception is poor to nonexistent, by the way.”
As he pulled up, the man turned to them, holding a screwdriver in one hand. He had thick black hair streaked with grey and a pallid, expressionless face. It seemed he’d been attaching a horseshoe to the door; then she realized the horseshoe was actually a door knocker.
“Here’s our guest,” said Colin, helping her down before hefting her case. “Miss Sharma, this is Ned; one or the other of us will come if you have any problems.”
“Problems?” she said stiffly. She wanted them both to go. Colin made her uneasy, and Ned Badger’s Dickensian seediness gave her chills.
“Yeah, with plumbing, electric, anything at all.”
“There will be no problems,” Ned said impassively. “I’ve checked everything and made repairs where needed.”
“Great, well I can take over from here. You want a lift back, mate?”
The friction between the two men was tangible. “No,” said Ned. “I’ll walk.”
“All set, then,” said Colin to Gill. “Here’s the key; if you need another, you can get it from the house.”
“One key is fine,” she said, and then felt a flash of panic. Great, the staff knew she was on her own, and they had other keys. She pushed the fear back into its box.
She willed Colin to leave, but he insisted on letting her in, taking her case upstairs, then striding around jovially showing her light switches, kettle, teabags, all things she could have found without help. “Flora will pop in to vacuum, dust, change bed linen and that. But if you need anything at all, just come up to the house and we’ll help you out, okay? In fact, if you’re lonely, you can come up of an evening for a glass of wine with the students. Dame Juliana won’t mind.”
His easy friendliness was sandpaper on her nerves. She was shooing him out of the cottage now, almost physically pushing him with the front door. Ned Badger had already gone, disturbingly, as if he’d simply melted into the air. “Thanks, Colin, but I wouldn’t want to presume on her hospitality.”
“She can be a diva,” he said confidingly, “but underneath, she’s sound.”
“Just worried about tax inspectors?” she said dryly.
He grimaced. “That was a joke.”
“Oh. Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
“See you tomorrow, then,” Colin said cheerfully, and she closed the door behind him, locked it, rested back against it with a long sigh. Alone at last.
* * *
Robin Cottage was tiny and old-fashioned. There was a small parlor with a flowery sofa, a fireplace fitted with a glass-fronted log-burning stove, a television. At the back was a small, basic kitchen with a back door leading to a yard. There was no garden, just few flagstones, a brick outhouse, and then the sheer wall of rock rising up until it was lost in a cloud of greenery.
The rock barrier gave her a sense of security, and the doors were sturdy, with big solid bolts. Gill stood in the center of the small front room, imagined herself truly safe and hidden within the stone walls. She allowed herself to test her feelings.
Safe. No one knew where she was. No one could torment her anymore.
All that was over now.
She looked out of the front window at a veil of tall ashes, poplars and sycamores on the far bank of the stream. They swayed, the spring green of their leaves vivid against the rainy sky. This moment was all she’d thought of for weeks but she had never considered the reality of how she would get through the minutes of the hours of the days with absolutely nothing to do, no goals, nothing but a receding tunnel of images that she couldn’t escape.
The idea that Ned Badger had been inside, “checking things” just before she arrived, made her feel unaccountably violated. He had a key, he could let himself in any time he liked …
Suddenly she began to quake. The feeling came up from deep inside her, like an earth tremor. She felt no emotion, no fear, no anger, nothing, just a wide-open numb shock that seemed to shake the world.
No sooner here, than she wanted to leave. Really, to fling open the front door and run as fast as her legs could carry her—at that thought, she grinned sourly. And flee to where, exactly? The panic had no possible resolution. It would come with her wherever she went, like a cloud of angry wasps.
From long practise, she ignored the impulse. Instead she climbed the narrow twist of stairs. The first step made her thigh zing with pain, but she kept going. It was going to be even more fun coming down.
There was one bedroom, almost filled by a double bed with a puffy white duvet. An old oak wardrobe and dresser leaned towards each other on uneven floorboards. What must once have been a second bedroom had been converted to a bathroom with a white suite. It was plain but clean, with blue towels and a selection of soaps and shower gels in a flowery china dish. It was all she needed. It was fine.
I’m safe and I’m staying, Gill told herself.
