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Copyright © 2016 Regina Del Madrigal
Cover Art © 2016 by Omri Koresh, omrikoresh.com
This One’s For You, Hummingbird
Regina Del Madrigal
The Seventh Millennium Of The Earthworlds, Two-Thousand Years After The Seraphs
__]All her life Daphne had seen other places – vast wastelands of the desert, the ruins of forgotten temples, sunrises over hills, sunsets behind a deep blue ocean, and a million stars lighting up the shadowy heavens like jewels in the stillness of night.
She felt the cool desolate breeze stroking her cheeks. Wanderers held their cowls over their faces as they traveled against the gust. Tribes were dancing wildly around the bonfires, their howls were carried in the wind.
She tasted the succulent meats they roasted on a spit, the prunes and the dates they’d collected in the wicker baskets for their banquet. She smelled the exotic scent of the incense they burned, and listened as one of the shamans sitting cross-legged mumbled something incoherent while his body swayed back and forth.
He opened his crazed eyes and stared right at her.
“Scaduwee!” he hissed.
She was moving again, and the flat, barren earth had become one with the rolling sea. The waters stretched for endless miles, its monstrous Irys veiled every passage. The darkness shredded with lightening, thunder cracked in the sky, whirlwinds swirled on the thrashing ocean surface, while in the world beneath whales and fish swam in perfect tranquility.
In a massive forest she perched, finding some rest amid the buzzing and croaking creatures. But the voices would not shut up. Hands grabbed her, and she dashed away into the sky. But the hands were too strong. She whipped and swung in the air, battling her arms and legs ruthlessly, hearing the familiar complaints in her ears as they struggled with her. She was dumped in water and she found herself diving. She hammered on the head of a passing merchant and he screeched. They lathered her body and she swooped round and round, screaming and angrily swinging her fists, splashing water everywhere. By the time they dried her and put her to sleep, she was too exhausted to move, and yet she soared; over wild terrains, higher and higher as she sunk comfortably in bed. Though her body was warm under the blanket, her eyes were blistered against the chill of snowcapped peaks.
The land formed into a murky swamp, a fog floated on its surface. Stench inhabited the entire city of Phaeton. Steam was rising from the hundreds of chimneys, covering the sky in a black mist. A rally filled streets below; people shouting at each other, casting stones at windows, rampaging through the halls of great mansions.
The rabble cleared and the air grew fresh, and the sun began to rise on the horizon. Flowering valleys appeared in the distance. The marketplace was full of moving carriages, of gypsies and their exotic caravans.
In the outskirts of the pristine countryside of Mayfalls stood the solitary old manor house. It was a ghostly place. No one visited there anymore. All the doors were shut up, all the windows were dark as if no one even lived there.
A window was open on the second story; it led into a spacious and shadowy bedroom. Pillows were cast everywhere on the carpeted floor, piles of garments hung on the cushioned chair by the cluttered vanity. Perhaps the only order in the room was the array of unsettling glass dolls that sat unmoving on the shelf. They were dressed in exquisite tiny silk dresses and fine lace stockings and wore huge colorful bows in their curls. Their blank faces and marble black eyes stared unmoving at the raven-haired child lying asleep in the bed.
Daphne’s blind eyes blinked open. She felt her body stirring, sitting up in bed while the child did the same. They gazed blankly at each other. She was the first person Daphne had seen who didn’t try to shoo her away. She had a little round face, ivory skin, heavy-lidded blind eyes framed by thick eyelashes, and puffy black hair on top of her head.
“Hello.” Their voices echoed the same greeting simultaneously.
“I’m Daphne.” They said.
“Is your name Daphne too?” They giggled at each other.
An itch grew intense on Daphne’s face, and as she relieved herself of it, the blind girl before her smoothed a strand of hair behind her ear. Daphne lifted both her tiny hands to her cheeks, then pinched her tiny button nose. The blind girl mimicked her every motion. They both giggled again, and then shuddered all at once upon hearing the grating noise coming from the open window.
Daphne zoomed forward, past the blind child, and she felt a gust of air swipe her cheek. Suddenly she was peering into the mirror on the vanity, where a raven was reflected. Daphne stared intently at the raven, its head twitched from side to side, curiously. She glimpsed the blind-eyed girl slipping out of the bed, her bare feet touched the embroidered carpet covering the cool marble floor, her body was tiptoeing closer.
The bird croaked at her through the mirror, the feathers of its chin puffing out. Daphne glided to the bedroom door, the blind-eyed girl followed her, inching it open a crack and Daphne slipped through. She dashed down a series of dark corridors. She’d never seen this place, she’d only seen the ghosts that dwelled in it, but she knew the smell and the air, the forlorn cries resonating from somewhere in her memories. She’d often felt her way through these same rooms even as her sight was elsewhere, far away, drifting over the earth while she had been made to sit still.
Daphne, in her excitement, had gone deep into the manor. She backtracked and found the blind girl shuffling along, feeling her way down the walls.
“Come on!” she said urgently, the girl imitating her words.
The blind girl faltered, her hand clasped tight to the railing of the stairs, Daphne peered down over her head. They both listened attentively to the tumult of disquieting screaming echoing in the distant rooms, of the doors slamming and the footsteps scattering in the chambers above.
Everything grew silent again, with only the ticking of the big clock in the corner, and Daphne heard the faint fluttering of wings. She soared onward, her feet tumbling to keep up. She was coming closer to muted music and laughter. Daphne perched herself above a pair of diamond-shaped glass doors as the blind girl pressed her ear to them. Daphne listened to the sounds on the other side. She’d never heard such gaiety before. It was like the stories Bonnie had told her of her mother’s masquerade balls.
The blind girl pulled the doors open excitedly and Daphne entered a darkened ballroom. Misty figures floated in circles inches above the floor, as though they were slowly dancing, before vanishing completely with the fading music. Daphne zigzagged around them in awe, then beckoned the blind girl onward.
She entered a dark compartment. There were over fifty rooms in the manor house, and all of the rooms one level up from the second floor had been long abandoned by even the servants. The mistress of the house, Lady Valerie, had made Daphne promise not to go wandering about. Nevertheless, she led the blind girl on into places she’d never been.
The stairwell creaked beneath Daphne’s toes as she watched the blind girl tiptoe up. No one had frequented that part of the house in years, and it had been forsaken to dust and cobwebs. Daphne pushed back a door and pigeons scattered. Before her was a long, narrow hallway, with an alignment of portraits hanging on either side of the walls, stretching all the way down to the other end.
Daphne meandered through. She perched up close on different frames where dust had gathered and the spiders had made their webs.
One portrait depicted a lady with long, curly white hair in a ruffled pale pink dress. Daphne thought she was the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen. Despite her curious hair color, she didn’t look a day over twenty. There was a mystery in her dark eyes, her smile seemed only half-hearted. The man beside her looked grave, his hair was long and dark, pulled back away from his face. He was dressed all in black, from his silk waistcoat to his frock coat to the scarf tied tight around his neck.
Daphne couldn’t quite point out why, but something about the portrait didn’t appear quite right to her. She thought she saw something in the background; a spectral figure standing behind the man. It was indistinct, and could have easily been mistaken for his own shadow. It was almost as if it hadn’t been painted there on purpose.
Daphne read the names at the bottom: Lord & Lady Gosford & Lillis Mandrake.
More pictures came; Matheleo & Elis Mandrake. Barnabas & Katarina Mandrake. Mansfred & Elysabetha Mandrake; The woman in this one was petite in a lovely deep blue silken gown, her long black curls fell over one fragile shoulder. She was holding a tiny girl in a lace bonnet on her lap, while a boy stood beside her chair in a light brown tailored frock coat and matching trousers.
The description read: Children, MacDraven & Sabrine Mandrake.
Directly following it was of the boy, MacDraven. Only he was older now, a dashing count, with wavy black hair tied back and loose strands that stroked both his chiseled cheeks. A smile barely touched the corners of his sensuous lips, his black eyes were inscrutable.
