The Wild Swans

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Overview

A uniquely evocative novel of two eras, two outcasts, two journeys...

FROM THE OLD WORLD

England, 1689: Banished from her father's house, Lady Eliza Grey's one wish is to find her long-lost brothers. She does, only to discover them enslaved by a strange and terrible magic. Now, caught in a fairy tale turned real, she vows to break the spell and free those she loves — even though her loyalty may cost Eliza her life...

TO A NEW WORLD

New York, 1981: Banished from his father's house, Elias Latham's one wish is to find acceptance. He does, only to discover his new family and friends falling prey to a dreadful and mysterious plague. Now, caught in a nightmare turned real, Elias vows to stand beside those he loves — even though his faithfulness may cost him his life...

Two struggles. Two curses. Two tales. One truth.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Parallel tales of love and persecution give this multilayered fantasy added poignancy, although not the cohesion of a tightly plotted novel. One story strand, set in 1689, relates the labors of Eliza Grey, disowned daughter of the Earl of Exeter, to save her 11 brothers from a curse that transforms them into a flock of wild swans every dawn to dusk. Following their magical flight to the New World, Eliza, obeying the instructions of a fairy, applies herself to weaving enchanted shirts that will break the spell, and maintains the stoic vow of absolute silence imposed upon her by the fairy for the task's duration, even when her misunderstanding husband and their Salem-like village accuse her of witchcraft. Kerr (Emerald House Rising) alternates chapters from this tender fairy tale with episodes from the life of Elias Latham, a young gay man living in New York in the 1980s. Disowned by his family, he is saved from hustling on the city streets by Sean Donnelly, a gentle musician and writer who encourages Elias's talents as a photographer, introduces him to Manhattan's gay subculture and eventually becomes his lover. Elias reciprocates by helping Sean achieve reconciliation with his own estranged family when the pair are stricken with AIDS. Despite subtle correspondences between the two stories--including shared names, common images and mutual reflections on sibling and parental relationships--there is not enough synergy to fuse their themes or distinguish either as more than a simple parable. Nevertheless, Kerr's characters are sensitively rendered, and their plights make for a moving meditation on the ties that bind individuals to family and community. (May)
VOYA - John Charles
Two people living in different eras face prejudice and hatred while finding love and acceptance. The two plots are set in alternating chapters, gradually coming together in the novel's powerful conclusion. The first story is that of Eliza Grey, who in 1689 England discovers her long-lost brothers have been turned into swans by their evil stepmother. Eliza and her brothers escape to New England where Eliza tries to break the spell without jeopardizing the love of her new husband. In the second story, Elias Latham is a recent high school graduate thrown out of his house when he tells his parents he is gay. Trying to stay alive on the streets of New York City in the early 1980s, Elias finds love when Sean Donnelly, a musician, opens his home to Elias--but their happiness is brief once Sean discovers he has AIDS. Kerr's first book was the marvelous, clever fantasy Emerald House Rising (Warner, 1997/VOYA August 1997). In The Wild Swans, Kerr moves beyond the more traditional genre framework of that book into something a bit different, an ambitious blend of literary fiction and historical fantasy with fairy tale overtones. Kerr has a rare gift for honest storytelling and does not shy away from some of the grittier aspects of Elias's story. The despair and degradation of life on the streets is reflected in Elias's futile attempts to earn money by hustling strangers. The open attitude Sean has toward casual sexual encounters in bathhouses threatens his relationship with Elias. This beautifully-written, magical book is perfect for sophisticated teens who have enjoyed The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror short story collections or retold fairy tale anthologies such as Black Thorn, White Rose (Avon, 1994/VOYA April 1995). VOYA Codes: 5Q 2P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being any better written; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12; Adult and Young Adult).
Library Journal
Fantasy writer Kerr's Emerald House Rising, Warner, 1997 second novel is a complex retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. Kerr weaves together the parallel stories of two teenagers from different eras, 20th-century Elias and 17th-century Eliza. As the book alternates between their stories, both are rejected by their families, both persecuted for a difference they cannot help--and both learn the importance of love and loyalty. The acceptance and friendship Elias finds within the early 1980s gay community eventually enable him to accept himself, while Eliza's perseverance in her silence and toil--even when she is sentenced to burn at the stake for witchcraft--enables her to reverse the spell set on her 11 brothers by her evil stepmother. The book should appeal to fans of authors such as Mercedes Lackey. Recommended for public libraries.--Rachel Singer, Franklin Park P.L., IL
David Soyka
This is a wonderful book. Trust me.
SF Site
Locus
...[An] ambitious fantasy....[The book delivers] a vital message about love, tolerance, and understanding.
Kirkus Reviews
A schizophrenic yarn: partly a reworked fairy tale set in 1689, the remainder a story of a young gay man's encounter with AIDS in 1981. In 1689, young Lady Eliza, daughter of the Earl of Exeter, is cheated of her birthright by her stepmother, an evil witch who has also transformed poor Eliza's brothers into swans. The brothers decide to fly to America, carrying Eliza in a net slung beneath them. Reaching their destination, Eliza dreams about how she can free the swans from the spell: she must weave coats for each of them, from stinging nettles, using only her bare hands, and she must not speak until the task is complete. Though she marries a well-meaning magistrate, Jonathan Latham, Eliza cannot explain her task, and eventually she's accused of witchcraft and condemned to be hanged. In alternating chapters, young Elias Latham—Eliza's descendant—thrown out of the family home because he's gay, survives wretchedly in New York until he's befriended by journalist/musician Sean Donnelly. Sean, also gay, introduces Elias to the gay community. The two become partners, even though Elias doesn't understand Sean's need to participate in orgies with total strangers. Eventually, though, friends fall ill one by one, and the threat of AIDS looms ever larger. Sean develops symptoms and, with bitter regret, realizes he's infected Elias, too. Both stories are effectively handled and heartfelt, but between them no sparks fly: Kerr (the paperback Emerald House Rising) is trying to promote parallels and resonances where none are apparent. .
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780446673662
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Read an Excerpt



