THE FOREST LORD
THE FOREST LORD
BERKLEY BOOKS, NEW YORK
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE FOREST LORD
A Berkley Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley edition / November 2002
Copyright ? 2002 by Susan Krinard.
Cover design George Long. Cover art by Franco Accornero.
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This book is respectfully dedicated to the wonderful authors who first introduced me to the delights of Regency romance: Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, Rosemary Edghill, Elizabeth Thornton, Mary Balogh, and so many others.
Special thanks to Margaret Evans Porter and the members of the Regency Loop, whose expertise enabled me to navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of Regency life and history. Any errors are my own, and in no way reflect upon the talents of these generous individuals.
Once upon a time, there was a great and mysterious forest at the
heart of Westmorland in the north of England?ªa place where few mortal men dared trespass. This forest lay on the estates of the Flemings, men of wealth and property, who long ago had sworn an oath to protect the forest and all its inhabitants from the ravages of mankind. In exchange, the Flemings and their kin should never suffer want or ill fortune.
The ruler of this enchanted wood was not of human blood, but of the Faerie, or Fane, an ancient race of near-immortal magical beings. He had lived among mortals for millennia, wearing many names and guises, and had become one of the last of the Elder Race to remain in the realm of man. But he wearied of his exile from the Blessed Land of his own people?ªTir-na-nog in the language of the men of Eire?ªand sought to leave behind the forest he had guarded.
The Fane had grown few in number, and their blood was thin. To save the race from extinction, each Fane stole or sired a half-human child to increase their numbers. The Forest Lord alone had not provided his people with such a child, and so the queen of the Fane commanded that he should not enter Tir-na-nog until he returned with an heir of his making.
Despising mankind, the Forest Lord withdrew to his wood. He watched, and waited, and kept his oath with the human masters of Hartsmere.
The Flemings flourished beyond their wildest dreams. The king granted an earldom, and the Fleming lands grew. Hartsmere became only one estate of many, and the age-old pact was all but forgotten.
So it was that one day the oath was broken. Cyrus Fleming, the Earl of Bradwell, did not believe the stories of the bargain that kept his pockets filled and his lands prosperous. He had almost everything a man could desire, including a beautiful daughter and the leisure to pursue his passion for hunting the beasts of the earth and the birds of the sky.
One autumn day, he traveled to Hartsmere in search of prey and followed his baying hounds across the fells and dales and to the very edge of the forest. There he glimpsed the most magnificent creature he had ever beheld: a stag of immense size and nobility, waiting as if to invite his shot.
Lord Bradwell fired at the beast and pursued it as it fled into the forest. But he found himself alone. His hounds had vanished, and even the trees seemed to bend down with twisted arms to catch and hold him.
In the place of the stag stood a man such as he had never seen: tall, handsome, and dressed in skins and rough cloth. Upon his head he wore a crown of antlers woven with holly and mistletoe.
"You have trespassed upon my realm," the man said in a voice of thunder. "You have sought the life of one of my own and broken the pact. For that you must be punished."
Lord Bradwell realized at once that the stories were true: This man?ªif man he could be called?ªwas the guardian spirit of the forest, deathless and merciless, a creature of fey power beyond the ken of mortals. Struck mute, Lord Bradwell had no defense to make as the Forest Lord raised his hand to strike. All at once the ground about his feet swarmed and danced with a hundred woodland creatures.
"Should I let my brothers and sisters decide your fate?" cried the Forest Lord.
"Mercy," Lord Bradwell whispered.
"As you have shown mercy to those so much weaker than yourself?" He stroked the head of a fox that crept up to lick his hand. "I could take away all the bounty and fortune you and your lands have enjoyed. You would be left with nothing but your life." His smile chilled Lord Bradwell's blood. "Death might be more merciful. But I will grant you both life and continued prosperity in exchange for one small thing.
"You will give me your daughter."
Horrified, Lord Bradwell thought of the girl who waited for him far to the south?ªgirl no longer, for she had just turned eighteen. Eden, her beauty pure and untouched, her innocence unsullied, had been groomed all her life for marriage to a man of consequence and title.
