Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Nine

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Isadora strode up the stone path towards the Rectory. A flock of sparrows that had been pecking around the yard fluttered away in all directions as if they sensed her distress. Now that it was summer, school was only in session for a few more weeks. She feared her slower students could get left behind come fall without ample tutoring in the meantime. A few came to her classes hungry and it was difficult for her to bring enough for all of them. The ledgers at the inn were in disarray and she knew of only one more source she could turn to.

Isadora came up onto the step and stopped in front of the door. She fretted for some moments, before rapping the iron knocker.

The Reverend’s Wife answered. “Good afternoon!”

The woman appeared to be surprised at the sight of Isadora, but she shouldn’t have been. Isadora had already delivered a letter for her and her husband to review. Not a good omen, she rued. “I was wondering if the Reverend has had a chance yet to …”

“Ah, yes. A wonderful idea my dear, but there simply isn’t the money.”

Of course there wasn’t. She turned her face down to hide her reddening eyes, disappointed even though she had been expecting that very answer.

“I considered approaching the elusive Mr. Fitcher about funding, but thought I should seek your approval first. I would also need your assistance in convincing him of your cause.”

Isadora looked up again and knitted her brow. That name kept cropping up whenever she was in the woman’s presence and the more often it did, the more it alarmed her.

“Perhaps you might have had more luck getting his attention than I, had you attended his soirée. Which was anything but modest. What he spent on flowers alone—for one single night!—could feed every last student of yours for the entire season.”

Now she was glad she hadn’t gone, though not out of spite. She knew the woman meant no malice; men, especially wealthy men, were far more generous to younger unmarried women than older ones married or not. What worried her most, was what such a man would expect from her in return. “My father’s been ill––someone has to manage his affairs for him. I wasn’t able to go.”

The elder woman held her fingers to Isadora’s cheek. She looked at her in a mothering sort of way and sighed. “You’d make someone such a fine wife. Someday, perhaps …” She stepped back, studying Isadora’s melancholy face. “What are you so afraid of, my dear? This isn’t simply your troubles with the school. Every time I see you look so … haunted.”

Only now was Isadora aware of the fear that had been lingering in the corners of her mind, slowly growing and spreading like fungus or weeds. “I don’t know. For many months now, I’ve felt this shadow, this evil arriving in our village.” With that, she turned around and fled home.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Eight

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The Butler stood on the threshold of what was now Daphne’s bedroom. He held the door open for her. It was indeed a room fit for a princess, or even a queen, with a four-poster canopied bed and covers thick and soft as the mattress underneath. Heavy velvet drapes covered the windows from ceiling to floor. The carpet was plush and silky beneath her feet.

“If there is anything you desire, you need only ask. Come down whenever you are ready,” he said, and left her alone to explore.

She stepped further into the room, her eyes widening with delight as she took everything in. At first, the extravagance was overwhelming. It took careful study of her surroundings to even begin to distinguish any individual item. Even the ceiling! An ornate rosette had been carved high above, from which dangled a glittering chandelier. The walls were papered in a beautiful pattern of red and pink roses, the velvet drapes hanging over each of tall narrow windows were a perfect shade in between. Her eyes then caught a finely carved walnut vanity on her left. Delicate glass perfume bottles and wooden boxes with intricate inlaid tops were arranged on the surface. An assortment of jewels cut from the finest gems, and necklaces of pearls and gold, spilled out of them.

It was all too much. She wandered around her new bedroom, dazzled, wondering when she’d have the chance to see everything in here. For now, all she wished to do was return to Fitcher’s side.

* * * * *

Fitcher sat at one end of the long table in the dining room. The place to his right was set for Daphne. The butler laid out silver serving platters, the domed covers gleaming in the morning sun. He arranged the breakfast silver around the plates and took his leave. Some minutes later Daphne appeared at the threshold. She looked very pretty in her violet dress, but hesitant. When she met his gaze a smile twitched on her face. She clasped her hands together in front of her chest, yet made no further move to come in. Another shy one.

“Ah, Daphne,” Fitcher said, hoping his kind words would coax her in, “You are as beautiful in the full light of day as you were the other night. Possibly more so.”