The first thing she unpacked was her toiletries bag, stacking bottles into a mirrored cabinet. As she closed the cabinet door, her reflection slid into view and she grimaced. The tracery of worry lines and the black-framed glasses made her look severe. She didn’t actually need the glasses; they were camouflage she’d worn for work, to affect a demeanor of unapproachable efficiency. They, and the charcoal suit, had been a sort of armor she’d gotten into the habit of wearing, but—strange to realize it—she didn’t need them anymore.
As an office worker, she’d always felt a fraud. Her true self was an athlete—but she wasn’t even that anymore.
With the glasses off, her face looked naked and vulnerable. Her dark brown eyes were haunted, and her skin had more the look of tepid coffee than the dusky glow on which she’d sometimes been complimented. Her complexion came from her Indian father, as did her good bone structure and kohl-lashed dark eyes. Since the accident, though, all she could see was the pale and harassed English half of herself.
Gill pulled the ponytail band out of her hair, letting the blue-black waves slide over her shoulders as she leaned down to turn on the bath taps. Steam rose around her as she discarded her clothes. The body underneath, which once had been honed and athletic, was now merely thin; wasted from long weeks in the hospital, tracked with scars. She tried not to look, tried to ignore the familiar feeling of disappointment.
Suddenly she felt like someone who’d been dropped onto a strange planet, or who’d crawled up a deserted beach with amnesia. The past was a mangled mess that she’d left behind. Present and future were a clean, clear blank.
She ran water into a tooth mug and took her medication; one antidepressant, two painkillers.
* * *
Juliana Flagg released the catches and let the bulky, oblong lid of the kiln rise from the sand bed below. It was a serious piece of equipment, designed to heat a huge slab of glass to the consistency of soft toffee until it slumped over a pre-made form. Residual warmth radiated from the interior. Even in her mid-sixties—my immense age, she thought wryly—she loved the hard physical work of sculpture, the heavy stuff that really made the muscles ache, the furnace heat, the fountains of light from her arc-welding torch or the scream of a chainsaw on seasoned oak.
At this stage, the raw glass looked a mess, like an amorphous mass spewed from a volcano. She rubbed sand away from one rounded edge and saw the greenish translucence beneath, rough and cloudy with bubbles. Promising …
“Hey, don’t even try to take that out on your own, Dame J,” said Colin, slipping in through the big double doors of the foundry. “That’s what I’m here for.”
Ned Badger followed him, a slip of darkness. Their antagonism, their competition for her attention, amused her; but it was their own affair. She let them get on with it.
“I’m not taking it out,” she said crisply. “It’s annealing. Did that woman arrive for Robin Cottage?”
“Yes,” Ned began. His slightly husky local accent was drowned by Colin speaking over him.
“She sure did. I nearly sent her packing. I thought she was from the bloody tax office!”
“Colin, for heaven’s sake. You didn’t say that to her, did you?”
“No, no. Just had to double check before I let her in.”
“Thanks for the loyalty, but I hope you weren’t too rude. You sorted her out, I take it?”
“Yeah, no problems, Dame J, but you know, she got me wondering.”
Juliana didn’t respond, to indicate her lack of interest in gossipy details.
“Mm, almost like she was in disguise, you know? I reckon I know who she is, though.”
“Really,” Ned said under his breath. He frequently managed to dismiss Colin with all the exquisite subtlety of a royal butler; too subtle for Colin to notice, unfortunately. He was too pleased with his own detective work.
“Yeah. She was wearing a seriously sexy pair of glasses, but behind them she was the spitting image of a long-distance runner—remember, that Brit who won silver at the last Commonwealth Games? What was her name?”
“I don’t follow athletics.” Juliana was only half-listening to Colin’s chatter. Her attention was still taken by the raw glass. No two pieces were ever the same. Each had its own personality, its own power. And did this have any merit? It had a one in three chance; it might have the right feel, or it might have a dark, skewed energy, or it might have nothing at all. Once doubt set in about a piece, she was ruthless.
“Gillian Shaw, that’s it. This woman’s name is Gill Sharma. Too close to be coincidence, I reckon.”
Juliana turned her gaze to Colin, silencing with the frigid light of her eyes. “So? Your point is?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged, deflated. “Just be interesting if it was her, that’s all.”
“No, it wouldn’t. It would be an idle scrap of gossip. Cease.”
“Sorry, Dame J.” Colin came to inspect the cooling mass. “Looking good.”