"I will never give my daughter to a monster," he cried. But even as he spoke, he felt his legs grow numb. When he looked down upon them, he found them brown and covered in bark and rooted deep into the earth.
"I have guarded this land for many of your centuries," said the Forest Lord, "and I grow weary. It is time to rejoin those who have gone before me to the Land of the Young. But I must bring an heir of my body to replenish our race. Your daughter will bear him for me."
"Eden is too young," Lord Bradwell begged. "Do not ask this of me." He felt the numbness rise to his waist, and the beasts of the wood drew closer. He knew then that he had no choice but to agree.
"I will do as you demand," he said, "but only if you present yourself to my daughter as an honorable man of stature and court her as a mortal man would do. If she is seen to be with child and has no husband, she will be ruined."
"I have no wish to harm her," said the Forest Lord, frowning with terrible wrath. "I will wed your daughter for the time the child grows in her body. I will appear in any guise necessary to protect that virtue which you mortals so value. But after the child is born, I will take him and leave your world forever."
Lord Bradwell bent his head. "You are without pity."
"What do mortals know of pity? The pain your daughter suffers will be small, and she will be rich for the rest of her life."
Gathering his courage, Lord Bradwell looked into the Forest Lord's cold eyes. "I have one final condition. You must win my daughter's love.
Nothing can be taken by force or trickery or fey magic. She must give herself willingly. "
"I agree to your conditions." The Forest Lord waved his hand, and Lord Bradwell felt his legs again. "Now, go. Do what you must to prepare my way, and come to me when all is ready. But do not dally, or I will send my brothers to remind you of our bargain."
With shrieks and cries, the beasts of the forest drove Lord Bradwell from the wood as he had driven the hare and the stag. But when the earl sent for his daughter and looked upon her face, he knew what he had truly done.
Today is my wedding day. Eden woke to the sounds of hooves and carriage wheels on the cobbles outside the open window. The morning air was cool and moist with the promise of a spring storm, yet she didn't mind. The rain-laden breeze carried all the freshness of life and hope and a shining future.
She stretched in the unfamiliar bed, and her fingertips brushed the warm body beside her.
My husband, she thought. Cornelius.
She closed her eyes and trembled with sheer happiness. The very core of her being was still imprinted with his form, his scent, his masculine strength. She had not guessed that to lie with a man could be so wonderful. And to think they had almost waited?ªwaited until Gretna.
She was glad they had not. Gretna Green was a mere five miles away. By day's end, they would truly be husband and wife, with a lifetime of such nights to look forward to.
"Cornelius," she murmured, snuggling against his chest. "It is morning."
He stirred but did not open his eyes. She spent the glorious minutes studying his face. Any woman who saw him now would be stung with envy at her good fortune. Surely no man had ever been so beautiful and yet so strong. She allowed herself the liberty of tracing her finger around the curve of his jaw, over the firm set of his lips, across the straight, dark brows.
Six months ago he had been a stranger, a distant cousin come from India, and of little interest to her. After all, she did not intend to remain in country exile forever; the tedious winters she spent with her father eventually ended. With the coming of each spring, she returned to London, where she had spent so much of her childhood under Aunt Claudia's fashionable wing.
Aunt Claudia had made it clear that when Eden married, it must be to a young man of good standing in the ton, who enjoyed high rank, a generous income, and the many pleasures of Society.
Cornelius Fleming was merely a curiosity, a distraction from the
dull sameness of country days and the awful pall of loneliness. Hartsmere was the original Fleming estate, least of the earl's many holdings. Eden hated it above all the others, remote as it was from London and her friends. Her father was casually affectionate and otherwise ignored her?ªshe, who dreaded solitude more than anything in the world.
Cornelius had paid attention to her. And, gradually, she had seen him as the perfect subject upon whom to practice her growing skills at beguiling the male sex. "You must allow men to believe they are in control but never lose it yourself," Aunt Claudia had taught her. How could she lose control with a dull fish like Cornelius Fleming?
How odd and vexing she'd thought him at first, with his haughty airs and long silences. He had an irksome propensity to wander off into the fells like any foolish tourist who came to gape in wonder at peaks and lakes and crags. His utter lack of interest in Society might have put her off entirely, if not for his god's looks and the sense of power that he wore like a cloak.