Chapter One


Although I am a Country Lasse,
a lofty mind I beare a,
I think myself as good as those
That gay aparell weare a,
My coate is made of comely Gray,
Yet is my skin as soft a,
As those that with the chiefest Wines
do bathe their bodies oft a.


—17TH CENTURY BALLAD

On a certain clear May morning in 1689, in the first year of the reign of King William III and Queen Mary II, Eliza walked barefoot along a country lane in Somerset, carrying a basket heaped with freshly dug roots of the little flower the French call dent-de-lion. The basket weighed heavily on her arm, and she shifted it from one side to the other as she picked her way around patches of mud and puddles left from the previous night's rain. All around her, the newly baptized morning gleamed. Water droplets, transformed by sunlight into iridescent pearls, clung to the slender stems of violets and cowslips lining the pathway. In the fields ewes called to their lambs, and the sound mingled with the shrill squabbles of sparrows in the hedgerows. The air, sweet with the scent of wet meadow grasses, barely rippled the surface of the water pooling in the lane. Eliza sometimes lifted her gaze from the images of birds flying in a cerulean sky reflected beneath her feet, to watch the real birds passing overhead.

She was tall for a girl of fifteen and slender as a young linden tree. Her reddish blond hair hung halfway to her waist, tightened by the spring dampness into a mist of undisciplined tendrils. They lifted from her shoulders with a feathery lightness as her steps quickened to climb the hill. At thetop, she turned down a track passing through a gap in a stone fence, leading away from the lane. She shifted her basket again as she rounded a copse of budding apple trees—and then stopped dead in her tracks in surprise at her first clear sight of the cottage beyond.

A carriage stood, incongruously, in the clearing in front of the kitchen garden. Chickens warily stalked around its wheels, suspicious of this strange addition to their territory. Besides the four horses hitched to the carriage itself, a saddle horse tied to one side stood browsing through the garden's herb border; it raised its head, ears pricked forward, and snorted at her.

Cautiously, Eliza took a few steps forward and opened her mouth to call. The words died upon her lips, however, as her eyes suddenly fell upon the coat of arms emblazoned on the carriage's door. The blood drained from her cheeks at the shock, and she dropped her basket, scattering dandelion roots in the grass underfoot. Her hands flew to the neck of her dress, and she drew forth a narrow black ribbon tied around her throat. A small gold locket strung on the ribbon fell into her muddy palm, glinting in the sun.