He gave a sort of wink as he said it, so it wasn’t clear whether he meant the glass slab, or her. She ran a sweaty hand over her hair and gave an imperious sniff, dismissing the notion. “No, it isn’t. Destroy it.”
Colin stared at her in despair. “Oh, come on. Not another one.”
Ned, too, gave her a narrow look, but said quietly, “If Dame Juliana is not happy, her judgment is all that matters.”
“It’s not good enough,” she said.
“It looks bloody fine to me.”
A dark impulse seized her, woken by Colin’s witless remarks, by the prospect of eager students thirsty for her wisdom when she hardly trusted her own gifts anymore, by—everything. She grabbed the slab and dragged it to the edge of the bed until it tipped and fell, cracking into three neat pieces on the concrete floor. Colin flailed in a comical panic, jumping back as he failed to stop her. “Christ, Dame J! After all that work!”
She exhaled, gathering herself as the dark mood subsided. Ned Badger watched her with a narrow, calculating gaze; Colin stared, shaking his head. At least he wasn’t afraid to stand up to her. For all his cheek infuriated her at times, she liked him for that.
“You know, Colin,” she said coolly, “until you stop being afraid to scrap any work that isn’t absolutely perfect, you will never be an artist. You will only ever be a technician.”
“That’s below the belt,” he murmured, leaning down to lift the first broken piece. “Maybe you’re the one who needs to loosen up and let a bit of imperfection through.”
He doesn’t understand, she thought grimly.
As Colin carried the pieces away and Ned swept up glass splinters, Juliana walked into the great shadowy space beyond the furnace room, a bigger workroom that contained her unfinished masterwork, Midsummer Night. Shapes loomed in semidarkness, lightly brushed by red furnace-fire. She wondered if she should destroy them, too. These pieces were all part of a large group that had consumed all her energy for fifteen years and still she dared not exhibit, let alone sell the work.
At the heart of the group was a single statue, some seven feet in height. In snow-white marble it portrayed the life-size torso and head of a woodland god, emerging from the twisting grip of a tree trunk. Its title was Winter Came to the Wood; she thought of it simply as Winter. Its face gazed down benignly on her as she raised a hand to trace the marble cheekbone. Strange, the way it had seemed to emerge fully formed from the block, as if she’d not so much created as discovered it. Beautiful young gods were not her normal style.
“When are you going to come to life, Winter, like in the stories?” she said dryly. “If only you could speak, what would you tell me about all this?”
* * *
Gill opened her eyes to a silver dawn. She had survived the night. She felt limp, sweaty, relieved. The pills had knocked her out and she’d woken only once with the nightmare that had haunted her in hospital. That familiar, horrible panic of not knowing where she was, but finding herself aware of a presence waiting in the shadows, breathing, watching her … And the second stage, dreaming she was awake and running through a series of strange rooms, securing dozens of doors and windows but always finding another that was open, or unlocked.
A dart of fear compelled her to get up and reassure herself for real. The floorboards were rough under her bare feet and the cold made her leg ache. Gill pulled on her dressing gown and slippers, carefully eased herself downstairs. There she found the cottage secure, serene, ordinary; no one had broken in. Of course they hadn’t.
There was a term for it. Post-traumatic stress disorder. She knew that, but it made her night terrors no less real. In the kitchen, she boiled the kettle and soothed her dry mouth with tea.
I’m fine. I’m safe, she told herself. Cradling her mug, she looked out of the front window at the swaying trees and the stream, all the soft shades of green and muddy brown. No one can find me and why would they want to? I’m old news. It’s over. Over. Now what the hell am I going to do? Why did I come here? I feel like Alice falling down the rabbit hole. No, I don’t, I’m fine.
Go for a run; that was what she used to do first thing, whether she was in training for a race or not. Knowing she couldn’t partake of that most natural activity was unbearable.
“At least I can still walk,” she said out loud. “Even if it hurts like hell. It could’ve been so much worse.” She had to keep telling herself that. “Food, that’s what I need.” The basics had been left in the kitchen for her, bread, butter and milk, but Gill knew she would need to shop. Finding a local store would give her a something to do. A goal.
A shower, toast and more tea. Feeling calmer, dressed now in jeans, sweatshirt and walking boots, she stepped outside. Late spring was capricious this far north, and the day was cool enough for a mist to have risen from the ground. Gill breathed fresh air that was saturated with damp scents of earth and vegetation, and wondered which way to go. Left would lead to the bridge and the track along which Colin had brought her. So she turned right, hoping to find a path to Cairndonan village.
