Beginning, Next Section
Posted on: 2013-04-01
"You really should get out there and try to dance, old man," Charles Bingley wheedled.
"I do not dance," Fitzwilliam Darcy responded in a low tone. "You know why I do not dance, I do not see why you insist on me coming to these things."
"Because we are being pleasant neighbors," Charles said warningly. "Of course I know of your condition, and that is the purpose of this gathering, to stretch your ability to cope. You have to be able to mingle with people the way you did before. Come now, I've hardly met so many charming people in one night." His tone changed, becoming friendlier. "I dare say we can find one person who meets your fancy. Look now, there's the sister of my last partner. She's heading this way. I can have Miss Bennet introduce you to her, and you can participate in the next set forming up. She has no partner at the moment, and she is even uncommonly pretty." Charles indicated the lady in question with an open hand.
"Hardly tolerable," Darcy growled before turning around. "Not enough to tempt me. I am not here to amuse a miss who cannot find a partner on her own." Reluctantly his eyes followed the line of Charles' arm to the young lady standing a dozen paces away. If she had been walking toward them, she was now stopped dead. Her face--far more than merely tolerable--was frozen in horror. For an instant he met her gaze. Her eyes were equally pained. And then she looked away. She turned from them, slipping easily into the crowd.
Something inside him grinned in anticipation. The ring on his finger burned, sending dull throbs of agony up his arm with every heartbeat. Charles' hand tightened painfully on his shoulder. With a great effort of will he turned away from the fleeing woman. Sick apprehension coiled in his stomach. Charles' eyes were worried. He took a deep breath in, trying to calm himself. It was a mistake. He smelled warring perfumes, flesh, magics, blood under warm skin. It made him shudder. He breathed out through pursed lips, struggling to keep his reaction from showing.
"Did you even know me before? I hardly mingled, as you called it, then, and I have even less reason to do so now," he said tightly. Then he forced himself to be more genial. "Never mind me, this is not a good night. You know how I am in new surroundings."
"Of course," Charles said, studying him. Darcy forced his face into a neutral mask, hiding the creature that paced restlessly inside him. He could pretend it wasn't trying at the ring, sending more pain through his body. Tomorrow, he could remove the ring. He could last until then. He had always prided himself on his control, and he wouldn't give in now.
Charles nodded slowly, convinced of Darcy's control. Charles allowed himself to be swept away into the people, while Darcy remained near the window where the air was marginally less heated. Caroline sidled up to him, simpering for his attention. He had to restrain both sides of him from curling his lip at her. He let her prattle on, ignoring the hackles that prickled within him. The night might be passing slowly, but it was passing.
Elizabeth Bennet couldn't sleep. The moon was full and beckoning to her. It would be full for the next two nights as well, but she didn't want to waste the light. She got out of bed and slipped on a housecoat. It wasn't quite warm enough for the chill October air, but it would suffice for a brief foray outside. Silently she padded down the stairs and out the back door into the garden. She took a deep breath, smelling damp earth and sleeping plants. Already she felt better. It wasn't the dance, she told herself. She'd had an entire day to get over that comment, and it didn't bother her anymore.
Still, it had been rather harsh judgment from a stranger… made all the more harsh for its truth. No, she was done thinking of that cold man! Lizzy threw her arms out, letting her magic whisper over her garden. Sounds, scents, and textures washed over her. The day blooming plants hummed their sleep; night bloomers sang seductively to her. The earthworms burrowed contentedly under the earth, as did the family of mice under the broken pot. Further out she could sense the deep strength of old oak trees, and the scurryings of foxes, deer and other creatures in the woods. She felt the windsong of every blade of grass around her.
She knew every particle from here to Oakham Mount, and it was home. It soothed her, exonerated her from being hardly tolerable. She sighed happily, and every life seemed to sigh with her. Including one stranger to Longbourn. She dropped her arms to her sides, peering in the shadows for the newcomer. Her magic had already brought her the faint scent of dew-damp fur, the billow of air from deep lungs, but she looked with her eyes, not her magic.
Under the shade of the apricot trees was a patch of separate darkness. It moved, and she sucked in a startled breath. It was a dog, but a dog nearly as tall as her first pony. His muzzle was stout and blunt, his head broad. His fur was long and dense, but didn't stand out. Instead it fell in gentle waves around him, tight to his skin. He had the mass of a small bear. If her magic hadn't unquestioningly identified him as a dog, she would have guessed him a bear, just by size alone.
She went to one knee without hesitation, holding her hand out to the dog. "Here boy," she called softly. The dog didn't move. She made kissing noises, undeterred. "Come here, fitz." It was a bad habit of hers, to always call stray animals fitz until she found permanent names for them. It had served her well all her life though, and she wasn't going to stop now. The dog's ears perked forward, and he took a step toward her.
"That's it, come on, fitz," she encouraged. She sent a tendril of magic toward the beast, not to coerce him, but to reveal her friendly intentions. The dog crept forward another few steps. She kept up her calling until the dog finally reached out and touched his damp nose to her fingers. "Good fitz," she cooed, scratching him under the chin. He moaned and leaned into her. She laughed, and dug her fingers into his surprisingly soft, thick fur. Up close he was even larger. If he stood on his hind feet, he had to eclipse seven feet. His chest was broader than most men she knew.
She let her magic coast over him, gathering information. He was sad, she realized, with that adrift melancholy that belonged to lost animals. "Far from home, eh fitz?" she said softly. The dog responded well to the term, and it seemed to fit him. Perhaps his name was similar? "Mitts?" she wondered out loud, glancing at his paws. He lacked both the extra toes or white markings that might have inspired such a name. So far as she could tell, he was a solid dark brown or black. She gave up with a laugh.
The more she looked at him, the more she wondered if there might not be wolf blood in him. There was a certain wildness to his mind, as though he weren't wholly a domesticated dog. It couldn't have been a parent; he was certainly more dog than wolf. But a grandparent? One-quarter wolf? It was possible.
He felt sick as well, a queasiness she felt in her stomach. "Been eating something you shouldn't, Fitz?" she asked absently. She ran her hands down his back and side, feeling his powerful muscles. Her magic penetrated his body. The dog coughed, then walked a couple steps away and vomited. The sick had an odd sheen in the moonlight. It wasn't magic, but it wasn't like anything she had seen before either. Cat-like, the dog scraped dirt over the mess. The sour stench of sick was replaced with musty earth.
He returned to her and bumped her with his chest. It was meant as a gesture of affection, but it knocked her over. She laughed. "Hey, no wrestling, Fitz." The dog sat and regarded her intelligently. She righted herself, but didn't stand. "Someone has got to be missing you," she admired him, scratching his chest. There was no way such a large, friendly, well-groomed dog was feral. He didn't feel feral in her mind; he was too used to people. He was also far more healthy than a wild animal, aside from his recent upset. She guessed he was some gentleman's hunting dog. Maybe from the new party at Netherfield? Her enthusiasm for the magnificent beast paled.
Mr. Bingley seemed a decent fellow, amiable according to Jane. Mr. Hurst had been… sloshy was the only word for it. Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst had been outwardly civil, more or less, but obviously disdainful. Lizzy could almost call them rat-like, but she knew rats with better manners. Mr. Darcy, though…
She knew she didn't hold a candle to Jane's beauty. She didn't even have Kitty and Lydia's pert prettiness. In fact, she was sure the only reason people usually compared her favorably with Mary was Mary's habit of throwing things at people who disagreed with her. So she knew she wasn't a beauty. As for dancing, she liked to dance, but so did Jane, Kitty and Lydia. With such a dearth of gentlemen, she had chosen to sit out most sets. Watching her sisters have fun was better than enjoying it herself. In fact, if she only got one dance, with someone she could at least have a decent conversation with, she was content for the evening. She had thought to make Mr. Darcy welcome to the neighborhood, and ask him for a dance. It was forward of her, but she meant it in purely friendly terms. Despite her mother's insistence, she was not looking at the new gentlemen as marriage prospects.
But what he had said… He called attention to her every flaw, in the harshest way possible. He had laid her bare, and he hadn't cared that she had heard. There was a look in his eyes, almost predatory. It was the satisfaction of the hunter who had drawn blood. If anyone could recognize it, it was her, who spoke with the foxes and bears of the woods. And she, like the frightened deer she was, had scampered away.
Unbidden, tears trailed down her cheeks, shockingly cold in the biting night air. Fitz whined and then delicate swiped his tongue across each cheek, drying her tears. She laughed and impulsively threw her arms around him. "You think I'm more than hardly tolerable, don't you?" she mumbled into his fur. In answer the dog beat his tail on the ground a couple times. After a moment, Fitz squirmed, wanting his freedom. She let him go. He shook his heavy coat of fur, and then laid down beside her and put his head in her lap.
Wryly, she noted that his head alone took up her entire lap, and he was not light. She stroked his ears anyway, and was rewarded with a gusty sigh. Could such a noble dog belong to so proud and disdainful a gentleman? No, she would not think of it. The presence of her garden and the dog had lulled her into a restful state. She would not be able to stay out here much longer. The night was cold, and she was shivering. Just a few minutes, and then she would go back to bed, she promised herself.
She dug her fingers into Fitz's fur, hoping to steal some of his warmth. His outer coat was long and silky. Under it was a softer down mat, and below that was shockingly hot skin. She buried her fingers in his ruff of fur, grateful that he didn't mind. It was getting harder to hold her eyes open. The peaceful world of plants and creatures had soothed her like nothing else could. The last thing she remembered was Fitz raising his head, and a feeling of warmth crept over her.
Lizzy woke rather abruptly. She was shoved over as a large body pushed against her to rise. She opened gummy eyes to see Fitz--even more massive in the pre-dawn light--giving her a frightened look. She rubbed her eyes and tried to call to him. "Hey Fitz, what is it?"
He shied away from her violently, cringing.
"Fitz, wait, come back here!"
Abruptly the dog spun and took off running. She stumbled to her feet, but the dog was far too fast for her. "Fitz!" she yelled after him, to no use. His tail whipped out of sight, and that was the last she saw of him. She frowned, staring after him. What was that about? Even her magic was having difficulty trying to track him. It happened with animals she wasn't familiar with, but she'd thought she'd spent enough time with him last night to get a bead on him. Evidently not. She stretched stiffly, then coughed as the chilled air invaded her lungs. Had she really slept outside again? It was time to break herself of that habit. It drove her mother mad during the summer, but at least the weather was pleasant then. The season was rapidly reaching the point where the nights were inclement. For her own health's sake, she had to start staying indoors from now on.
Gathering her dirty housecoat to her, she began sneaking back into the house.
Charles started awake guiltily. Had he slept all night in the library? Darcy was going to be furious with him! Things had started well last night, with Darcy entering his secure room, and Charles locking it behind him. The change had happened without incident. The wolf was uneasy in new surroundings, and Charles had thought maybe a couple hours without stimulus might calm the animal. He had gone to the library to pick out a book, but had soon fallen to thinking of that sweet, beautiful Miss Bennet from the dance the night before.
Before he had known it, he had drifted asleep. From the wan light of the windows, dawn was just minutes away. Generally it was Darcy's most lucid time, and Charles hurried down to the room to greet him. He rounded the corner with apologies already on his lips, only to stop dead at the splintered door frame hanging askew. Terror filled his limbs. He sprinted for the room, already knowing what he would find. How could this have happened?
True, Netherfield's secure room was a raw addition compared to the strong bars in Pemberley or Darcy's London house, but Charles had never thought the beast could tear through the metal and wood like that! Sure enough, the new wood had splintered under the beast's pressure, and the creature himself was nowhere to be found. Heart in his throat, Charles raced through Netherfield, following the gouge-marks in the carpet from the wolf's flight. He thought of his sisters, Caroline and Mrs. Hurst, vulnerable in their beds. He thought of his brother-in-law, too deep in his cups to defend himself from the great beast. Their deaths would be on his head! He had knowingly invited Darcy to stay with him, without warning his family.
To his relief, the marks led out, instead of up to the rooms. A broken window was testament to how he had gotten out. Charles lost the tracks in Netherfield's long grass. He clutched his hair in his hands, wondering who else might have encountered Darcy. How many tenants lived on Netherfield and the neighboring properties? How much blood might have been spilt this night? He should have tested the cage more thoroughly, before entrusting Darcy in it!
He checked the stables, but found the horses and stable boys at peace with in. The horses would have been easy prey, but to his knowledge the wolf usually preferred human flesh. That there was no slaughter here only meant the wolf had been cunning not to hunt near home. How far had the beast ranged before striking? "Dammit, dammit, dammit!" he yelled, kicking at the grass. He was supposed to be a doctor of magical diseases! How could he have underestimated the most fearsome disease so thoroughly? Longbourn was not far off! What if the wolf had trapped Miss Bennet in her room and down away with her? Great rage and despair engulfed him. Part of him knew it wasn't Darcy's fault, but a greater part of him wanted to put the beast down at once.
He looked up, at his wit's end, to see the great wolf surging across Netherfield's grass toward him. A great surge of anger and primal fear made him wish for a gun with silver bullets at that moment. The wolf raced the dawn to reach him, and lost still a dozen yards away. It stumbled and fell; Darcy raised his head, squinting against the weak light. Charles' fear was consumed utterly by fury, and he bore down on the man.
"Where the hell have you been?" Charles shouted.
Darcy winced. Everything was too loud and too bright. Changing back was always like being hung-over. The grass was rough torture on his bare body. His muscles quivered and twitched, protesting their new configuration. The rustle-crunch of Charles' footsteps pounded in his head, the man's breathing a harsh whistling spike of pain in his ears. "Charles?" he said weakly, still confused. What had happened? His mind spun hazily, memory fading in and out as the wolf paced in his soul.
He collected enough to realize he was in the open, exposed. He pushed himself up just in time to intercept a fist toward his face. The wolf acted without his permission. He caught the fist and hurled it back, then shoved hard at the man before him. His hand struck the soft, vulnerable throat, and the man fell backward. No! He forced the wolf back before it could follow through with the attack.
He shivered with pain, but managed to stop. He panted, his breath coming out in little puffs. His vision cleared, and he saw Charles sprawled on the ground, looking up at him in astonishment.
"Charles, I'm sorry," he said, but made no move to help him up. The wolf liked holding the dominant position. The human was weak compared to him, his rightful prey. He shook his head sharply, once again battling the wolf's urges.
"It's getting stronger, isn't it?" Charles asked from the ground. After a moment, as Darcy continued to shudder with the war in his soul, Charles stood. Darcy snarled and growled softly, and then sucked in a deep breath, biting his lip until he tasted blood.
"Where were you?" Charles asked again, in a softer tone.
"I don't know," Darcy managed to grind out. Talking seemed so unnatural. "The wolf steals my memory, you know that." He frowned as a scrap of remembrance floated, a face barely recalled. "There was a girl…"
"Oh my God, did you kill someone?" Charles demanded, his face going pale. His hands clenched uselessly; the wolf snorted in derision. Darcy ran his tongue over his teeth, relieved not to taste blood and meat.
"No, I didn't kill anything last night," he said. His eyes darted back and forth unseeing, trying to sort the crumbs of memory the wolf allowed him. "She was the one from the dance," he said slowly, laboriously trying to piece fragments together.
"Miss Bennet?" Charles took a step toward him, smelling of anger and jealously. The wolf laughed, intrigued. If the smaller male was claiming a mate, there was teasing to be had. A threat to the mate would bring equal pain to the male. Darcy threw his head back sharply, trying to dislodge the wolf from his thoughts.
"No, the other one," he said. "The pretty one. The one you wanted me to dance with."
Charles stopped, astonished. "Miss Elizabeth?"
Was that her name? He had never paid attention before, though the wolf berated him for it now. In an unprecedented move, the wolf suddenly opened all his memories to him, showed him everything that happened last night. He gasped, feeling pain from the clarity of them and his own actions. He looked at Charles, about to speak, and the wolf closed down again, leaving only vague hints as to what happened.
Dammit, the wolf was not usually this active! He was used to fighting the wolf, of having it take his memory and body, but this was different. The wolf was teasing him. No, not teasing, he realized as the wolf growled. It was… protecting those memories, protecting the lady inside them. The wolf wanted him to know, but didn't want him to speak of it. My God, the thing was evolving. It was becoming smarter, attaching itself deeper in his soul. The terror of that struck him, and for a moment his mind was blessedly free.
"What happened to Miss Elizabeth?" Charles demanded urgently.
"Nothing. I didn't hurt her," Darcy answered. The wolf allowed him that much. "I think… I did magic last night."
"What? That's impossible! The wolf blocks your magic. You can scarcely call up a scrap during the full moon."
"I know, but it was like I just woke up last night, and though I was still wolf, I cast a spell. I can remember that much at least." He paled as he realized what else he remembered.
"What spell?" Charles asked.
"A heat spell," Darcy said absently. Charles blinked in confusion. "That's not important," Darcy continued in terror. "She knows who I am! She called me Fitz!"
"My God, Fitzwilliam! She saw you? How could you let her see you?"
"I wasn't in control! I have to see her, before she tells anyone!"
"Wait, Darcy, don't you think you better wait until after the full moon? Just in case the wolf…" Charles' concern was well meant, but the wolf suddenly roared in rage. It was all Darcy could do not to fly at the man and murder him. On that the wolf was absolutely adamant: he would not hurt Miss Elizabeth Bennet. And the wolf would not let him say that, either. Charles saw his fury, but wisely did not retreat. Fleeing would only trigger the instinct to hunt, and cause a greater disaster.
"Come on, old man," he said gently. "Let's get you inside and dressed without anyone seeing. You left a bit of a mess, I'm afraid." He reached for Darcy, only to have the man snarl and jerk back. After a moment Darcy blinked, and was in control again.
"How did I get out? Did I hurt anyone?" Darcy looked and felt forlorn.
"No, it looks like you ran straight out," Charles assured him. Straight to Miss Elizabeth, was unspoken. He frowned. "What was Miss Elizabeth doing outside? You didn't enter her house, did you?"
"No, I didn't," Darcy blushed as the wolf allowed him to remember her attire. He might have been clad only in fur, but she was hardly more covered. What was she thinking, wandering out in just a nightgown and housecoat? The wolf approved heartily, causing him to flush deeper in mortification. He allowed himself to be led indoors. The night was catching up with him. Even the wolf was getting sleepy, and he just wanted to rest. Charles didn't comment, just helped Darcy get back to his room unseen.
After sleeping for several long hours, Darcy rose again, his stomach clenched in hunger. He washed and went in search of food. He found Charles and the others having tea in the drawing room. Caroline smiled and immediately went to pour for him. He could care less for her attention, but at least her magic with food meant everything was hot. The presence of the silver in the utensils was irritating to him, and made the wolf flinch. The food made and eaten with silver was nauseating to him, but he bore it as best he could. It was always worse during the full moon. He longed for the star days, three consecutive days with no moon in the sky. The wolf was at its weakest, and it was the only time he got any peace.