She did not need to look at it to know: the coat of arms on the locket was the same, and that realization brought with it a heady mixture of astonishment, excitement, and fear. She stood a moment cupping the locket in her hand, until she had composed herself again, and finally let out a long, tremulous breath. "Well, then." Her fingers closed tightly over the trinket, and then she tucked it back into her dress.

Kneeling, she methodically gathered the roots back into the basket, her face serious and set. At the well, she drew up a dripping bucket of water and washed her hands carefully. Scrubbing away the last traces of the mud from her morning's work helped calm her nerves. Then she picked up the basket again and went to the door of the cottage. Steeling herself, she firmly lifted the latch and went inside.

Long ago, the cottage had been divided into two main rooms, with two fireplaces, one in each room, joined by a central chimney. The room she entered, the parlor, faced the front, and the other room, called the hall, where the cooking was done, overlooked the garden in the back. The open parlor shutters let in angled patches of sunlight that brightened the whitewashed plaster walls. Spring air wafted in with her through the doorway, mingling with the smell of fresh-baked bread from the hall and muting the faint undertang of damp wool, wood smoke, and lavender. A man and a woman, seated on three-legged stools squeezed between the loom and the bed, rose hastily at Eliza's entrance. A somewhat older man leaning against the wall drew in a sharp breath at the sight of her and straightened up more slowly. The four stood frozen in a tableau for a breathless space, and then Eliza stepped away from the threshold and closed the door. "Do you seek me?" she said politely, setting her basket down.

"My dearest Lady Eliza," the woman said impressively, stepping forward. She had a stout figure, laced so tightly into her fine dress of blue sarcenet that her color looked alarmingly high, despite a generous dusting of powder. With the prétintailles appliqués trimming her gown, the profusion of curls dressed with a scarf of striped Siamese stuff, ô la Sultana, and the beauty spot patches applied to her forehead and cheeks, she looked the very figure of current French fashion; a more fantastic figure in an English country cottage could scarcely be imagined. She smiled with benevolent brilliance and took Eliza's hands. "My name is Mrs. Warren, and I serve as a companion to Lady James Grey, Countess of Exeter. These are my escorts, Robert Owen," she gestured toward the older man who had been leaning against the wall when Eliza came in, "and Edward Conway. We have been sent by your mother to bring you home."

"My mother is dead." Eliza gently withdrew her hands from the other's grasp. "This is my foster mother's home. Do you mean my father's wife?"

Mrs. Warren's smile slipped a little. She took a deep breath—or as deep as her stays would allow—and tried again. "Indeed, she is your father's wife, but that is hardly the term to use. In law, she is your mother."

She spoke evenly enough, but Eliza flushed at the suggestion of coldness that had crept into her voice. Painfully conscious that she had made a mistake, she stammered, "Forgive me, madam—I beg your pardon. I truly meant no offense."

"None is taken, my lady," replied Mrs. Warren, thawing once more.

"And," Eliza said, her heart beating quickly with shy eagerness, "my father wishes to see me, as well as my mother-in-law?"

"Aye," said another voice tightly at the doorway leading to the hall. It was Nell Barton, Eliza's foster mother, wiping red-rimmed eyes with an apron as she came into the room. "He finally calls thee to his side—like a poacher who starves and beats a faithful dog, yet still expects it to whistle to heel at his pleasure."

Mrs. Warren shot her a venomous look. "How durst you speak so of the Earl?"

"Prithee, how durst he use his own daughter so? Left her with me for ten years, for ten years an' it please you! With nary a visit, nary a letter to the poor girl!" Nell's gaze met Eliza's, lips trembling as her tears spilled over again. She turned scarlet, sensing she was making herself ridiculous, but despite Eliza's pleading eyes, the words kept tumbling out. "Well, I did my best, but how could I teach an earl's daughter to be a fine lady? An excellent, proper father, leaving her with the likes of me!"