That same eerie presence Daphne had noticed in the earlier portrait of Godsford was in the background of this one too – as well as the other that followed it.
It portrayed a pale and gaunt man with long, straight white hair and gleaming black eyes that seemed to pierce through the very portrait. What appeared extremely close to a sneer was curled on his upper lip. His long, elegant hand was rested upon the shoulder of a young woman with crystal blue eyes and the ghost of a smile on her red lips. The names Daphne could scarcely discern by the wear: Lord Mortimer & Lady Melina Mandrake.
The portraits continued all the way down the narrow hallway. The paint was so worn on some they were hardly distinguishable. Daphne even glimpsed Bonnie in several, only she looked happier in these, and often she was depicted with a young man with shoulder-length wavy blonde hair, whose name she’d often heard Bonnie whisper as Adrian.
Daphne glanced around from the paintings to find the blind girl standing stiff, staring blankly into space. She started, as if woken from a dream.
“Let’s go!” they said to each other.
Daphne fluttered to land on the knob of a small wooden door at the end of the hall. It made a long, creaking noise on its hinges as the blind girl slowly opened it for them. Daphne flew inside the room, glimpsing a large bed in the right corner, covered in dust and torn red tapestries. To her left was a tiny lit fireplace, and kneeling by the hearth was a young woman in a cowl robe, with coiled black hair around her shoulders. She stared at Daphne, and then faded into the light from outside, pouring through the falcate window.
The sunrays hit her, and Daphne shielded her blind eyes in terror, stumbling. Images were taking shape again, and she lost her sense of direction. She didn’t know whether she was soaring in the rose gardens or stuck in an abandoned hallway.
She curled up in a ball on the floor, crying.
“There, there, child,” she heard the voice of Lady Valerie whisper.
Daphne wrapped her arms around the slender figure, comforted that she had been found. A hand took hers, long and pointy fingernails gently grazed over the skin of her palm as she was led away.
Lady Valerie spared parting glances with several portraits she passed; Willis Mandrake, the feeble, baldheaded man who sat hunched over in a wheelchair. Beside him stood her mother; a mean looking, thin-lipped woman with vicious black eyes by the name of Drusilla Mandrake.
“My beautiful Alistair,” Valerie murmured as she paused to gaze at a young man with rippling, pale blonde hair falling just past his shoulders and piercing grey eyes. He was girded all in white, save for the crimson cloak draped around his shoulders and the red high-heeled shoes on his nimble feet. His curious claw-like hand clutched a cane. It wasn’t because he was limp. He stood very dignified with his other arm folded behind his back and his jaw set high up in the air.
“He’s in Artigo now, but soon you will meet him, my darling,” she assured.
“And there I am again with my cousin, Erik, who was at the time my husband.” In the painting Valerie was portrayed in the usual black dress. Her flaxen hair was pulled back tight, pinned to her head, and her large black eyes appeared almost menacing. The man whom she called Erik stood beside her, grave as she appeared, and was dressed in similar somber black attire.
“Erik and I never did see eye to eye,” Valerie went on. “He nearly cost me our entire fortune because of his drunkenness and gambling and his scandal with the Countess. Unfortunately, he died not long after in his sleep…”
Daphne heard the steel in her voice. She could no longer see the portraits; visions of the sky had returned. There was wind in her ears. The brief sense of peace she’d felt when she was with the blind girl had made her realize how unbearable everything was when she was gone. Her visions swept her through the clouds. She was weightless, even as her feet were planted to the floor. She gripped tighter to Lady Valerie’s hand, growing dizzy as the woman led her onward.
“Come, we will leave them to their abandoned corridor.”
When they reached the landing, Valerie asked, “What were you doing up there anyway? I told you, you might get lost.”
“I met a girl, Milady. She led me up there,” Daphne explained with excitement. “Can she be my friend?”
Valerie muffled laugh. “What is this nonsense you are talking about now?” Turning, she arched a sharp, thin eyebrow at the insufferable child.
“A girl, Milady. And there was a raven too! May I keep it as a pet?”
“Why in the name of Pyrros would you want to do that? Be wary of those kinds of birds, they’ll tear your eyes out.”
It was Daphne’s turn to laugh. “I shouldn’t worry then, as I am blind already.” She’d heard the term spewed constantly by Harriett and the others, but could never comprehend the meaning of her blindness.
A wry smile spread on the side of Valerie’s lips. “You clever little sprite.” She pecked at Daphne’s nose. “Nevertheless, I don’t want you near those kinds of animals.”
“But why?” Daphne persisted. “It didn’t attack me, and Harriett told me my father could talk to ravens.”
“Did she?” Valerie appeared to muse. She always looked dreadfully somber when she did. “I shall have to tell her to stop filling your mind with fairytales.”
“So Harriett lied?” Daphne asked, the joy in her face, in her voice diminishing quickly.
Valerie furrowed her brow rather empathetically at her disenchantment.
“Do you want to know the truth about your father, child? He was a witch, there’s no telling what evil little tricks he cast.”
She leaned in close to Daphne’s face and stared intently into the child’s blind, half-lid eyes. “Do you want to know something else about witches, my darling? They are not to be trusted. They’re manipulative with those whose minds are too feeble to counter their attacks. Your grandmother was foolish to allow them to enter into her own home. There was one who once lived up in that very attic.” Valerie’s gaze ascended stairwell, to the deep shadows hovering above. “She possessed your aunt with demons and drove her mad. One day poor little Blair disappeared and we never saw her again…”
A shiver crawled down Daphne’s spine. She had seen something up there, she was sure of it. In that moment she promised herself that she would never go up there again.
Lady Valerie burst into laughter.
“It’s always a pleasure tormenting you so, little one,” she purred, stroking Daphne’s pudgy cheek with her long, delicate fingernails. “You will hear no more fairytales from your beloved mistress. I’ll leave that to Harriett.”
Daphne felt her cool lips touch hers, and then she stood alone in the empty room.
The morning was sunny and warm when she stepped outside, such a contrast from the cool, musky air that inhabited the manor. Harriett was making a pottery on the porch with Marta. Harriett, like all the servants in the household, had serviced the Mandrake Family for years. Harriett often told Daphne how she’d once nursed all of her grandmother’s – the goodly Lady Melina, as she was often referred to – children. Her kind and aged eyes would always well up with tears as she did.
There were five servants in all; Barnaby, the old butler, Harriett, Daphne’s beloved nurse, the two sisters, Annett and Marta, and old Vincent who once tended to the garden before it became swallowed up by weeds. He was charged with looking after the stables now and made certain the horses had plenty of hay and oats to eat.
Harriett had come from country, where many popular traditions practiced among the peasants had been outlawed in the city. She always told Daphne the most wonderful tales about magic, of the links between a witch and his or her familiar spirit. If there was one person in the household who would understand her plight, it had to be her.
“Harriett?” asked Daphne.
The old nurse looked over her shoulder at her with a start.
“Gracious, child! What did her ladyship say about wandering about?” While she was yet speaking, Harriett had jumped to her feet and rushed to Daphne’s side to usher her into a cushioned wicker chair.
“Good that you get some sun in you, dear,” she said while settling back into her own seat by her clay spinner. “It’s a downright shame all the windows inside have barred it out.”
“Shame indeed,” Marta sighed. “How I miss the days when Lady Melina was around.”
“Don’t let her ladyship hear you say that,” Harriett reproved the young woman in a low mutter.
Daphne fidgeted to sit up straight, her feet felt a mile from the ground, soaring above the estate. She patiently waited with her hands folded on her lap, listening as the old nurse and Marta went on chattering, forgetful that she was still there.
“Harriett,” she said once more.
“Yes dear?” asked Harriett.
“What if I try to tame a raven?”
Harriett and Marta cast each other a wary look.
“You will do no such thing, child,” said Harriett, her voice suddenly stern. “Should any of those kinds of creatures ever come near you, you invoke the name of Brigid.” The old nurse kissed some medal hanging around her neck, then returned to her pottery, muttering to herself. “Bad luck, I tell you. Your mistress will not like you playing with strange animals. Tear out your eyes, it will!”