Except for last night… The wolf grumbled and shoved hard, forcefully reminding him how… nice it had felt when Miss Elizabeth touched him. Conversation flowed around him without touching. As much as he appreciated any sort of food, the wolf craved raw, hot meat. Charles usually helped him by ordering a big rare steak for dinner, but that was still hours off. Satisfying some of the wolf's needs helped keep others in check.
After tea, he and Charles went to the secure room. Darcy was shocked at the damage. He had no memory of breaking free. The wolf felt entirely smug about doing so, and kept those remembrances to itself. "This was a mistake, coming here," Darcy said. "We need to leave here. I think I should have my ring back."
Charles hesitated, then shook his head. "No, you know any silver makes your changes worse. It helps keep your wolf at bay, but only when the wolf is under your skin. During the full moon, it's too close to the surface to be contained that way."
The wolf growled in agreement. Darcy said nothing, staring down at his hands. His middle finger had raw, thick scars at the base, which never fully healed. "I should go back to London," he said quietly. "It is safer there."
Charles snorted. "Not when there's no one to stop you if you get out. I think you should stay. Look here, you were out all night, and didn't hurt anyone. That's a first. You even had the opportunity, and didn't take it. Don't you think that's significant? I think we need to explore that more."
"We're not bringing Miss Elizabeth in," Darcy said through gritted teeth.
"Of course not!" Charles agreed with alacrity. "But you are acting different here, and it's worth noting. I'll get some men in to fix this. See this beam? It had a crack already running through it."
Darcy grunted. The wolf didn't like being in this place of confinement. He longed for physical activity, like riding. The wolf rather thought hunting the horses would be more entertaining. Most animals instinctively feared and avoided the wolf in his skin. Charles noticed his pre-occupation.
"Let's go to the exercise room, shall we? I want to get a new baseline while we're here," he said cheerfully. Darcy's stomach twisted, but the wolf agreed.
The exercise room was a bare place, with weights in one corner, fencing gear along the wall, and a punching bag. After the very first full moon, Charles had stopped sparring with Darcy, and recommended he not spar with anyone else. The wolf was too competitive, and Darcy's advantages were too great to go unnoticed. He beat on the bag under Charles' guidance. The wolf poured into him, strengthening his muscles, sharpening his reflexes, and heightening his senses. His lips were pulled back in a snarl of exultation. The wolf loved physical activity. Hunting, mating and killing would have been preferably, but it would take what it could.
Darcy's ears picked up the sounds of workers readying his cage. The wolf raged at the idea of confinement, and he threw that rage into his blows until he was panting, sweat running down his back. Charles looked pale and stunned, but wisely did not comment. The wolf would exploit any weakness it saw, and it had hurt those close to Darcy before. Georgiana… His fists clenched impotently. Even that one the wolf regretted. In general, the people close to Darcy were close to the wolf as well. However, it was a simple creature, and did not understand the complexity of human emotion.
The wolf was restless, and Darcy was not fit for company. With Charles' blessing he ate alone in the study, cutting his meat with an iron knife to avoid silver. The rust of the iron was preferable to the poison of the silver. Night fell, and with it Charles and Darcy retired to the confinement room. Charles locked the door. Darcy undressed and entered the reinforced cage. The wolf was a continuous growling presence. It wanted to fling itself against the bars, but Darcy held back. For the next few minutes, he was still in control.
"Don't leave me tonight, Charles," Darcy warned, his voice already turning strained and gruff.
"I won't," Charles promised. Then Darcy hunched and gasped. The change was on him. It took only minutes, but during that time his body contorted unnaturally, pained sounds breaking free from him. Finally the wolf rose, fully ascendant.
As always, Charles felt feared awe on looking on Darcy's wolf. It was huge, more dog-like than wolf. That was a mixed blessing. On one hand he was less likely to be identified as a werewolf if he got out. On the other hand, it meant he was built more powerfully than a normal wolf, and harder to contain. True wolves, even other werewolves he had seen, tended to be lean and fast. Darcy was still fast, but he was a behemoth, monstrous in his strength.
"Hello Darcy, can you hear me?" Charles asked softly. Darcy usually had a few minutes of relative lucidity before the beast took him. The wolf threw himself at the bars, making the entire room shudder. Charles winced, but the bars held. "Easy there, old boy," he tried to sooth the wolf. It had no consideration for him, and kept attacking the bars in a futile attempt to escape. This was bad. He was pretty sure the bars would hold this time, but the wolf hadn't been this frantic since the first accidental silver-change. Was it possible Darcy had secreted some piece of silver on his body, against his recommendation? Or was something else driving the wolf mad?
Charles drew near the insensible creature, trying vainly to comfort it. Nothing worked. Unwisely Charles came too close. In a flash the wolf was at him. It seized his arm in its massive jaws, shaking him like a rag doll. Charles shouted with pain and shock, pounding with his other first on the wolf's head. It opened his mouth to get another grip, and Charles fell back, scuttling away and clutching his arm to his chest. The beast roared and clawed strips out of the floor trying to reach him. Charles was bleeding profusely, and grabbed Darcy's discarded shirt to staunch the flow.
His heart was pounding in fear of the raging thing in the cage. He'd never been harmed by it before. He had received warning nips before, but this was different. This was the beast actually trying to kill him. He lifted Darcy's shirt cautiously, and winced at the mangled flesh underneath. At least it wasn't enough to become a werewolf. The infection was carried in the saliva of the beast, but there were two factors that saved him. One, a greater dose was needed for the infection to take hold, and two, the infection was dormant until exposed to enzymes from the wolf's claws. Still it was probably better not to get clawed any time soon.
The wolf continued hurling itself against the bars trying to reach him. The cage was holding, but the beast had blood from its own wounds pouring down his head and chest. Despite his promise to remain, Charles staggered to his feet and went to the door. He fumbled with the key, until he got it open and slammed it behind him. He sank to the ground, listening to the wolf still pounding at the cage behind him. He had never felt so powerless to help his friend. The night was very, very long.
Not until Charles heard birdsong did he realize the wolf had quieted within. He rose cautiously. He had left his post only once, to dress his arm and to retrieve a new shirt for Darcy. He entered the room slowly. The wolf lay exhausted in the middle of the cage. It glared balefully at him, and then blinked and raised its head. It whined, and Charles let out a breath as he realized Darcy was in control. A few minutes later it let out a high-pitched cry and began to shrink in on itself.
Soon Darcy lay face down on the floor, covered in dried blood, cuts and bruises. He didn't move at first, scarcely breathing. Charles knelt by the cage door and unlocked it. "Rough night, old man?" he whispered in deference to Darcy's heightened senses.
Darcy didn't answer at once. He seemed especially weakened today. He had all the symptoms of a silver-change, but Charles still didn't see any silver on him. At long last, Darcy began to stir. He wouldn't look at Charles as he accepted a damp rag and wiped some of the blood off. Charles gasped as Darcy's skin was revealed. The beast had been in a rage of self-destruction last night, and from the look of it Darcy had barely survived.
"Are you sure you don't have silver on you?" Charles whispered. Darcy shook his head, wincing.
"No silver. It… wanted out." His eyes fell on Charles' arm. "Did I do that? I'm sorry. I think… maybe it's time. It's getting worse, not better."
"No," Charles shook his head, but his conviction was weak. "You're still new at this, give yourself time. Think what will happen to Georgiana if you…"
"I've already made her my heir," Darcy revealed.
Charles swore. "And she was alright with that?"
"She doesn't know. But should something happen to me, everything goes to her."
"Come on, old friend. You know you're always depressed after a bad change. Just think, it can only get better from here."
Darcy didn't answer. Charles feared he might do something desperate, and resolved not to leave him alone for the next few days. It was a mark of how poorly Darcy was feeling that he accepted Charles' hand in rising. Charles saw him to bed, and then ordered a thick meat broth for Darcy when he woke. He sent servants with notes that Darcy was feeling ill, and he was going to stay with him. Caroline tried to intrude, but Charles had wisely locked the door.
Darcy remained in bed all day. He slept much, ate little, and stared dully at the wall when he wasn't doing either. Charles was lost to help him. He knew Darcy was absolutely opposed to it, but the fact was that Miss Elizabeth had had some sort of effect on him. He hadn't harmed her when they were together, and now he was having a severe reaction to being separate from her. Maybe a visit was in order, once the last night of the full moon was past and the wolf was waning. Maybe something about her could help his friend's condition. And maybe he could see her sister again, he brightened slightly. Miss Bennet was absolutely a charming lady. Seeing her would certainly raise his own spirits.
The third night of the full moon passed uneventfully. Charles left the room before the change took Darcy, hoping the animal would calm if there was no one to vent on. It didn't, but at least its movements didn't seem quite as focused as before.
The morning after the full moon Darcy accepted his silver ring back gratefully. He slid it on his finger, where it immediately began burning and throbbing. The wolf snarled in his mind, but it was forced back by the silver.
It was still several days more before he was recovered enough for company. Caroline fawned over him. Darcy bore it stoically, while the wolf was too sickened to protest. Finally Darcy spoke to Charles about visiting Longbourn. Charles agreed readily, and a horse was made ready. Darcy was no longer able to ride, as no horse would tolerate him. Walking was no hardship to him; it was more of a chore to hide his ability. When the wolf was strong, he could run almost as fast as a horse. On all fours, he actually ran faster than one.
Charles' horse was skittish at being near Darcy. He was obligated to walk behind and to the side, just far enough to keep it from constantly bolting. It was good that Charles was a superior rider, because he needed his skill to keep his mount in control. As the men approached Longbourn, they saw the five Bennet daughters just walking out. The men paused for a time, to be able to encounter the ladies on the road. Charles sighed as he saw Miss Bennet again.
Darcy found Miss Elizabeth, and the wolf relaxed for the first time in days. It was such a relief he nearly wept, even as his human side grew more anxious at meeting her again. She knew what he was. She could destroy him and Georgiana with a word. How could he convince her to not say anything? For his sake, he would welcome an end to his tortured existence. But for his sister, he had to try.
It was a beautiful, clear day for walking. Lizzy might have suspected Jane of tampering with the weather, but she was not strong enough to have affected the entire area. Their father could have done it, but he rarely stirred himself from the library. Which meant this day was smiling for her. She accepted it gratefully. This was the first day she had felt well since sleeping outside. She must have picked up an illness while out there. The nights of the full moon had been particularly bad, but the feeling had begun fading shortly after that. She hadn't seen the dog Fitz again, and she hoped he was well, wherever he was.
When Kitty and Lydia had wanted to walk to Meryton, she had agreed readily, and joined them in enticing Jane and Mary to come. Soon all five of them were on the road. Jane linked arms with her, letting their younger sisters draw ahead slightly. Mary crossly found rocks to launch with her magic. Lydia practiced her dancing lights while speaking about the militia recently posted to Meryton. Kitty nodded absently, but Lizzy could see from her eyes that she was already planning on what ribbons she wanted. Kitty's gift was with cloth of any sort, and she had an eye for design that was unrivaled in Hertfordshire.
"What do you think Mr. Collins will be like?" Jane wondered absently.
"We'll find out tomorrow," Lizzy answered. "I'm sure he won't be as fine as Mr. Bingley."
"Hush, you," Jane admonished with a laugh, her cheeks growing pink. "I'm sure he can't be as ill as that Mr. Darcy."
Lizzy's stomach fell. "I don't want to talk about it," she said quietly.
"I'm sorry, dearest," Jane apologized. "I wished there was something I could do for you. Next time I see him, I'm going to make it rain over his head."
Lizzy forced a laugh for Jane's sake, though she didn't feel it. Jane was about to speak, but Lizzy's head turned sharply to the side. Jane fell silent, used to these interruptions. Lizzy walked to the edge of the road, where an injured rabbit hopped out of the tall grass. She clucked to the creature, picking it up and examining the wound. Jane stopped to watch her work, but Lydia rolled her eyes and kept walking. Kitty didn't notice, and Mary looked like she was considering rabbit stew for supper. Lizzy held her hand over the wound, and healed the rabbit. "Avoid dogs," she advised out loud, as the rabbit hopped away.
She looked back at Jane and laughed nervously. The rabbit had gotten a little dirt on her dress, which she brushed at ineffectually. Jane sighed and shook her head. "Mother will be furious, of course, but you have to do it," she said with understanding. Lizzy nodded. Of all the sisters, she was perhaps the most connected with her magic, and possibly the strongest of them. However, her magic also demanded the most from her, and she always stopped to tend whatever creature came across her path.
Just then, another distressed animal caught her attention. She turned on the road, and saw the laboring horse that was clamoring. He was lathered with sweat, and spittle was foaming at his bit. Unthinkingly she went to the beast, holding its head and soothing it. She didn't even glance at the rider. She thought poorly of someone who rode so ill as to put their mount in such a state. She quickly realized that it wasn't the rider plaguing the gelding.
Wolf, he champed at the bit, tossing his head and dripping foam on her dress. Wolf, run, wolf.
Lizzy frowned, looking around. There hadn't been a wolf in these parts for generations, but many domestic animals had a hard time distinguishing large dogs and wolves. Small dogs were generally called yip-nips, for obvious reasons. Wolf! The gelding tried to bolt, held back by her magic and his rider's firm hand on the reigns. She looked up in the direction of the horse's anxiety, only to see the last man in the world she wanted to meet.
Her face flooded with humiliation as she met Mr. Darcy's eyes. He stared at her, no doubt seeing the rabbit's dirt and now the horse's spittle. She thought he looked ill compared to the night of the dance, and for a second was spitefully glad. "Do you own a large dog, Mr. Darcy?" she asked, thinking of Fitz.
Mr. Darcy paled. "No, I do not," he said in a short, clipped tone.
"Miss Elizabeth?" the rider spoke, and she looked up at Mr. Bingley, smiling uncertainly at her.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Bingley. It's my magic. It lets me communicate with animals, in a way," she explained. "Your horse is distressed."
"Ah," sudden comprehension flashed in his eyes, and he twisted in his saddle to look at Mr. Darcy. Lizzy didn't dare look, for fear of meeting Mr. Darcy's disapproving gaze again. Hardly tolerable… she was certainly less than that now, with dirt and slobber on her. "May I dismount?" Mr. Bingley asked considerately.
"Certainly," she responded, focusing on his gelding. She was having a hard time convincing him that Mr. Darcy was not a wolf. Mr. Darcy must have encountered a large dog at some point, for its scent to cling to him and frightened the horse. Mr. Bingley dismounted. She was gratified to see him loosen the girth a couple inches to let the horse breathe easier. Only then did he turn to the sisters, all smiles while Jane blushed prettily.
"Ladies, may I escort you to your destination?" he asked, offering his arm to Jane. Jane accepted it with a polite, shy murmur, and they began walking. Lizzy saw Mr. Darcy giving her a pained look, and she hurried to catch up with Mary, Kitty and Lydia, hoping to put one of them between her and the gentleman. No such luck, Mr. Darcy was faster.
"Miss Elizabeth, would you do me the honor accepting my escort?" he asked in his oddly hoarse tone.
She stared at her feet. She knew her face was bright red, and it wasn't at all pretty like Jane could do it. She said nothing, wishing she were as far from here as possible. She felt a sudden sharp pain in her leg, and yelped. Mary had thrown a rock at her, forcing her to action. She turned her yelp into a cough, and managed to mutter, "Thank you, Mr. Darcy."
He held out his arm to her, and she reluctantly took it, placing just her fingertips on his sleeve. Jane and Mr. Bingley were talking animatedly, already ahead of everyone else. Lizzy tried to catch up to her other sisters to not be alone, but Mr. Darcy walked so slow that they soon fell behind. This appeared to be exactly what he intended, because he began in a low voice, "Miss Elizabeth, I would like to apologize for my behavior the other night."
She flashed back to that disastrous dance. The pain was still as fresh and sharp as the first time she heard his words. She said nothing; what could she say?
"I realize I acted rashly, and placed you in a position of great harm," Mr. Darcy went on. She grew more astonished as he spoke. The look in his eye that night had spoken only of the desire to hurt. She couldn't quite believe he was stooping so low as to apologize. "I am only grateful that there was no lasting damage, though I do not know why you were there."
His words struck her like a knife, jabbing deep and making her bleed. Yes, this was more like it. Why would she come to a dance? She was obviously not pretty or wealthy enough to attract a partner on her own. No lasting damage, hah! She felt she were about to faint. She was sure she was leaving a trail of blood on the path. She wanted to curl up in a cave somewhere and let the predators take her. Not for the first time she envied the creatures she felt a bond with. Oh to shrug off the hurts of the world and go running for the joy of it, four strong legs instead of two. Fur instead of a dirty dress. At least if she were a fox or a rabbit she would have no need to be pretty or wealthy. She could just live, without anyone to bother her.
She blinked hard, and tears dripped silently down her face. Involuntarily she thought about Fitz, and how gentle the big dog had been when she cried. That dumb brute had more sense than the man walking beside her!
"No harm, Mr. Darcy?" she interrupted him, growing unexpectedly bold. "I am afraid not. You wounded me greatly." She watched him carefully. His face grew white, and he had trouble speaking.
"I am sorry," he whispered at last. "I do not remember it."
Her pain was rapidly turning into anger, giving her the strength to hate him. "I do not wish to participate in this conversation any longer," she declared, and made to move ahead.
"Wait, please," he said, blocking her with his hand on hers. "I'm sure you realize you have me in a rather delicate position here. May I trust in your discretion?"
She hesitated. She had already told her family, making fun of the situation to assuage the hurt. What Lydia and Mrs. Bennet knew, soon the whole of Hertfordshire was aware. "Tell me," she said testingly, "At the next assembly, would you consent to dance with me?"
He gave her a mute look of shock. "Do you think that wise?" he responded with open scorn. She smiled brittlely, as though he hadn't torn out her heart and stomped on it. At least she didn't have to feel guilty over making him the object of gossip in Hertfordshire.
"No, Mr. Darcy, I don't think I can oblige you in this matter," she said, trying to mimic Jane's sweetness. "Good day." She tore her hand free and almost ran to draw even with her sisters. Darcy went striding past them, his face drawn. Lizzy linked arms with Kitty and Lydia. She forced a laugh, as if she wasn't dying at this moment. Lydia eyed him speculatively. "I could probably set his coat on fire," she offered. "Kitty could sew his pants legs together."
"I don't know," Kitty said doubtfully. "Those are awful nice pants."
"No, don't," Lizzy said, squeezing her sisters affectionately. "He's just a mean old man, with no manners. Just think, we can make everyone laugh at him, and he'll hate that because he's so proper." Kitty and Lydia were temporarily sated, but she hadn't counted on Mary. A large stone, the size of two fists, rose shakily from the roadside and shot toward Mr. Darcy as he neared Jane and Mr. Bingley. The stone impacted the questionable gentleman's back midlevel, just below one shoulder-blade. It left a smear of grass and dirt on the otherwise immaculate coat. He stumbled and looked back at them. Lizzy looked away hurriedly. She had to pinch Lydia to keep her from giggling. Lydia protested vociferously.