She blushed as he rose to greet her. He helped her into her chair. After a whispered thanks and a peck on his check, she sat and gazed around as if she were in a dream. The dining room made the one at the spa in Würstemberg seem like a common tavern. “I only hope you don’t get too lonely here in this big old house with just me for company,” he said.

She smiled at him, looking a little sad. “I will miss my mother. I already do.”

“There is a carriage and a coachman entirely at your disposal. You may visit her any time.”

Her grin widened. The sadness in her eyes drifted away like clouds that had been shrouding the sun. The light slanting in through the window behind her cast an ethereal glow around her. His angel from heaven.
“After lunch I will show you around,” Fitcher continued, hoping to revive some of the magic they’d had on his balcony. “The gardens are simply exquisite at this time of year.”

He lifted the lid of one of the serving platters. Smells of bacon and eggs filled the air, then the scents of orange and melon as he removed the remaining lids.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Seven

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A lonely road plowed through fallow fields that stretched out to the horizon on either side. Two peasants, a man and a woman of middling age, walked alongside the parallel tracks. They were tired and ragged and had yet to stop for a rest in spite of having left their home at dawn. It was now well past midnight. A bloated yellow moon lit their way. Soon it would sink beneath the horizon and they’d have to find someplace warm to sleep. At least the weather had been dry.

When they reached the crossroads, they stopped. A solitary coach was heading towards them. As the coach drew closer they each stumbled in turn up onto the grassy rise between the ruts and waved their arms frantically. The carriage was unable to swerve to pass them, though as the horses were pulled up, the man and the woman scrambled out of the way.

The carriage came to halt. The peasant man ran up to the driver and held a piece of paper up to him. The woman stood behind him, her filthy face alight with hope. The driver shook his head. “No, I am afraid. I have never heard of a man by that name. Nor seen this girl.”

His passenger, a gentleman in his mid-fifties, threw the carriage door open from inside. “What is the meaning of this––why have we stopped!” It wasn’t a question so much as an order for the driver to get moving again.

Well aware the gentleman was in a bad temper rather than a bad temper being his temperament, the driver leaned down to him and asked, “Ever heard of this Fitcher gent?”

“Who?” The gentleman blinked rapidly, and squinted up in confusion. Even now fully roused, he couldn’t recall ever hearing the name and said as much.

The peasant man, dressed in an assortment of rags the colour of the earth itself, held a tattered page up to him. The sketch showed a pretty young girl, with light curled hair, a heart-shaped face and large, wide set eyes. “Forgive me kind sir, we ask all who pass on this road. Our daughter. Have you seen her?”

The carriage occupant stared at the drawing, tracing her features with his finger, which only somewhat resembled the faces before him beneath all the caked mud and grime. However from sometimes even the hardest most barren soil, a most beautiful flower grows. His voice and demeanour turned gentle at the sight of their anguish. “No, I have not. I would certainly remember such a lovely face.”

“She was last accompanyin’ a man by the name of Fetcher, livin’ in a great big stone ‘ouse.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone by that name, I’m afraid. I myself am a stranger to these parts.” Although normally reluctant to do so, he shifted aside in his seat and offered them a ride into the next village. The innkeeper there was a softhearted one, from what he had heard, and would likely offer them a bed for the night free of charge or in exchange for some chores.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Six

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Daphne leapt out of the carriage and burst in through the door, delirious. She ran straight to her mother, who was at the table reading by the light of a pillar candle. Before the woman’d had a chance to ask how her night had gone Daphne blurted, “Oh mother, it was beyond what I ever could have dreamed!” She whirled around and flopped onto her cot.

The Witch rushed over and perched on her own bed, across from Daphne. She put her hand to the girl’s forehead. Daphne was feverish, but mercifully without a fever. Her skin glistened under the faint light. “And how did you like Fitcher?”

Daphne grinned mischievously. Now that she’d come to her senses a little, she wanted to tease all the details out, the only means she had to stretch this night, one she wished would never end, that little bit longer. “When I stepped off the carriage there was the handsomest man I ever saw standing right before me. When I learned Fitcher was someone else, well, I…”

She tried to feign a stern demeanour but it was so hard for her to.

“You what?”

Her mother was almost fooled, but Daphne found it impossible to hide the gleam from her eyes or her smile or any other hint of joy on her face. She flew up from her bed again and began circling around the rooms like a dervish. “Oh my disappointment vanished the second I met him. He is magnetic––I was drawn instantly to him like iron to lodestone and stuck by his side the entire night!”