“That’s what Lady Valerie said. I told her I haven’t any eyes to worry about,” Daphne countered in a matter-of-factly tone.
Harriett gazed pitifully at the child. Only eight years old and she sounded like a grown woman. It made the old nurse sad that her youth wasn’t being spent with other children her own age.
“It’s dreadful bad luck, dear, if those sorts of birds come about,” she went on, her voice had grown soft again.
“Why?” asked Daphne, tilting her head with sudden childlike wonder.
“Those kinds of birds carry the souls of the dead across the black waters of the Netherworld. They can bring vengeful spirits about with them. Doubt it not, love, and be wary of.”
Daphne sighed, and hopped out of the wicker chair. She strolled away disappointed, hearing the sympathetic murmurs of ‘the poor little dear’ behind her.
She couldn’t understand it. Harriett was always feeding her stories of witches and ravens by the mouthful, even sneaked a wild tale or two of her father and his dark dealings, and now she was ineffectively trying to douse her curiosity. Daphne knew it was because of Lady Valerie’s dislike for witches. Each time she asked Harriett about her father the old nurse would become fraught with worry and say, “I can’t say no more about him, child. Her ladyship won’t like it.”
They all wanted her to stay away, yet Daphne could feel herself being drawn to the raven like a magnet. It was as if her soul was withering in a kind of darkness, and she’d never felt truly complete until she heard the raven’s call by her bedroom window.
She wandered aimlessly through the gardens, then finally returned to the house. She remained alert, in case the raven would come back, while she searched for the girl. Daphne didn’t mean to shoo her away, she wanted to be her friend. Her eyes circled back the way she came, cutting through the wind as she dove beneath the clouds. She’d gone so far, the land below was unfamiliar.
A year spent in the manor she managed to find her way around on her own well enough – with the occasional stumbles and trips, when her mind inevitably took flight to those faraway lands.
Daphne had been just seven years old when she first came to live in the manor house of Mayfalls. She awoke in a new place. She heard unfamiliar voices and strange echoes everywhere. It wasn’t always lonesome for her as everyone seemed to believe. She’d made friends with Bonnie, who often sat beside her on her bed and talked to her.
The first night they met, Harriett had been pale-stricken and gasping to see Daphne standing in the doorway to the servants’ quarters.
“Child, what are you doing wandering the halls? You could have an accident!”
“Bonnie is in my room,” Daphne had replied, not even hearing the old nurse.
“Now, now, it’s too late for stories. To bed.”
“But she’s in my room,” Daphne had persisted as she was led away by the hand.
Bonnie was such a sad girl who often told sad and wonderful stories of her mother and how life at the old manor house used to be, of all the parties and reunions, of the rain clouds in the late spring hovering above the Mayfalls’ countryside, of the summer days when the doors to the front entrance of the manor house were always kept wide open and how the outside breeze that entered the halls smelt of the roses and cherry blossoms from the gardens.
Then the winter came, Bonnie would say, and the doors were closed for several months while the marketplace was covered in ice. All the occupants would stay locked within in the comforts of her mother’s house until the weather was fair enough for them to travel again. During those cold and dark months the house would smell like peppermint and chocolates, and old Barnaby would bake all sorts of pies and cookies. The company would spend nights sitting together by the huge fireplace in the living quarters, telling their share of family stories over a bottle of brandy her mother could not get enough of.
Sometimes Bonnie told her of her beloved brother, Adrian. She said he was beautiful, a prince with yellow hair, who cherished her deeply.
Daphne would sometimes waken to her crying beside her.
“They murdered him,” Bonnie would whisper in a frightened little voice. “They left his body in an alleyway. Aunt Drusilla called me a stupid girl for weeping.”
No one else seemed to notice her, and whenever Daphne mentioned the name Bonnie to Harriett the old nurse’s eyes would well up with tears. She would wipe them away quickly with a shaky, frail hand, always saying; “It’s nothing, it’s nothing. I’m being silly.”
“They’ve taken your brother from you too…” Bonnie had told her.
Daphne knew there had been someone close to her, someone she’d lost on the day she’d been brought to the manor house. Then the dreams came, and Daphne would see flashes of the castle on the jagged mount, of the maze where she once played. Sometimes she felt the hand of the boy guiding her through the leaves of a great willow tree, she’d hear his voice in her ear saying he was going to take care of her and protect her and be with her always.
What was his name? She tried so hard to remember it, but everything had faded into a forgotten memory.
“Where is my brother?” she’d ask on those nights when she dreamed him and awoke, delirious and crying.
“It’s only a dream, child.” Harriett would say as she walked her back to her room, holding Daphne’s hand so she would not suffer a fall.
Daphne crept downstairs into the dining room. Two of the servants had readied a cart that morning and had gone to the marketplace. Daphne had long wanted to go with them, but Lady Valerie never allowed it. Her distinguished family, the Mandrakes, at one time possessed all the land in the West of Pansphere, and after a long line of deceased, disappearing and disinherited relatives, her mistress ended up as the designee.
She was too well known in the city. With the mob’s uprising in Phaeton, where her great ancestor, Gosford Mandrake, had built his fortune, she preferred people to think she no longer existed. Daphne lived a life of seclusion in the old manor house, with Lady Valerie and only a handful of trusty servants who’d been loyal to the family for generations.
Breakfast was served in the huge dining room – laid out with fruits, warm breads and roasted ham. Daphne followed the scent of baked pastries and, after carefully feeling out a seat, hopped on top. She had to reach over the elongated mahogany table to gather some food onto her plate. Her visions were tamed this morning, hovering over a garden and into a window of the manor house.
The feeling she had earlier was returning, a sense of completeness.
She ate quietly, listening to Barnaby humming in the pantry just on the other side of the wide room. She almost always ate alone. Often Harriett and the other maids had their breakfast or took their tea before Daphne even woke up.
The honey pastry had always been her favorite, and Daphne savored each bite. She stepped up on her chair to reach over for a second serving, when she bolted into the room and landed atop of the table.
Daphne grew excited at the sight of the blind, raven-haired girl again, half reaching for the food. She carefully set down her knife and fork and slid out of her seat.
“Follow me!” she and the blind girl called to each other as Daphne flew off.
She suddenly felt lost again, running blindly from corner to corner, her hands feeling where she was. She could tell by the atmosphere that she was still inside the house, and yet she was seeing into the courtyards, flying through the bushes.
Daphne faltered to listen. She heard the fluttering of wings down the hall, leading to her bedroom. The girl finally caught up with her, stepping into the room, her blind eyes were blank as she listened intently.
“I’m here!” the blind girl exclaimed as Daphne swooped down upon her. She shuddered as the raven screeched in her ear.
Daphne glimpsed it through the mirror on the desk, perched on the windowsill by the withered rose wreathes. She calmed her breath.
“Come to me,” she whispered, holding her hand out towards it.
“Croak, croak,” the raven replied in a low gurgling from the back of its throat.
Daphne flew to the blind girl and landed on her arm. She gasped as the raven climbed over her sleeve, its claws gripping tightly to her skin as if it were a tree branch. She dared not move, her heart beat wildly with excitement.
“Croak!” the raven grated, and Daphne winced. She tried her hardest not to make any sudden movements. She carefully turned her face towards it and was met with the face of the blind girl staring blankly back at her. They frowned at each other.
Daphne turned to the mirror again. The blind girl stood within it, with the raven perched beside her head. It was the most beautiful bird Daphne had ever seen, with feathers as dark as the girl’s curls. She carefully lifted her other hand to gently stroke its fine black wings, watching the blind girl through the looking glass while she mimicked her, there was nothing more soft she’d ever felt.
The bird startled her with its sudden departure. The blind girl chased after Daphne down the hall, down the stairs, and through a side door of the pantry that led outside. She felt a drizzle touch her eyes and she blinked. She ran madly through the maze of exquisite mermaid statues scattered around the courtyard. She slipped, landing right into a bushel. Moist leaves swiped her cheeks. She must have gotten lost in the gardens in the back of the estate. She’d once been told not to wander in that place. Not even the servants went in there anymore. The flora had not been tended to for more than ten years now.