Just then Mary walked by. "No one treats my sister that way," she announced loftily, and Lizzy gave a genuine laugh at last. She hadn't thought anything could rescue this walk, but knowing she had the love and support of her sisters made circumstances not as dim. Mr. Darcy caught up to Jane and Mr. Bingley. They were too far to overhear, but it was clear that Mr. Darcy was asking to speak with Mr. Bingley, and Mr. Bingley was reluctant to be interrupted.
So was Mr. Bingley's horse. The gelding had gradually calmed once separated from Mr. Darcy, but now began kicking up again at his return. Lizzy spoke without thinking. "I'll take your horse, Mr. Bingley," she offered.
Mr. Bingley looked at her and smiled in a slightly harried fashion. "Thank you, Miss Bennet. I do not know what is wrong with the beast. Usually he is very mild tempered."
"It is some scent that clings to Mr. Darcy, which upsets your mount," she replied unconsciously. All of Hertfordshire came to her when their animals acted off. It never occurred to her that the gentlemen from Netherfield would not know this, and were not seeking information. A short, surprised silence took place. Then Lydia laughed, "Mr. Darcy stinks!"
Lizzy's face turned red in embarrassment. She did not fear losing Mr. Darcy's good opinion--clearly that had been lost before ever coming to Hertfordshire--but she could wish her younger sisters were more circumspect. The three of them tittered. A glance showed color rising in Mr. Darcy's countenance, but otherwise he maintained an impassive face. Mr. Bingley did not appear to know how to respond, and chose instead to step away with his friend. Lizzy petted the gelding's nose, and then looped the reins over his head to move them out of the way. Wolf, he commented again, this time a statement of fact rather than panic.
Lizzy kept Jane company. "Well?" she asked in an undertone. "Is Mr. Bingley still as agreeable in the light of day?"
Jane smiled brightly. "Yes, even more than I remember. I can't recall ever having so much to talk about with another person."
"You wound me!" Lizzy exclaimed with a laugh, a hand over her heart as she mock staggered. The horse nudged her shoulder, and she automatically soothed it.
"You know what I mean," Jane responded. "Someone other than you." Her voice dropped. "A gentleman."
"Better not tell Momma," Lizzy said wisely, "or she'll have you married in a sennight."
"You know she just wants the best for us. And what about you? Have you made up with Mr. Darcy?"
Lizzy shuddered. "I don't want to talk about it. He is the most disagreeable man I have ever had the misfortune of encountering."
"Oh Lizzy, I'm so sorry. He continues to be insulting?"
"At every turn," she said tightly. For a moment tears threaten again. Tears of rage, she told herself, not of pain. "But look, here comes your Mr. Bingley again."
"Miss Bennet," Mr. Bingley greeted cheerfully. "Miss Elizabeth. Thank you for watching Scepter for me. May I be so bold as to ask a word with you?"
Lizzy was tired of being taken aside by gentlemen, even if Mr. Bingley was more pleasant than his dour friend. She cast Jane a pleading glance, but Jane was already lengthening her steps to give them a modicum of privacy. That most disagreeable of gentlemen was keeping her company, and Lizzy winced for Jane. Mr. Bingley did not immediately speak. He seemed content with walking for a time. He looked around alertly, and pointed out several features of the country that he found pleasing. Despite herself, she began to relax around Mr. Bingley. He was genuine in his appreciation, at least.
Finally, he said, "Miss Elizabeth, I must apologize on behalf of Darcy."
"You owe me no apology," she said, more sharply than she intended.
"Yes, well, be that as it may, I know Darcy is not the best with words, especially when he is nervous. You caught in him a rather compromising situation, as I'm sure you realize."
Over an insult? It was rude, and did not endear him to the populous, but was hardly compromising. She didn't respond, letting Mr. Bingley continue on.
"He is a good man," he insisted. "He can be abrupt, but he is dealing with a lot. He does not deserve what happened to him."
His words hinted at a tragedy that she suddenly wanted to know. There was no excusing Mr. Darcy's behavior, but hearing his faults emphasized his all too human lack of perfection.
"He has a young sister, near Lydia's age. Her name is Georgiana, and in truth she is like a sister to me as well. You can understand, if you publically denounce him, she loses everything. They have no other close family, just some distant cousins and the like. They might not even take her in. I understand if you feel the need to take action, but for Georgiana's sake, if not for Darcy's, I beg you to reconsider any extreme movement against him. At the very least, could you give us warning, before you turn him in? Give us a chance to remove Georgiana to a safe location?" Mr. Bingley spoke very seriously.
Lizzy did not know what to think of him. Was London society so vastly different from the country? Could the revelation of such an insult truly ruin Mr. Darcy and his unknown sister? How vicious London was! Hertfordshire could be harsh at times, but for a snub to be the cause of total loss was unheard of. She wondered if it was too late to direct Lydia and Mrs. Bennet away from gossiping. Mr. Darcy deserved to be put in his place, but not at the cost of everything. And Georgiana was innocent of the entire affair. Lizzy pitied a young girl of Lydia's age having so critical an older brother. What had happened to their parents?
Mr. Bingley was still waiting for an answer. She could not give him the one he desired--too many people knew already--but she could attempt to mitigate the damage. "I will see what I can do," she promised, though she had no idea of how to shut Lydia's mouth, short of asking Kitty to sew it closed.
Mr. Bingley sighed in relief. "Thank you. I cannot express how much that means to Darcy and myself." He looked around, and jumped in surprise. "I say, Scepter follows you like a puppy, and you're not even touching the reins!"
Lizzy started and gave Mr. Bingley a wary look. More than person had become displeased when their animals showed preference for herself. But he seemed more fascinated than put out.
"Oh yes, that's Lizzy for you," Lydia said brightly. Sensing the serious conversation was over, the younger sisters had drawn near, and now offered their own opinions. "La, she just has to look, and she's got them eating out of her hand. Even a bear, once!"
Lizzy blushed, grateful that Lydia had only seen the bear once, out of all the times she had met with Molly.
"How dangerous!" Mr. Bingley exclaimed, but not with disapproval. "You were not scared?"
"No animal has ever hurt Lizzy," Kitty joined in. "We've all seen her handle foxes and stoats, even the rats in the barn. Not a one has scratched her."
"Remarkable! Your magic with animals must be very strong," Mr. Bingley complimented.
"Tis good to practice our gifts," Mary announced.
"And do all of you have magic?"
There followed much showing off. Lydia held up her hands, sparks trailing sporadically from her fingertips. Colored ribbons of light shimmered from palm to palm, a hazy rainbow. Kitty drew out her handkerchief and showed how with a stroke of a finger she could tighten or loosen the hems. Mary levitated a rock--smaller than the one that had earlier struck Mr. Darcy.
"Such a talented family!" Mr. Bingley cried, apparently delighted with the magic working around him. "What of Miss Bennet and your parents? Have they any gifts?"
"Jane does the weather," Lydia bragged.
"It must always be a clear, golden day where she is."
"Oh, she is not so strong as that! She's just a weather witch. But Papa is! He's a regular storm mage, not that he ever does anything interesting," Lydia grimaced at such a waste. "Momma has no magic, but she's ever so proud of ours. I mean, Lizzy's always going off and getting dirty, that's not much fun, but she says I'm a regular fire witch!"
"Do you have magic, Mr. Bingley?" Kitty asked.
"Yes, I went to school with Darcy. We're both mages, though he was always the stronger of us. I took up the study of magical diseases, while he went to greater spellworking."
The sisters' eyes grew wide. "We've never met a true mage before!" Lydia squealed, causing Mary to hurl a clod at her in astonishment. "Really, spells and all? I should very much like to see a spell done! Mary, leave off!"
"Both of you stop," Lizzy broke the squabble before it could degenerate further. "What Mr. Bingley must think of your behavior. He is not some pet to perform tricks for you. Excuse me, I shall walk with Jane. She has more sense than the three of you put together."
Mary stung her in retaliation, but she pulled ahead regardless. Scepter started to follow her, but she sent the gelding back to his master wordlessly. While her sisters had been talking, she had observed Jane walking demurely with Mr. Darcy. Jane had struggled to carry on a conversation, but Mr. Darcy's rude, short answers had defeated her. It was clearly time to come to the rescue.
"Dearest Jane," she announced loudly, pushing protectively between Mr. Darcy and her sister. "You must save me from our sisters. I fear they will pester Mr. Bingley to death before we reach Meryton."
Wolf, Scepter had followed despite her command, and now walked at her shoulder, eyeing Mr. Darcy as though to bite him. Mr. Darcy wisely chose to fall behind rather than risk the gelding's large teeth. Mr. Bingley came to retrieve his horse. "I do apologize if this miserable creature is bothering you, Miss Elizabeth, Miss Bennet."
"Not at all, Mr. Bingley," Lizzy laughed happily. "He is a very sweet fellow, after all."
Seeing Jane and Mr. Bingley looking at each other, she was content to drop back to her sisters again, and leave the two of them. Mr. Darcy remained on the outside of the party, a wandering body refusing to participate. They reached Meryton not long after. Her sisters gathered near to receive their pin money. Upon acquiring their allowances, each separated to their own pursuits. There was naught left in the reticule when they parted, but Lizzy was used to this. She loved her father dearly, but in the pleasing of his own interests, he had neglected the estate of Longbourn. Eventually the managing of the estate had fallen largely to her. There was little money to be had, but it comforted her to provide what she could to her sisters on their outings. She rather thought she would stop by the bookshop and peruse any new volumes, though she could not purchase any.
She would dearly love a new volume to read, but could easily do without to see to her sisters' happiness. Besides, their father had an extensive library. She had finished all the books in said library by the time she was seventeen, but there were many volumes she would not mind studying again. She turned away, patted Scepter one last time, and began meandering the streets. She greeted several dogs and cats that were well known to her. She could scarcely travel anywhere without some creature coming to her attention. She browsed the bookshop, and when she looked up she saw Jane waiting for her.
Arm in arm they strolled pleasantly. Lizzy saw their younger sisters, talking with a redcoat and another gentleman, at the same time Jane said, "Look, there's Mr. Bingley. Let's go greet him."
"And Mr. Darcy," Lizzy muttered disconsolately. Jane tried to hurry their steps, while Lizzy dragged hers. It so happened that they reached their sisters minutes before the Netherfield gentlemen did, and met Col Forster and Mr. George Wickham. Mr. Wickham had a pleasing face, red-blonde hair, and an open smile. He responded enthusiastically to meeting herself and Jane, showing no disappointment in her features, unlike a certain different gentleman. He was very amiable, sharing his attention equally among the sisters.
Jane fidgeted on Lizzy's arm, uncharacteristic of her. The source of her agitation was explained as Mr. Bingley and his friend approached at last. Jane greeted them with alacrity. Lizzy kept her eyes resolutely on Mr. Wickham, and saw when his face went red. At the same time, Mr. Bingley's horse suddenly screamed and attempted to bolt. Her sisters dodged out of the way while Mr. Bingley was dragged several steps. Lizzy darted forward to help him, and as Scepter cleared her vision, she saw Mr. Darcy. His face was pure white, his fists clenched in rage.
She could feel the fury coming off him in waves. He appeared to be shaking with it. That Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham were viewing each other and caused each others' reactions, there was no doubt. Mr. Darcy's anger was setting off Scepter. She threw her magic at the horse, causing him to come to a halt, head thrown back and quivering. The only thought she could glean from him was, WOLF!
Most of the time she didn't like to force animals with her magic, but where safety was concerned, she didn't mind suppressing their natural instincts. Mr. Bingley nodded thanks to her, rubbing Scepter's neck. Lizzy turned to make sure her sisters were unharmed. They were, gathered to the side. Mr. Darcy strode forward, toward Mr. Wickham, who visibly braced himself.
"Mr. Darcy!" she snapped, forgetting herself. He stopped abruptly, in much the same way Scepter had. Col Forster looked between the gentlemen, his expression uncomfortable. "Err, perhaps we should be going now, Mr. Wickham," Col Forster said. Mr. Wickham refused to look away from Mr. Darcy, until Col Forster grabbed his arm. Mr. Wickham jerked away and gave him a withering glare. The tension was broken, and Mr. Wickham allowed himself to be led away.
A short silence passed. Jane went to Mr. Bingley to see that he was unharmed. Lydia clutched Kitty and Mary and began speaking rapidly. Mary shook her off in disgust. Mr. Darcy continued to stare hard after Mr. Wickham, murder in his eyes. Scepter continued to fidget, trying to get away. Lizzy felt she had had enough of Meryton this day. "Mr. Bingley, I could take your horse for you," she said. He glanced at her and started to refuse, but she nodded to Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley saw him, and agreed reluctantly.
"I will be by to retrieve him in the morning," he said, walking away to speak quietly to Mr. Darcy. Lizzy gathered her sisters, having to threaten to slap Lydia and Kitty to force them to calm down. Scepter shivered and edged away, but without prompting began to follow Lizzy as they began the trip back to Longbourn. Jane was discouraged to not have more opportunity to speak with Mr. Bingley. Lizzy silently blamed Mr. Darcy for disappointing her sister. Not only was he rude to her face, but now he was interfering in her sister's happiness. That was something which was harder to forgive. And his behavior toward the genial Mr. Wickham!
There truly was something very strange about Mr. Darcy.
Posted on: 2013-04-09
Blast that man! George snarled to himself. How dare he show up here! Everything he tried to do, that unconscionable man showed up to ruin it. He made sure the window of his ground-floor inn room was open, and then he stripped to skin. His wolf growled furiously. It hated having to run from that bastard Darcy. Though his own wolf was the creator of Darcy's, the other wolf had always been bigger and stronger. But that wolf was sick. He reeked of silver. George had even spied a silver ring on the idiot's finger. He had almost crowed in derision. Did he think a bit of shiny metal would hold the wolf at bay? The deficient probably didn't even realize he didn't need the full moon to change.
Like now, with sandy-red fur sprouting from his arms. His skin prickled as the fur rose. His stomach roiled as his insides resorted themselves. His bones popped and snapped, rearranging until he fell to all fours. Power flooded him. The night was as bright as day. He could scent all the people who had had this room before him. He could hear the heartbeats of the other occupants in other rooms. The floor was smooth under his tough paws. The taste of the night air rolled over his tongue. The wolf roared in triumph. He gaped his jaws in a silent lupine grin.
With a smooth surge of muscle, he leapt through the open window and was free. The darkness was glorious. The wind stirred his fur, and he was so alive! He wanted to howl and rage and tear at the world, but he locked his throat against the sound. His wolf was slyer than that. Alright, down to pack business. The pack in London had bought him a commission, to put him out here in the country. He was to run a confidence game for them. The plan was simple: find a country lady, seduce her, and take what he could.
It didn't matter if he married her, blackmailed her or held her for ransom: the pack didn't care. They were common thugs. In many ways, his initiation had been the best thing to happen to them. With his easy manners and education, he blended in with a higher class than the pack usually associated with. It would have been an even bigger coup should he have managed to bring that cad Darcy over. How was he to know Willie's wolf would be so strong? His own wolf paused, cringing in memory at the power of the young wolf.
Damn him! He would not cower! Darcy might be strong, but he was deliberately poisoning himself in the attempt to control the wolf. There was no controlling it; you gave in to it, and rejoiced in the glory that came. He turned his mind reluctantly from Darcy. He needed to stalk his prey. He had met Col Forster earlier in the day and secured his commission. Now he wanted the lay of the land. He had already scoped out several young ladies of import. Mary King was a strong possibility, though nothing to look at.
But that Lydia Bennet… She was also a decent choice, and much prettier. And so many sisters! Why shouldn't he go through them one by one? The eldest was perhaps the most beautiful, but the youngest had the kind of naivety that he liked to spoil. Yet it was the second sister he would perhaps enjoy the most. There was something strange about her… His wolf had taken notice of her, more than any of the others. His wolf had been seething at the inanities of conversation. And then that Elizabeth came, and his wolf had grown quiet. Both he and the wolf had hated that. The wolf had roused himself, looked at her, and said, Mate.
He had never done that before. The fairer sex meant nothing to the wolf. Weak women were to be devoured. Strong ones were to be subdued, bedded, and then devoured. If they pleased him enough, perhaps he might let them live, with his seed in their belly. So why then had this Elizabeth caught his attention? His wolf grew hungry as he imagined the feel of her under him, and the way she would squeal when he bit her.
And then there was Darcy. Old Willie boy, advancing like a sick avenging angel. He was so pathetic, and his friend equally so. There was no mistaking the way Darcy's wolf had responded to him. Yes, they had a shared past that was… turbulent, but there was more than that. Was Darcy… mating? If Elizabeth affected Darcy's wolf the way she did his, no doubt the lout would worship her. If he could run the scheme and take his revenge on Willie at the same time… why shouldn't he?
Certainly he'd noticed the way that human was courting. His lips curled in a snarl. He would have never let a weak human attempt to claim another woman while he was around. Darcy was such an idiot. He was still fighting it, still running lone wolf. He didn't have the strength of a pack to back him, not that he needed any more power. Darcy had gotten the drop on him once, but it wouldn't happen again. It was only a matter of time before the excessive exposure to silver killed him. George gave him a year at most.
He huffed out a wolfish laugh, trotting down the streets of Meryton. A dog came out to bark at him. He gave chase, and the small thing just managed to slip through a fence before his teeth closed around it. He could have leapt the fence and continued the chase, but he was not here to indulge petty pursuits. He had larger prey to deal with. There were too many diffused scents in town to be of any use to him. He headed into the countryside to clear his nose.
To his shock, he found Elizabeth's scent all throughout the area. Some scents were older, but there were enough of them, and spread sufficiently enough, to be clear that she was often walking outside. For a second his enthusiasm for her dimmed. What would be the use pursuing a lady with the coarse manners of a milk-maid? And then his wolf grinned. But how easy it would to corner her in the woods, alone and out of sight! He followed her scent eagerly, trailing her to where it became stronger near her house.
Sometimes it was just too easy.
Lizzy was restless again. She wanted to go out, but clouds had rolled in during the afternoon, and the weather did not look friendly. The moon was no longer full, but still provided some illumination. She stood at the window, looking out into the garden. She saw the wolf enter the flower path. She knew there hadn't been a wolf here for dozens of years, but there was nothing else she could call it. It was smaller than her Fitz. There was a lean, furtive look to it. Its muzzle and ears were sharply pointed, almost like a fox but much bigger.
It paused, and then looked up at her, right through the window. It bared its teeth at her, and she shivered. What Kitty had said about no animal ever harming her was not strictly true. It wasn't that she had never been harmed: it was that she had never put herself in the way of getting harmed. Before she touched an animal she built a rapport with it. She spoke to the rats before asking them to move their nest. She made peace with the foxes before handling their kits. She took care not to startle or injure the wild creatures that came to her.
That wolf… she did not want to touch it. It felt wrong to her, as though it was sick. Not like Fitz had been. That was a simple illness, where he had eaten something turned bad. No, this was more serious, like a dog that had gone rabid and had to be shot. This wasn't some easy thing that she could cure. The wolf explored her garden. It lifted its leg on several plants--some of her favorites, she noted with ire. She would ask the barn cats to cover the scent, or perhaps the hunting dogs from Lucas Lodge. The wolf was trying to claim territory around her house, and she wouldn't let it.
