Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Thirteen

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Isadora sat at her desk, feeling restive. Class had been dismissed for the day and she wasn’t expected at the inn until suppertime. Her father had mostly recovered from his illness. The fever had subsided and his rash was nearly gone. She had the Witch to thank. His weak step was the only remaining sign that death had been calling at his door. Although she had assignments to review and correct, she was unable to summon enough concentration. Lately her sleep had been disturbed by terrible dreams.

The sun hung bright in a cloudless sky and yet she had no interest in venturing outdoors. Instead she gazed out a nearby window, watching two little birds pecking at each other over a prized spot on a tree branch. Sometimes they could be such vicious little things.

A knocking on the outer door shook her back to the present. She got up out of her chair, went out into the corridor. She had just reached the heavy wooden door leading out onto the schoolhouse steps when another knock came.

She opened it and before her stood a peasant couple in clothes covered in patches and stitching. Her heart sank; she hadn’t any coin on her and they did look so desperately poor. Before she could sadly turn them away, the man held a tattered drawing out to her. “Have you seen this lass passing through these parts?”

Isadora studied the drawing of a girl, who could easily have been her younger sister, or her own mother when she was a girl. They had a similar oval face and the same fine nose. She shook her head. “She’s very pretty. I’m quite sure I’d remember her.”

“Our daughter,” the woman said. “We’ve not heard from her nor seen hide nor hair of her since spring turned to summer.”

The father said, “We saw her off in carriage. Headed this way. No one recalls her.”

Isadora said, “Do you have any inkling of what happened to her?”

“She left us letter,” he said, “said rich man had fallen in love wiff her. We went to his house and said he’d ne’er heard of her.”

“Fitcher,” the woman added. “He lives in large stone house beyond the forest she said.”

Isadora bristled upon hearing the name. A chill sank deep into her bones, icier than the coldest winter draft. “Fitcher,” she said, her mind blanking with fright. She returned the drawing to them, fetched her keys, locked the door to the school, and hustled them along the flagstone path leading to the rectory.

“The Reverend’s wife is acquainted with him. Perhaps she can assist. I’ll take you to her. Follow me. So how did your daughter meet this man?”

Never before had she felt so flustered. It took all her concentration just to hear his story of how Mr. Fitcher and their daughter had met, and not just because of the pairs nearly-impenetrable accents. She’d have to wait until she heard them recount it to the Reverend’s wife as well before she’d be able to make heads or tails of it. Something about a ball he had held, to which girl in their county had been invited.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Twelve

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Fitcher joined Daphne on the sofa in the parlour, pained at the news he was about to deliver. She could read it on the lines of his face, furrowed around his brow, around the corners of his frown. He grasped her hands in his, looking most apologetic. “Whatever awaits me in heaven must pale in comparison to the past few weeks I have spent with you.”

They kissed. Daphne shuddered; his kiss was electric. She regretted declining his advances. Their entire romance had been perfectly chaste, at her insistence. A man who kissed the way he kissed must be the most incredible lover she could ever hope for, and several times she’d dreamed of waking up next to him after a long and passionate night. Immersed in the moment, she was suddenly aware of him stiffening and pulling away from her. They sat apart, though they kept holding hands.

“You have bad news for me.” She swallowed, hoping as with any blow, he’d deliver it quick. The sooner that was done, the soon she could try to salve the ensuing pain.

“I must leave you for a few days. I have to make a few arrangements and upon my return we shall wed.” Tears formed in his beautiful green eyes, eyes the colour of gemstones. She would miss his eyes most of all. Along with his tender caresses and kisses, his soft low voice and sweet poetic words.

“For how long will you be gone,” she pleaded, tightening her grip on his warm fingers.

“A few days. In the meantime, feel free to entertain any company here that you wish.” He kissed her tenderly on her forehead and reached into his pocket. “While I am away, there are but two minor things I will need you to care for.”

She straightened herself as she curiously watched him withdraw a set of keys from the pocket of his cloak. He placed them into her hands and wrapped her fingers around them. The keys were heavy and the edges of them dug into her palms. “This is my only set. Treat this house as if it were your own.”

“How will I know which key is for which room?” Daphne asked, spreading them out on her lap. She counted at least a dozen in varying sizes and shapes.

Fitcher smiled broadly. “You can amuse yourself by trying to figure them out. That alone should keep you occupied in my absence!”

He laughed. Then she laughed. The moment passed and his demeanour darkened. “Except for one single room.” He separated out the smallest key from the bunch in her hands. He held it up in front of his face, the rest of the rings of keys hanging like a tangle of iron spiders. “There is a single room in the cellar I forbid anyone to enter.”

Privately she’d entertained the notion of spending enough time alone in here to explore the house fully on her own. Upstairs she’d only been inside her own bedroom and there were so many mysterious doors and hallways she passed on her way to and fro. She knew there was an attic and cellar as well, neither of which she’d yet glimpsed. “But everywhere else in the house I may go?”

“You are free to do as you please. Explore, help yourself to anything you find, redecorate if the furnishings are not to your taste.”

She took the set of keys from him again, her heart beating rapidly in her chest with excitement. “The entire house apart from one room!”