Daphne followed the raven’s croaks and beating wings through the overgrown plants, out into the open field again. She latched onto the ivy that covered the enormous gate surrounding the estate. It was kept locked until precisely twelve in the afternoon when the servants would go shop in the marketplace. Daphne wasn’t allowed on the other side of it.
She gazed down at the blind girl; her clothes damp, her stockings muddy, her black hair a terrible mess of tangles and leafy twigs.
“Come to me,” she said, holding out her arm towards her.
Daphne hopped along the grassy twines, then flew for her. The raven’s claws dug into the flesh on her thin shoulder where it marked its territory. Daphne carefully reached her hand to feel its wings again, its feathers were moist from the rain.
“Rayne…” Daphne whispered, tipping her head back, giggling as she felt the droplets trickle onto her face.
She snuck back into the house, holding her raven close to her belly. Its eyes guided her as she tiptoed to her bedroom and gently closed the door. She carefully placed Rayne on the cushioned seat by the vanity and dried her feathers off with a towel. She dried her own hair afterward, then settled on the chair beside her raven. Rayne hopped on top of the armrest, then fluttered to the vanity to peck at the cluster of fine jewels and pearls and hair brushes crammed atop it.
Daphne looked into the mirror again, the glass was slightly shaded with ware.
“That’s me…” she said, the blind girl pointed to the raven through the mirror. “Rayne.”
The raven croaked with excitement, as if acknowledging its name.
“That’s me.” She pointed to the blind girl next. “Daphne…”
Daphne came to understand the connection between herself and her raven. Rayne was sort of a familiar, like the ones Harriett often told her about. As every day passed their bond grew stronger. Daphne discovered she could direct Rayne through her thoughts wherever she wanted her to go. It only worked once, Daphne had stood peeking through the door that led into the dining room. She’d sent Rayne on ahead to snatch an apple from the table centerpiece before Barnaby would see.
She’d been practicing all morning. Rayne, for the most part, was as untamed as she was. She didn’t like boundaries. It was a good thing the house was large enough and the servants were often engaged with other duties, or poor Rayne would have had Harriett coming at her with a broomstick.
Daphne eagerly raced after her throughout the rooms. In her excitement she hadn’t even realized she’d crossed the barrier into places she was not allowed. She abruptly faltered in her scurry as Rayne flew up the abandoned stairwell. She perched herself at the top of the landing and gaped downward at her.
Daphne glimpsed herself at the bottom of the steps, shifting on her feet with indecision, the terrible story of the witches returned to terrorize her thoughts.
“Rayne, come back here!” she hissed.
She waited for a long moment, feeling the cold air creep, like something was sneaking up behind her. She dared not move. She didn’t want to be standing there alone, but Rayne wouldn’t budge. Whimpering, Daphne scrambled up the stairs, her fingers gliding up the dusty railing. She was just about to cross into the upper corridor when something with disheveled white hair crawled with unnatural speed across the floor and disappeared.
Daphne’s breath and feet stopped cold.
“Rayne!” she whispered in a quivering little voice. She stood shaking in the dim when she heard Rayne’s croak and followed it to where the images led through the narrow hall of portraits. Rayne was waiting for her by the little attic door. She fluttered to her shoulder as Daphne slowly pushed it open. She carefully surveyed the room from the doorway. The tiny fire was still burning in the fireplace, but there was no sign of that eerie presence sitting beside it.
Rayne abruptly left her shoulder to perch by the hearth and began pecking at the bricks.
“Rayne, come here!” Daphne reproved, crossing the threshold and sinking on her knees next to the fireplace. “I’m not supposed to be up here.”
She took Rayne in her hands, and the bird ruffled her wings to get free. She climbed up Daphne’s arm then croaked pointedly at the hearth. Daphne caught sight of something shimmering beneath the broken bricks. She hooked her finger between the cracks, then lifted one of the stones apart. She uncovered a hole with a little jewelry box buried inside it.
Daphne smiled with delight. It was just like the stories Harriett told her of pirates and buried treasure. She reached into the hole, pulled out the box, then opened its lid and a sweet melody poured out. Daphne gasped, she’d never known a box to play music before. Momentarily spooked, she slammed the lid shut, and the tune immediately ceased. Slowly, she peeked open the lid again, and just as before, that same music resumed to play.
Daphne listened intently, and started to realize that she liked its sound. Inside the box were several pearls whose string had been broken apart. Daphne collected the fine white marbles and strung them up carefully, then tied the ends together and wound it around her tiny wrist. There was a parchment which Daphne unfolded. It depicted a crudely drawn picture of a woman with black hair in a tawny colored dress, and a girl with white hair in a little blue dress. They were standing close, holding each others’ hands and smiling. Behind them was a hut with hugely drawn flowers on its rooftop.
A smile tugged at Daphne’s lips. She wrapped up the parchment and stuffed it in her dress pocket. Inside were also several withered rose petals, some stuck to the bottom of the box, which Daphne gathered up, but they crumbled like dirt in her hands and she frowned in grief. Next she pulled out a necklace with a wooden figurine strung around it. Daphne smiled with delight, her fingers glided along its intricate details. It was a fairy with wide spread butterfly wings. She hung it around her neck.
Lastly, in the box was a tiny golden locket with the name ‘Gosford’ engraved on the front. Daphne opened it. Inside was a picture of the white-haired woman she’d seen in the portraits down the hall. The woman called Lillis Mandrake.
The locket shimmered, reflecting the light pouring through the falcate window at the end of the room. Daphne crawled near it and peeked out. Directly below were the gardens, a jungle of vines and gnarling bushes, while further out was the enormous gate that circled the estate. Its height almost reached the third floor of the manor. Beyond the gate, Daphne saw the marketplace, the tiny shops and moving carriages in the distance. She’d never been there before, Lady Valerie would not allow it. She’d only seen visions of it through Rayne’s eyes.
She took in her fill, imagining how wonderful it would be to visit such a place.
Her imaginings were fleeting when Rayne suddenly flew out of the attic door.
“Rayne!” Daphne scrambled to her feet and scurried out of the room after her. She raced down the stairwell, out of the compartment, and nearly slammed into Marta and the tray of teas.
“Good gracious!” Marta gasped, the tray unsteady in her hands. “You oughtn’t to go running around like that. Someone could suffer a fall!”
Daphne simply sped past her. She entered the living quarters, then faltered, confounded. It was happening again, the series of random images flashing in her mind. She carefully felt her way around the room, and bumped right into Harriett.
“There you are, child. Go on, it’s time for your breakfast. You’re going to be late for your lessons.” She patted Daphne’s hair and sent her on her way to the dining hall.
Daphne was scarcely able to sit still. She ate her breakfast eagerly, snatching blindly at the plate of sweet breads and fruits.
Rayne landed on the chair opposite her.
Daphne swallowed a large portion of her meal.
“You have to slow down, I can’t keep up with you!” she hissed across the table at herself.
After she finished breakfast, Daphne crept to the study and paused at the door.
“You can’t come in with me,” she whispered to Rayne. The raven merely tilted its head, and Daphne brushed it from her shoulder. “Shoo!”
Rayne fluttered away just as the door came open, and Daphne spun around. Her tutor stood just behind her in the doorway.
“There you are, Daphne,” he sounded rather bored. He didn’t wait for her before he retreated back inside.
Lessons in Braille and the piano felt longer than usual. Daphne couldn’t concentrate on anything while her mind was having visions of other places; of the gardens outside and of the roof of the manor and of peeking into the attic from outside the window. She often tried describing the things she saw to her tutor, but he’d only chuckle like something was funny, pat her head and say, ‘That’s quite an imagination you’ve got there, Daphne.’