The issue of keys niggled at her as she walked along the high stream bank, the water below rushing over tilted rock masses on its way to the sea. Her hip caught with every step, making her gasp until she schooled herself to ignore it. The wooded glen around her was beautifully lush and green but eerily deserted. Why had she expected isolation to make her feel safe? Anything could happen here … she pushed the thoughts away.
Farther along, the path turned onto a wooden footbridge across the stream. On the far side it meandered up a wooded slope. Gill followed it, noticing the silence—no, not silence, since the air swelled with birdsong. Lack of traffic noise, that was it; strange and startling after her journey. And the eerie cries of seabirds.
Something came surging through the trees. Shock froze her in an unreal, parallel world for a moment; then she recognized the crashing shadow as a red deer stag, as startled by her as she was by him. He veered and went on his way, leaving her to laugh shakily at her own shredded nerves.
Gill pushed up through the trees for ten minutes until they gave onto a semi-wild garden. Suddenly the house loomed in the cloudy atmosphere. It was a construction of grey stone with pointed gables, the walls softened in places by clouds of roses and vines. Saturated in eighteenth-century wealth and ostentation, Cairndonan House was worthy of being called a mansion. Softened by mist, it appeared to wander indefinitely into the tangled gardens around it.
Feeling self-conscious, Gill followed the path across a lawn and along the front of the house. She walked past bay windows veiling grand, dark rooms, caught glimpses of paintings and statues inside. With a start she realized there were people in there too, who must clearly be able to see her staring in at them.
A woman turned to stare back, her face a small white heart looking out of the shadows. Gill quickly looked away.
The entrance had a broad porch, with a set of wooden double doors standing open and another set of glass-paneled doors inside. So this was it; Cairndonan House, the seat of Dame Juliana Flagg. Gill steeled herself, and went in.
The first thing she saw, on a half-landing at the turn of a double flight of stairs, was a wall entirely filled by a massive stained-glass window. The flood of color arrested her. The image was of a beautiful young man with dark red hair, standing over a fallen figure as if in grief. The young man’s hair hung down in heavy skeins, so textured and detailed it was almost sculptural. There was a quiver of arrows on his shoulder, a bow limp in his hand; so it appeared he had shot his fallen friend, who lay in a pool of ink-black hair and red blood. The colors were mostly ivory, russet and blood red. The scene held her for several seconds before she looked around.
The hallway was otherwise somber, with dark paneling and a black and white chequered marble floor. There were various doors, and a couple of corridors leading off the rear of the hallway. She heard soft voices, but no one came out to her.
She took the nearest passageway, which ran past a couple of bright, empty art studios, until she found herself at the rear of the house, looking through a glass door into an enormous conservatory. She’d read a little about Cairndonan Estate and realized that this was the famed Camellia House, built in seventeen-something to house exotic plant species from all over the world.
Amid ferns and palms, she saw a dozen students of various ages, sketching at easels. They all looked rapt, busy and contented, except for one pair of women who were deep in conversation beside an easel. Gill chewed her lip, feeling strange. Almost envious. How would it feel to be part of such a group, to want to be part of it?
She saw from the easels nearest to her that they were sketching a nude male. Her eye was drawn to the center, to a naked young man lying on a couch, languishing on a carefully rumpled white sheet. He was facing towards her. Suddenly he caught her eye and in the same moment she realized it was Colin. He grinned, entirely unembarrassed. She dropped her gaze, not before she’d seen far too much and noticed that he was quite hairy, arms and legs fuzzed with pale ginger-blond hairs.
“Can I help you?” said a voice behind her.
Her heart nearly stopped. She turned to see a short, upright, fiftyish woman, with tawny hair swept up on her head in a lacquered wedge shape. She wore a grey suit with a knee-length skirt and fitted jacket, making her look not unlike a small sergeant major in dress uniform.
“I was looking for the office. I’m staying in Robin Cottage.”
“You’ve overshot the office by miles. I’m Flora, Dame Juliana’s assistant.” The woman gave a tight smile and firmly shepherded her along the corridor back to the entrance hall. Her Scottish accent was soft and precise. “How can I help you? Is everything all right?”
“It’s fine.” Gill smiled, finding that she still remembered how to be friendly and civil. “Only I wondered how many keys there are.”