“There is nothing of interest in it. Simply private papers and in many ways I am a private man.”

“As you wish,” she said earnestly. Even as a child Daphne had respected her mother’s private things. She was never one to venture where she was forbidden.

Fitcher flashed a smile. “There is one other thing in which I’d like you to indulge me.”

Again he reached into his pocket. Daphne wriggled, excited. After being handed the keys to every room in the house, she could only imagine what could come next.

“You must care for this object at all times.”

A puzzled look came over her face as she took the egg from him. An egg?

He explained: “Ever since this came into my possession I have enjoyed nothing but fortuitous circumstances. Carry it with you always, for a great misfortune should arise if it were lost.”

Thankfully the egg didn’t appear to be fragile. Indeed, given its heft, it was quite solid and unlikely to break if she unintentionally dropped it. The weight but not the texture was like that of marble. In all other ways it appeared to be an ordinary egg. “Is that all?”

“I will be back in less than a week, my sweet, although it will seem like eternity to me.” He gently kissed her, and left.

Daphne sat still, the ring of keys in one hand and the egg in the other. She listened to his footsteps pad across the carpet, out into the hall, then clacking on the marble floor in the foyer. The front door creaked, he stepped out, and it slammed shut behind him.

She fled to the nearest window and stared out, wanting to catch one last glimpse of him. All she saw was one of his legs as he clambered up into the carriage. He was gone as if he’d never been here to begin with. She watched the carriage door close. She was filled with a sudden terror that she might not ever see him again. She prayed no accident would befall him on his journey, that there’d be no roaming bandits to descend on him.

The eldest brother shook the reins, and off they went. Letting out a deep sad sigh, she watched his coach until it disappeared down the lane way into the forest. These next few days were going to be the longest of her life, she feared, even with such a vast house for her to explore.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Eleven

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The castle perched atop a craggy cliff in the midst of a range of dark mountains, was surrounded by battlements and turrets. These forbidding lands were the domain of Baroness Erzsebet Batory. Deep inside this castle she, Count Vladimir Tepes, Prince Cesare Borja and other senior members of great royal houses sat around a long table that ran the length of a preternaturally elegant dining hall. Stone gargoyles and assorted fantastical creatures were carved into every surface and lurked in every shadow.

At the head of the table, with the gaping maw of the giant stone hearth to her back, the Baroness sat in her heavy throne chair. A chimera had been carved into each armrest and she caressed them now as one would a pet cat. Addressing no one in particular, she said, “Fitcher tells me at last he may have found someone suitable to take as his bride. We may yet see an end to his Lothario ways.”

“That lovely young black-haired girl we,” Count Tepes said. “A fine choice, indeed.”

“Very pretty, she is,” said the Prince. “Imagine if her child were to inherit those same violet eyes.”

“It is well past time he sired a child,” she snapped. “We’ve carried on as we have for far too long. Our power is weakening. Like opium addicts, we must find a more potent source.”

“That Hilde was quite comely. Hair the colour of polished bronze. Very unusual.”

“Ah, but she was a peasant. This Daphne girl comes from far superior stock. For a lowly provincial village, that is.”

The Count leaned against his left armrest. “Is it true all three were fathered by the same man?”

“So the rumor goes,” said the Prince, “Although I never put much stock in rumours.”

“Yes. However, her mother …” The Baroness fell silent. All of them were dismissive of her sense of urgency. Include Fitze. He seemed to prefer playing around over settling. She eyed the servant walking around the table pouring wine from a crystal decanter into their pewter goblets. The wine was dark and thick. It stuck longer to the sides of the decanter than ordinary wine would stick. Nevertheless she attributed the properties of this wine to the youthful flush of her skin. “Is not without powers of her own,” she added once the servant had left the room.

“That hedge Witch? Pah!” The Prince took a draught and set down his goblet. “She knows nothing of our ways.”

“Still,” she said, gazing off through the window beyond. Although the hour was only a little past noon the sky was midnight dark. It always was. “It remains to be seen whether or not he can trust it to her care.”

“I doubt she will be any different than the rest,” Prince Cesare said. “He chases too many of these village girls instead of searching for someone more refined. Don’t be fooled by her lovely aspect. Every girl is comely when they are sufficiently young. Only when well past marriageable age can one see the results of proper breeding.”

The Count interjected, “That is because the families of a proper lady would then come after—”

“Time is running out for him to produce an heir. We have waited for long enough!” The Baroness slammed down her goblet. With a flush of embarrassment she took hold of herself and let out a little sigh. “These young ladies are one thing, but a child … we need a child.”

“What happens if this girl, too, fails in her task?” the Prince asked.

“Why,” said the Count, smiling wryly, “she will escape mysteriously into the night as all the others have done before her, never to be seen again!”

Everyone laughed riotously. Count Tepes raised his glass. The Baroness raised hers as well. “Either way,” she said, “Our line could stand some fresh blood in its veins. He must begin siring an heir for us.”

Everyone clinked their glasses and sipped their wine. A very full-bodied wine indeed.