It was the same with everyone, except Harriett. She must have confounded them with tales of the Irys and the ruin desert temples. Once she’d been journeying across heaves of sand and stumbled down the porch steps in front of the manor. Harriett had tended to the scratches on her knee and elbow while she cried. Her old nurse had ways of making her feel better though, always she would ask what place she was adventuring now and Daphne would eagerly dispel to her all the details of what she saw, what she was seeing.
“Well, child, I don’t think you need me for bedtime stories,” Harriett would say.
The moment she was allowed her pastime, Daphne followed the images outside and called for Rayne. She came soaring towards her from atop of the high gate. Daphne tried to keep up from below as she flew around the estate. It was not long before she tired.
She sat by the porch daydreaming, and felt the stuffing in her pocket. She pulled out the wrinkled drawing, Rayne perched on her shoulder to look at it again.
. . .
After dinner Daphne climbed into bed and waited for Harriett to turn out the lights.
“Would you like to hear a story, dear?” the old nurse asked as she stuffed her pillows. When she found Daphne was already fast asleep, she retired.
As soon as the door closed, Daphne threw off the spreads and crept to the window.
“Rayne!” she silently called.
The raven emerged out of the darkness and perched on the windowsill, croaking at her.
“Shush! Come on!”
She slipped through the door, Rayne flew on ahead, making certain the coast was clear. She tiptoed down the staircase, listening intently to the chatter and faraway laughter of old Barnaby and Harriett in the distant rooms. She hastened through the ballroom, into that dark cubicle, and skipped up the abandoned stairwell. She held her breath as she scurried down the narrow hallway of cluttered portraits and burst inside the attic, gasping.
Rayne fluttered about, as though she were securing the area. Daphne went to the hearth, where the little fire was yet burning, to uncover her treasure. She opened the music box and settled on the wooden floor to listen to its tune. Before too long she began drifting to sleep.
Rayne suddenly croaked. She ruffled her feathers a bit, then flew towards the bed across the room and disappeared beneath the mattress.
“Rayne?” Daphne whispered in trepidation, sitting up. She remembered all those frightful bedtime stories Harriett told her of goblins hiding under the bed, waiting to snatch her.
She waited impatiently, then gathered up enough courage to crawl timidly towards the bed. She grasped the velvet covers, her heart beat fast as she slowly lifted the spread. She fell back screaming as Rayne came flying out at her. She sprawled paralyzed with fear on the floor, her hands clasped over her face, her breath heaving.
She spread her fingers, while Rayne unfurled her feathers a little to peek. There was no goblin she could see, only shadows beneath the bed. Parchments were scattered across the floor, filled with crudely written words and drawings.
Daphne gathered some up, then scurried to the light in the hearth to look at them, Rayne had landed on her shoulder to join her.
She read one: ‘Medina taught me how to write today. She said I could paint pictures through words.’
Daphne looked at another. ‘We have to be very quiet when Uncle Mortimer comes to visit. Vivie left, then there was noise downstairs every night.
Daphne looked at one of the pictures; it was a drawing of an ocean with a big round sun and three V-shaped birds flying towards it. She read the writing at the bottom; ‘This is the place I want to go once summer returns. It is where the Sirens live. I try to hear them. Medina said their voices can be heard over the ocean at night. Medina took me there last summer and we collected lots of seashells!’
On another parchment was drawn a gate with ivy that looked curiously like the shape of an elephant.
‘This is where I escape. Shhh… It’s a secret!’
The drawing following it was of a big cake with six candles on top.
‘My birthday cake! Medina made it for me with chocolate and lots of strawberries. It was really good! We ate it up in the attic because no one else wanted to celebrate with us. I want to make Medina a cake for her birthday, but she said a cake so small wouldn’t be able to hold so many candles. She’s more than one-hundred. That’s very old!’
Daphne giggled. Her delight vanished when she glimpsed the next drawing.
‘Everyone is sad. Mama is crying. Bonnie is crying. I drew her a picture but she only tore it up and cried some more. I try to talk to them in my secret voice, but only Medina can hear me.’
At the bottom of the parchment was the depiction of the girl with white hair. Big tears were rolling down her cheeks and forming a puddle on the ground. The line of her mouth was shaped into an upside-down U.
‘This is how I feel…’
Daphne bit her lip, her blind eyes watering. It was strange to think that there had once been other children living in that house. Daphne never knew any girls her own age. She wished she could have met the girl in the drawing, whoever she was. Daphne wanted to be her friend.
She had fallen to sleep by the window and was awakened by the light of morning filtering through. She sat up groggily and stroked Rayne just as she was coming out of sleep with her. Beside her were the parchments she’d gathered up last night. Daphne placed them on her lap and began to look through them again.
Then, out of the corner of Rayne’s eye, she saw something moving below the attic window. She peered out and saw a child with white hair standing by the rose bushes in the gardens, waving up at her, before she turned around and began to scurry away.
“Hey!” Daphne didn’t waste a moment. She ran out of the attic and sped down the stairs. She exited outside to the back of the estate and ran down a broken pathway, past the mermaid statues, into the neglected gardens. She balked in her blind search to listen intently. Someone was in there with her, a girl by the sound of it, humming.
“Hello?” Rayne glanced around uncertain. All went quiet. She must have been chasing ghosts again as Harriett would say.
She came around to the gate surrounding the backend of the estate. It was covered with ivy. The white-haired girl was nowhere to be seen.
Disheartened, Daphne returned to the house.
It was a morning in late autumn, Daphne had just turned thirteen that month. She’d grown a few inches, her limbs had become quite thin and dangly, though her face and body didn’t lose its plumpness. She was going through what Barnaby called, ‘an awkward stage of adolescence’. Harriett was more polite than the old butler however, and would always assure Daphne that soon she would grow to be just a lovely as her Grandmother Melina had been.
“Thank all that is good that your hair isn’t an unruly orange clutter of coils like mine was at your age,” she’d say. Though Daphne knew that part the old nurse had to be playing at. Her own raven hair was always an untamable mess.
The days had grown grey and dreary and cold, those kinds were Daphne’s favorite. She slipped out of bed in her funnel nightgown, glanced around for her slippers, then headed for the door. She crept downstairs with Rayne, the double doors leading into the dining room were wide open, and she was struck with the customary delicious aroma. Now that winter was approaching the house smelt of baked breads and cinnamon tea. The warmth of the grand fireplace within heated the very floor.
Harriett sat by the elongated table, chatting with Annett while sipping her tea. Rayne stayed behind as Daphne scurried across the dining room, snatched a plum from the fruit dish, then sped straight for the door.
“Child!” Harriett exclaimed. “What are you doing running around with feet as white as yours?”
“I can’t find my slippers!” Daphne called back. She didn’t even get a reprove this time. The old nurse had some time ago ceased to be surprised by her unusual behavior. It seemed all the maids had grown accustom to her racing around unattended to, believing she was a hopeless and mad little child. Though Harriett was more prone to believing superstition. She knew what kind of a man Daphne’s father was, they all did, though none had not been bold enough to speak about it to Lady Valerie, knowing well her dislike for witches. None of the servants were particularly trusting of witches either.
Rayne flew ahead of her down the great hall that was dimly lit by chandeliers. The great oaken doors at the front entrance suddenly flung open, and a whirling gust swept inside, putting out the candles. A mass of storm clouds were assembling over the land in the distance. Daphne neared the entrance as Rayne came soaring back to her. She observed two young men below riding swiftly up to the manor. It was a curious sight because her mistress never received anyone.
One of the riders had pale blonde hair tossing wildly about in the air as he rode. He was laughing vibrantly by the time he reached the front steps, and dismounted effortlessly off his white horse. The other who rode with him had long golden-brown hair, and was mounted upon a reddish-brown stallion. He was smiling at his friend as he jumped off his own horse with an equal amount of grace. The one with pale blonde hair then bid Vincent to take the reins, and the two came laughing softly up the steps of the porch and entered into the house.
They were coming down the hallway towards her. Daphne could only stand there motionless, her raven’s eyes gazing entranced at them. At a closer look, she recognized the one with the pale blonde hair, she’d seen him before in the portrait in the upstairs corridors. The one her mistress called Alistair.