Satisfied, the wolf looked up at her again, and then threw back its head to let out a long, quavering howl. Instantly fear slammed into her, not just her own primal reaction to the predator outside, but the fears of every animal within her range that heard the howl. She was staggered by a bright spark from something far away. It was a feeling of pain, rage and fear, like a bear with its leg caught in a trap. For some reason she thought of Fitz, and hoped it wasn't him. She wanted to reach out to the trapped beast and comfort it, heal it if she could. It was completely unlike the wolf outside.
When she looked out the window again, the wolf was gone.
Darcy woke from an uneasy sleep with a cry of agony. His hand was on fire. The silver ring was eating into his skin like acid. He clawed at it, trying to get it off. He stopped as he saw his hands, dark fur growing, fingernails hardening into claws. No! He couldn't be changing! It wasn't the full moon! He was wearing silver! He threw the covers back and staggered out of bed.
Pain wracked his body as he continued to change slowly. The silver was resisting him, as well as his own will. He couldn't stop it; he had never been able to stop the change. But he could hope to delay it enough to make it to the secure room. Where was Charles? Could he wake the man before the full change was upon him? He let out a groan, falling to his knees as a hot knife slid through his bowels. Better not. He didn't even know if he could make it to the room in time.
He staggered up and careened down the hallway, clumsily knocking things askew with his shifting body. Every breath was a torture. The monster inside him roared and ripped at him, frenetic in its need to be free. Darcy could not remember being more scared in his life, even when Wickham had attacked him as a wolf. At least he'd known that he would become a werewolf. At least he'd known that there were certain rules that his disease followed: reaction to silver and wolfsbane, change at the full moon, enhanced physicality. He hated it, but he could plan ahead and be safe for the sake of those around him.
But this! It was four days after the full moon! The wolf was waning, growing weaker, and yet here he was in the middle of change! The secure room was just ahead. He saw it and threw himself forward. Strength flooded his limbs, and the wolf pushed itself forward. It took control of him, tried to turn him around. Unexpectedly he thought about Miss Elizabeth. Her face floated before his eyes, and the wolf paused for a second. He remembered the peace she had brought him this morning, as he had spoken to her. She had been clearly uncomfortable, maybe even angry at him towards the end, but something about her made the wolf inside him breathe easier.
That reminder was enough to let him take over again. He lunged for the cage, seized the door with his misshapen hand, and slammed it shut behind him. Then he screamed in pain, the wolf screamed in rage, and they both arched in anguish. His mind surrendered to it, and he knew no more.
Charles woke at the sound of a crash. "Wasshat?" he mumbled, sitting up. He listened for a few minutes, and heard a harsh panting moan. Suddenly he was wide awake, lunging out of bed and falling as his legs tangled in the blankets. He had only ever heard that sound from werewolves, and there was only one wolf staying with him at the moment. He got free and sprinted for the door. He hesitated a second, wondering if it was the best thing to stick his head out and possibly surprise a werewolf.
There was nothing for it. His family was in the house. If something was happening to Darcy, he was the first line of defense. Besides, it wasn't the full moon. Darcy would be stronger than him, but ultimately still human. He opened the door and peered out. He could just make out a hunched shape fleeing around the corner. "Darcy?" he asked. It came out as a whisper, his mouth dry.
Don't be ridiculous! he told himself. He left the room and followed after the figure. He heard it bouncing off the walls, knocking down tables, vases, pictures and other decorations. If it was Darcy, he was in a bad state, and needed help. He moved quicker, but did not call out again. He caught a glimpse of the thing ahead of him a couple times, but it was moving so fast he couldn't keep up. He was beginning to doubt it was a person at all; it seemed more bestial each time he saw it. If he didn't know any better, he might have said it was Darcy going through a change, but that was impossible. Wasn't it?
That the creature was heading for the secure room was no doubt. He saw the room now, saw the… beast staggering toward it, making pained noises. Then it paused, almost at the cage, and half-turned toward him. With horror he saw it was Darcy, but Darcy caught in the middle of a particularly bad change. Half-human, half-wolf, completely twisted, it was utterly out of control. It twisted and writhed. He could hear sickening cracks and gurgles as its body warred with itself. Fear made his heart pound in his throat. He could not stop Darcy like this. He was nothing but prey, should the beast turn completely and come at him.
And then something came over it. It darted into the cage, slamming the door shut behind it. Charles ran forward, fumbling for the lock. Darcy let out a horrid scream, and then the wolf exploded out of him. It lunged at the bars. The entire cage creaked and shifted. The wolf roared and clawed at Charles. He threw himself backwards, barely avoiding the wolf's claws. His injured arm ached as he landed on it. He didn't fear being changed into a werewolf now. If Darcy got hold of him in this state, he would be dead before he could be changed.
The monster slavered and thundered within the cage. It paced and stormed, never quieting. Charles could only watch and pray it didn't get out. One paw bled and dripped puss as it walked, which at least explained one thing: this was a silver change. During the rest of the month, Darcy could, barely, tolerate the presence of silver. It helped keep the wolf locked up. But during the full moon, when he was changing, silver was anathema to him. It sent the wolf into a berserk fury, where it would fight its restraints until its body literally gave out.
Charles pitied Darcy. In the morning, when the wolf released its hold on him, Darcy would be sick, his senses and nerves raw. At least, he hoped the wolf would let him go in the morning. He didn't know anymore. No werewolf he had studied had ever changed outside of the full moon. This was new territory for him. Watching the werewolf fling itself at the cage, Charles just hoped Darcy would make it to morning time. Would the wolf destroy itself before morning?
"Come back, old man," he whispered out loud.
George ran, reveling in the ecstatic thrust of muscle. He was pleased with his work this night. Not only had he located the house of that chit Elizabeth and all her delicious sisters, but he could feel Darcy's agony. All werewolves were connected in a primitive way. Generally the pack bonds overrode the sense of other wolves. But George was far from the pack, and he had created Willie's wolf. In the proper order of things, he should have been dominant over Darcy. Perhaps he should have known better, even before Darcy's wolf emerged for the first time. The man had always been too stupidly stubborn for his own good.
He was following the feel of the other wolf's pain this moment. He wanted to know where his rival lived. If possible, he wanted to gloat over his writhing form. If he could tear out his throat, so much the better. What had the idiot expected, living with silver on his hand? Sooner or later the wolf was going to emerge outside the full moon, and when it did, that silver was going to almost kill him. In fact, he had a good guess that he was the one that had triggered Darcy's sudden change.
The man wouldn't know why, but Willie's wolf had undoubtedly heard his howl, and known from which direction it spring. It looked like the wolf truly was attached to Elizabeth or one of the other Bennet girls. How delightful! He reached another large property and paused. Air heaved in his lungs, but he was not winded. He circled the house and grounds. Darcy was somewhere within, raging impotently. He sniggered and almost howled his laughter.
How could Willie not have realized that trapping the wolf only made it more furious? Yes, perhaps Darcy's wolf was only a few months old, but he continuously piled on mistake after mistake! Lycanthropy was wasted on him. Such a pity so much power was given to one so very stupid. If he had been as strong as Darcy, he would have ruled the London pack by now. No, he would have rules all the packs in England! He grinned like a shark, imagining himself as the king of the wolves.
He sensed other people living within the house. That human man, one he vaguely remembered from his school days, and three others, two women and a man. Hmm, perhaps other victims for his hungers? If it would pain Darcy, he was all for it. He decided not to bother the inhabitants of the house just yet. Willie was too insensible to truly appreciate the disaster visited on him. But all this running had made him hungry. He went to the stables, and opened the doors with one swipe of his paw. Horses already nervous from the furious werewolf inside and the sly one outside began screaming as he entered.
A lunge, rip and tear, then there was warm blood and viscera. The wolf took over in a frenzy of feasting, and he could not swallow fast enough. Fear-maddened horses battered themselves against their stall walls, much like dear old Willie. The noise attracted the servants who tended the beasts. They came running, and the man in the lead let out a shout when George was discovered. He snapped his jaws, and the sweetest blood of all filled his mouth. And then the pack bonds clamped down on him. It was the Alpha's command, to not kill humans unless discovered. He wanted to bathe in his kill, to devour all the weakling creatures around him, but he could not.
Instead he ran. He fled the scene, hot meat in his belly fueling him. There were more shouts behind him, but it did not matter. They would not see anything but a flowing streak. He had left one dead human in his wake, as well as at least a couple dead horses, not to mention however many were injured after throwing themselves about in terror. He threw his head back and let out a joyful, bloody howl. Not only would it throw old Willie boy into an even greater frenzy, but should the servants come running for the master and find Darcy's wolf, then all the better! Anyone found to be infected with lycanthropy was publicly executed, their property stripped from them, their family shunned. It wasn't as good as tearing out his throat himself, but it was a good sight better than the rich life he was living now!
He had to keep himself from roaring with laughter at what a fine joke that would be. It seemed Hertfordshire would be very profitable indeed.
Darcy woke when he heard the door close with a quiet click. He tried to raise his head, and then winced at the sudden input of pain. There was not a part of him that did not hurt. His hand was worst of all, sending nauseating waves of anguish up his arm. He rolled over, suppressing a groan, and clawed weakly at his hand. Just the brush of silver burned his fingertips, worse than he'd ever felt before. The ring had fused to his flesh. In the end, he had to tear his skin to get it off. He threw it away from him and curled up. He wanted to die. He felt sick and weak. His wolf groaned inwardly.
"Are you with me, old friend?" Charles whispered. He didn't answer. He felt cuts and bruises all over his body. His ribs felt as though he'd been kicked repeatedly. All his long bones ached, and his spine felt especially tender. His muscles were jellied and limp. Charles unlocked the cage. The door opened with a soft whine like nails down a blackboard.
He touched Darcy's shoulder gently; Darcy flinched from the pain.
"I brought food and clothes for you. When you can, get dressed and meet me in the study. We need to talk." Charles stood, leaving him to his abysmal depression. Darcy wanted to wallow and die. Eventually, though, the scent of meat broth stirred his stomach. He sat up, and attempted to feed himself. He grabbed the silver spoon, then dropped it with a hiss. Before his eyes, he saw his skin redden and form blisters. The finger that supported his silver ring was especially bad; he doubted even his ability to heal could fix the melted scars.
Unable to hold the silverware, he blessed Charles for bringing a porcelain bowl. He held it delicately and sipped straight from the bowl. His burnt skin was sore from even that light pressure, but he managed it. He found his clothes and dressed slowly. He found tinted eyewear and put them on gratefully. His mind felt sluggish, his body slow to respond. He left the silver ring where it was. Just being near silver at this point made his stomach roil.
He knew he looked a sight, pale and drawn, and was relieved to meet no one on the way to Charles' study. He entered silently and shut the door behind him. Charles rose from his desk and came around it to perch on the edge. He gestured for Darcy to take a seat on a chair facing the desk. He did, not looking at Charles. There was no end to the bitter apathy coursing through him. Though he had just eaten, bile clung to the back of his throat.
"So…" Charles began, speaking in a lowered voice out of deference for Darcy's senses. It still sounded like he was shouting. "What happened?"
"You changed last night," Charles said unnecessarily. "A silver change."
"It wasn't the full moon."
He shook his head.
"Do you know what happened?"
A lengthy pause. "I want to help you, old friend," Charles whispered. "But you got to give me something to work with. Why don't you just tell me what happened?"
"I woke up," Darcy began, and stopped to cough weakly. His voice was unrecognizably hoarse, and Charles started in surprise.
"My God, let me order tea for you."
"Silver," Darcy croaked.
"Of course not. Damn, I bet your tolerance is low right now?"
Darcy spread his obviously wounded hands in answer. A servant was summoned, and no further conversation occurred until tea was brought. Charles stirred in honey for Darcy, then handed him the cup. Darcy took a sip, and immediately his mouth started burning. He spluttered, and just managed to avoid spewing tea over Charles' study as he groped for a napkin. Charles cursed again. "It's never been this bad before," he said worriedly.
Darcy shook his head. His mouth felt raw. Just drinking tea that had been stirred with a silver spoon had given him a reaction. He didn't know how he was going to eat for the next few days, until his tolerance rose again. He would be like a savage, not fit to be seen at meal times.
"So you woke up?" Charles prompted. "Do you know why you woke?"
He shook his head. "I awoke because the silver was burning me. I was already starting to change."
"So you don't know what triggered it?" Charles pulled at his lip worriedly, and Darcy suddenly realized more than his unexpected change had happened last night.
"What's wrong?" he demanded.
Charles sighed. "There was trouble last night. A couple horses and the head groom were killed. Several people saw a wolf running away, and heard it howl."
"Not me," Darcy said, but there was doubt in his mind. He had lost his memory going into the cage, and regained it upon wakening as a human again. The wolf could have done anything and he wouldn't know. If it could force him to change without the full moon, he was an even greater danger to those around him than he'd known. He wondered if he would have to lock himself in the cage every night to avoid killing someone.
"No," Charles agreed quickly. "I heard you get up last night, and followed you down to the secure room. You didn't have time to do anything. Besides, I saw the tracks." He held up a closed fist, indicating the size of the prints. He then opened his fingers as wide as he could with a humorous quirk of his eyebrows, showing the size of Darcy's own tracks as a wolf. Darcy was not comforted.
"It must have been Wickham," he swore, and made to stand. Charles intercepted him and pushed firmly on his shoulder. He was so weak he fell back into the chair. They exchanged an astonished glance. Darcy's face was whitened with pain.
"That was the one who changed you?" Charles already knew it, but Darcy hadn't told him everything concerning how he'd become a werewolf.
Darcy struggled with rage and anguish. "Yes," he bit out harshly.
"If this Wickham can become a werewolf outside of the full moon, do you think his presence triggered your change? Your wolf became agitated at a rival, as it were, entering what he perceives as his territory?" Charles suggested.
At the thought of Wickham, the wolf suddenly snarled and began pacing in his soul, despite being weakened. "Yes," he growled, and tried to speak more. The wolf sealed his jaws and would not let him. It wasn't just the encroachment on his land that threw the wolf into a fury. Somehow, without knowing how, he knew Netherfield hadn't been Wickham's first stop. He would have bet Pemberley and everything he owned that Wickham had been to Longbourn last night. The thought of that monster anywhere near Miss Elizabeth or any of her sisters sent his wolf into a maddened frenzy. But the wolf wouldn't let him say it. The wolf was jealously guarding Miss Elizabeth, even from Charles.
Charles watched the emotions play across his face thoughtfully. Darcy realized he needed to give him something more to explain his reaction. This was not just a territory feud between two werewolves. He needed help in protecting the ladies of Longbourn--all of them, not just Miss Elizabeth--from the devil Wickham. Could he talk about Georgiana? His heart clenched in pain at the thought of revealing her part in this, but the wolf released his jaws at last.
"You remember what I told you about Wickham?" he asked.
"You were raised together, had a falling out, and didn't see him for many years. When you did see him again, he'd been turned into a werewolf, at which point he attacked you, and you came to me for help," Charles supplied.
Darcy sighed. "I'm afraid there's more to it than that…"
Mr. Collins was… Lizzy searched for a term that could convey the horrifying inanity of the man. He was not nice, or pleasant, or anything of the sort. She hesitated to call him out right insulting, given that his visit was a mission of peace, of sorts, but to call him interesting was a dire offense to interesting people everywhere. Kitty and Lydia had clearly been awed by the amount of words that could spring from his mouth--a prodigious portion of them about his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh.
For the first two days, Mary had thrown an astonishing amount of knickknacks at him, but had eventually given up as he never noticed, even when they struck his face. Jane had smiled and nodded politely as she always did, but there was a look in her eye that said her patience was wearing thin. Thankfully, no sooner had Mr. Collins announced his intention to marry one of them, then Mrs. Bennet had announced that Jane was all but engaged already, freeing her from much of the man's odious attentions.
Unfortunately, that meant the bulk of his fawning landed on Lizzy. She was sorely tempted to have the mice chew his coat, the cats mess his bed, and the garden plants to trip his feet. Sometimes her temper escaped her, and tendrils of her garden had a tendency to whip toward him without warning. Once a fox even leapt out of nowhere, bit his ankle, and darted away again. She didn't mean for these things to happen. Her magic was connected with her emotions, and when she felt so poorly toward a person, they tended to occur unless she was consciously controlling her magic. It was rather like purposefully trying not to breathe too deep. It was possible to do it for a while, but breathing was such a natural reaction that it happened, whether she thought about it or not. Seeing what was happening to Mr. Collins, she supposed she should be grateful Mr. Darcy did not visit Longbourn.
Thankfully, Mr. Collins was as insensible to these attacks as he was to Mary's thrown objects, or to the rather obvious antics of his youngest cousins, bored of his ramblings. Lizzy was rather horrified at Kitty and Lydia's behavior over the last few days. Small burns tended to appear on Mr. Collins' coat. Buttons were constantly falling off and hems coming undone. Lydia had even tried to make him believe he was hallucinating with her light shows, but he was the sort of person that, possessing no magic himself, was exceptionally dull at detecting it.
Lizzy's only relief from the scheming of her mother and Mr. Collins was when Charlotte Lucas came over. Lizzy felt guilty at subjecting her friend to such torture, but she was deeply grateful to have some pressure taken off her. Furthermore, Charlotte possessed the advantage of actually being a mage capable of minor spell work, such as a small volume spell that had been a joke when they were younger, and now proved invaluable. Mrs. Bennet frowned and flustered when Charlotte applied it, but Mr. Collins never noticed, being the sort to continue a conversation with little outside aid, and the relief of everyone involved was so great that she allowed it.
There was trouble in Netherfield, to Jane's distress. The militia sent men to look into it. Sir William Lucas did not wait for them to do their work, but at once gathered a hunting party of locals and stopped at Longbourn to seek Lizzy's advice. She responded in the positive that she had seen a wolf, but was now unable to locate it. She had not had great enough contact with it to be able to find it again, but promised to inquire among the woodland creatures she was familiar with to find it again.
Lizzy did not approve of hunting for sport, but the savagery of this attack with such that she had no qualms about seeing a vicious wolf put down. Mr. Collins looked utterly confused as to why Lizzy was applied for information on the wolf. Rumors briefly sprang from some unknown quarter that a werewolf was responsible for the attack which left a man dead, but given that it had not occurred on a full moon, those were soon dismissed. The wolf's character was much abused as it continued to be missing.
Usually Lizzy was at pains to smooth the relations between her animals and the people of Hertfordshire, but in this case she let it be. Though she would not admit it, the wolf had frightened her on its singular visit to Longbourn. Something about it had chilled her to the bones, and the fact that it had indeed killed a man at Netherfield only confirmed her fear as appropriate.
A sennight passed without the wolf being seen, and gradually the furor died down. Mrs. Bennet allowed her daughters to walk to Meryton again, so long as Mr. Collins was applied to for protection. What protection such a man could provide was openly speculated by all the sisters, unless it was to talk the wolf to death should it appear.