The Witch smiled at her, face flushed with relief.

Daphne couldn’t stop pacing around, so excited she wondered if she’d ever sleep again in her life. Now for the part that weighed on her mind most, and was the primary source of her anxiety. Not at all certain how to phrase it she simply said, “He’s invited me to stay with him and I’ll have my own room until we are married. May I?”

“Stay with him!”

The alarm in her voice stopped Daphne in her tracks. If she could do so without hurting her mother, she’d be packing all of her things and leaving to return to him at dawn. “Oh please, mother, to describe what went on between us––there are no words for it, but it feels as though I’ve forgotten a piece of myself there and I just have to go back as soon as I can!” She grasped her mother’s hands desperately, as if she were about to drown in a fast-flowing river.

“My child. Of course you may.”

Daphne sat next to her and collapsed in her mother’s lap the way she did as a small child whenever she grew overwhelmed. The Witch cradled her daughter’s head, eyes watering.

“Anything you wish,” she whispered. The witch had never known love such as this in her life and the last thing she wanted to do was deprive her own daughter of it no matter how desperately she’d miss her here.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Five

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With the soiree in full swing, Wilhelm figured he could get away with nipping out for a few hours unnoticed. Dealing with inebriated guests at the end of the night would be so much easier if he were drunk too. The pub on the ground floor of the inn was usually a locus of social activity in the village but tonight it was deathly quiet. The sort of quiet one usually saw after a barroom brawl once all the participants had been hauled away, minus the broken tables and chairs.

Halvar fetched a glass of beer for Wilhelm. He took several sips and then joined two older townsfolk seated at a nearby table. Tonight they were the only company and he wasn’t in the mood to drink alone.

Arne laughed as he tugged the sleeve of Wilhelm’s footman uniform. “Ha! Your jacket makes you look like some organ grinder’s monkey.”

As always, he took the insults in stride. Teasing as such never fazed him. “Organ grinder, footman, labourer. All in a day’s work for Mr. Fitcher.”

“What a clever man! You do three jobs for him, while he only pays you for one.”

That irked him, though he did his best not to show it, hiding the firm line of his mouth behind the rim of his beer glass. Klaus jerked his head and looked at him suspiciously. “Fitcher, you say? Begging must be more lucrative than I imagined.”

His Master’s disguise was so unconvincing Wilhelm saw no reason to lie. Yet still the odd villager was fooled, to his surprise. There were always those you could fool always. “Mr. Fitcher simply prefers not to flaunt his wealth around,” Wilhelm said.

“Or with the people who work for him,” Arne said, slapping Wilhelm’s shoulder.

“I’ve seen him with my own eyes. He’s a beggar!” Klaus insisted. He slammed his mug against the table. Klaus was the sort fooled always and in all ways.

“It is disguise he wears when he comes and goes,” Wilhelm assured him. “To deter bandits and pickpockets.”

“You and your stories.”

“Ask my brothers! I work for him, so I should … know …” Wilhelm was staring in the general direction of the door and only now did he realize what had caught his attention. A lovely blonde woman had just entered and all of a sudden the rest of his surroundings, even the stench of spilled beer and stale smoke, ceased to exist. His head turned and his gaze followed her as she walked from the staircase to the man tending bar.

“The landlord’s daughter,” Klaus said, elbowing Wilhelm back to the present. He felt as though someone had just doused him with ice cold water. “She teaches at the girls’ charity school.”

“Her father owns this inn?” He had to force himself to stay put in his seat and not chase after her to check her finger for a wedding band. He tried to think back to when he’d last visited this inn. More than a year, possibly two, had passed. He’d seduced a young lovely resembling her and then … No, that was elsewhere. To his shame he was unable to recall the exact time and place. He sank in his seat. Rare was the time he ever felt guilt for failing to write, and now a horror sank deep into his bones when he remembered what he’d promised her. This woman was bound to have heard the stories about him.

“And the brewery,” Arne said, nudging his shoulder. “Whoever she marries will be a very happy man indeed.”

“Aye,” Wilhelm said, not hearing what they said beyond the only thing he needed to know: she was a maiden still. One who looked all too familiar, now that he thought about it, guilt lurking in the shadowy corners of his mind. He fixed his attention on the slender figure behind the bar, her head drooping like a late summer sunflower. Strange how she wasn’t at the ball tonight when every young lady in the village had been invited to attend.