"Be kind to him, Eden," her father had said in one of his rare conversations with her. "He has been long in India, unfamiliar with our ways. Should my brother and nephew die, he may very well inherit the title when I am gone."
She'd laughed and dismissed his uncharacteristically sober words. But she could not dismiss Cornelius. She found his gaze following her wherever she went, and his glances heated her blood. Behind his reticence lay unexpected tenderness. Every day he brought miraculous gifts of exotic perfumes and fine silks. At the New Year, he presented her with a diamond of amazing size and brilliance. Little by little, against all her best intentions, she found herself in love.
Aunt Claudia had not approved. She had actually come from her apartments in London to observe this dubious suitor. But though Lady Claudia Raines had ruled her niece since childhood, Eden was no longer a child. When Cornelius asked her to elope, she hadn't hesitated for a moment.
Now he was hers. She would teach him as Claudia taught her, mold him to become the perfect Society beau. He already possessed a Corinthian's muscle and a remarkable way with horses. In time, he would come to love fashionable London as much as she did, and they'd nevermore return to the icy, echoing, desolate halls of Hartsmere.
First they must find a perfect London town house. Then she would tease Aunt Claudia into presenting them, making all the necessary introductions, and smoothing any awkwardness resulting from the elopement. Once Lady Claudia recognized all the advantages of the match, she must relent.
The ton would come to know, as Eden did, that Cornelius's arrogance and retiring nature concealed boundless generosity, excellent taste,
and an elegance that was natural rather than taught.
No one but she would know his more intimate skills??
Somewhere within the inn a door slammed. A stray raindrop blew through the window to kiss Eden's cheek. Cornelius sat up, the sheets cascading from his bare chest.
"Cornelius?" Eden touched his shoulder, gripped by sudden desire. "Good morning. I hope I didn't wake you?ª"
He stared at the door. "Get dressed, Eden."
It was not the greeting she expected. She wanted him to kiss her, draw her into his arms, whisper endearments as he had last night.
A chill slipped down the collar of her night rail. She hugged herself, wanting to close the window but afraid to leave the warm sanctuary of the bed.
Afraid of what? This was only the beginning of her life. Of their lives together.
Cornelius swung his feet to the floor and went to the chair where he had laid his clothing. He dressed swiftly and efficiently, barely hesitating to glance in her direction.
"Clothe yourself," he said. "We may need to leave quickly."
"What is wrong, Cornelius?" She could hear raised voices downstairs. "Is something?ª"
"We will speak of it later." He snatched her fine white muslin carriage dress from the clothespress and tossed it onto the bed as if it were made of sackcloth.
She smoothed her hand over the skirts of her gown. "It is sadly creased," she murmured. But he was not listening. He finished tying his neckcloth and strode to the door.
"Remain here until I come for you," he said. He paused at the door and attempted a smile. "Do not worry. I will return." The door closed with ominous finality behind him.
Something was wrong. Very wrong. Cornelius had not treated her with such negligence since their first meeting. And after last night??
I am not a child, she told the tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. She picked up her dress and resolved to put it on without asking the help of one of the maids. But the tapes defied her best attempts to tie them. She should never have left Hartsmere without Tilly.
Another door slammed, and the voices moved under her feet. One of them was her husband's. The other?? was Papa's. He had come after them. But why? He had encouraged the match, and he was no high-stickler. He was himself impetuous enough to understand why she had not wished to wait for a formal wedding.
She threw her pelisse over the half-buttoned frock. Obedience might be a wife's duty, but she was not a wife just yet. She would not expect Cornelius to face her father alone. She slipped through the door and
descended the stairs, following the voices and holding her head high in defiance of any curious stares she might encounter.
The door to the private dining room off the entrance hall was firmly closed. With utmost concentration, Eden eased it open the merest crack.
"You agreed to the bargain," Cornelius said, his voice more harsh than she had ever heard it. A stranger's voice. "You knew the penalty for breaking it."