Mrs. Warren opened her mouth to object, but Nell hurried on, "And yet never a moment's trouble did she give me, for she's as good-hearted, as fine a lass as . . . as . . ." Nell burst into sobs in earnest, throwing her apron over her face. "Little he knew or cared! But now, 'tis enough with poor Nell Barton, and 'tis time for the girl to come home. Home! And where does the Earl think his daughter has been these last ten years?"

She sank onto a stool, overcome and acutely humiliated at having become unwoven before these fine people. And then she heard a footstep beside her, and a familiar voice saying softly into her ear, "Hush, Mother Nell . . . " and she leaned gratefully against Eliza's waist as the girl wound her arms comfortingly around her shoulders.

"Have you done yet?" said Mrs. Warren coldly.

"Mrs. Barton," Robert Owen interposed, directing a quelling glance at Mrs. Warren, "'tis true, our coming here must be a shock. We are sorry you did not receive warning of our arrival. Belike you and the child would wish a quarter hour together alone before we go?"

"A quarter hour?" Eliza said in bewilderment. "Am I to leave so soon, then?" No one answered her. Mrs. Warren avoided her eyes, contenting herself instead with glaring at Nell. The young man, Edward Conway, looked at the floor. Robert Owen alone met her gaze, his expression softened by pity.

Numbly, Eliza looked about the small, crowded room. The familiar objects all around her stood out in a strange, sharp relief, as though to engrave themselves on her memory for one last private instant before vanishing forever. There was the loom her foster father, Tom Barton, had used, still set up with a length of half-woven perpetuana, untouched since Tom had left three years before. In the sudden silence, Eliza fancied she could almost hear the thump and clatter of the wooden shuttle, and Tom's merry whistle. There was the bed with the counterpane Nell had embroidered before her wedding, and there, Eliza's own first sampler, mounted upon the wall. Out the window she could see a delicate mist of new lettuce and herbs unfurling in the garden, and the first tendrils of beans just beginning to wind up the poles. She had spent countless mornings working there, hoeing and weeding, savoring the feeling of the damp earth crumbling between her toes. They had planted a cherry tree that spring; she would never taste its fruit now.

With an effort, she spoke. "I . . . I must fetch my tippet. And my other clothes—"

"You needn't trouble to pack much, my lady," said Mrs. Warren. "We will see to't you are more . . . suitably garbed ere you meet his lordship."

Nell stiffened, and Eliza saw and understood her indignation. She felt an answering flicker of fury begin to rise. "I needs must be alone with Nell to say my farewell," she said coldly. "And I will meet my father wearing my own clothes. He provided them, did he not? Surely he thought them suitable."

Robert Owen's eyes crinkled in amusement, and then his face became carefully bland again. He gave her a half bow. "We will leave you for a space, my lady. Mrs. Warren, Edward, would it please you to walk with me in the orchard?"

He shepherded them from their seats, soothing Mrs. Warren's gobbled protests and throwing an enigmatic look over his shoulder at Eliza as he led them out.

"I didn't know where thou had gone," Nell said. "When they came . . . and said thou must leave . . ." She pressed a hand to her mouth.

"I am very sorry. I . . . went for a walk." She had been out in the yard shortly after dawn, feeding the chickens, when a flock of wild swans had flown overhead through the dwindling morning mist, wheeling over the yard twice before flying away to the west. The sight had taken her breath away, and without understanding the impulse, she had left her chores to follow the path of the birds, until they had faded to distant specks in the brightening sky. She had felt a pang of guilt when she turned for home. Nell fretted whenever she roamed very far in neighboring fields and woods, worrying that without one of her friends from the village to accompany her, Eliza might be molested by a passing stranger. Neighbors might spread rumors, too, if they misconstrued herb-gathering expeditions as dabblings in witchcraft. "I . . . I found a goodly harvest of lion's tooth root on my way home, at least," Eliza continued at random, wanting to fill the sudden silence. "It should be enough to dye thy new petticoat."

But Nell's mind was not on Eliza's rambles now. "He did not provide the clothes, Eliza," she said dully.

"What, Mother Nell?"

"Thy father. Tom and I meant never to tell thee. Faith, I thought . . . But now thou must know, if thou art to return to them!"

"Know what?" Eliza asked, her brow wrinkling in confusion as she knelt at Nell's feet.