“Even if she looked like a troll and was as sour as vinegar she’d make a good wife!” Arne and Klaus laughed and clinked their glasses. Wilhelm tried unsuccessfully to catch her eye. He’d yet to determine whether she was wilfully ignoring him or simply hadn’t looked his way and he braced himself to be ready for either. Whatever village he travelled to, his reputation often preceded him.

Gunther entered the pub and joined their table. Wilhelm scarcely took notice. He was still gawking at Isadora, watching her hand some papers to the bartender and wishing in that moment they could trade places just so it could be his hand her fingers brushed against. “I am in love.”

“She could do far better than you!” Gunther slapped Wilhelm’s back.

Only now was he aware Gunther had joined them. Lost in his reverie, he neglected to scold the boy for neglecting his watch by the gatehouse. “Why do you suppose she wasn’t there tonight? Invitations were sent to every last maiden in town.”

Gunther sulked, the fingers of both hands wrapped around his pint of ale. “Can you believe it? The Witch’s own daughter has been captivated by that old devil. I’d always thought they were immune to such glamour.”

“Aye, she is rather lovely,” Wilhelm admitted, remembering mostly the raven curls.

“Fairest in all the land,” Gunther said.

Wilhelm shook his head, watching Isadora leave and taking nearly all of the light in the room with her. “Not half as fair as she.”

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Four

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Daphne pressed her nose to the window as the carriage pulled up in front of the entrance to Mr. Fitcher’s house. She couldn’t see much yet, beyond a moonlit patch of grass and the shingled roof of an old stone chapel. Doing her best to keep her breath steady, she sat forward again, her back erect, hands folded on her lap the way her mother taught her a proper lady should sit, and waited for the footman to open the door for her.

At the sound of a gentle click, the door swung open. A cool breeze blew in. She took the hand that was offered to her, and froze. He was much younger than she had been expecting. And so handsome! This was the sort of man she thought existed only in dreams. His features were soft and beautiful, but it wasn’t just that. An inner kindness shone through that she struggled to describe. She wanted to remember each moment tonight, in detail, to hold onto for the rest of her life. His greyish eyes locked on hers and she felt herself diving into them like a hidden oasis. A whinnying horse broke the spell and Gunther helped her down out of the cab.

She flashed a smile, one that faded at the sight of his uniform. Although she’d never attended a ball before, she knew hired help were forbidden from mixing with guests. Chances were, once she was led indoors, she’d never see him again. Fighting back disappointment, she said, “You are not Mr. Fitcher.”

“No, miss,” he said sadly. He pointed towards the house where two men were standing. She leaned around him to look. One was obviously the Butler, since even in the darkness she could see the white gloves on his folded hands, so no doubt the footman was referring to the shorter man by his side. With the light from a chandelier shimmering behind them, all she could see of them were their silhouettes.

“There is Mr. Fitcher.”

“Oh.” If only they could climb back inside the cab and run off together. Or she could take her home with him; mother wouldn’t mind, surely.

Gunther smiled kindly to her, but that glimmer in his eye was gone. He gestured for her to continue up the path towards the house. With a heavy heart she watched Mr. Fitcher descend the front steps to greet her. A second footmen held up lantern and now she could make out Mr. Fitcher’s face under the flickering light.

Her heart sank even further. The man was old enough to be her father. She balked at taking another step forward. Mr. Fitz Fitcher held out a hand to her, beckoning her gently as if she were a horse that easily shies. Already their motions seemed part of some awkward courtly dance.

She was aware of her breath hitching in her chest at the touch of his fingers on hers. The same sense of enchantment settled in once more. His wide-set eyes took her in. They were green, the colour of moss, with a hint of brown. His cheekbones were angular and he had a sharp, perfectly straight nose. His generous mouth turned quickly into a smile. Her heart began fluttering again, but less frantically this time, more the flutter of a bird coming down to land on its perch. He was indeed a very handsome man. She forgot all about the lad who’d helped her out of the carriage.