He approached, his long locks fell loosely about his broad shoulders in delicate waves. He was dressed in the finest of clothes; a deep blue frock and waist coat with matching breeches and lace spilling out of the sleeves, white stockings that reached his knees, and red high-heeled shoes.
He walked with such refinement, his face was striking, his grey eyes gleamed in the shaded hallway, narrowing at Daphne as he passed her by, a smirk just barely touching the corners of his generous mouth.
The other young man followed closely behind him. His tawny hair fell just passed his shoulders, the long bangs were parted in the midsection of his head and reached his cheeks. He was clothed in less formal attire; a white silken tunic that hung loosely on his slender body, bronze colored breeches with white stockings pulled up to his knees, short laced brown boots, and a dark red cloak that hung about his right shoulder. He looked younger than the first by a few years, and even more beautiful than his companion.
He was similarly gazing at Daphne, his expression was tender. A soft smile curved his lips as he took her hand in both his, lifted it to his mouth, and pressed a gentle kiss upon it. His lustrous emerald eyes lifted beneath the smooth lids and gazed up at her through the curl of thick eyelashes. Daphne’s heart missed a beat.
She watched the two men in wonder as they disappeared down the darkened hall. She hadn’t even noticed that Rayne had flown from the chandelier to land on her shoulder.
After she was dressed, Daphne withdrew outside with Rayne, though today she didn’t feel like playing. She sat on the porch in the late afternoon even while she soared just above the surface of the ground.
“Daphne!” Harriett called to her from the door.
Daphne scrabbled to her feet, Rayne flew through an archway in an upper story as she scurried inside.
“Gracious, child! You’re frozen!”
Harriett took a blanket from a bench and wrapped it around Daphne’s back, her wrinkled hands feverishly ran up and down her arms to warm her as she whisked her inside. She followed Harriett into the kitchen where Barnaby was conversing with Marta as he joyously cooked.
“Your mistress requires a word with you, Daffy,” said the old butler.
“Where is she?” Daphne asked.
“In the dining room, dear. They all had supper already. Shall I prepare you something?”
Daphne shook her head. She went to stand outside the dining room. The double doors were shut, and she pressed her ear against them and listened to the muffled voices on the other side. She crept open the door a little, and Rayne flew inside, into the dim corner, out of sight, where she surveyed the room.
Daphne saw Lady Valerie at one end of the elongated table. The man with pale blonde hair was seated right beside her. Neither took not the slightest notice to her intrusion. They looked to be amused as they conversed between themselves.
The other young man with golden-brown hair was seated next to him, and he was staring right at her.
Daphne stiffened in the doorway.
“Ah, Daphne,” Lady Valerie at last regarded, holding out her hand towards her.
The man with pale blonde hair tilted his grey eyes to her, then leaned away from Valerie to straighten himself in his seat. He offered Daphne a quaint smile.
“Come, my darling. We were just discussing politics.”
Daphne went to take Lady Valerie’s hand. She seated herself upon the empty chair beside her, opposite to the man with pale blonde hair.
“Darling, this is my stepson, Count Alistair Mandrake of Artigo,” said Lady Valerie, referring to the man beside her.
“You’re forgetting, Mother, it’s Crown Prince of Artigo, as well,” Alistair said with pride his voice.
Harriett had told her the tales of the Feylands of Artigo and Berzee bordering the West. A millennia ago, the sneaky little sprites would slip into the beds of unsuspecting humans which resulted in Halfling offspring.
Alistair was too tall to be a fairy and he didn’t have butterfly wings either. Daphne searched his ears in disappointment to find they weren’t pointy like the fairies in the books she read. His face was just as striking as it had been in the portraits upstairs though, and he had that same princely air about him. His jaw was strong, his cheekbones were high, his claw-like hands pouring out of the lacey sleeves were folded on top of the table.
“Oh, Alistair, you never cease to gloat.” Valerie rolled her eyes. “The young man beside him is Ambrose D’Archer,” she continued.
The golden-brown haired man, Ambrose, appeared almost shy at her announcement, his eyes lowered, the thickness of his eyelashes cast shades over his smooth cheeks. Daphne thought she’d never seen anything more beautiful than him.
Alistair studied her intently for a moment, then looked inquiringly at his stepmother. “Is she blind?” he asked, disregarding Daphne’s presence entirely.
“Alistair, there’s no need to be so rude,” Valerie reproved him coolly. “Consider it a family trait. Her mother fared no better.” She winked at him.
“Ah…” Alistair turned his cold grey eyes on Daphne, a faint smile appeared on his sensuous lips. “Do forgive me, little one,” he purred, not looking at all repentant. “How do you like living here with my mother?”
“I love her deeply,” Daphne replied, and Lady Valerie grinned at her.
“Isn’t she splendid?” she praised, stroking Daphne’s pudgy cheek. “Don’t you think she is simply beautiful, Alistair?”
“Indeed, she is too beautiful,” Alistair agreed. Then as if requiring a second opinion, he asked, “What do you think of her, Ambrose?”
Daphne felt a flush rise hot in her cheeks. Ambrose said nothing, only looked at her, the ghost of a smile crept on his lips.
Valerie sank back against her chair, her slender hand continued to pet Daphne.
“Well, darling, how is life back in Artigo?” she asked the Count.
“Oh, God!” Alistair cursed, his composed demeanor suddenly changed into one of pure aggravation. “No one can get along in that damn keep! I am their spawn of evil, don’t ask me why I put up with them.” He swallowed a glass of wine, placing it with much care on the table. He admired the crystal for a fleeting moment. “So, mother, anything new?”
The remainder of the evening was spent with Alistair chattering and Lady Valerie laughing. He was pouring complements about this and that particular actor he’d recently seen in the theatre, about life in that ‘miserable keep’ as he described his castle in Artigo, and how he detested his siblings and their irritable habits. And something about how Rosalynde changes a lover everyday like she changes her clothes. ‘Those damn gowns her deceased husband spent a fortune on’.
He was truly a vibrant man, one would easily believe he was the life of all the parties he spoke about. Daphne laughed as she listened to his extravagant tales, something he seemed to deeply appreciate and he smiled at her when she did.
Sometimes she watched his golden haired friend who remained silent throughout most of the conversations. When he did speak it was as if there was poetry in his voice. He had such a soft and pleasant voice, and the most delicate laugh that made Daphne smile every time she heard it. She watched his lips as he spoke, feeling pleasurable flutters in her stomach. He had the most beautiful mouth, the upper lip was just slightly fuller than the bottom one.
In the middle of the chatter, Alistair began talking of the city. Daphne sat up with enthusiasm that was swiftly diminished as he ranted on about plague and blood-drinkers running rampant, of whining peasants and their delusions for a better world.
“I’m afraid Jockos is still parading with the revolt,” he said with a delicate frown. “Those damn heathens are now marching on our beloved Gosford’s mansion.”
Valerie shook her head, and Daphne noticed the subtle ire that flashed in her dark eyes.
“Well, it seems zealots are always in short supply of that sort,” Alistair muttered, and she laughed.
“You really are terrible, Alistair,” she said sweetly, her hand reaching to stroke his pale cheek.
Alistair brought her hand to his lips and kissed it softly, closing his eyes.
Daphne watched them with fascination, marveling at the familiarity between them.
Harriett entered sometime later.
“Bid your ladyship goodnight, dear,” she told Daphne.
Daphne wanted to object, she couldn’t bear for the night to end so suddenly. By the way Ambrose’s lips parted he seemed almost desperate to ask for her to stay.
“Must I go?” she pleaded to Lady Valerie.
“Mostly certainly. We can’t have you missing your lessons in the morning.”
Daphne frowned, rising from her seat, and she let Harriett take her hand.
“Good night, little one,” Alistair said softly.
As Harriett led her away, he returned shortly to his conversation with Valerie, but Ambrose D’Archer’s eyes followed her and lingered on the door long after she’d left the room.