Her foster mother took her hand. "Thy father," she said slowly, "has not sent us aught for thy maintenance since two years after thou came to us—since thy seventh year."

Eliza gasped. "For . . . for eight years? Eight years?" Letting go of Nell's hand, she rocked back and gaped in consternation at the older woman.

Mutely, Nell nodded.

"But I . . . I am a fosterling!" Eliza stammered. "'Twas his responsibility . . . he . . . Surely he—"

"Nay, child. Not one farthing."

Eight years! Eliza realized, quailing at the thought, what a terrible struggle it must have been when the money stopped coming. And yet her foster parents had continued caring for her, feeding her, clothing her, never even hinting the slightest thing was wrong.

Tom Barton had joined the Duke of Monmouth's rebellion against King James II four years before, only to see the hopes of reestablishing a Protestant upon the throne die in the bloody quagmire at Sedgemoor. They had waited many anxious days during the Bloody Assizes, fearing he would be executed, but instead, along with many others, he had been banished to the West Indies. Eliza had supposed the money her father sent was what had been supporting Nell since, and had comforted herself with that thought. But if he had truly sent nothing . . . if Nell, bereft of her husband and left with so pitifully little, had continued to faithfully provide for her . . . "Then it is to thy charity I have been beholden all these years?" she exclaimed.

All her anger and pain was for Nell, not herself, but Nell, misunderstanding, seized her hand again, saying fiercely, "Nay, child, do not speak so! Do not think 'twas cold charity only, but—"

"I don't understand, Mother," Eliza interrupted. "Why didst thou and Tom not write to my father and demand what was due thee?"

"Because we came to love thee, child," Nell said, tears trickling down her cheeks. The wet tracks glistened, reflecting light from the window as she bowed her head. "I have borne six wee babes, and God took them all from Tom and me. Would the Earl have taken thee from us, too, if we dared complain?" Her voice broke. "I could not have borne it, Eliza. I vow I could not."

"Oh, Mother—" Eliza leaned forward to press her hand to Nell's cheek.

"Hist, child, we have precious little time." She laid her fingers over Eliza's lips and sighed. "I remember when the Earl first sent thee to us, thou wert grieving so for thy mama. It made my heart ache to see thy hurt; thou would cry thyself to sleep every night, but so quietly! Dost thou remember?"

Yes, Eliza remembered, or at least partly. Her mother had died when Eliza was only four, and the image of her face was elusive, surfacing occasionally in dreams, like a leaf skittering over the face of a stream only to sink again. Eliza could conjure up bits and pieces: a dim echo of a voice singing in the garden, an impression of graceful movement as a hand reached to snip an embroidery thread, the curve of a smile directed at her father—but not a whole picture.

And yet if the memory of what she had lost had faded, somehow the pain of losing it had not. It had taken many months for Tom's warmth and Nell's patient kindness to melt her wall of reserve.

Nell pushed back a tendril of Eliza's hair. "Think now, and tell me, child, for 'tis important. What dost thou remember of thy mother-in-law?"

Eliza sighed. "We children met her for the first time the day she married Father. He introduced us and said she would be our new mama. We wished to please her, to make Father happy, but . . ." Her words trailed off, and she shivered, seeing again the strange lady at their father's side, with two chilly fingers extended for each to grasp in turn. The boys had all seemed so stiff and awkward and solemn as they made their bows. As Eliza bobbed to her shyly, the new Countess lifted an eyebrow and murmured in a low voice, "Prithee, is that your best curtsey?" before turning away.

"I cannot help but pity the lady, I think," observed Nell dryly, "marrying a man with twelve children."

Eliza shook her head. "I do not think she liked us, from the very beginning."

"Dost thou think so? Perhaps she was shy?"

"Perhaps. And yet . . ."

"Well?"

"My brothers and I were not permitted to attend the marriage feast. She gave us cups filled with sand and told us we must pretend instead."

"How strange!"

"'Twas not a month later I was sent here. I sometimes thought, if I could have but stayed with my brothers . . ." Her words trailed off. "But then I would not have met thee."

Nell patted her hand. "We had best begin packing thy things." Stiffly, she got up and went to fetch clothes from the press in the corner.