Mr. Fitcher led her into a foyer with a chequered floor so polished she caught her reflection in a black square and then in white. She looked up and stared agape at the chandelier glittering high above her. Although she’d seen this entire place from above in her mother’s scrying tray, she was stunned by the sheer scale, the massive staircase sweeping up to a lengthy minstrel’s gallery, the wide hall flanked with archways leading into similarly massive rooms. She stood motionless, watching the sparkling guests swirl around her. So many people, all dressed in their colourful finery. The gentlemen in tails and the ladies in gowns of blue and purple and yellow and green, with their hair swept up high and pinned in curls and braids under ribbons or tiaras like so many exotic birds.

A tapping on her shoulder woke her from her reverie. She glanced around and Mr. Fitcher had vanished. She began to feel panicked. “Where did he go?”

“He had to attend to some newly arrived guests,” the Butler said. He’d been the one who’d touched her shoulder and she could still feel where his finger had pressed on her flesh. “Come, I’ll take you to him now.”

He offered his arm to escort her into the ballroom. They strolled into the largest room she’d ever been in in her life. Although crowded with revellers, she had no trouble seeing the chamber orchestra onstage at the far end of the room. They played a lovely chaconne and assorted guests danced expertly before them. Across from her, against the wall, she could see a feast laid out for a king. She found herself unable to move from the arched entrance, feeling like a small child on her first day at school. Her eyes widened when she saw the cornucopia of desserts and flowers on the table to her right.

“Come, miss,” the Butler said. He took her closer to the dancing area, where Mr. Fitcher and a clique of beautiful women were all laughing at something he’d just said. One by one the expressions on the women’s faces turned to stone as they spotted the much younger rival for their host’s affections approach.

“Daphne, may I formally introduce you to Mr. Fitze Fitcher,” the Butler said with a bow.

Fitcher’s attention instantly fixated on Daphne. She gasped; not so much at him but at the predatory eyes of the women surrounding him. He bowed, straightened again, and kissed the back of her hand. Oh, she’d never had such attentions as these before. She began feeling quite dizzy from the rush of excitement coursing into her.

“I am delighted to make your acquaintance,” he said, clasping her hand. His fingers were warm, his grip firm but not hard. “I have only seen you once previously, from afar. But close enough to wonder if you were not some angel lost and wandering upon this Earth.”

Daphne blushed. The man before her was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen in her life. This flattery was almost too much, but she’d have been lying if she said she didn’t revel in it. He put his arm around the small of her back. He led her away, sheltering her from the other women’s icy stares. He brought her to a regal trio who were around the same age as he and bowed to each of them. “Allow me to introduce you to Count Tepes, Baroness Erzsebet, and my dearest friend Prince Cesare.”

Count Tepes, an Hungarian, had a thick black mustache. His long oiled hair was parted in the middle and curled at the ends. Prince Cesare was a short, stout Italian who was nearly as dark as the Count. Baroness Erzsebet, also Hungarian, was an elegant older woman whose face was only beginning to hint at her age, which was otherwise revealed only by fine streaks of grey in her walnut-dark hair.

The Italian Prince took Daphne’s hand and kissed the back of her fingers. “You are indeed as lovely as I have heard. Fitcher is a most delightful man.”

“Why he remains a bachelor is a mystery for the ages.” The husky-voiced Baroness looked at Fitcher with almost filial affection. Daphne wondered briefly if they were related to one another.

The Count said, “There simply hasn’t been a girl worthy enough who is still—”

“Don’t frighten the poor dear,” the Baroness said. She cocked her head and smiled sweetly at Daphne, though her gaze had a knife edge to it. “The girl has some very distinct traces of good breeding. See her fine jaw, and the bridge of her nose.”

Daphne instinctively drew back from her. Fitcher put his arm around Daphne’s waist and smiled tenderly at her; when her eyes met his it was as though the rest of the room disappeared. Enchanting only began to describe his gaze. “Perhaps I was waiting to meet Daphne all this time. The most beautiful girl I have ever laid eyes upon.”

Intruding into their sphere, the Baroness touched Daphne under her chin, lifting her head up slightly. “What perfect skin. A lovely colour. You’re quite dark for this part of the world.”

Daphne squirmed. She had the unpleasant sensation similar to being watched by a python readying to coil around her and squeeze the life out of her. Only the touch of Fitcher beside her helped her stay calm.