"Yes." If Cornelius spoke severely, her father was the very soul of weary despair. "Yes, I know. I was wrong to agree. A coward." His ragged breathing was that of a frightened old man. "I wished to save myself at my daughter's expense. She deserves far more than the sorrow you will give her. She loves you."
"Is that not what you asked, that I win her love?"
"But you do not love her. You cannot." He made a sound terribly like weeping. "I ask?ªI beg-?ªthat you let Eden go. I shall accept whatever punishment you choose."
"It is too late." Cornelius's boot heels drummed across the floor. "The choice is yours no longer. Last night I got her with child."
Eden felt her throat close up, as if to strangle a scream she was too distressed to utter. Raindrops began to patter on the roof overhead. She leaned her forehead against the door.
"You swore to marry her?ª"
"And so I shall, this very day. As we agreed. And all the rest will proceed as we agreed. You will not interfere."
Eden knew that the voices continued, but she no longer heard them. Her heart had swelled into a great, aching lump in her chest. Is that not what you asked, that I win her love?
A bargain. Her father and Cornelius had made a bargain with her as the spoils. For what? Not for money or title or land. Cornelius cared nothing for such things. Or had he deliberately led her to believe he didn't? He spoke of her as if she were a?? a horse or a fine Herdwick ewe.
I got her with child. Eden touched the smooth plane beneath her breasts. Was that what he had wanted? Aunt Claudia had hinted of men who might rob a lady of her virtue, but Cornelius still planned to marry her.
Marry a woman he could not love.
The ache in her chest grew bigger and bigger until it threatened to burst.
"Very well," her father said. "I cannot hope to stand against you. But I ask you to drink with me, one last time, to prove your good faith." Footsteps, and the tinkle of liquid pouring into a glass. "Drink to my daughter, and to her happiness."
Silence followed?ªone heartbeat, two, three. And then came the
brittle shattering of glass upon the floor.
Eden burst through the door. Her father half crouched against the far wall, an untouched glass of dark liquid in his hand. The other glass lay smashed in a pool of spilled liquor at his feet.
The man who had broken that glass raised his hand, and her father dropped to all fours.
Something was happening to Cornelius's face, his hands?ªsomething that made Eden betray herself with a cry of horror.
Her father's tormentor turned sharply to Eden, and she froze in midstep.
Her husband-to-be had vanished. In his place stood a creature with his face but dressed in animal skins and rags. From his brow grew a crown of antlers that nearly scraped the low ceiling.
He had become a monster.
She covered her mouth with her hand. The creature with Cornelius's face opened his mouth to speak, and took a single step toward her with one brown hand outstretched.
The blood rushing in her ears drowned out the steady drum of rain and her own gasping breaths. She stumbled back, feeling for the door behind her.
And she ran. Blindly, with no purpose other than escape. She passed a handful of servants and the innkeeper, following the cool, wet draft of air that meant freedom. The inn's door stood ajar, admitting a sodden pair of travelers. Eden pushed past them without a word.
The dirty cobbles of the stable yard were already slick with mud. She dodged the horses and hostlers and dashed for the gate. In a matter of minutes, her dress was soaked through and her pelisse half fallen from her shoulders.
Still she ran, until the roar of thunder muffled even the hammering of her heart. When she could go no farther, she stopped and turned her face up to the sky. Her hair hung in knotted ropes down her back. One of her shoes was lost. She was lost.
She laughed. Her mouth filled with water, and she swallowed it, wishing to be drowned. She fell to her knees and rocked back and forth, shivering, while raindrops played the role of tears that would not come.
Today is my wedding day.
Today her life was over.
Six Years Laters
"My lady, Mr. Winstowe is asking for you." Lady Eden Winstowe turned from her bleak view of Brook Street and acknowledged the butler's hushed summons with a nod. "Thank you, Bailey. I shall go up presently." She
glanced out the window again, through the splattered raindrops that drowned the world on this dark November morning.
So the time had come. How strange that it should fall at a season when most of the ton had left for their estates to enjoy hunting and holidays, family and friends.