Eliza went to get her cloak, hanging on a peg by the door. "Mother Nell," she said hesitantly, "why have I never heard from my father and brothers?"

Nell studied her face with a troubled expression. She knew that Eliza had wondered at her family's silence, just as she had, and grieved at it, too. Eventually, Eliza had come to accept her new home, and even thrive in it, for although naturally quiet, she had an open and affectionate heart. Yet Nell had long suspected that the roots had not gone down quite as deep as they might have. Eliza had many friends in the village, but she had always gently discouraged any warmer admiration from various local lads. For years a strange reticence had kept them from ever speaking of it aloud—until now.

There had been rumors, strange dark tales told of the Countess of Exeter, even whisperings that hinted at sorcery. Nell had shielded her foster daughter from the stories and taken care not to repeat them, and she was not eager to fill her ear with them now. And yet, she wondered: if the girl was to return to Kellbrooke Hall, should she not be given warning? "About thy father, I don't know; thou wilt have to ask him. As to thy brothers—I'm not sure, but I believe they may no longer be at Kellbrooke Hall."

"Truly?" Eliza looked thoughtful, and then brightened. "Perhaps they have been fostered out, too? Or they have been at school? And if Father is calling me home, perhaps he is calling us all home?"

"Perhaps," said Nell cautiously, smoothing wrinkles out of a kersey petticoat. Privately, she thought it a very strange thing for Lord Grey to send every one of his children from home, if that was indeed what he had done. "With the new Protestant king and queen, thy father's standing at Court has undoubtedly changed."

"That is why he sends for me now?"

"Aye," Nell said, adding reluctantly, "he may think it the best time to arrange some alliances to his advantage."

"What does thou mean?" Eliza's eyes widened. "Not . . . not marriage, surely?"

"I don't know, child." Nell felt an angry stab of pity as the girl paled. The sheer folly of it all seemed plain to Nell as never before. Surely, she thought, the Earl could not possibly expect a girl raised in a weaver's cottage to enter into a splendid marriage for political advantage. Eliza knew how to weave an ell of wool and hoe turnips, but that, Nell knew, was quite a different matter from knowing how to act as the mistress of a grand hall.

And it was her own fault, too, Nell realized with a sinking sense of shame. She had been so afraid of losing the girl that she had simply held her breath and let matters continue in the same way, trying not to think of the future. Now, too late, she berated herself bitterly for not having written to the Earl and brought him somehow to a sense of his own responsibility. If she had ruined Eliza's chances of reentering her rightful life by failing to do so, she would never forgive herself.

"Thou art a good girl," she said stoutly. "God knows thy father has no cause to feel aught but pride in thee." She hesitated. "Give thy mother-in-law thy respect, but watch her carefully before giving her thy trust. Make thy heart's faith in the good Lord thy anchor, and turn to Him in prayer whene'er thou art troubled."

"I will, Mother Nell. I promise. I only wish . . ." Eliza broke off, her lips trembling.

"What, child?" prompted Nell after a moment.

Eliza looked down at the cloak in her hands, and her fingers clenched tightly in the folds. When she spoke again, her voice sounded low and choked with tears. "I do not wish to go. I don't! How can I possibly leave?"

Nell took a deep breath and did her best to speak cheerfully around the lump in her own throat. "Now then, there is no need for such fond fears! Thou hast made dear friends here, true, but art thou not going home to thine own father and brothers?"

"I know," Eliza said, looking up with brimming eyes. "I know, and I do wish to see them. But my mother-in-law . . . And besides, how can I bear to leave thee all alone? Oh, Mother Nell," she added with a forlorn sob, "I shall miss thee so sorely."

Nell came over to the girl and hugged her fiercely, tears welling up in her eyes again, too. "I could not have loved thee more if thou had been my own flesh and blood. I know thou art returning to thine own people, but—if, perchance," she said humbly, "matters do not fall as they should—I will always have a place by my hearth for thee, if thou should ever need it."

There was pitifully little to pack. Scarcely a half an hour later, Robert Owen handed Eliza up into the carriage to sit across from Mrs. Warren, and then climbed up onto the coach box. Eliza leaned out of the window to look back as Edward Conway clambered up on the saddle mount and the entourage circled around to leave the yard. Nell stood forlornly in the doorway, watching them go. She didn't wave, and neither did Eliza.