“Come, I had some lemon cakes made especially for you. Your mother informed me those are your favourite.” Fitcher took her hand and led her towards a table laden with an extravagant spread of desserts. Pastries, cakes, tarts, and biscuits decorated with icing and berries and fondant were as flamboyant as the surrounding flower arrangements. Scents of vanilla and chocolate, strawberries and lemon filled her nostrils.

Daphne sampled a small comestible that was mostly cream, taking care none of it wound up on her face. Fitcher began feeding her grapes sweeter than any nectar she’d ever tried, smiling and gently teasing her with each one. Her appetite was slight, however, and they lingered only a short while at the table.

The crowd parted as Fitcher ushered her to the dancing area in front of the stage. He was light on his feet as the two of them waltzed before the cellos and violins. At the end of a minuet, Fitcher pulled her close to him. He gazed into her eyes with the steadiness of a hypnotist. The rest of the room dissolved until only the two of them were left in the world.

Next thing she knew, she was standing with him on an upstairs balcony overlooking the front garden and the lane beyond. Blood red roses twisted around the trellis. A full moon cast a silvery light around, imbuing their setting with a magic even Daphne had never before experienced. An owl hooted gently in the forest. The tree branches whispered a lullaby in the gentle breeze.

Below, Wilhelm mounted a horse whose flank glistened under the moonlight. He nudged his heels into the horse’s sides and rode down the lane into the dark woods. She wasn’t sure why she’d noticed him beyond him being the only moving object in her sights. The jingling bridle, the music, and voices coming out of the windows of the dance hall below, were barely a susurration in her ears.

Fitcher took her in a warm embrace and again she could feel herself pulled into him. They kissed, a slow, electric kiss. An immeasurable time later, he grasped her hands in his. “Come stay with me,” he pleased. “My treasure. You will be happy living here, and shall have everything your heart desires.”

All she could do was smile at him; staying forever in this moment was all she wished for.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Three

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Isadora’s bedroom was spacious and plain. It suited her temperament as a person of simple tastes, but with ample room for everyone she wished to invite inside. She often had friends come visit, or would tutor any children who seemed to be falling behind. Her one indulgence beyond basic furnishings was a tapestry of birds in a tree. It hung on the wall above her bed. Her wardrobe contained one evening dress, which she held to her chest in front of the mirror above her vanity.

She frowned, and lay it over the back of a nearby chair. She then held a second gown up to her face. This one had belonged to her late mother. She was reluctant to try it on, beautiful though it was, in the same shade of pale green as her mother’s eyes had been.

Loud, pertussal coughing came from another room. She tensed. She’d been searching for excuses not to leave the house. Her growing alarm made her determined to forgo the ball. She lay her mother’s dress atop of her own and fled across the hall into her father’s room.

This bedroom had only a few ghostly traces of any feminine touch. Her mother had passed away several years earlier. Her father lay in his bed, his face red and bloated from coughing. She rushed to his side and perched on the edge of the hard mattress. Next to her was a chair and on the seat was a bowl of cool water, and a cloth. She dunked it, wrung it out and used it to daub his forehead. “You can’t possibly work tonight! Allow me to take care of the inn for you. You know I can.”

He frowned and raised a shaky hand in protest. She pushed his hand back down. He was too weak to resist her, or even order her to let him be. He was a stubborn and prideful man, but he wasn’t stupid. She went over to his desk, heaped with neglected accounts and bar tabs. She piled all the papers together and began sorting through them. “I’ll manage the desk and the tavern tonight,” she said over her shoulder to him, hoping this was the worst of his infection and that it would soon pass. “And Halvar will be there to fend off any trouble.”

Her father attempted to moan in protest and she shushed him. “Don’t worry about me. The Reverend’s Wife assures me there will be another ball soon enough. He has them several times a year, from what she’s heard.”

She watched the features of her father’s face relax; it was the promise of another future social engagement for her than the presence of Halvar tonight that appeared to assuage him most. She kissed her two fingers, pressed them to his forehead, and bade him goodnight.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Two

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Fitcher stood under the archway and gazed around. The ballroom was hushed and finely dressed as though it, too, was anxiously waiting for the first guests to arrive. The marble floor and wood furnishings had been polished to a mirror shine. Vases of fresh flowers were set on every surface. Particoloured streamers crisscrossed the ceiling. On the far side of the ballroom some hired help straightened elaborate floral arrangements around a sumptuous banquet. Smells of herbs, melted chocolate, roast chicken and fresh bread filled the air. A small stage had been set up at one end. Music stands stood to attention. Cases for stringed instrument looked much more relaxed, resting on their sides in the corner.