In Meryton, they met Mr. Bingley twice, to Jane's delight. Mr. Darcy, apparently having fallen ill, was not in evidence, to Lizzy's delight. Also to her pleasure, she met Mr. Wickham twice in Meryton, and spent an evening near him at a card party.
She attended the card party at Lucas Lodge, and a number of officers from the regiment attended. Lydia and Kitty were quite beside themselves with glee, though Lizzy did attempt to minimize their antics. She was strongly discouraged from curtailing them by Mrs. Bennet, and was rather flustered when she sat down on the side, near a houseplant sorely in need of attention.
The soil of the pot was too wet for the plant, and it was listless. Lizzy reminded herself to tell Charlotte to water this particular plant less. She spent a few minutes strengthening it, thickening the old growth and encouraging a single new bud to appear. This was not the season for growing, but the plant responded to Lizzy like she was a month of spring sunshine, and soon was the much healthier for it.
When she looked up, she was startled to find Mr. Wickham in front of her. From the gleam in his eyes, he had been observing her for some time. "Your magic is impressive, Miss Elizabeth," he said, sitting beside her. She flushed at a stranger seeing her imprudent use of magic at another's home.
"It is nothing so grand," she replied. "Just a spot of nature magic, nothing more."
"More than a spot, I should say," he insisted. "I have rarely seen such a skilled talent for working with plants. Is that all you can do?"
Part of her wanted to say yes, but honesty compelled her to admit, "Animals on occasion respond favorably to me."
"How remarkable." He met her eyes for a long moment, then smiled warmly and looked away. "Forgive me for asking something personal of you, but have you known Mr. Darcy long?"
It seemed a strange question, but then she had been witness to their odd meeting in Meryton, so perhaps it was not so obscure at all. "I fear he has only been in the country a little longer than yourself," she replied.
Mr. Wickham appeared to relax slightly. "I see. And what has been the opinion of the company at large toward Mr. Darcy?"
She remembered again the insult he had paid her the first night, and the continued barbs on the walk to Meryton. "I'm afraid he is seen as a proud and disagreeable gentleman," she responded.
Mr. Wickham's shoulders slumped. "Alas, I had hoped for better. But it seems a tiger does not change its stripes after all."
Lizzy's curiosity was suddenly wild to know more. "If I may ask, how long have you known Mr. Darcy?"
Mr. Wickham looked up and smiled wanly. "As you may have guessed from our imprudent meeting, I have known him far longer. Indeed, I may say that I have known him all my life, and yet for most of it I hardly knew him at all."
"How is that?" Lizzy asked delicately. She was aware she was trespassing on the bounds of polite conversation, and yet Mr. Wickham appeared willing to share past remembrances.
"I hesitate to slander the great Darcy name, but for the sake of a beautiful lady, I will pass on what warning I can," he responded, smiling warmly at her. Her face turned warm. He called her beautiful! She had never had any sort of suitor before--Mr. Collins was a creature so far outside ordinary terms as to not count--and she understood Lydia and Kitty a little better now.
"Please go on," she encouraged, attempting to seem unaffected.
"Well, as you may know, the current Mr. Darcy is the master of the great estate Pemberley. However, before that, it was his father, the elder Mr. Darcy, who ruled Pemberley, may God rest his soul. A more wise and gentle soul I have never known. He was my godfather, you see. I was the son of his steward, and was treated to more privilege than most of my station would have. I was raised with Darcy, went to school with him. Yet it was during our teen years I began to experience a tension between Darcy and myself.
"He was jealous, you see, of the late Mr. Darcy's attention on me. He felt I was beneath them, being the son of a steward and not descended from a long and illustrious line like him. The elder Mr. Darcy was above such concerns, but I fear his son felt it all too keenly. For the father's sake, I sought to minimize our contention, though Darcy was often quite provoking. When the late Mr. Darcy died during our years at the university, he left me a small living in his will. Contact with Darcy had come to the point that the university campus was not big enough to hide me from him, therefore I resolved to leave school and take up this living, so that I may not bother Darcy again.
"He refused me. There was just enough ambiguity in the wording of the will that he was able to avoid passing the living on to me. I should have been happy, with a small plot of land and the souls of a few people to attend, but he was determined that I lose everything I valued in life." Mr. Wickham paused, passing his hand over his eyes to hide the grief.
"How terrible," Lizzy exclaimed. Her mind was reeling. Certainly she had known Mr. Darcy to be of proud demeanor, but she had never guessed the depths to which he could fall. Impulsively she reached out and touched Mr. Wickham's sleeve, the only gesture of comfort she could offer. He looked at her, and his eyes seemed to burn with pain he felt. She withdrew her hand, feeling how inappropriate his gaze made her feel.
"Thank you," he told her earnestly. "It is a great weight off me that one person believes me, and is not deceived in Darcy's character. I wish that were the end of the story, but I fear there is more to tell. Are you aware that Darcy has a sister, many years his younger?"
She nodded, glancing at Lydia. She could not imagine her sister having to live with a brother capable of such deceitful acts. "How is she, with such a brother?" she asked.
Mr. Wickham hesitated. "When we were growing up, she was the sweetest child. She had such a bright smile, and so intelligent! I adored her, and it was clear she was going to grow up to be a rare jewel among women. Unfortunately, the late Mr. Darcy's death left her in the care of her brother at quite a formative age, and she became rather proud. I was quickly banished from Pemberley and its environs, as you can imagine, and did not see her for many years.
"I saw her again, just this summer. Oh, how beautiful she was! She has always been like a sister to me, and tears sprang to my eyes to see how well she had formed, how broad her accomplishments. I approached her to pass on my compliments. To my delight, she remembered me! But that delight soon turned to pain, for Darcy had turned her against me with his lies. I was crushed, but determined to part in amiability. I pressed her hand in farewell--she would not deny me that at least--and just under the sleeve of her gown I detected a bruise."
"No!" Lizzy gasped, covering her mouth in horror.
Mr. Wickham gave her a pitying look, but nodded. "I am afraid so. I asked her about the bruise, but she would not say. However, there was never any doubt as to who was responsible. Darcy had had a great temper when we were younger, but I had never suspected him of turning it against his beautiful, delicate sister.
"I confess I was quite angry myself over the matter. Unwisely, I confronted him about it. What happened next, the change that came over him… I am not at liberty to say, but he became quite monstrous about it. I was lucky to escape with my life. I fear he left me with deep scars that can never be healed. Not just in mind, you see, but body as well. I am daily terrified that Georgiana is left in that beast's care. I pray nightly that she will live to her majority. I would marry her myself, to remove her from the influence of that creature, but she has been turned too strongly against me."
"Mr. Wickham, I am so sorry if the remembrance has given you pain," Lizzy cried. "I promise you I shall be ever vigilant in my dealings with Mr. Darcy, and keep them as short as possible." She hesitated, then offered, "I am no kind of healer, but you have already seen my gift with plants. Might I be able to make a poultice for you, to treat your wounds?"
"Thank you for your kindness, Miss Elizabeth, but I fear this… affliction of mine cannot be cured with your herbs, unless you know of something to bind up the heart?"
"No, I fear there is nothing on earth that might do that, save time and distance."
He gave a harsh laugh. "Yes, time and distance I would give him, but no matter where I go, I am hounded by his long arm. There is little a person of his money and influence cannot achieve."
"Come, we must think of this no longer. Let us pass on to happier topics."
"Indeed, Miss Elizabeth. May I fetch some punch for you?"
"Please, thank you."
Mr. Wickham rose, and she had the opportunity to observe him as he walked. Despite his claim of injury, he had no limp. He was well liked by his fellow officers and the people of Hertfordshire, and many greeted him genially. He was courteous and kind to them in return. They flowed around him in such a way that it was clear he had won their regard. There was something magnificent about the way he moved, like a powerful and dangerous animal taking care not to harm those around him. Her magic wanted to reach out and tame him, which was odd. Her magic did not work on people. So strange she would feel the need to use it now! It must have been only her desire to comfort him.
Later that night, she told Jane of the story Mr. Wickham had told to her. "Oh Lizzy, it cannot be!" Jane exclaimed in horror.
"I know you like to think the best of people," Lizzy said heavily, "But I fear it is not to be, this time. Just think, we have scarcely seen Mr. Darcy, yet each time he has been insulting and unmannerly. Remember the day we met them together in Meryton? Mr. Wickham's story must be the truth of it."
"But Lizzy, think. If Mr. Wickham truly thought so well of Mr. Darcy's father and wished to cause no pain, why would he share that story? There must be some misunderstanding. Perhaps each of them exaggerates, and neither tells the full truth. Lizzy, you must promise me you will not do something horrible to Mr. Darcy!"
"Why would I do that?" Lizzy asked innocently, but Jane threw a pillow at her.
"I know you Lizzy, better than you think! Don't think I haven't been seeing everything that's happening to Mr. Collins this last week. Mother is furious with you, you know that. Please Lizzy, don't jump to conclusions before you've heard everything from both sides."
"I'm certainly not going to ask Mr. Darcy what he thinks of Mr. Wickham!"
"No, and I'm not asking you to. I am asking you to realize that you may not have the whole story. This is a matter which does not concern you. Please consider, why would someone reveal so many intimate details, unless he had some ulterior motive?"
Lizzy was put out to have her confidant take another's side. "Surely not even you could call Mr. Darcy a genial and happy gentleman!"
Jane hesitated. "No, I cannot. But neither can I believe someone capable of such fiendish deeds. Just think how bad you will feel, should the true story come to light and you find you were quite in the wrong. Why, Mr. Darcy has been ill these last several days, and unable to defend himself. Even you must owe that he deserves a chance to refute the worst of the claims?"
Lizzy reluctantly allowed it to be so, and grudgingly promised Jane to keep an open mind regarding Mr. Darcy. "I am not happy to do it, but for your sake, Jane, I shall try!"
"There is the sister I love. Remember that dog Charlotte had as a girl? Sir William was certain it was stealing eggs from the hen-house, and you insisted it was not? Remember the day it was found with the hens, how furious Sir William had been? He didn't believe you when you said it was only following the scent of the fox, until you showed him the hole the fox had been using? He offered you the best pup from his next litter."
"I didn't want the best pup," Lizzy said stubbornly. "I wanted the runt."
"Yes, and Penny was the best dog, wasn't she?"
"Enough, enough!" Lizzy threw her hands up in the air. "In this case you cast me as Sir William. I understand, you can leave off now."
Jane hugged her, and all was forgiven. "Thank you. Besides, I cannot believe that someone Mr. Bingley holds in such high regard could behave in such a way."
"Ah, now we see the true cause of your insistence!" Lizzy was happy to abandon the subject of Mr. Darcy, in favor of teasing her sister of her attachment to the same man's friend.
The days dragged on indeterminately. When Jane announced one morning that the next five days would be particularly warm and clear for the season, Mrs. Bennet suggested a picnic in honor of the militia who had driven the wolf away. Lizzy rolled her eyes and pointed out that just because the wolf hadn't been seen didn't mean it was gone, but readily agreed to it. Invitations soon went out, and Lizzy was deep in the organizing of the outing.
She even went so far as to visit her father and ask him to confirm Jane's prediction. "For you, Lizzy, it shall be so," he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
"Papa, you wouldn't cause the warmth, would you?" Lizzy asked in exasperation.
"Perhaps we shall see what your old papa is still capable of," he teased, looking out the window to study the weather. Lizzy sighed, and left. Whether or not he actually had a hand in the weather for the picnic, there was no reasoning with him when he was in a teasing mood.
Mr. Collins beamed magnanimously at the work being done, attributing it to the desire of his fair cousins to see him welcome in Hertfordshire. He hovered about, generously offering the advice Lady Catherine de Bourgh would have given should she condescend to attend a mere country picnic. In general, he got in the way, and did everything he could to impede the efforts of the entire family. Charlotte was applied to often, but even her mute spell began having troubles containing Mr. Collins' unceasing tide of chatter.
Of course, for Jane's benefit, the Netherfield party was invited as well. Indeed, to Mrs. Bennet's view, this picnic was much more for Jane and Mr. Bingley, and Lizzy and Mr. Collins, to interact than for the actual benefit of the militia. She was expecting at least one proposal after the picnic, maybe more than one if God smiled on her. More, with so many redcoats in attendance, surely at least Lydia would have ample opportunity to attract the eye of a handsome suitor.
Lizzy listened to this blatant matchmaking, and was sorely tempted to ask Charlotte to cast her spell on Mrs. Bennet. Unfortunately, though Mrs. Bennet had no magic of her own, she was sensitive to it. Her wrath at being silenced was not worth the short-lived relief it would bring.
Finally, the day of the picnic dawned. It was, true to Jane's prediction, unseasonably hot and fair. Lizzy had a sneaking suspicion that her father had put his hand on the weather this day, but did not confront him about it. He had spent his entire life studying weather patterns. Most of his time spent in his library was taken up with tracking weather shifts as far as he could sense, which was a considerable distance. If he felt he could safely warm one day without disrupting weather elsewhere, she would not argue with him. She just knew that if the weather shift was too drastic, it spooked the animals, and made the plants feel put out.
Ample food and blankets were laid out on the green fields of Hertfordshire, as well as canopies for those who preferred shade. Most people seemed content to enjoy the sunshine while it lasted, and the canopies were hardly occupied. Lizzy was glad to see the Netherfield party arrive for her sister's sake.
Mr. Bingley was a welcome addition to any gathering. His sisters and Mr. Hurst were less so, but were tolerated in order to enjoy the brother's presence. However, Lizzy was shocked when Mr. Darcy stepped out of the Netherfield conveyance. She had grown so used to Mr. Bingley stating illness as the reason for Mr. Darcy's absence at the various functions that she had come to accept that she might not ever see Mr. Darcy again.
But here he was, and it was clear that Mr. Bingley's reports had not been exaggerated. If anything, he had understated the seriousness of Mr. Darcy's case. He had not been prey to excess flesh before, as Mr. Hurst was, but he appeared to have lost nearly two stone of weight. His skin was a sallow, sickly color. It appeared almost as paper, and as brittle to the touch. He wore tinted spectacles, giving him an odd air.
Despite her promise to Jane, Lizzy had been quite determined to hate Mr. Darcy should she meet him again. Now, seeing him so frail, she felt she had ill-used him in her mind. Clearly he had been grievously stricken. This pitiful creature before her did not seem able to bear her ire without collapsing. She found she could not burden him so. Mr. Darcy laid out on the blankets claimed by the Netherfield party, and appeared content to not move. He ate whatever food was passed to him, drank if punch was offered, but did not stir himself from his spot.
She tried not to be aware of him, but it was impossible not to. At times he was as still as a corpse. Lydia, Kitty, and several of the younger members of the party began a boisterous game, in which there seemed to be few rules, but much running and laughter. Lizzy declined joining in the game. Mr. Collins also declined on general principle, and followed her around like an overgrown lapdog. He had considerably less charm than a lapdog, though. She could have told a lapdog to mind its manners, and be certain it would obey. Mr. Collins apparently had no manners at all. Finally, Charlotte sacrificed her own freedom to the distracting of Mr. Collins, leaving Lizzy to tend her duties as a hostess.
The wolf was aware of every move she made. It was the first day he had allowed himself to be in company after his disastrous silver change. He had not changed again in that time, however his sensitivity to silver had not diminished. Meal times were a horror to him. Even wearing thick gloves he was unable to hold silverware for more than a single bite at a time. His hands were covered in fresh welts after each meal. More than once his system had not tolerated minute traces of silver from conveying the food to his mouth, and so rejected anything that had previously gone down.
The wolf was slowly waning with the moon, though. He had hopes that as the wolf became less prevalent, his ability to appear as human would increase. This day was a test of sorts, to see how far the wolf could be trusted. Not far, it turned out. Though physically weakened, its senses were sharper than ever. He had the disconcerting notion that the wolf was looking through his eyes. Certainly he could glance at any group of people, and not only instantly recall what they wore, but also their relative status in that grouping. He could see who was given respect, and who held power over the others.
Nor was his eyesight the only sense affected. People still smelled like food to him, but to a lesser extent now. Instead, his nose was now so keen as to detect the slightest shifts of odor, and be able to accurately guess the health of the person he scented. It wasn't like he was deliberately collecting this information. People strolled, the breeze brought their bouquet to him, and the wolf succinctly sorted the input into neat categories. He quickly knew who would be easy to bring down in a fight, and who might present a challenge. It wasn't that the wolf was planning a massacre--though that was not beyond the realm of possibility--but rather, it was thinking in terms of pack. Who would be a strong pack mate, and who would only hinder the hunt.
This scared Darcy more than if the wolf just wanted to kill everyone in sight. The fact that it was considering a pack meant it was further evolving. Its thoughts were changing, becoming more sophisticated. It was not just a dumb brute, but quickly becoming a cunning schemer. What was he going to do if he didn't learn to control it? The only time the wolf grew quiet was when Miss Elizabeth was near.
When she walked by, the wolf sighed and relaxed. It stopped plotting, and instead let him be. The wolf liked her, he realized with a chill. It admired her. It saw her as neither a threat nor a resource to be exploited. He struggled to control the wolf's attitude toward her, but it shrugged him off without effort. He didn't see what drew the wolf. Yes, she had a light, pleasing figure, and a set of fine, intelligent eyes, but her connections were decidedly below his. The actions of her family, save for the eldest Miss Bennet, were shocking to say the least, and would have been outright scandalous in London.
She would have been shredded by the London society within minutes of any party, if her family was in any way involved. Perhaps that was it. The wolf saw her as a thing to be protected. If that were the case he strongly resented the wolf for not seeing his sister Georgiana in the same light. To her, his most precious sister, the wolf had been violently disdainful, to the point that without Charles' and Richard's interference he might have actually killed her.
But then, if the wolf had appointed itself as Miss Elizabeth's protector, why did her sisters not provoke the same reaction? Not even the demure Miss Bennet roused the wolf's instincts as Miss Elizabeth did. The answer had to be in Miss Elizabeth's magic. She had admitted to being able to affect animals. Perhaps that was it. The wolf had been charmed by her because it was, in the end, just an animal.
Whatever the reason, he both dreaded and relished the moments when she drifted near. One by one, the other members of the Netherfield party drifted away. Charles was lost first. After bringing a quantity of food for everyone to enjoy, he had quickly become captivated by Miss Bennet. Darcy did not think the lady was a good match for his friend. Part of her problem was the same unfortunate lack of connections and ill-behaved family that Miss Elizabeth suffered from. Another part of it was that he did not see that Miss Bennet was in any way partial to Charles. She was quiet and splendidly behaved, but no more so with Charles than anyone else. Unfortunately, Charles was evidently infatuated with her. It was not the first time he had let himself be drawn to a lady's charms without discrimination. Darcy had saved his friend from more than one fortune-hunter, and it looked like he would soon have to do so again.