“I can let you have a spare,” Flora said grudgingly.
Gill nodded and smiled even more. “Thank you, but I’d like them all, if you don’t mind.”
Flora drew back her head until her small chin almost vanished into her neck. Her features were delicate, rosy-pale; a once-pretty face made severe by stress lines. “What for? I don’t think I can lay hands on them all. How are we going to get in?”
“What do you want to get in for?” Gill gasped.
Flora looked puzzled. “Housekeeping, of course. It will be either me or Ned.”
“No. There’s no need. I’ll clean it myself. I thought self-catering meant exactly that! I’d rather not have people able to come freely in and out while I’m staying there.”
“But we’re providing your clean towels and linen, and what about maintenance, or even emergencies?” The more Flora huffed and argued, the more murderous Gill began to feel behind her cheerful mask.
Behind them, there were voices and footsteps in the passage and two sixtyish women appeared in full sail, their argument immediately drowning Gill’s exchange with Flora. If Gill had already claimed her keys, she would have seized the chance to sneak out. As it was, she refused to leave empty-handed and so she stood her ground, while Flora hovered, tight-lipped.
“Did you read the curriculum?” one woman was saying. “Or did you stick a pin in a list of activity holidays?” The one who spoke, the taller of the two, was slim and elegant in a dark blue kaftan. She had a long, full silvery mane of hair, and she simply commanded the attention, as if surrounded by a glowing pool of light, like an actress on a red carpet. Like a goddess.
There she is, thought Gill. Dame Juliana Flagg.
The victim of Dame Juliana’s sarcasm was of similar age but rather less stylish, enveloped in hippie-ish blue and white cottons, her grey hair short and messy. “Of course I read it,” she said indignantly.
Juliana’s tone was calm but unbending. “Then you should have understood that this is not a course for beginners. I have postgraduate students and professional artists, stretching their skills. Also dedicated amateurs, yes, but ones who’ve been studying with me for years. Not those who barely know which way up to hold a sketching pencil.”
The woman trembled, her face reddening and eyes flooding. Gill felt a pang of sympathy. “I’m not a beginner! I’ve been drawing and painting all my life!”
“I’m sure you have, but many people plug away at things for which they have no natural aptitude. A nice watercolor course in the Lake District would have suited you. And I’m not here to indulge people whose ambitions are far in advance of their talent. Look, I’ll ask Peta to take you in her class instead.”
“I paid good money to be taught by the master!” the woman exploded. “Not by her—monkey!”
“You’ve paid good money. Exactly,” Juliana said icily. “The reason my course is so expensive is that it is a master class. Since you’ve come all this way, Peta will help you with the basics, I’m sure. However, if you stayed with me, you’d be far out of your depth, wasting both my time and your own.”
“You’re wrong, Dame Juliana. This isn’t fair. I’ve done nothing to deserve this—humiliation. I will not be demoted to another class!”
“Fine,” Juliana snapped. “Pack your bags. Flora will issue a full refund and call a taxi for you.”
The rejected student jerked as if she’d hit a wall. She stood quivering, red-faced. “You are my idol, Dame Juliana. I have saved and saved for this chance to study with you. Now you stand there and say I’m not up to it? Well—well—fuck you!” she finished, and came barging past Gill, almost knocking her over in a flurry of fabric as she stormed up the stairs.
“Oh dear,” said Juliana in a small voice. Shaking her head, she turned to Flora and Gill with an expression of wry regret. In the photographs Gill had seen she always looked stern; in the flesh she had a radiance that the camera didn’t capture, a hint of humor in the lines around her eyes. “I take it you heard that?” Flora nodded. “Give her the refund if she wants it, but offer her a cup of tea first; I expect she’ll calm down within the hour.”
“I’ll do whatever’s necessary, Dame J.”
“Thanks,” Juliana sighed. “These self-deluded people! I have to take new students on trust and there’s always one … And who have we here? Is this Miss Sharma?”
“It is,” answered Flora, with a warm deference she hadn’t shown Gill. “I was just explaining, with regard to Robin Cottage, that we can’t give her all the keys because of housekeeping …”
Flora continued explaining until Juliana cut her off with a tired wave of her hand. “Oh, if she wants the keys, just give them to her. Are you a half-decent artist?” she flung at Gill. “An unexpected vacancy has just occurred.”