The Butler appeared next to him. Fitcher said in a low voice, “And did you remember to …”

“I did, sir, but she was not there.”

Fitcher frowned for a moment, then shrugged. The innkeeper’s daughter, lovely as she no doubt was, was merely one of many lovely village girls for him to court. “I am expecting a young brunette named Daphne. Hair black as night, eyes like gems cut from amethyst. I’d like you to bring her to me, as soon as she arrives.” He stared off, wistfully. “The pressure is on for me to find a wife and—”

“Daphne!” the butler scoffed. “You mean the Witch’s daughter?”

“A witch! There is no such thing! Besides, I’ve met the woman and her daughter is arriving with her full consent.” Flailing his hands he added, “She cured my cough thanks to her expertise with medicinal herbs, not some hocus-pocus.”

The butler appeared to be about to protest and Fitcher shushed him. He snapped his fingers and signalled to a servant who was about to set a platter of desserts at the wrong end of the table. The tension was making him irritable. “I grow so tired of all these ignorant townsfolk and their idiotic superstitions!”

The Butler, looking chastened, went to assist with proper placement of all the platters coming out of the kitchen.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter One

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Daphne tilted the full length mirror and propped it against the hearth. She stood in front of it, captivated by the way her long silk gown shimmered in the sunset glow of the fireplace. The Witch stood behind her, pinning Daphne’s black hair up in curls that glinted red and gold in the faint light.

“I wish you would come with me.” Daphne twirled a strand of blue ribbon around and between her fingers, nearly knotting the ends together. She barely recognized herself as a woman grown, dressed for her first ever ball. “The invitation didn’t specify I was to come alone.”

“An old woman like me among all those gentlefolk?” She rested her chin on Daphne’s shoulder. She gazed at the two of them in the mirror, and smiled. “See how your eyes sparkle! I can see why you’ve come to the attention of such a fine man.”

“What is he like?” Daphne had been in the village when he dropped off the invitation, and that was twice now her mother had met the man whilst she’d only heard about him. She wasn’t sure if he was the man she’d seen going between carriages many nights past; she hoped it was.

“He’s older, I’ll admit, but incredibly handsome. Very charming, educated, well travelled. And rich.”

Daphne sighed. Same as the Reverend’s Wife had described. It was the rich part, however, that aroused her suspicions. Most rich men were vile, she’d always thought, expecting their wealth to compensate for failings in character or personality, plying women with baubles and trinkets to account for harsh words or deeds. Yet her mother was so keen for them to meet. Surely she knew better than to send Daphne into the arms of a scoundrel. Nor did she wish to disappoint her mother if there turned out to be no spark between them to kindle any flames.

“What if I don’t fall in love with him?”

“I doubt there is a girl out there who would not fall in love with him. You’ll see.”

Daphne smiled nervously, trusting her mother’s judgment. At the very least the ball promised to be such a grand occasion, with fabulous food and drink. Perhaps it was her fears of being alone among so many fine strangers that stirred her misgivings about Mr. Fitcher.

The jingling of a horse’s reins and the clattering of wheels outside caused her heart to flutter so, that she was afraid it would take flight. The sounds startled her more than they should have, considering she’d been expecting them. She took one last look at herself in the mirror, her dark eyes wide with fright and an odd sternness to them, her mouth a tight line under her dark red lipstick. Mr. Fitcher was a charming man, everyone had said. She had no reason to be afraid.

“That must be your carriage! So kind of him to arrange such a thing for you.” Her mother straightened the skirt of Daphne’s gown and draped a silk wrap around her shoulders. Daphne felt as flaccid as a rag doll as her mother turned her around and pushed her out the door.

Mercifully, her mode of transport was modest. One horse, barely larger than a pony, pulling a simple wooden cab. She felt her stiff countenance relaxing. The only hint of extravagance was a blond man in a red and gold footman’s uniform who’d hopped down from the driver’s seat. Although he was undeniably good-looking, he carried himself with a louche arrogance that told the world he was well aware of his comeliness.