The wolf didn't care about Miss Bennet and Charles. It was vaguely amused by the match for some reason, but rather than disapproving or wishing to promote the match, the wolf only saw this as an opportunity to sport with Charles, rather like an overgrown puppy wanting to wrestle. That also disturbed Darcy, that the wolf could be so callous towards one of his closest friends.
After Charles had gone, Mr. Hurst planted himself in one of the few chairs near the vittles, to no one's surprise. Miss Bingley and her sister lasted the longest. Miss Bingley kept trying to draw him into conversation despite his refusal to participate. The wolf bristled at her obvious advances. He had to stop himself from growling at her. Eventually though, she was persuaded to leave by her sister, and they retreated out of the sun toward the canopies set up for that purpose.
So Darcy was left alone for a time, which he was perfectly content with. He closed his eyes and laid his head on the blanket as if napping. He heard someone approach and leave something at his elbow. Without stirring or taking in her scent, he knew it was Miss Elizabeth. Just her being near soothed the wolf. Even in a dark room, deprived of all his senses, he still would have known when she approached. She did not linger, just placed her gift and walked away again.
He waited until curiosity drove him to take a peek. She had left a plate piled high with sandwiches. Bless her. This was the first utterly silver-free meal he'd had in far too long. His stomach shook with hunger, and his mouth filled with saliva. Dear God, the wolf was making him drool. He wanted to fall on the food like the starving wolf he was. Instead he forced himself to nibble daintily, as though he hadn't a care in the world. Still, if anyone had been watching, they might have been surprised at the rate at which the sandwiches disappeared.
The incorrigible Miss Lydia Bennet started a competition among the younger crowd. No one asked him to join, so he was saved the effort of having to decline. The wolf got too excited by running people. As it was, the wolf watched the game avidly, twitching when someone ventured just a little too near. The instinct to chase and hunt was strong. Had the wolf been at full strength, he wasn't sure he could have resisted.
He forced himself to look away. He saw Miss Elizabeth flitting from group to group, pausing to talk to each one. The human part of him knew she was no doubt playing the good hostess. The wolf part of him criticized how she was received. Some people respected her, at least a little, but many were dismissive of her. Mr. Collins, his aunt's rector, followed her like a besotted puppy. Everything about the obsequious man made him want to curl his lips and snarl. The wolf was especially fond of that idea. It knew that a single growl from it would send Mr. Collins scurrying away. Clearly he was bothering Miss Elizabeth, and equally clear, she was trying to escape him.
Finally, Miss Charlotte Lucas succeeded in removing Mr. Collins from Miss Elizabeth's side. The wolf growled uneasily. Part of it was glad the Miss Elizabeth was now free, but another part of it saw Miss Charlotte as a poacher. That startled the human Darcy so much that he nearly choked. A poacher? On Elizabeth's territory? He looked closer at Miss Charlotte and Mr. Collins, forcing the wolf back to see through purely human eyes. Was it possible Charlotte had designs on Mr. Collins? The wolf certainly thought so. And while it did not approve of the man in general, it saw his groveling manner toward Elizabeth as her just due.
Mr. Collins was the cringing dog, the one that was always at the bottom of the pack. It would never amount to anything, but the way he had bowed to Miss Elizabeth validated her status as the alpha female, something that gratified the wolf. This new insight into the human relations of Hertfordshire was deeply disturbing to Darcy, and gave him much to think about. His attention had been distracted with the question of Miss Charlotte, so he was quite caught by surprise when he looked up, and saw Miss Elizabeth walking directly toward him.
For a moment she was haloed in the light, and he met her eyes unsuspectingly. His heart picked up in his chest. She was beautiful. How had he never noticed that before? More than that, he realized. She knew he was a werewolf. She had seen him in his full wolf form, and had not run from him. She held his life in her hands, and despite her initial reluctance, had not exposed him to the militia. She was not unafraid of him. He could see it in the doubt in her gorgeous eyes, in the way she fretted her smooth lip. But she was so brave, approaching him despite that fear.
The wolf rumbled in agreement, as if to say, Finally! That's what I've been telling you! And then she was before him, and the wolf shut up. Her lips were moving. He was mesmerized by the motion, and completely missed her words. He, whose senses had become so keen, did not hear what was said three paces from him.
She shifted uncomfortably, and he realized at last that she had asked a question, and he was staring dumbly. "I beg your pardon?" he barked out, unintentionally harsh. She flinched. The wolf growled, warning him to be gentle with her. He shushed it absently. He didn't need advice from a magical wolf-spirit, of all things.
"I asked, Mr. Darcy, if you would greatly mind if I sat for a while," Miss Elizabeth repeated. Her cheeks were burning with color, and he admired it very much.
"No," he said. She hesitated, and he added, "Please sit."
She did, moving with a grace that made his chest ache. How had he not seen how fine her lines were, that every small move became a dance on her frame? If she were not so far beneath him, he could see how he might have been in real danger. As it was, the wolf was clearly smitten with her. His lips twisted wryly as the wolf sank from hyper-vigilance to sleepy stupidity. It was basking in her nearness, and no help at all to him.
Elizabeth seemed taken aback by his expression, and he hurried to smooth his face. "Are you enjoying yourself, Mr. Darcy?" she asked solicitously.
He heard the question this time, but was at a loss to answer her. Was he enjoying himself? What did that mean? The blasted wolf had taken all his intelligence with it! "Yes!" he said abruptly, realizing too much time had passed for a polite answer. She paled, and he knew he was being rude. This time he really did not mean to be. He made an effort to continue the conversation.
"The weather…" he began, but she looked at him and words failed. "Warm," he finished hoarsely. Miss Elizabeth nodded, looking away. He took the opportunity to breathe deeply, trying desperately to recover his wits.
"I think my father might have had a hand in the day," she said.
"Your father?" He could only parrot her words. He felt as obtuse as that idiot Collins!
"He is a storm mage," she reported. "I only asked him if this day would be appropriate for the picnic, and he said he would make it so."
In the dim, distant part of his mind, the part that had once been one of the great mages before the wolf had taken over, he knew that tampering with the weather was a delicate, sometimes dangerous pastime, but it was hard to care with Elizabeth next to him. The conversation died as he failed to come up with an appropriate answer. Her brow was furrowed, and she seemed to regret sitting next to him.
He wanted to comfort her, but talking was obviously not one of his skills at the moment, and the wolf's hazy suggestion to take her in his arms was not helping. She glanced at him, and rallied once last time. "You appear to have a blemish on your glove," she commented, reaching out to touch it. It was his undoing. She pressed on the spot, and he flinched as she struck one of his burns. She jerked back in surprise. Her fingers accidentally caught on the edge of his sleeve, tugging the cloth back to reveal more burns.
Posted on: 2013-04-15
Miss Elizabeth sucked in a startled breath at the sight of his injuries. Darcy fastidiously pulled his sleeve to rights again. Should anyone discover that it was silver which had burned him, he would be revealed immediately. Even besides that fact, the wolf did not like its weakness to be revealed. That, more than anything, made him need to cover his injuries. It was uncertain about Elizabeth knowing. Would she care for him if she knew how vulnerable he was?
He couldn't meet her eyes. He stared over her head, stoically trying to pretend she hadn't seen his secret. But she had seen. There was a moment of silence, and then she spoke with more confidence. "Have you ever seen my magic at work, Mr. Darcy?"
Had he? He remembered Charles' horse following her without prompting, and of course there was the way his own wolf was completely infatuated. Did those really count? He shook his head in answer.
"I think you should," she declared. "I'm no great spell worker like yourself, but in my own field I'm quite proficient. I think in particular there is something which you would be interested in. If you care to see, I suggest you meet me in the woods, by the big rock. You'll see it as soon as you're under the trees." With that she rose and walked away. This was not a retreat. She left with greater intent than when she had come. The wolf mourned her loss, and then quickly began urging him to follow her.
The human part of him was rather scandalized by her suggestion. It was beyond the bounds of propriety to meet with her privately, without a chaperone. He had thought her behavior to be superior to that of her youngest sisters, but now began to see she was as much of a hoyden as they. He congratulated himself on not falling for her obviously dubious charms, no matter how his wolf growled and paced. He certainly would not be meeting with her, now or ever! This made it even more imperative that he warn Charles away from forming an attachment to the eldest sister.
He resolved to do so as soon as he returned to Netherfield with Charles. He thought the matter settled. The wolf was very strongly arguing. It wanted to chase down Miss Elizabeth in the woods, to have a moment alone with her. It was as much for her sake as for propriety that he was refraining. Who knew what the unpredictable wolf would do?
He was attempting to lay back and relax, but the wolf was making that impossible. His shoulders were tight, his jaws clenched. He breathed through his nose, ignoring the little tremors of his muscles. Finally the wolf forcibly took control. Rather than making him rise, though, it turned his head in the direction of the canopies.
Caroline was frowning at him. No doubt she had seen the entire conversation with Miss Elizabeth. Now Caroline was rising, walking in his direction. The wolf took great pleasure in informing him that she hoped to mark him as her territory. Frankly, he didn't need the wolf to tell him that. He rose to his feet without conscious effort. He pretended he didn't see Caroline heading his way. He turned his back on her and strolled off. He headed obliquely towards the woods, taking a more circuitous route than Miss Elizabeth had.
He ignored Caroline's shrill voice as he lengthened his stride. She couldn't hope to catch up to him without breaking into an undignified run, and she would never do that. The wolf thought it might be fun to watch her run, and then to chase and frighten her until she gave up the attempt to acquire him. He knew he was craven when he was tempted to let the wolf play with Charles' sister. He forced the wolf's attention away from her, thinking instead of Miss Elizabeth. He entered the trees in pursuit of her at last.
Lizzy enjoyed the cool of the woods better than the hot sunshine. She leaned against the heavy slab of stone rising from the earth, letting her eyes fall shut. Playing hostess had been entertaining, especially once Charlotte took Mr. Collins off her hands. She owed her friend for that, mute spell or not. She had spied Jane and Mr. Bingley talking softly, their heads close together, and couldn't be more pleased for them. The rest of the picnic seemed to have been going very well, until she came to Mr. Darcy.
She frowned slightly, bristling at his manners. She had determined to be kind to him, as Jane wished. She could not inquire directly into the matters Mr. Wickham had revealed, but she had eyes and ears to observe him herself.
There were topics she could bring up, and thus gauge his reaction. However his brusque answers had quickly put her off. Speaking to her was clearly a pain to him. She didn't know why she bothered. He was so far promising to be every bit as bad as Mr. Wickham had intimated. Her own observation of him from the first assembly in Meryton was continuing to be true. He was a predator. The sad thing was, he wasn't even hunting her. She just kept getting in his way. She wasn't even sure why she was doing this for him.
She supposed it was because she was so very tired of his superior manners, and his fixed, disapproving stares. She would show that he did not intimidate her! She would also show that she could be magnanimous. He was in pain from those awful burns. She had no idea how he had gotten them, but there were a lot of them, far more than the small patch she had glimpsed. She could not heal human wounds, but knew the uses of every single herb in Hertfordshire.
It wasn't something she had studied, or even had to experiment with. She spoke with the plants, and they told her what their properties were. The animals had backed up her knowledge, by showing how they also took advantage of the plant medicines. Learning from the plants themselves wasn't like talking as she could with her sister--speaking with Mr. Darcy did not qualify as talking--but rather, she felt what they did. They did not have words, but they communicated in ideas as simple as warm sunshine and as complex as a thousand raindrops gently pattering on a thousand leaves of the forest.
Animals she had known for a long time were much easier to communicate with. They still did not use words as such, but they had more defined thoughts. Her mind had learned to translate these into words, so that it was almost the same. She knew more than the doctor and the apothecary about herbs. Sometimes those esteemed men would approach her when they were low on supplies and could not order more. She had made many a poultice, wrap, tea or steep, for any illness. It was not a magic panacea, but it was a far cry better than most people faced. It was rare for any of Longbourn's tenants to fall ill and die of a cold during the winter. They sickened, but only the very old or very young did not get better when she treated them.
She smiled faintly, remembering her successes fondly. That's what she would do. She would make a salve for Mr. Darcy's burns, a salve that would work far better than anything else he could try, and then she would walk away. She would take the high road, and contentedly ignore his presence for as long as he was in Hertfordshire. When he realized she would not be frightened or cowered by his great person, he would have no choice but to leave her be, or risk looking the fool.
If only he would arrive. She realized that he might have delayed his departure so as to avoid suspicion that they were meeting, but it was taking an abnormally long time for him to come. He had never agreed that he would be here, she remembered with a sinking heart. That would be just like him, to let her wait here with no intention of ever following. She was cheerfully abusing his character when someone cleared their throat nearby.
Her head started up, her eyes flying open. Her glance darted toward the sound, and she nearly gaped at Mr. Darcy, standing not half a dozen paces from her. How had she not heard him approach? Humans as a whole were clumsy, noisy creatures. It was only her long exposure to the wild animals that had taught her to move silently. For someone to be able to come up to her, unnoticed, was unheard of!
She realized she was staring at Mr. Darcy. She would have felt embarrassed, except he was equally staring at her. She tightened her jaw and continued to stare. It became a challenge now. Mr. Darcy blinked, and then reached up and removed his tinted spectacles. She was able to see his eyes for the first time. She had never paid attention before, but his eyes were dark, almost black. Perhaps blue? But with flecks of lighter color, maybe green?
In the shadow of the trees, the light didn't hurt his eyes. He was free to look around, and he studied her intently. She did likewise. The shade hid the sallow tone of his skin, and softened the lines the sickness had left on his face. She realized that he was one of the handsomest men she had ever seen. He could have easily been the most handsome, save that his ill-manners detracted so severely from his appeal.
She had no idea what he was seeing in her. Probably noting her flaws, criticizing her dress and figure. She decided she had had enough of that. She pushed herself up from the rock, moving confidently toward him. She would not let his unwavering regard deter her. Closer to him, she could see that the lighter color in his eyes was definitely a bright green. It reminded her of the light green of new leaves in spring. What a shame such eyes were wasted on one that refused to see beauty, she thought.
"May I see your hands, Mr. Darcy?" she asked briskly. He hesitated, and then slowly stripped off his gloves. His motions were jerky and pained. Once his hands were fully revealed, she saw why. Burned was too minor a word for them. It wasn't like his flesh was charred from the bones, but there were overlapping layers of blisters. She hadn't seen burns this bad since a toddler had grabbed a poker from the fire by accident. But that had been an isolated incident.
The burns on Mr. Darcy's hands had a pattern of repeated use. She was reminded of a tenant's daughter, many years ago, who had taken to scraping a sharp piece of glass over her arms. She was not discovered until one day she failed to return. She was found before morning, having died from blood loss. She had cut too deeply, and severed the main blood vessels in her arms. It was discovered that her arms and legs were covered by years of repeated cuts. Shallow, white scars overlapped, hundreds of them.
Mr. Darcy's burns were frighteningly similar. The burns were too recent to have formed deep scars, save on the middle finger of his right hand. The base of that finger looked as though he had been wearing a ring of coal for months. She had to swallow hard against a sudden revulsion. She had treated the injuries of many animals, but had rarely seen something so bad as Mr. Darcy's burns. Perhaps he was sick in the mind as well as the body. There was little she could do to treat that.
She forced herself not to think of the pain he must be in, or how he had gotten those injuries. Instead she focused on the clinical side. She already knew which herbs would treat burns, and where to find them. She just needed to collect his other symptoms. She looked up from his hands, staring instead into his eyes. She did not allow herself to get lost in their unusual color, but instead noted the whites of his eyes. They were a good color, not yellowish, though the tiny blood vessels were inflamed. She reached up and pressed her finger to his forehead, then took it away to see how fast his color returned.
Satisfied, she turned away from him. "Come with me," she called over her shoulder, leading Mr. Darcy deeper into the forest. She didn't hear him following her. She allowed herself only one glance to make sure he was behind her, and then continued. Mr. Darcy might be a very great person, a powerful mage, renowned in London society. But here, in the Hertfordshire woods, she was the one who led.
"Do you have stomach ailments, Mr. Darcy?" she asked, pausing at a plant to gather leaves.
"On occasion," he answered. She felt him looming over her as she crouched down. She cupped the small herb in one hand, extending her power to it. It accepted her strength, stretching and growing before their eyes. She heard Mr. Darcy suck in a startled breath, but ignored him. She made sure the little herb would be strong enough to bear the removal of the leaves she needed.
Once she had them, she stood and moved on. She gathered roots, flowers, stems and fruits, whatever was needed. She moved in a meandering path, visiting the plants she wanted. She would ask questions at irregular intervals, and refine her choices based on his answers. She crushed some fuzzy moss between her fingers, and then held it out to him. "What does this smell like to you?"
Instead of taking the moss, his hand enveloped hers. He brought her hand near his face. He inhaled deeply, never once taking his eyes off of her. She flushed, and snatched her hand back as soon as he let her. Had she thought he wasn't hunting her? Perhaps she needed to revise that idea. Certainly she felt like a frightened deer now. Her heart beat too fast, and her mouth was dry. She had never worried about being alone in the woods before. She knew the land too well, knew the creatures within it that would give her aid or defense. But with Mr. Darcy, she suddenly felt vulnerable.
"Peppermint," he said smoothly. "A hint of licorice."
It took her a moment to realize he was answering her question. "Uh, good," she stammered. "Your sense of smell isn't affected, then."
For just an instant, she thought she saw a flash of humor in his dark eyes. Then it was quickly masked, and he looked troubled instead. That brief glimpse was revealing. So the dour Mr. Darcy did have some sense of humor after all. It was just that the country yokels of Hertfordshire did not deserve to be graced by it.
Lizzy felt a surge of indignation on the behalf of her people. She allowed it to strengthen her, to chase away her irrational fear of him. She moved on, deliberately setting a fast pace as she gathered her herbs. No one who did not walk regularly could keep up with her without panting in an undignified fashion. To her chagrin, Mr. Darcy kept up with no apparent effort. He kept on her heels in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck rise. The faster she moved, the closer he followed.
She heard his breath catch in his throat in excitement. She realized she was fleeing from a predator, and forced herself to stop. She turned and faced him squarely. He stopped, staring intently at her. The green flecks in his eyes threw back light in a way that was deeply disconcerting, like a cat's at night. She raised her chin defiantly, glaring at him. It went on more than long enough to become uncomfortable.
Mr. Darcy was the first to look away. He blinked and turned his head. He shifted his weight back subtly, and Lizzy knew she had won. How had she never noticed before, that he acted like a large, dangerous hunter? A bear, a feral dog, an eagle? Run and he chased. Confront him and he backed off. A predator would always take the sure thing to the risk of an altercation. She supposed that she hadn't spent much time with him to realize it before, between his sudden illness, and her own avoidance of him from mortification.
The more time she spent with Mr. Darcy, the more confused she became. Was he the fiendish cad Mr. Wickham painted him? Misunderstood as Jane would have her believe? The hunter her instincts were telling her he was? She had never met a person she could not immediately categorize. It was something the animals had taught her, to make snap judgments and know at once whether a person was kind or cruel, genuine or false. She had never been wrong before. But Mr. Darcy defied definition. It irked her pride, all the more for the devastating insult he had laid on her the first night.