Early the following morning, Daphne was awakened by a horse neighing outside her bedroom window. Rayne was waiting for her by the casement where she peered out. Ambrose was below, seated on his horse, holding the reigns of a beautiful polka-dot pony.
Daphne rushed out of her bedroom, wearing only her nightdress. She sped towards Harriett who was coming down the hall.
“Child, where are you going?” the old nurse demanded.
“You most certainly are not dressed like that!” Without further protest, Harriett took Daphne’s hand and led the reluctant child back to her room to dress. Daphne quickly flung off her funnel nightgown, then held up her arms above her head for Harriet to place a new dress over her.
“I do wish her ladyship would send for a seamstress to make you something more colorful to wear,” the old nurse muttered as she fit Daphne into a little black button up dress and grey stockings, then laced up the black shoes on her feet. She sat her down in front of the mirror and combed her raven hair into order.
Daphne fidgeted. She could scarcely sit still and look pretty when she’d already taken flight on her adventure. Luckily, Harriett had no intention of detaining her further. She tied her hair back with a bright purple bow, holding it in place when Daphne tried to pull it off.
“There.” Harriett moved away to admire her handiwork.
No sooner did her hands leave her, Daphne scurry out of the room and down the stairs. Thankfully she wasn’t wearing a corset or it wouldn’t have been possible to outrun the old nurse, though Harriett was probably considering one for her now.
She ran out into the front porch, then abruptly faltered, remembering she wasn’t fond of horses. She had a bad memory of them when Vincent had let her feed them oats once, and one had bit her hand. She wouldn’t go anywhere near them now.
Alistair was standing on the porch with Lady Valerie, her arm laced around his.
“Come here, Daphne,” she said. “It’s a birthday gift from Alistair.”
“It was really Ambrose’s idea,” Alistair admitted, looking prideful at Ambrose seated on his own horse while holding the reins to the pony. “He picked the finest breed.”
Ambrose dismounted with as much light elegance as he had when Daphne first saw him, and approached her. She felt overcome with timidity as he took her hand in his and led her to the polka-dot pony. He placed her delicate palm on the horse’s mane. He felt her reluctance, and for a moment she even fought him to pull away.
“It’s alright, sweet Daphne,” he purred in her ear.
She blind eyes closed softly, her hair stood on end at the sound of his voice so close to her. Her hand trembled, then finally relaxed as he guided her strokes.
Daphne bit her lip, a smile spread across her lips. Even the pony was swayed by his voice.
“Is she for me?” Daphne asked.
“Of course,” he replied.
“Thank you,” she said shyly.
“What would you like to call her?”
She pondered a moment. “Poe,” she decided.
Ambrose smiled at that. “Do you want to ride her?” he asked.
Daphne fidgeted at the question. “I don’t know how,” she frowned.
He looked at her with a thoughtful expression.
“We’ll ride together then,” he said, his fingers curling around hers.
Harriett’s face had gone pallid, while Alistair arched an eyebrow at him, a smirk curved the side of his lips.
“I don’t see why not,” he said pleasantly, looking to his stepmother for approval.
“Oh, of course,” Valerie simply waved them away.
“Madame! This is inappropriate!” Harriett exclaimed as Ambrose scooped Daphne in his arms and hoisted her up onto his horse’s saddle. Presently, he climbed up behind her and took the reins.
“She’ll be quite alright, Harriett,” Valerie absently replied as she retreated back into the house with Alistair.
The old nurse waited fretfully on the porch until Ambrose and Daphne were well out of sight.
Ambrose galloped them around the estate. Daphne felt his arms wrapped securely around her stomach. Even as she struggled to sit as still as the ride would permit her, anxiously waiting to be set down on her own two feet again, she didn’t want him to release her.
They spent the entire morning riding together. The afternoon grew late and a cold drizzle fell over the plain. They dismounted and left the horse to graze in the field. Daphne ran heedless about, until she was muddied and wet. Ambrose caught her up in an embrace while she outstretched her arms, laughing with delight as he spun her round and round.
She was suddenly being cradled, twirling with him. Her hair had sprung free of the obnoxious bow, her long raven locks fell loose and wet and wild around her face.
She became aware that he’d stopped moving, she felt the warmth of his breath against her lips in the cold drizzle. She lifted her hands and felt his face, the rain droplets trickled down it. She touched his forehead, his eyelids, his lips. His breath was coming fast, his mouth was so close to hers Daphne almost kissed it.
She came out of the trance at the sound of Harriett’s voice calling to her from the porch. She leapt out of Ambrose’s arms and scurried back to the manor where the old nurse awaited her beneath the archway, a blanket in hand. She wrapped it around Daphne’s tiny frame as she led her inside.
“Come, you shall bathe before going to sleep.”
Harriett took Daphne to the upstairs, into the grand bathroom where the tub was filled to the brim with fragranced water. The old nurse lathered her, washing off the mud from her soft skin and raven hair, and then left her to soak. Rayne came dipping into the water, her feathers fluffed and drip drops sprayed in Daphne’s face.
Before her was a great mirror, Daphne could see her reflection perfectly. She lifted her hand to her left shoulder, where the scar was – the only mark on her body. She stared at it, trying to remember where she’d obtained it.
Harriett returned presently with a towel and wrapped it around her as Daphne stepped out of the tub onto the floor. The old nurse took a comb to her damp hair and smoothed it out. It was certain to blossom with curls in a few hours.
“All better.” Harriett smiled when she finished.
She helped Daphne slip into a nightgown then sent her off. Outside had been pouring rain all night. Daphne heard it like pebbles hitting the windows. An unpleasant chill was sweeping through the house. On nights like these a great fire would burn brightly in the dining hall.
Daphne paused by the double doors with Rayne to peek inside. She glimpsed Alistair and Ambrose standing within, talking quietly by the fireplace.
“Did you enjoy your romp in the mud with the little ragamuffin?” Alistair asked, holding a crystal glass full of wine to the fire. He seemed intrigued with the colors reflecting off it.
A smile touched Ambrose’s lips. In the midst of the burning light his emerald eyes shimmered, like the golden sheen of his skin.
“I find her fascinating – she’s so delicate, and yet bursting with life.” He appeared to ponder deeply for a moment. “It’s almost impossible to think that something so free can be confined in this….” He seemed to refer to the house the way he glimpsed about them.
Daphne felt her belly flutter at his words.
Alistair studied his friend’s reaction, then he sniffed, wrinkling his nose in apparent displeasure. “On the contrary, I find she is a rather unpleasant child.” He downed his wine and set the empty glass on the table.
Daphne frowned, and nodded at Rayne. She opened the doors just a bit more, and her raven soared within, flaying across the room, her shadow expanding deep in the bright glow.
She came back to Daphne, passing through the tiny opening.
“The devil was that?” Alistair hissed, his gaze riveted on the murky ceiling in alarm.
Ambrose’s eyes followed Rayne, then landed right on Daphne through the narrow slit of the doors.
She backed away without bothering to close them. She scurried barefoot upstairs to her room, giggling to herself. She thought she’d reached safety when the lightning flashed, and she gasped upon seeing Ambrose through her bedroom mirror, standing just behind her.
“It’s not polite to spy on people, Daphne.”
Daphne spun around to face him. “How can I spy when I can’t even see?” she countered.
He narrowed his emerald eyes at her, a playful smile curved his lips.
“No more tricks, my clever little raven. I’ve known of your companion all along.”
Daphne stiffened. How could he possibly know about Rayne?
She opened her mouth to deny anything, when she suddenly heard Harriett’s voice drifting down the hall.
“Hide!” she whispered, ushering him into her room.
He seemed amused as he got down on his knees and slid beneath her bed.
Daphne was standing on her tiptoes, her hair rose on end as she watched him recline. She was about to stop him in fear of the goblins, when Harriett came through the door. She jumped round with a start, just in time for Rayne to hide herself behind the drapes at her window.