He opened the door and bowed in a single fluid move. Daphne’s mother helped her climb inside. Daphne sat upright as if a broomstick had been pressed along her spine. Her hands clasped her knees. The Witch pinned a cluster of tiny purple flowers to Daphne’s dress, then tapped the crooks of each of Daphne’s arms to get her to loosen her posture. Daphne tried to smile.

“Have a wonderful time.” The Witch’s pale face glowed in the bluish moonlight. It was always in the light of the moon that her mother looked so beautiful, with a broad forehead and wizened eyes above sturdy cheekbones, her skin still with a flush of youth.

“I’ll try. I’m just not sure about either this place or this man. Both are strange to me.” Daphne let out a nervous sigh. She was glad the driver had returned to his seat and was unlikely to have overheard her. Her mother arched her brow.

“You always were afraid of anything strange. What have I always told you?”

“That your own fear is most oft worse than anything you ever face.”

“I did indeed.” The Witch took a step back. “Now go. People are waiting for you. I sense this ball will be beyond your wildest imagining. You’ll see.”

“I will have a wonderful time,” she said more certainly, not needing her mother to remind her of what governed their inherited craft: the words they spoke aloud.

Once the door was firmly closed, she stared around the cushioned ceiling and walls of her cab. The curtains were opened to allow the moonlight in. She lurched forward as the carriage began pulling away. To her surprise she felt no urge to demand the driver stop and let her out, but she did resist taking one last peek out the back window at her mother, who would surely still be standing on the step in front of their house, waving until she was out of sight.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part One, Chapter Nineteen

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Hilde started as she came into the parlour. Fitcher was waiting for her on the sofa. Her grin at the sight of him probably didn’t fool anyone, but she couldn’t help herself. If only her heart would stop beating so fast. If only she could steady her breath. “I’m so happy to see you finally!” she said a little too excitedly. “I had no idea you were back! Thorsten said you wouldn’t return until late!”

“It is late.” He patted the cushion next to him. She hesitated, and then joined him hurriedly, nearly losing her balance as she sat. If it weren’t for the horrors she’d just seen she would have been genuinely delighted by his unexpectedly early return. So far he seemed to have no inkling as to where she’d just been. She felt dizzy with relief. She should have heeded his warning. She should never have unlocked that door.

Fitcher threw his arms around her. He kissed her passionately. She tried to relax, her body stiff with tension. The more statue-like she seemed the more likely she’d around his suspicion, which only made her limbs even more rigid with fright.

“My darling, I missed you so much.”

“I missed you as well.” She smiled nervously and held the set of keys out to him. “It—it took me so long to figure out which key fit which lock, that it kept me busy for almost the whole time you were gone. These were quite the puzzle! I hardly got to see inside any of the rooms!”

He took the keys from her, scrutinizing her face. He smiled darkly at her in a way she’d never seen before, a smile that brandished a razor sharp knife. “And the egg?”

“I—I kept it on my person just as you said.” She made no move to remove the egg from her pocket. When she’d let out that scream below, surely he’d still been in the carriage, outdoors with the rain pattering all around, and unable to hear her. She was safely upstairs and passing the kitchen by the time his footsteps were tapping across the entryway.

Fitcher smiled and bowed his head, the proverbial knife sheathed for the time being.

Of course if she had nothing to hide, she should be producing the egg immediately! She reached into the pocket of her dress. She tucked the egg into her palm. She wrapped her fingers around it and held her fist out to him. She didn’t dare meet his gaze. A shiver of horror coursed through her as the egg went from her grasp to his. He tugged at it; she found herself unable to let go.

Between their tangled pale fingers, the surface of the egg was stained as though it had rusted. A drop of blood, crimson bright, fell and sank into the cream velvet upholstery on which they sat.

Fitcher snatched the egg from her; Hilde screamed and ran for the nearest door.

She wasn’t fast enough. Fitcher grabbed her by her hair and slammed her against the wall. Pain seared into her head, her shoulder, her breast and her hip. He pulled her away and held her tight. He forced her around, gripped each of her wrists, and pressed them together against the small of her back. He flattened her against the door frame with his own body, trapping her. Raw terror surged into her.

His breath was hotter than a kiln in her ear as he said, “Since you have gone into the chamber against my will, you must now go into it against your own!”