No matter, she decided. Once she had given him the burn treatment, she would be done with him. If they ever crossed paths again, she would have no hesitation in having birds void over his head, weeds to trip him, and mice bite his toes. Just thinking those thoughts made her feel better, less helpless. She gathered everything she needed, holding the plants in three distinct piles. She now led him to a stream to mix her ingredients.
"Have you a handkerchief, Mr. Darcy?" she asked. The gentleman dutifully produced one. She carefully wrapped one of her collections into the cloth, and then handed it back to him. "Set these to dry on a sunny windowsill for two days, and then steep them in hot water and drink as a tea," she instructed briskly. He took the small bundle from her, saying nothing more than he had the entire journey.
She took out one of her own handkerchiefs, a large, plain and sturdy piece of cloth, and wrapped another pile of herbs into it. "This one, go home and soak it in a shallow pan for an hour, with just enough water to cover the leaves. Slowly heat the water to boiling, you'll see everything start to turn pasty. Mix with lard, and use as a salve for burns or other scrapes." She gave him the second bundle. Finally she turned to the last pile.
Instead of speaking, she wrapped the parts in another handkerchief--she never left the house without at least three, never knowing when she might find rare herbs to gather, or an injured animal to bind up--and knelt at the edge of the stream. She held the bundle in the swiftly moving water, stifling a shiver at the icy temperature. She took a rock and proceeded to beat the bundle of herbs and plants until the water ran dark green from it.
If Mr. Darcy was startled at her unladylike brutality, he did not show it. She stood at last. Her handkerchief was much worse for the wear, but then that was why she did not use the pretty ones her sisters did. Her sisters were pretty. She was practical. "And this one will give you a temporary relief right now," she said. She didn't give him time to object, but grabbed his hand and slapped chilly green mush onto his burns.
He jerked in surprise. She was oddly pleased to have caught him off guard. She slathered her concoction liberally over his hand. After a moment of hesitation, he lifted his other hand and submitted to her ministrations. She covered both equally, and then tied her handkerchiefs around them to hold it in place. That done, she turned her back on him as if she hadn't a care in the world. It would take a few minutes for the full medicine to sink into his skin, but already she'd noticed his shoulders starting to relax.
She bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud. She hadn't been bragging about her magic. Not only were all the plants she had harvested from stronger now, but she had increased the power of the ones she had gathered, making their properties greater than they would otherwise be. Her recipes were good, and she knew it. This was the part where she walked away from him, leaving him with the knowledge of how she'd helped him despite his treatment of her. He might even be lost in the woods, she thought with delight. If he didn't have a very good sense of direction, he might be wandering for a while before he came out again.
She was about to start the journey back to the picnic, when a slight rustle made her look up. It was a deliberate movement, the kind an animal used to catch her attention. She reached out with her magic, and smiled happily. Hello, Matilda, she sent to the deer silently. She started to call the doe out with her magic, but Matilda gave a quiet snort.
Beware the wolf, the doe told her. Lizzy paused, frowning. Unlike domestic animals, the wild kin could distinguish between a wolf and a large dog: dogs brought men. She quested with her senses, but detected only Mr. Darcy and the deer.
What wolf? she asked warily. She thought of the pale wolf she had seen before. They had never found it, she remembered.
The wolf behind you, Matilda cautioned. He stalks you. His eyes seek only to devour.
Lizzy had been there when Matilda was born. Now as a mature doe nearing the final years of her life, Matilda was one of the most verbose of her animal friends. Most of the time it was a refreshing change from having to piece together fleeting, broken thoughts from the creatures she barely knew. Now, though, it sent shivers up her spine.
She glanced over her shoulder, and saw only Mr. Darcy watching her intently. He seemed to realize that something was happening. Perhaps as a greater mage he could sense her magic at work? She looked back toward Matilda. The doe was staying well back in the shadows. She could barely make out a faint patch of her fur through the thick foliage. The deer's outline was completely hidden.
That is only Mr. Darcy, she explained to the doe. She did not use the gentleman's name as such, but rather a quick series of impressions, from his arrogance, to his insult and general superiority of everyone. Her own mortification was included, inevitably. Animals identified people by their senses, rather than a meaningless word. She had grown adept at forming the impressions that would let her friends recognize individual people, and her mind automatically supplied the name rather than the description. Those impressions were brutally honest, which was why she couldn't hide the lingering hurt she still felt over his cruel assessment. He is no more wolf than I, she insisted.
You are as sister-deer, Matilda corrected with a sniff. He is wolf. Most dangerous hunter of all: man-wolf.
Lizzy started to protest again, but paused. Seemingly random thoughts and memories were colliding in her head, forming new ideas. She had never heard any animal use the term man-wolf. Again, it was not so much the actual word that was important, but rather the meaning that went with it. And in this case, Matilda did not mean the man-who-was-like-a-wolf, but the man-who-became-a-wolf. She remembered the savage killing at Netherfield, and the pale wolf she had seen that night. It hadn't been the full moon, but the full moon hadn't been long gone either.
The wolf had disappeared without a trace, and was never found. No further attacks happened. Because the moon was past its waning half? There hadn't been a wolf seen at Hertfordshire in fifty years. No wolf was seen until Mr. Darcy came to Netherfield. She remembered Mr. Bingley's Scepter, so terrified of the scent clinging to Mr. Darcy. His denial that he owned a large dog. Mr. Wickham's accusations, of how Mr. Darcy had changed when angered, how he had become bestial. Hadn't he been sick ever since the full moon? Her own senses had warned her he was a predator. Perhaps that was the most damning of all: her magic did not work on humans, and yet she had very clearly sensed him behind her, the same way she felt the hidden doe. It was not himself she was reacting to, but the wolf lurking inside him.
Mr. Darcy was a werewolf.
Suddenly things made a lot more sense. His powerful hauteur, reminiscent of a cat among mice. His intent staring, as if studying his prey. His arrogant carriage, knowing that the monster inside him was stronger than the weakling beings around him. The pattern of burns on his hands--she should have recognized them. They were burn marks from silverware. The scars on his finger--a silver ring. A hysterical giggle wanted to rise from her throat as she realized she had just healed a werewolf!
Abruptly she turned sober. Yes, she was alone with a werewolf. Well, Matilda was near, but an aging deer was no use against a werewolf in his prime. What did she know about werewolves? Not much, just what was rumored. Stronger, faster than humans, with a lust for human flesh. Supposedly only able to change during the full moon, but she was certain that was wrong. Perhaps able to change so long as the moon was above full? She should be safe then, as she had seen the half-moon pass three days ago. But then she was only safe from his furred form. His human form was still enough to overpower her, even as a dull mundane. Add supernatural strength to that, and she was hopelessly outclassed.
You see your danger? Matilda asked her. Back away slowly, sister.
Lizzy's mouth was dry, her heart pounding in her throat. She must not let her fear show, and yet it threatened to overwhelm her. What about her magic? If she could sense the werewolf, couldn't she affect it like she could other creatures? Maybe, but a werewolf was nothing like other animals. Ironically, the location of two wolfsbane plants came to her. Both were too far for her to reach. She knew there was at least one bear in the area, but also far away, deep in the woods away from people. There was no way she could call him in time. He would be fat and drowsy with preparation for hibernating, and in any case she wasn't sure even a bear could face down a werewolf.
Oddly, she thought of the dog Fitz. Surely he could take on a werewolf a third his size? He was built almost like a bear. But she hadn't seen Fitz in weeks. She hoped he hadn't been killed by the werewolf standing behind her. Instead of fleeing as her fear demanded, she straightened and turned slowly to face Darcy. She couldn't think of him as a gentleman any longer. The light green flecks in his dark eyes now seemed sinister, as if the werewolf was peeking through human eyes. She raised her chin defiantly. She must not let him know how terrified being alone with him made her feel.
"Be sure to keep those packets separate, Mr. Darcy," she said loudly. "At best mixing them will give you a foul tea and red skin. At worst, and you might find yourself with a belly full of nails and skin that splits on contact." She was exaggerating the effects of mixing the herbs. She just needed something to say. Words were her defense against the werewolf.
"I shall leave you now," she announced. Her heart sank at the way he tensed. If she fled, he would give chase. It was his nature.
Careful, Matilda warned her, taking an unwary step. A branch snapped under her hooves. Darcy's head whipped in the deer's direction. The deer ran away with a frightened sound. Darcy took a step after her. Yes, she realized, he was very much the predator. The werewolf was extremely present in him. She reached out without thinking and snapped her magic at him. It was what she did to the foxes trying to raid their chicken coop, the equivalent of a flick on the nose.
Darcy stopped dead.
Lizzy preyed she hadn't killed herself. Well, she had already started it. She gathered her magic to her. She wanted to dump power on him and run like Matilda had. Given his status as both werewolf and greater mage--that was unfair, hadn't she heard somewhere that being a werewolf meant you couldn't use magic?--she feared he would slough off her magic effortlessly. Instead she built herself up. She projected confidence, the stiff-legged gait of an alpha creature approaching a lesser being. She had made bears, dogs, foxes, and even cats back down with her bluff. She vowed a werewolf would fall for it as well.
"I recommend you wait a few minutes before washing your hands," she said, desperately trying to buy herself time. "And I recommend you avoid silver." She couldn't help herself. She threw in the jab defiantly, proving that she wasn't scared. The barb struck. His eyes leapt to hers. Certain knowledge passed between them. He knew that she saw him as a werewolf. He looked away first. She had either made a very big target of herself, or had succeeded in making a werewolf back down. She turned on her heels and began walking away.
Her back was tight, her muscles twitching as she expected at any moment to be attacked. She monitored his position with her magic. He didn't move, at least until she was out of sight and her range began to fade. She didn't breathe a sigh of relief until she emerged from the trees, and saw the bright, sunny picnic still taking place.
The last thing she wanted to do was keep playing hostess. She wanted to think, to make herself a cup of tea. She wanted to call the militia down on Darcy's head. There were plenty of red coats here; why didn't she? Her eyes fell on Mr. Bingley and her elder sister. Of course. Exposing Darcy as a monster would throw suspicion on the entire Netherfield party. She couldn't ruin her sister's happiness. But if any more deaths occurred, she vowed she would take action.
She forced herself to smile, and began once more attending to her guests.
Later that night, Lizzy couldn't sleep. Her mind flicked rapidly from thought to thought, all of them centered on the same grizzly theme. She imagined Darcy as a werewolf. She pictured the poor dead man at Netherfield. She remembered the pale wolf that had marked her garden. Did that mean he was stalking her? She admitted to herself that she was terrified of seeing the pale wolf again. There had been something not right about it. She now realized it was because her magic had instinctively recognized it was not a true wolf. That it had to be a werewolf.
She shuddered. A werewolf in Hertfordshire! Why oh why had Darcy felt the need to follow Mr. Bingley and his family to Netherfield? And worse, did they know? Were they victims as much as anyone else? Or had they deliberately brought a werewolf into the innocent, stupid sheep of Hertfordshire? Why was Darcy here? Was he looking for new hunting grounds? Was he seeking a victim among the country folk he thought so poorly of? What of the sister Mr. Wickham had told her about? Was Miss Darcy equally victimized by the monster that was her brother? Lizzy tried to be comforted by his insult now; it meant she was below his notice, and not on his menu. And then she remembered his gaze in the woods, when she taunted him about silver. She definitely had his attention now.
Outside, something stirred. She sat bolt upright, her breathing coming fast and shallow. She felt lightheaded, her heart beating too quickly. Was it Darcy? Had the werewolf come for her? Was the pale wolf lurking outside Longbourn? She didn't want to look. She was terrified of what she might see. She was only guessing when she thought the werewolf couldn't turn if the moon was below half-full. Popular legend held that they only shifted during the actual full moon, but she had seen the pale wolf outside of those days. For all she knew they didn't need the moon at all to change! But then why would the moon be linked so strongly to the werewolf legend?
She got out of bed slowly, and walked trembling to her window. She was panting, her skin damp with nervous sweat despite the cold night. Clouds had already started to roll in by the evening, and now they made the night even darker. She pressed her back to the wall beside the window, staying out of sight. She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to gather her courage. She had to know. If the pale wolf was out there, then she knew she was vulnerable every day of the month, not just the full moon. What about the star days, she wondered, three nights with no moon at all? Was she safe even then?
Greatly daring, she whipped her head around the edge of her window and glanced at her garden. She jerked back out of sight at once, stifling a shriek. There was something in her garden. She had seen it, but not recognized the shape. She felt weak, leaning against the wall for support. She regretted for the first time not learning to shoot a gun. Her father had offered to teach her, but she had not been able to take up the sport, not when she had such a close affinity for the creatures being shot. Now she bitterly wished she had learned. She suspected she would have no qualms about shooting a murderous werewolf. It wasn't human, and it wasn't animal. It was just pure killer.
Forcing herself to move, she took a longer look outside, trying to peer just from one eye, leaving herself as hidden as possible. The shape had not moved, and her breath left in a long rush. She fairly flew down the stairs, and yanked open the door to the garden. "Fitz," she whispered. "Where are you, Fitz?"
The massive dog stirred in the shadows, and approached Lizzy slowly. Her heart pounded wildly, this time in relief rather than fear. Fitz's tail wagged uncertainly as he came near. Once he was in reach she dropped to her knees and hugged his thick neck. He felt wondrously warm and solid. She was so grateful to see him again, to know the werewolf hadn't harmed him. She felt his big body swaying gently with his tail wagging.
"Good boy, Fitz," she said, running her hands over his body. She frowned slightly. He seemed to be in better health this time around--at least he wasn't sick--but he had lost weight. His ribs bounced under her fingers. It was ridiculous to term a beast so huge as underweight, but it was so. She stood and laced her fingers in his scruff. She didn't have to stoop to do so.
"Come, boy," she said, tugging lightly on his scruff and leading him inside. She shut the door behind her, grateful to have both the barrier and now the great dog between her and any wolf. She took Fitz to the larder and offered him something to eat. He took a biscuit delicately from her hand, but clearly food didn't interest him.
Instead he pushed past her, heading for the stairs leading to the sleeping rooms. She did not fear for her family, even though Fitz could have easily over powered her. It wasn't that she knew her magic could control him if she had to; it was that there was no menace in his body. She followed him curiously. He walked the hallway, his nails clicking softly. He paused to sniff briefly at each door, and then stopped at her room. He shouldered open the door and paused, looking back at her.
She went to him, petting his broad head. He followed her into her room. She tried to get him on her bed, where Penny had always slept during her life, but he resisted. Instead he laid down in front of the door. His back pushed it shut firmly. He put his head on his paws, watching her. He was in a guard position; the door opened inward, and no one would be able to move a dog that weighed more than most grown men laying in front of it.
She felt immeasurably comforted. Not even a werewolf could get through that door with Fitz on guard. She laid down on her bed and snuggled into the blankets. The faint green reflection of his eyes was reassurance that he was watchful. She slept at last.
Darcy was confused as he woke. He wasn't in his room at Netherfield. He wasn't in a bed at all. He felt a hard surface underneath him. Was he on the floor? And the scents around him were unfamiliar. Instead of the slightly musty, barely lived in air of Netherfield, the room he was in smelled soft and warm, feminine. His eyes shot open in alarm. He froze in terror at the sight of a lady's bed. He knew who it was, even before she shifted and he saw her face. Elizabeth!
He jerked himself up. He was in wolf form, in her bedroom! What was he doing here? That damned wolf was laughing at him! And worse still, a faint light was coming from the window. The sky was deeply overcast, but dawn was near. The first hint of impending change twisted in his stomach. No! To be here as a wolf, when Elizabeth knew who he was, was bad enough. But to change back, without a stitch of clothes on, in her bedroom no less…!
He turned for the door and clawed at it desperately. The door resisted his clumsy paws for a moment, and then by accident it bounced open. He thrust his muzzle into the gap and forced it wider. He scrambled down the hallway, bounded down the stairs and toward the kitchen door. He didn't know how he knew where everything was. He provided the impetus to move, and the wolf directed his body.
His guts were roiling, sapping his strength. His lips peeled back from his teeth in a grimace of discomfort. His spine hunched, starting to shrink in on itself. His paws pained him as he forced himself to move on appendages that were slowly becoming hands and feet. The kitchen door was left open as a maid came in from outside. Dimly he heard a scream as he charged past her. He made it outside. He would have thought to feel relief once he was free of the house, but instead the effects of the breaking dawn were multiplied.
He gave a groan that ended in a whine. His limbs were clumsy, shifting unevenly as the wolf retreated. With a last shove, he left the garden and hid in a ditch in the fields beyond. He rolled to the bottom and stopped, panting as he was left fully human, and utterly helpless. No, no, no! This couldn't be happening to him! The wolf settled with sleepy satisfaction, leaving him without defense.
His too sensitive ears picked up continued disturbances from Longbourn. He needed to move. He needed to get away. He was so ashamed of his position. What was he doing, sneaking off to Elizabeth's room at night? What was she doing, locking him in her room? Did she think to take advantage of him? Force him into marriage to preserve his secret? There was no doubt the advantages a union with him would bring her were significant, but she was playing fast and loose with her reputation! He felt a surge of anger toward her, and disgust. In the next instant the wolf rose up and crushed him. He curled into a fetal ball as the wolf ravaged his spirit. It growled and shook him viciously, punishing him for his uncharitable thoughts towards Elizabeth.
Only when those thoughts had been banished did the wolf relent, leaving him panting and sore. Furious tears squeezed out of his eyes. Damn the wolf! Damn the creature that took over his life, rending him impotent and trapped. He had never had so much trouble with it since coming to Netherfield! He should have never come! He should leave now! Nothing was safe from him. He could not return to Pemberley, for fear of terrorizing his sweet sister.
His London townhouse was hardly better; if the wolf escaped, as it was fond of doing here, there was so much cramped humanity it could wreak destruction on. Frankly, it had only been the best of luck and Charles' adept intervention that kept him from killing someone already. It was only a matter of time before it happened. He didn't know how he could live with himself afterwards. He was barely living now.
If stabbing himself with a silver knife would have banished the wolf he would have done it. If there was a priest that could exorcise him, he would have been there. If there was anything, anything at all that could have destroyed the wolf, he would have made it happen. At this point, a deal with the Devil himself was not too base for him!
Now he was stranded, naked and miles from Netherfield. What was he going to do? He could run fast and be at Netherfield in minutes. But to be seen, streaking naked through the fields was a ruination he could not risk. There was Georgiana to think of, and Charles. He couldn't go back to Longbourn. He could walk along the bottom of the ditch and hope to remain hidden, but the longer it took, the more likely he would be discovered.
How could the wolf do this to him? It was always making life more difficult for him. Wasn't it time to start giving back? And then he paused, a new thought occurred to him. The wolf was doing things it never had before, including changing without the full moon. If it could shift at any time, then why not now? He had never remained wolf past the dawn of a new day, but he had never wanted to linger in wolf form longer than he must.