"That's done, then," Mrs. Warren said, in a tone of satisfaction. She settled back against the squabs with a sigh, as if dismissing from her mind a minor, unpleasant task, now successfully accomplished. Eliza, still caught up in her own numbed shock and grief, did not reply. Mrs. Warren eyed her surreptitiously and noted her remote stillness but mistook it for ladylike reserve. Lady Eliza had an air of quality, she reflected with cautious approval, even if the girl had been raised among simple folk. The possibility that Eliza might have qualms about going to Kellbrooke Hall or regrets about leaving her foster home simply did not occur to Mrs. Warren.

A rut made the carriage pitch violently as they turned onto the lane leading to Buckland St. Mary. "A pox upon these roads!" Mrs. Warren exclaimed, righting herself. "'Tis a thousand pities the way to Taunton is washed out; 'tis more direct and has fewer stones. I should have liked to stay at the Harp and Ball tonight. They serve a very excellent ale." She sighed again, regretfully this time. "It must be the Black Boar, instead, at Ilminster."

"We shall not reach Kellbrooke Hall tonight, then?"

"Oh no, indeed, not until after supper tomorrow, I should think."

"Tomorrow," Eliza murmured. She pushed the window shutter open to a wider angle so she could look out over the fields. "Tomorrow I shall see my brothers again."

Mrs. Warren gave her a startled look. "Pardon, my lady?"

"My brothers. Or are they away at school?"

The silence stretched so long that Eliza turned to look at the other woman. "My lady," Mrs. Warren said finally in a perplexed voice, "I have served the Countess of Exeter for three years. I never till now heard that Lord Grey had any other children than your lady-ship."

Now it was Eliza's turn to stare. "You have never heard of them?"

"Brothers, you say? More than one?"

"I have eleven brothers."

Mrs. Warren's eyes widened. "Eh, now! Eleven, my lady?"

Eliza nodded.

A silence fell, and stretched uncomfortably. "Eleven, you say," Mrs. Warren finally said helplessly. "Well, now. There must be an explanation, true enough. Eleven brothers—think of it! Bless me! Perhaps, as you say, they have been at school. Robert Owen might know," she added as an afterthought.

"Would he?"

"Aye, for he has served the Earl nigh on fourteen years."

"Why then, he was with the household when I first went to be fostered. I did not remember him." Eliza turned her head to look back as the carriage rounded a curve, her face troubled. "I will ask him. Tonight."

The carriage rattled on all afternoon, lurching. Mrs. Warren shuddered and moaned, fretting that they would break an axle and groping for her smelling salts, complaining of travel sickness. And then abruptly, she fell asleep, with her head tilted to one side and her mouth agape—except when the carriage would slam into another rut, and her teeth would snap shut with an audible clack. Otherwise, she remained quiet.

Eliza felt grateful for the silence. She spent the time absently gazing out the window at orchards and meadows, wondering uneasily about Mrs. Warren's odd ignorance concerning her brothers. The only explanation that made sense, that the Earl and Countess never spoke of any of his other children, seemed utterly unnatural to her.

She also brooded over her farewell to Nell. The irony of not learning until the very hour of parting how much she truly owed her foster parents did not escape her. She hugged to her heart the painfully bittersweet knowledge of the sacrifice they had made for her. It had been natural for her to mourn her own mother, and when the time for mourning had ended, it had been natural for her to learn to love Nell and Tom. But not until now did she truly understand how much they had loved her in return.

She would not forget, she vowed silently, and resolved to go back to Kellbrooke Hall willingly if only to make the Earl understand the debt of honor he owed to the people who had raised her so faithfully. Her thoughts faltered as she wondered secretly for a moment whether, in fact, her father was a man of honor—but surely he must be, she told herself hastily. Resolutely, she put all her doubts aside and instead concentrated on deciding how the Earl might best properly provide for Nell. Perhaps, she thought hopefully, he would pay to have someone from the village stay with Nell and help her, since she was alone. Or better still, he might arrange for a pardon for Tom, allowing him to come home now that a Protestant king and queen sat upon the throne.