Her throat tightened with the memory of grief. Spencer had been lost to her long ago, before his final illness had drained the life from his body. She had known for years that he wanted to be rid of her, free to marry some fresh young woman with a larger and more reliable income?ªthough it seemed increasingly unlikely that any woman would accept the debauched, unbalanced man he had become. She would gladly have given him that freedom rather than see it end like this, in such pain and bitterness.
Once she'd hated him. Now she felt only pity and helplessness. Lady Eden Winstowe could flout anyone except Death.
"The fire has gone out, my lady. I will send a maid to light it again."
Eden glanced at the coals in the grate, aware of the chill for the first time in hours. "It is quite unnecessary, Bailey. As long as the fire is adequate in Mr. Winstowe's chamber?ª"
"It is, my lady. The doctor is still with him, and Mr. Reynolds. Is there anything more I can do for you?"
The poor man had little enough to do now that they had taken the knocker from the door and closed the house to visitors. "I shall see Mr. Winstowe now, Bailey."
He bowed and retreated from the room, leaving her to face the stairs alone. The stairs that led to yet another ending.
The doctor looked up as she entered, his eyes telling her everything she needed to know. Mr. Reynolds never paused in his silent reading of his Bible, straining to make out the words in the light of the fire. The room stank of the chamber pot, but it was a smell with which Eden had become most familiar.
Spencer lay propped up among his pillows, his sallow face gaunt as a skull. The once-handsome dandy was withered and wasted, but she could still see mockery through the swelling of his faded gray eyes and feel his barely veiled contempt. It only made her pity him the more.
"Spencer," she said, knowing that formality was pointless. She sat in the chair beside the bed and took his hand. "You wished to see me."
"My gay, beautiful Eden," he said. His voice was reduced to a husky rasp. "How it must appall you to be trapped here with me."
"No, Spencer." She struggled for words. Their marriage had never included much conversation and far less sympathy. "I only wish?ª"
"That I'd gone sooner? All these?? dreadful weeks of nursing me?ª" He tried to sit up and coughed, a deep, racking sound followed by a
wheeze as he fought to breathe. Dr. Jones placed a gentle hand on his shoulder and eased him back down.
I wish that we might have made a real peace before this, Eden thought. There was still time. One last chance.
"I wish that I had been a better wife to you," she said. "I wish that I could have made you happy."
He laughed. "Oh, you did?? for a while, lovely Eden. As long as the money lasted." His breath rattled, but he summoned up his strength and continued. "Unfortunately, your father did me the great discourtesy of losing his wealth and most of his land. After all I sacrificed to marry such?ª" He closed his eyes and shuddered. "But that would be most indelicate of me, would it not?"
Eden well knew what he'd been about to say. With the bribe of a steady and generous income, her father had arranged her expeditious marriage, five years ago, to an impoverished but well-placed viscount's son. Spencer Winstowe, practiced rake and gamester, had known she was not a virgin.
He had not known about the child who had died. Papa had taken great pains to hide that scandal from both Society and the local folk of Hartsmere. But he could not silence the rumors of an elopement, and Spencer had never let Eden forget that he had been "forced" to marry her.
Even when he began to be ill after the first year of their marriage, he would not accept her concern or solicitude. He openly preferred his bits of muslin and gaming hells to her company. His increasing ill health did not slow him but drove him to even greater extremes in a mad quest for every sort of dissipation available to a man with connections, money, and no restraint.
He and Eden went their separate ways, like so many couples of the ton. Aunt Claudia's instruction in the ways of Society had saved Eden. She had learned how to pretend that nothing was wrong, that sorrow could not touch her.
Even when the money stopped coming, and Spencer cursed her to hell.
But nothing had taught her to look upon death as she had come to view all the other exigencies of life with her husband. This was no joke to be laughed away with a mask of cynical indifference.
"However," Spencer said, cutting into her thoughts, "we have no more leisure for delicacy." He turned his head on the pillow to catch the doctor's eye. "What I have to say to my wife is not for your ears. Get out."
The doctor and clergyman exchanged wary glances. "Mr. Winstowe," the physician said. "I strongly feel that?ª"
"Get out, I tell you?ªif you want your fees paid!" Spencer began to cough again, and both men reluctantly sidled out the door.