What if he could change? He looked enough like a dog that he could go unnoticed. Besides, everyone knew werewolves only changed during the full moon, no matter that everyone was wrong. He crouched in the dirty ditch, prodding at the wolf. It snapped at him sleepily and resumed its dormancy. After being active all night, it was determined to rest now.
Not now, he snarled at it, pushing harder. It grumbled but did not otherwise stir. He could provoke it to anger, but he couldn't force the change to happen to him. He stopped trying, thrusting his hands into his hair in frustration. Months ago he had been one of the most powerful mages in England! Now he was reduced to groveling in a ditch, bowing before a parasite in his soul.
The wolf wasn't helping him, but he wasn't done yet. It was true that working magic had become more difficult for him since becoming a werewolf, but he hadn't lost any of his knowledge. He held his hands in front of him. He remembered the way they looked as they shifted into paws. He remembered the feel of it. When he fought, it hurt. When he wasn't aware of the change, then it didn't seem so bad.
He remembered the way his senses became heightened. The wolf's scary power. The effortless movement of his wolf body. The heavy mat of fur that insulated him from cold and injury. The uncomfortable shifting in his guts that always came first. Within him, something stirred. His intestines twisted. His heart clenched in his chest, and his breathing picked up. He was afraid of the change. The shift stopped, impeded by his own reluctance. He had never tried to start the change on his own before. It had always been thrust at him, and he was powerless against it.
But now he needed the change. He closed his eyes, and instead of fearing the wolf inside him, he focused on the parts that weren't so bad. The ease of running, even in his human form. The way he never got sick anymore. The way he healed quickly from any injury not caused by silver or himself. Oddly enough, he thought about Elizabeth. His face burned with shame from both her behavior, and his thorough beating at the jaws of the wolf over her.
The wolf absolutely adored her, with a puppy-like fascination. When she had run from him at the picnic, bravely masking her fear, his wolf had been crushed. And she hadn't been exaggerating the extent of her magic. Already his silver burns felt and looked as though he had had a week of healing behind them. Thinking about her lifted a veil in his mind, and he suddenly remembered everything that had happened since the wolf had taken over.
The wolf had struck when he was asleep, shifting while he was unconscious and taking control of their body. He had needed reassurance that Elizabeth wasn't scared of him. They had run to Longbourn, and weren't there for very long before Elizabeth opened the door for him. She had hugged him, he remembered. He had felt her fear, and longed to comfort her. That she wasn't afraid of his wolf was a soothing balm. He remembered her attempting to feed him, and settling down in front of her door. He remembered most clearly the look of relief on her face when she realized he was protecting her.
He could not approve of her actions… but some part of him that was not wolf was glad to be of service to a lady in distress. Like that the change boiled over him. His insides moved with only mild discomfort. His bones and muscles shifted and popped was a gentle ache. It was not the agony of being torn apart like before, but rather the soft pain after a good stretch. And then he stood, fully wolf. For a second he rejoiced in it. He had accomplished something he'd thought impossible. And then he realized what he was doing. He couldn't be happy about the wolf, not after everything it had done to him. It was wrong to celebrate embracing the beast.
He gave a soft woof that resonated pleasantly in his chest, and set off toward Netherfield. He soon discovered that learning to shift into wolf form was not the same as being a wolf. Always before, the wolf had been in control of their body. On the rare moments when Darcy had wrested control from his other side, the wolf had still been present enough to coordinate their movements, though it was Darcy who provided direction.
Now, though, the wolf was sleeping after being active all night. He had triggered the change without waking it. Trying to walk was a weird chore. He seemed to have an uneven number of paws and legs, making him stumble. For the first time he began to really have an idea of how huge his wolf form was. Charles had told him, many times, but it wasn't as though he'd ever seen himself in a mirror, or that he was conscious of it if he had seen a reflection.
Elizabeth was small and delicate when she threw her arms around him, but then she was small to him even when he was human. It was only now, as he concentrated on placing his gigantic paws, that he realized how truly colossal he was. Spaces that he could have walked through as a human were cramped to him, and he had to shove through. He sank deep into the mud at the bottom of the ditch, and his paws squelched each time he wrested them free.
Despite himself, he had to slightly admire Elizabeth's courage in having him near as a wolf. He could break her so easily, yet she had no hesitation in calling him. He was forced to go at a slow pace, almost staggering with clumsiness. After several minutes, the wolf took pity on him, and woke enough to spread grace into his limbs.
They--merged, was the only way Darcy could describe it. He felt the incredible sensation of existing as two beings at once. There was himself, his human part, but also his wolf. In the beginning the wolf had been a wholly alien creature of rage and strength. Since coming to Netherfield, he had changed. Now he had access to his wolf's senses, and his wolf's knowledge of how to use them. His other half was less like a possessing spirit, and more like a limb that had been asleep all his life, and was slowly waking.
What he knew, his wolf knew. What his wolf knew, he knew. They were symbiosis. Suddenly walking was easy. Running was even easier. The scents of the early morning swirled past him, and he automatically knew how to sort them. Many were things he wouldn't have detected as a human, or found odious, but his wolf rejoiced in all of them. They were as books had been to the old Darcy as a mage, reservoirs of knowledge he could pluck at will.
It was glorious, it was freeing. He hoped he had not lost his soul to the wolf. If he enjoyed it so much, did that mean he was more beast than human? But he no longer felt the pain and rage that had accompanied his first days as a werewolf. Instead there was a great joie de vivre that made him leap into the air and snap at passing butterflies. His wolf exalted in his own excitement. Both of them loved the feel of dew-wet grass under their paws, the taste of the keen morning air, the shadows pierced easily by their eyes, the sound of a far off fox's bark, and the banquet of scents that surrounded them.
For the first time since the disaster at Ramsgate, Darcy felt healed. Whole. One. However, as was true for everything, all good things must come to an end. He approached Netherfield, loping easily, and saw Charles pacing the grounds, waiting for him. He stopped, and felt guilty both for his nocturne visit, and for enjoying the wolf so much. He must be mad, to keep visiting Miss Elizabeth at night! No, he did not control those visits, but sure there must be some way to keep the wolf from going?
Charles stared at him in shock as Darcy slunk up to him. He held his head and tail low, showing his contrition canine style.
"My God, it's daylight and you're still a wolf!" Charles exclaimed. "Are you stuck?"
Darcy shook his head awkwardly. He hunched in on himself, and began looking for the trigger to change back. Charles stopped him.
"No, wait, while you're like this, might as well take advantage while we can," he said. "We'll go to your room."
Charles led him inside. Servants gave them startled looks. Charles explained nervously that he had acquired a new dog he wished to show Darcy. Darcy tried to look as non-threatening as possible, but just his size made the staff instantly frightened. They reached Darcy's room without meeting anyone besides servants, and they both sighed in relief when Charles locked the door behind them.
"Alright, out of the fur, now," Charles demanded. He was upset, and Darcy couldn't blame him. He took a deep breath, and asked the wolf to retreat. It regarded him quietly for a moment, and then agreed to go. It hunkered down in his soul, once more dormant. After that shifting back to human was natural. Darcy endured the fit of body spasms for several seconds, and then he was once more in his skin. The change was the easiest he'd ever had, though still unpleasant, but the drag on his senses was less severe than usual.
That was just as well, because Charles started in on him the second he looked up.
"Where the hell have you been?" he challenged.
"I was at Longbourn again," Darcy admitted reluctantly. He knew he should speak about Miss Elizabeth, report everything, but for some strange reason, he didn't want to. Before he could force himself to go on, the wolf rose up and took the memories from him. For once, he wasn't upset about it. He didn't know what he had forgotten, but he knew the wolf would give the memories back when he asked. Darcy and his wolf were in collaboration.
"And did you see anyone while you were there?" Charles asked through clenched teeth.
"I… don't know," Darcy answered truthfully.
"I think you're lying," Charles retorted.
Darcy gaped at him. "Charles, I'm not! I honestly can't remember." But he felt guilty, because he knew he was allowing the wolf to hold back information. The one thing his wolf had left him with was he hadn't harmed anyone at Longbourn--and never would. Even that bumbling cousin was safe, so long as he didn't hurt anyone in the house.
Charles was still furious with him. "I think it's clear that the wolf is growing stronger since coming here. I don't know if it is a natural progression, or if there is something particular about the country or Hertfordshire that is triggering it, but it is time we take stronger measures to restrain it."
Darcy kept his head bowed meekly. The wolf shifted uneasily at the thought of being restrained again. Charles didn't understand what it was like to have two souls, and to finally have them join into a cohesive whole. How could he reassure his friend, that though his wolf was stronger, it was not a bad situation?
"Maybe you should resume wearing your ring," Charles was saying. A spurt of panic went through both Darcy and his wolf.
"No!" he said, sharper than he intended. Charles frowned at him.
"You are not being rational about this, Fitzwilliam! Think about it! You have never changed outside the full moon before, and you have never stayed as a wolf past the dawn. You have lost whatever control you might have once claimed over the beast. The fact that you are so adamant about it makes me fear the wolf has a greater hold on you than I realized."
"Charles, I changed at dawn," Darcy said quickly. He wanted to scream in frustration. For the first time this morning, he had realized it was possible to find a measure of peace with his condition. Now Charles was trying to take it from him.
"When dawn came, I changed back from wolf to human," he said urgently. "I was outside, miles from Netherfield. The only way to get back without being seen was to change into a wolf again."
"And just like that you became the wolf? Don't you see how dangerous that is?"
"No, it wasn't like that! I couldn't do it at first. It was like, remember your first spell casting lessons at the University? The way they told you to say this word, make this gesture, and it would work? But it never happens the first time?"
"Each student has to find his own way of casting the spell," Charles agreed reluctantly. "They have to learn to believe in themselves, then believe in the spell. Everyone builds their own unique experiences based on their personal beliefs."
"Yes," Darcy nodded eagerly. "It was a lot like that. At first I couldn't do it, and then I was afraid to do it, and then I made it happen."
Charles eyes him critically. "And you don't understand why that is a bad thing, do you?"
Darcy faltered. "What?"
"You see, lycanthropy is a disease. So far, you've only been infectious during the full moon. But now, it seems any time that wolf feels frisky, it can go out and visit the neighbors. Suddenly you're contagious every night. And then, you transform during the day. There is no safe time for you anymore."
"I know that," Darcy protested weakly, "But the only time I've bitten someone since being here was when I was locked up. It's almost like when you're riding a horse, and the tighter you hold the reins, the more spooky it becomes, until it starts to buck or bolt on you? That's what it feels like, with the wolf. Twice now, I've been loose at night, and not harmed anyone. Even today, if you count when I changed back to return to Netherfield, I wasn't seeking to hurt anyone."
"My God, man, you're going to Longbourn at night!" Charles burst out furiously. "It doesn't matter if you didn't hurt anyone, you could have! One bite, one claw mark, that's all it takes and you infect someone else!"
"I wouldn't hurt anyone at Longbourn!" the wolf spoke as much as Darcy. After a second of silence, the wolf acceded control to Darcy. "That's the thing. I know you don't believe me, but at Longbourn, I'm calmer than I am anywhere else. I can't explain it, unless it is Miss Elizabeth's magic affecting the wolf, but when I'm there, all I want to do is protect--everyone there." He corrected his words at the last second, hoping Charles wouldn't notice his slight hesitation.
Charles' face was deeply skeptical. "This from the man who claims he remembers nothing of the night," he scowled fiercely.
"Bits and pieces," Darcy said with a sigh. "Not so much actual memories, what I did, but I remember being relaxed, almost happy. It is the most peace I have felt since Ramsgate."
Charles didn't speak for a moment, thinking hard. "Perhaps it is Miss Elizabeth's influence that is affecting you like this. Maybe next full moon we should bring her in--"
"No," Darcy stated emphatically. "Most likely it is some fluke with her magic. Should something go wrong, and the wolf got out, I would not place her in danger."
"No, but you place her in danger by visiting her house!"
Darcy could say nothing to that.
"And another thing, Fitzwilliam, with you being able to shift at will now. What happens if you lose your temper one day? Are you going to change into a wolf in the middle of a room and rip the offender to shreds? See, before, you had rules and limits. The wolf was a terrible burden, but you knew it was only once a month. Now you have no limits. The fact that you're so resistant to setting aside the wolf worries me. What if the wolf has been controlling you this entire time? The old Darcy I knew was all about structure and control. He would have stopped at nothing to put the wolf in its place. He would have found a way to box it away, to let it out only when you had no choice.
"Since coming here, the wolf has been stronger and more out of control than ever, and you're telling me you're fine with it. Do you see how that concerns me? It makes me think that you're lost to the wolf already."
Doubt assailed Darcy. What if Charles was right? What if the way he'd felt the wolf growing and evolving had actually been it gaining control of his mind? Was he devolving? Becoming the brutish thing the wolf spirit had been in the beginning? He struggled with himself, wondering whether to place his trust in the wolf or his friend.
"What about Georgiana?" Charles asked softly. Darcy's blood ran cold. "What if it is Miss Elizabeth keeping you calm here, and the second you leave, thinking you've got it all under control, everything snaps? What if you get to Pemberley, and you hurt Georgiana? You're more dangerous now than ever, because before the wolf was locked up except for the full moon. Now anything can set it off, and you'll change. Did I say there was no safe time for you anymore? It's more like there's no safe time from you anymore."
Darcy flinched. He had already hurt his poor sister so much, first by failing to protect her from Wickham, and then by hurting her more as a wolf. He had never physically touched her as a wolf, but in the first days it had been a creature of rage and resentment, and Georgiana was an empath. The toll the wolf had inflicted on her was immeasurable. How could he have forgotten that?
"You're right, Charles," Darcy said heavily. "I do need more control. But as you've said, things have changed. I don't think the old ways of keeping the wolf at bay are going to work anymore. I can't wear silver if I might change at any moment; it would drive the wolf mad. I know that I must be locked away, for safety's sake, but if you could feel what the wolf feels… He hates being restrained in any fashion. It just tears at him. I wish there was a place far from people, where I might go and practice being a wolf without the risk of running into anyone else."
Charles sighed in relief. "Thank you for listening to me. I know it hasn't been easy for you, old friend. You've always been my superior in every fashion. I have always looked up to you. It must be hard needing help now."
Darcy started to protest Charles' words, but the younger man wouldn't hear of it.
"Now," Charles said with sudden cheer, "I do believe breakfast should be ready. You must finish dressing, old man, so we can eat. I hear you eat like a wolf!"
Darcy let out a surprised guffaw, making Charles grin in triumph. Despite their differences, they were as tight as friends could be.
Three days after the picnic, Mr. Collins' attentions to Lizzy were becoming both particularly insistent, and intolerable. As fine as the weather had been for the picnic, it quickly turned foul. Dark grey clouds covered the sky, and rain fell heavily, bringing the sound of far off thunder on occasion. Lizzy was unable to escape outside, as had been her habit in the past. More, the spotty weather meant that she had no access to Charlotte, or rather to Charlotte's mute spell.
She was careful never to be found alone by Mr. Collins, for fear he would propose at once. Lydia and Kitty found her predicament to be hilarious, and were not much help. Mary was indifferent. Indeed, Mary had even begun glaring at Lizzy when Mr. Collins was going on, as if to accuse her of not allowing him to come to the point already. Jane was usually her best hope, but both the weather and the lack of Mr. Bingley had affected her spirits so much that she could do little but attempt to deflect weakly.
Frankly, a stout frying pan to the head would do little to deflect Mr. Collins. In truth, he would probably look at the pan in question, and then wax elegant about the superiority of Lady Catherine's pans, not that the great lady would ever stoop to cook, of course. Lizzy was able to hide sometimes in her father's library, but even that inner sanctum was not proof against Mr. Collins' dullness.
"I confess, I wonder if he would even notice if I threw a lightning bolt at him," confided Mr. Bennet to his favorite daughter. Lizzy tried to smile, but couldn't manage it under the strain she felt from Mr. Collins. If Mr. Bennet noticed the lack of response, he said nothing. The next day, however, he announced during breakfast that the rain would pause long enough for a trip to Meryton and back, and that he required Lizzy to get a package for him. He retired immediately after saying so, leaving a stunned silence behind him.
"I'll come too!" Lydia exclaimed with alacrity, breaking the quiet first. She was parroted quickly by Kitty. Mrs. Bennet implored Mr. Collins to act as an escort, to which he agreed magnanimously, and with many dozen words more than necessary. Lizzy fidgeted impatiently in the entry hall, while Mrs. Bennet fussed over her youngest daughters, instructing them to walk very fast or very slow, and thus leave Lizzy and Mr. Collins alone. Mrs. Bennet was sure the parson would propose if but given half a second. Unfortunately, Lizzy agreed with her mother, and was determined not to allow that half a second.
Finally, the party was ready to leave. The sky was still a deep leaden color, and there was a cruel bite of cold that attacked fingers and toes instantly, but to Lizzy it was freedom. She set a brisk pace, until she realized that Lydia and Kitty had fallen behind, but Mr. Collins was puffing hard at her side. She slowed at once, making sure to keep pace with the younger girls. Thankfully Kitty and Lydia were more interested in the redcoats they might see in Meryton than their mother's instructions, and so did not attempt to leave their sister's side.
The road to Meryton was very deep in mud. Kitty and Lydia took care to stick to the driest parts, but Lizzy positioned herself in such a way that Mr. Collins would be walking through the deepest, slickest, stickiest puddles if he insisted on remaining near her. He did, and was quite disconcerted when his feet sank nearly to the ankles in parts. He struggled valiantly on, though, singing praises of Rosings Park and Lady Catherine breathlessly.
The occasional fat drop of rain fell, more of a reminder of the water above than actual rain. It bothered no one, except for Mr. Collins, as these drops had a tendency to aim for his nose or his open mouth. They reached Meryton without incident. Lizzy found that there was a parcel for her father, but that it had been sitting in the shop for a week, and likely to have continued to remain there for another if not for this day's journey.
The redcoats were scarce in Meryton, to Kitty and Lydia's disappointment. The few that they did see were hurrying to conclude business before the next deluge of rain, and did not stop to flirt. The younger girls insisted on meeting with their aunt, so that the trip would not be a total loss. Lizzy was not averse to finding herself in a warm house for a few minutes, and agreed readily. Mr. Collins was too miserable to say one way or another.
Mrs. Phillips insisted on them staying for elevenses, which Kitty and Lydia were only too happy to accept. Mr. Collins appeared to be insensible with the cold, mud and wet, and could only make vague sounds when asked a question. As his loquaciousness was well established, his silence was more than welcome, and very few questions were directed at him.
When they had finished, the Longbourn party stood to return. Mr. Collins had been fortified by the warmth and food, and perhaps by the liquor Mr. Phillips had surreptitiously dropped in his tea. He was describing in great detail an elvenses held at Rosings Park, and how the paltry company in Hertfordshire could never manage to live up to Lady Catherine's magnificent feasts. Lizzy rolled her eyes, and opened the door to outside. All were stunned by the thick curtain of icy water pouring off the eaves.