Despite the comfort in these reflections, Eliza sighed to herself as the miles rolled by. "Ah, Mother Nell," she whispered, "why didn't you tell me?"

They drove into the courtyard of the Black Boar at dusk. Hostlers stepped from the shadows, seizing the lead horses' bridles as Edward Conway dismounted and Robert Owen climbed down stiffly from the coach box. Someone opened the carriage door, and Mrs. Warren darted out, muttering under her breath, "The beds will not even be aired, I doubt not. At least we may hope to sup decently. . . . "

Eliza, who had been dozing, climbed down more slowly and stood a few yards from the swarm of hostlers, blinking in the lantern light like an owl, too stupid with fatigue to follow the other woman inside immediately. Robert Owen finished giving his instructions about the horses to the head hostler and turned and saw her. The sight of her face gave him a jolt of painful surprise, just as it had when he first saw her that afternoon.

He knew Mrs. Warren to be a little privately disappointed in Eliza's looks. The Countess's companion had said as much that afternoon, as they had walked in the orchard while waiting for Eliza and Nell to finish their good-byes. The child had managed to keep her skin fair and unfreckled, Mrs. Warren conceded willingly enough, and her waist seemed narrow enough to suit the fashions. But she was overly tall, with a nose and chin too long and a mouth too wide and full lipped to suit Mrs. Warren's taste.

And yet, Robert Owen thought rather scornfully to himself, if Mrs. Warren had been somewhat more discerning she might have noted that while Lady Eliza's chin and nose were long and her mouth wide, the unusual length of her neck and high slope of her cheekbones balanced those features. The effect might be unconventional, but it was remarkably graceful. Or, perhaps, if Mrs. Warren, like Robert Owen, had faithfully served the first instead of the second Countess of Exeter, her eyes, like his, might have widened and then filled with sudden tears at the sight of Lady Eliza, so uncanny was the resemblance to her dead mother.

He flinched involuntarily as Eliza's clear, green eyes turned to meet his. She raised her eyebrows in inquiry as he walked over to her, and he gave her a wry half smile. "You remind me so of your mother, my lady," he said. "'Tis truly wondrous, the resemblance."

Eliza smiled, and his heart skipped a beat. "Ah, of course, you knew her, then," she said.

"Yes, my lady," he said with a little bow. "A dear mistress she was to us all." He indicated the doorway with a gesture. "Hark you, now, will you not step inside? Mrs. Warren is no doubt bestirring every man and maid within for your comfort, and there's no need for you to stand out here in the muck."

"Do you remember my brothers, too?" she asked him as they crossed the threshold.

He stopped in his tracks as if he had just walked into a tree. "Your brothers, my lady?"

"Aye, Mr. Owen," she replied, annoyed and a little alarmed at his tone. "If you remember my mother, surely you know, even if Mrs. Warren does not, that she had eleven sons as well as a daughter."

He had grown strangely pale, even in the inn's dim lantern light. "My dear lady," he said in a strained voice, "will you be ruled by one who wishes you well with all his heart, and wants naught but to serve you?"

She stared at him, perplexed.

"Do not ask about your brothers, my lady, once you come to Kellbrooke Hall. Do not even mention them. If you do not wish to—" He checked himself and seemed to struggle internally for a moment. As Mrs. Warren bustled toward them with officious importance, he added in a hasty whisper, "Just mind you heed my warning, my lady. Please." He disappeared back out into the courtyard to take charge of the luggage, his face strained by a strange grief.

Eliza did not speak to him again that evening.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 2, 2001

    A great mix of fairy tale and reality!

    I found this book at the library and was a little skeptical at first because I had never really read anything involving being gay or lesbian. Even though this book was fiction it showed me the gays are people too and are actually pretty nice. Before reading this book being gay was kind of a forbidden area, but now that I understand it, I feel much more informed. This book had an awesome plot too!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2000

    Great Book

    In this book you get two stories that are both unique. Throughout the book you flip from one book to the other. The two are both good and they have different settings and characters. At the end of the book you see the connection the two books have and you are glad you have read both. Its been a while since I have read this book but I really liked it.

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