“Child, why are you still awake? Get under the covers, you’ll catch a cold!” Harriett was already leading Daphne to the bed and she tucking her in. “There,” the old nurse said with a pleased smile, brushing the wrinkles out of the covers. “Would you like me to stay and tell you a story?”
Daphne quickly shook her head. “I’m very tired, Harriett.” She turned onto her side and pretended to sleep.
“Alright, dear child.”
She felt Harriett’s kiss on her cheek and listened intently as the old nurse withdrew. Once the door was closed and all was silent, Daphne slipped out of the covers and crawled under the bed. Rayne was a step ahead of her, landing on the floor beside Ambrose.
He was lying on his side with his elbow holding him up as he watched her.
“I’ll get into trouble if my nurse finds you in here,” Daphne said fretfully.
“I’m sorry to have put you in such a coil.” He sounded truly repentant. “I’ll leave.”
“I don’t want you to go,” Daphne said at once.
His smile was faint. “Well then, I’m afraid this leaves us in an even greater quagmire, because I don’t want to leave you either.”
Rayne cooed when he reached out to stroke his fingers along one of her dark wings, fascinating Daphne. Usually Rayne would hide from strangers, and yet she seemed to trust Ambrose so completely.
She smiled. When she caught Ambrose’s gaze, he smiled softly back at her.
“If only there was a place where no one could find us…” he said in little more than a whisper.
Daphne suddenly remembered her attic in the abandoned upstairs rooms. If there was another person she wanted to share her secret with, it was him.
“I know a place,” she said excitedly. “Wait here.” She slid out from under the bed and crept to the door. She opened it just enough for Rayne to fly out and see if the way was clear.
Ambrose was halfway out of the bed when she returned, watching her with an amused expression.
“Come,” Daphne motioned anxiously with her hand, and he slid out the rest of the way. She snatched his hand in a sure grip and led him out, down the empty hall. They crept down the stairs into the living quarters, and then through yet another empty hallway. Daphne felt her way around the glass doors, opening them. They raced through the enchanted ballroom, into the small compartment where the abandoned stairwell stood. They skipped up the steps together, scarcely able to contain their quiet laughter, the carpets served to lessen the thumps of their footsteps.
In the narrow hallway, Ambrose paused to gaze at the portraits arrayed down the walls.
“Those are pictures of my great family,” said Daphne.
“Yes, the Mandrakes. Pansphere knows your family well,” he said.
Rayne perched on the frame of her favorite. It was a wedding portrait. Daphne knew little about festivities, save from what Harriett told her. That same lovely young woman named Melina was in this. She was dressed in a white gown, a splendid contrast to her dark brown hair and the bouquet of red roses she held. Her veil was translucent enough for Daphne to see the grin spread on her lips. Her eyes were lit up with such happiness it always made Daphne smile to look at it. Her husband stood beside her. He had a handsome face and long flaxen locks, and though his smile was delicate, he held that same sparkle of joy in his soft brown eyes.
Unlike all the other pictures surrounding it, this one was devoid completely of that strange presence skulking in the backgrounds.
The faded script at the bottom read: Lionel & Melina Osborne.
Ambrose tilted his head as he watched her. She looked so unperturbed by anything else, he almost didn’t want to disrupt her.
“Would you like me to paint a picture of you, Daphne?” he asked.
Rayne snapped her head at him. “You can paint me?” Daphne exclaimed, her blind eyes lit up.
He smiled at her. “Of course,” he promised, and this time he was the one to take her hand.
Rayne flew on ahead of them to the attic door, and Daphne carefully opened it for them.
“I was never supposed to come back here,” she said, stepping inside.
Ambrose entered after her. “Why’s that?” he asked, gazing around the cozy little room. There was a large bed in the corner with red draperies and a little fireplace in which a small fire was softly burning.
“My lady thinks I may get lost up here,” Daphne explained.
He smiled wryly. “And now that I’m here she’ll no doubt banish you from this place forever.”
There was something so cynical about the way he spoke, Daphne wasn’t certain if he was being serious.
He drew near the semicircular window and watched as the rain poured outside.
Daphne went over to stand opposite him. “I sometimes come up here to look at the marketplace.”
“Have you never been to the market?” he asked, looking at her.
Daphne shook her head. “I’m not allowed to leave the house.” She saw how his face became almost sympathetic for her. “It’s all well,” she assured him, and then her voice dipped low as if she was afraid someone would hear her. “There’s a secret I never told anyone, but I’ve seen what it’s like outside the estate. The others wouldn’t believe me, except for Harriett,” she sighed sadly, Rayne’s gaze drifting back towards the drip drops hitting the windowpane.
Ambrose studied her and the raven on her shoulder that mimicked her in every way. It was almost thrilling to witness.
“I believe you,” he said with sincerity.
Daphne smiled at him, and he began to have the most curious feeling that she could actually see him.
He sank down to sit on the wooden floor by the casement. Daphne drew near and sat down beside him.
“I sometimes send Rayne out there. I can see everything as she can,” Daphne said as she stroked Rayne’s black feathers. “Someday I want to journey with her. I want to discover all of the places she’s been. Every time she leaves me I don’t feel right. We aren’t meant to be parted from each other.”
Ambrose was moved by her narrative. He knew what it was like to be locked up, to have freedom stripped away, leaving him with nothing but the longing for a chance to see the light of day again. He wanted to free her from that prison somehow. She was too full of life to be caged.
He smoothed back a raven curl from her face, then he took her in his arms and set her on his lap, cradling her. She rested her head against his chest, listening to the slow tempo of his heartbeat as she played with the thin golden ring on the finger of his right hand.
Ambrose slid it off. “Hold out your hand,” he said softly.
Daphne spread out the fingers of both her hands, yet he chose the left one. He slid the band onto one finger, and then another, breathing a laugh when the ring only dangled around her exquisitely small fingers.
“There you are,” he said with triumph at last when it finally set into place around her thumb. “You can keep it for me.” He closed his hand around hers as though he meant to keep it safe.
“I’ll never take it off,” Daphne promised, gazing entranced at the ring. She read the words that were inscribed on it: ‘We Are One Heart & Spirit’.
“Ah… Well in that case I’ll simply have to marry you,” said Ambrose.
Rayne looked up at him wide-eyed, Daphne’s lips parted in astonishment.
He smiled softly at her, amusement played on his face.
“That is, of course, if you will have me.”
“Yes!” Daphne exclaimed breathlessly, her blind eyes shimmered with happiness.
Ambrose entwined his fingers with hers, and then he lifted her hand to his lips to kiss it. He cupped her chin, his gaze was riveted on her face. He was so close, Daphne could feel the warmth of his breath on her mouth. She closed her eyes, shivering when she felt his lips touch hers. The kiss was a promise.
So many wonders she had seen and he was the most beautiful, the most precious of them all.
[ * ]
If you enjoyed this sample, you can purchase the full version of The Blind Raven, available for pre-order on Amazon May 6^th^ 2016, and in bookstores August 4^th^ 2016. If you are a blogger and would like to receive an ARC for review, send an email request to: .
You can also follow Regina Del Madrigal on her Goodreads page: [+ https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14875523.Regina_Del_Madrigal+]
All her life Daphne, a blind girl, has been secluded in her grandmother’s old manor house of Mayfalls. Her guardian raven, Rayne, is her Sight and her sole link to the outside world. One fateful day the enigmatic Blood-Fey Prince, Count Alistair Mandrake, pays a visit to the manor with his enchanting companion, Ambrose D’Archer. Daphne experiences a love she will never forget in Ambrose before he is ultimately taken from her. She embarks on a quest to find him again. Her journey into the outside world leads her to uncover her own forgotten past – a castle where she once lived in her infancy; her father’s mysterious connection with the powerful aristocratic family, the Mandrakes, and their long history of bloodbaths; and a twin brother whom she was made to believe existed only in her dreams. She begins to awaken within herself hidden and terrible powers that often unintentionally harm those around her. With a masked murderer on the hunt for Mandrake blood, Daphne’s undertaking will bring her that much closer to finding Ambrose again…or losing him forever.