Fitcher’s Bird – Part Two, Chapter Ten

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Sunshine dazzled Daphne as she came out of the house and joined Fitcher on the back step. They gazed out at gardens and orchards in the full bloom of early summer, the grass below covered in a confetti of pink and white petals. He took her arm, led her down the stairs and escorted her along the stone path between rows of box hedges and planters full of flowers.

They passed by the tiny stone church, where lush green ivy climbed the walls. The path forked and Fitcher took her along one that led under a long trellis. Tendrils of grape vines crawled along the wooden slats. The far end opened up into a garden of beautifully cultivated bushes and shrubs beneath blossoming trees laced with pink and white clusters of flowers. They came upon a fountain in the centre, surrounded by marble benches. Trails radiated from it in all directions like spokes on a great big wheel.

“Oh, this place is incredible!” Daphne exclaimed. The gardens were enclosed by a tall hedge of conical cedar trees. She felt as though she’d just stepped into an entirely different world, a garden paradise that existed only for the two of them.

They ambled around a curving path where mist from the fountain was delightfully cool on her face. The steady splashing and trickling was ever so peaceful. The next time her nerves began fraying she vowed to come straight here where she would be instantly calm again. They continued around the far side of the fountain, past rows of seedlings only beginning to unfurl out of the soft dark earth. Herbs and a variety of spices, Mr. Fitcher told her, pointing out sprays of lavender and lemon balm coming up. Even Daphne couldn’t identify every last plant.

They filed through another trellis shaded by leafier vines, which opened into the most pastoral vista Daphne had ever seen. Atop a hill in the distance, she could see cows and horses and sheep grazing in the pastures. To their right was the stone house where the three brothers lived. She watched them toil, their bronze muscles rippling as they dug into the earth. They barely looked up from tending the vegetable patch although she kept hoping they would.

Fitcher gestured to them. “My workmen are to thank for all this. They can be vulgar at times but they are very hardworking and dependable. Honest and faithful in every matter.”

Arm in arm they followed the path that swept past the three men and on to the orchards. The lads seemed scarcely aware of the couple’s presence. Downhill they went, between rows of apple, cherry and peach trees in full bloom. The trails that ran between were carpeted in their petals. Fitcher stopped Daphne and stood, facing her, the warm breeze rustling their hair. “Trust is very important to me. I need to surround myself with people I can trust.” He looked so vulnerable as he said this to her that her heart practically melted.

In heavenly surroundings as these, she prayed she’d be able to prove herself worthy of his trust.

* * * * *

Wilhelm and Lars were preoccupied with their digging, gouging roots and field stones out of the impacted soil. Gunther stood leaning on the handle of his shovel. He stared at Fitcher and Daphne strolling by, arm in arm. They did look to be a couple enamoured with one another. The raven-haired lovely barely glanced in their direction as she and Fitcher passed, and only because their master had gestured towards them. Gunther hoped to catch her eye without arousing the attention of her companion, but he kept them under close watch in the presence of women.

Wilhelm had always been able to read him well and with his foot pressing on his own hoe, he leaned closer to Gunther as he said, “They haven’t, as of yet.”

Only Gunther understood what he meant by that. His shoulders, which he wasn’t aware of being so hunched, relaxed. He lay his shovel down, fetched his other tools from where they’d been leaning against the side of the stone house, and returned to tilling the earth.

“However it is only a matter of time until they do the deed. As for you,” Wilhelm said across the row of dirt from him, and staring at him with his hard grey eyes, “No use wanting what you cannot have.”

“Speak for yourself! Your trouble comes from never wanting what you have. Same for our supposed benefactor for whom the Goddess herself would fail to be enough.” Gunther slammed his pitchfork deep into the ground. The rock he struck sent a nasty jolt shivering up into his arms. Curse that man for stealing these women away! He knew not where they went, but he doubted it was home.

Wilhelm pressed his finger to his lips. “Shh.” Leading his younger brother out of hearing of the other, he said, “Say nothing more of Mr. Fitcher or his ways. Especially where Lars can overhear; you know full well how he runs at the mouth.”

“Lars is not so naïve as he pretends!” Gunther hissed. “Nor is he dumb.”

“That’s what I’m trying to warn you of—the lad speaks when he should be silent. If only he were dumb. Something you must begin heeding as well. Otherwise your reckless words will ensure the three of us see the same fate as those girls.”

Normally that would be that. This time, however, Gunther peered around the side of their house to see Lars still tilling the soil. The young lad’s attention appeared to be directed at levering out an especially large rock. Keeping his voice low, Gunther said, “If we get him while Thorsten and the Cook are away, it would be three against one. We could take him on!”

“Don’t be foolish!” Wilhelm rasped. “The man’s friends have entire armies at their beck and call. Ones that can be here in less than a day. And where would we go, hm?”

Gunther knew not to protest further. He’d seen the carriages when all the guests had arrived. As well as the guards that had accompanied them.

They began ambling back to the vegetable patch. “Say nothing more of this,” Wilhelm said. “We each save our pennies and then find a girl in the village to marry once our debts to Mr. Fitcher have been repaid.”

“Provided there are any left by the time this man is done with them,” he grumbled. He then let out a sigh to let his elder brother know that was the end of their discussion.

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.