“Er, no. Thank you.” Gill grinned to show she knew it was a joke, albeit a dark one. “I’m just here for a rest, not for public humiliation.”
“Don’t worry, you only get the public humiliation if you’ve paid for it,” Juliana said in a dry tone. “Good, well, enjoy your stay.” And she swept back the way she’d come.
Flora stepped into her office for a moment, returned and pressed four keys into Gill’s palm with disapproving emphasis. “When you want fresh linen and toiletries, you’ll have to collect them yourself,” she said briskly.
“That’s fine. No one needs to come to the cottage. Not Colin, and not Mr. Badger.”
“If that’s what you wish.”
“I do.” Gill felt a wave of relief, followed instantly by gnawing doubt. “Are you sure these are all the keys?”
“Yes,” Flora hissed over her shoulder. “If I find any more, I’ll be sure to let you know.”
Gill headed for the doors and pushed into the fresh air, feeling riled by the exchange and by her own paranoia. Immediately she heard the doors open again behind her and felt a trace of panicky annoyance at being followed.
“Hello?” called a female voice behind her. “Were you looking for me?”
It was the woman with the pale, heart-shaped face she’d glimpsed through the bay windows. Slender and bohemian in dark red and purple, she couldn’t be anything but an artist.
“Why would I be looking for you?”
“I’m waiting for my last couple of students. I’m Peta Lyon.”
“I’m not here for art classes,” said Gill, again trying to sound more friendly than she felt. “Perhaps you ought to be chasing after that poor woman who was in a flood of tears just now.”
“Oh dear.” Peta winced. “You heard that? Juliana speaks her mind, I’m afraid.”
“Obviously. I’m glad it’s nothing to do with me.”
“Are you okay?” asked Peta, showing concern that Gill did not want. “You seem a bit wound up.”
“No, it just seems rather a lunatic asylum here.” Gill’s smile thinned. “I’ll be fine, once I locate the ‘peace and quiet of the idyllic coastal setting’ I was hoping for.” With that she walked away, severing the insistent tug of the woman’s attention. Her retreat was spoiled by the fact that even a fairly short walk had made her thigh seize up, so it was impossible to walk without an obvious limp. As she crossed the lawns and dived into the cover of trees, she sensed Peta’s gaze on her back.
By the time she reached the door of Robin Cottage, the pain was like a spear driven through her hip. Gill staggered into the kitchen, swallowed pills, then collapsed on the sofa to gasp and swear until the fiery ache subsided.
Were these really all the keys?
“Stop it, you idiot!” she told herself. It took nothing, these days, to leave her shaking with anger, the fight-or-flight impulse. What had made her think she could escape from herself, just by getting on a train to Scotland? And why on earth had she chosen to come here, of all places? What was supposed to happen if Dame Juliana had recognized her?
“But she didn’t,” Gill murmured. “Juliana Flagg does not recognize me.”
Copyright © 2010 by Freda Warrington
Posted September 26, 2010
Just after WW II in the Scottish Highlands, three youths dress up as fey to pull a practical joke on their uncle. However, none of the four blood relatives were ready for the Aetherials to cross over from the Spiral to Cairndonan. The Aetherials snatch one of the youngsters before returning to the Spiral as the uncle drops dead.
Decades have passed since the horrid incident, but time has turned it more into a family myth. Currently, internationally renowned sculptor Dame Juliana Flagg resides at run down Cairndonan, though she cannot afford the upkeep financially but cannot afford to sell emotionally. Now Gill Sharma arrives on holiday to be unwelcomed by Colin the dogsbody apprentice. Soon Dame J and the newcomer will learn first hand of the legend of Dunkelman as the truth without omission will not set the artist or the guest free.
The sequel to Elfland is so much darker as the readers enter the eerie Spiral of the Aetherials and the even stranger Vaethyr magical essences who have a wing (some would say horn) in Spiral and a wing in Earth. Dame J is a fascinating protagonist who cannot leave Cairndonan as if she is mystically tied to her family estate. Haunting, Freda Warrington provides a scary Midsummer Night Nightmare horror thriller as the Aetherial horde play with mankind.
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Posted March 5, 2014
Stepped in quietly, hoping o not wake anyone. She stepped over a tail and pelted to her nest. Her eyes gleamed as she settled into the worn twigs and moss. She rested her chin on her paws, closing her eyes. Gtgtbbbtas!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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