Yorkshire, England

          SOMETHING IS WRONG.
          More wrong than usual, Mercy thought as she toyed nervously with the food on her plate. Even the conversation was out of the ordinary. For the past five minutes, her stepfather had been railing against the idiocy of the Americans. Knowing him, it had more to do with a lost wager than any sense of patriotism on his part.
          It bothered her, this supposed scene of domestic normalcy. And without doubt, both her parents were acting.
          But why?
          "Mark my words, this self-governing business will only lead to anarchy in the end, and before long they will be begging to return to England's fold. Then, I imagine, it will cost us another small fortune to clean up their mess. What do you think about that, Mercy?"
          I think I’m in terrible trouble.
          "I'm not sure, sir. I really don't know much about it," she mumbled as she speared a bit of potato and popped it into her mouth. At least with a full mouth neither of them would expect her to speak.
          "Of course not, my dear. A young lady doesn't fill her head with such distressing nonsense," her mother oozed silkily.
          A wave of panic jigged around inside her heart like St. Vitus' dance. Not once in her whole life had her mother called her 'dear'. She had called her plenty of other things, none of them pleasant, so whatever was going on had to be truly dreadful.
          The very fact she had been invited to dine with her mother and stepfather this evening boded ill for her. Even worse, her mother had been surprisingly polite to her in that style of cool elegance she affected so well. She didn't usually bother to mask the contempt she felt toward her diminutive daughter.
          She peered at her mother from beneath lowered lashes: Druscilla of the shining, sable hair, ice blue eyes, and tall willowy frame. So beautiful. Nothing at all like her daughter, Mercy thought with a pang of regret at her lot in life.
          "You are quite right, madam," Darby agreed with an avuncular wink at Mercy. After a day of steady drinking, his words slurred slightly, as though the deep voice slid through a throat clogged with thick honey. "Better for a young woman to occupy herself with her little hobbies and not fill her pretty head with the sorts of things best left to the men."
          Mercy gritted her teeth and forced herself to remain still. Did he really think she was that stupid? It was a wonder he hadn't choked, saying her name and 'pretty' in the same sentence. He had worn an unctuous grin from the moment they had taken their seats. Although that wasn't an uncommon expression for him, his usual demeanor toward her was more that of malicious devilment. As though he were lying in wait, like the snake he was, for the sole purpose of springing some nasty jest upon her as soon as her guard was down.
          Tall and slender with blond hair going to gray, and a certain puffiness beneath his sharp blue eyes and around his jaw line, Darby could still be called a handsome man despite the years of dissipation which were beginning to show. She wondered if he knew he was developing an unattractive paunch. The unbidden thought almost made her snicker.
          What game are they playing tonight? she wondered as she forked up a bit of overdone beef. Why were the two of them being so nice to her?
          In fact, why were they even here?
          Their arrival at Featherstone Manor this morning had taken her by surprise. She hadn't expected them for another month. Rarely in residence in the country, they preferred to spend most of their time in London, or visiting estates of acquaintances, leeching off their hospitality.
          Mercy often dreamed of visiting London, but had never been farther than the local village, and never had a penny to spend she hadn't earned herself. When she could manage it, she eavesdropped on their conversations about Town life and tried to imagine how one place could be so large and contain so many wonderful shops, theaters and museums.
          Druscilla's eyes slid to her as she set her fork beside her plate and Mercy caught the glint of cold amusement there she couldn't quite hide.
          Oh yes, she thought as a quick twist of anxiety curdled the food in her stomach.
          The two of them had definitely devised some new way to torture her.

          SEVERAL HOURS LATER, Mercy bolted upright from her pillow, took a long, shuddering breath and tried to get a grip on her senses. Cold and clammy with sweat, her mind continued to vibrate with the terror of her dream. This particular nightmare had troubled her since childhood, and she could make no more sense of it now than she had then.
          Clad in a dark, hooded robe that obscured her features, a woman pursued her through a gray, sinister twilight atop a cliff above a raging sea. She could smell the briny, metallic air and feel the earth shudder beneath her feet as the waves crashed with a deafening roar against the rocky outcropping below. And then, as always, she spied a weather-beaten, shingled cottage, its broken windows giving it an oddly human look of silent suffering. Despite the obvious years of neglect, its frame and foundation seemed solid, and the only place she might find refuge in the forbidding landscape.
          Too frightened to look back, her breath ragged, and her mind near to exploding with a terror she could taste on her tongue like old brass, she ran into the cottage and tried to escape up the stairs to the next floor. But, no matter how hard or fast she fled, she could sense the dark woman's presence never more than an arm's length away.
          Halfway up the stairs, just as the woman's hand grasped her shoulder, the dream broke off as it always did and she fought her way to consciousness.
          She hugged her knees to her chest and rocked, hoping to calm herself and remove the residual traces of terror this particular dream always left in its passing. Her thrashing had twisted the linens beneath her and she considered getting up and putting them back in order, but seemed plagued by a debilitating ennui.
          Forget it, she told herself as she rubbed her hands over her face.
          There would be no rest for her tonight. She would start at every sound in the old manor, and whimper at each shadow in the curtainless, moonlit chamber, until sleep claimed her again. It had been a long time since she’d had the dream, but knew with certainty the approaching danger she had sensed at dinner this evening had triggered it.
          The clock on the mantel struck twelve with a faint, gasping, ch-chunk of rusty gears as though each sound would be its last breath. Chipped and nicked along its oaken edges, she had found it on the floor of the attic one day and brought it to her room. It was one of the few items that remained of the father she had never known. Sometimes, just thinking about him gave her a sense of peace.
          But not tonight.
          Perhaps a bit of reading would help to dispel the remnants of fear that still clung to her mind. It should be safe enough now to make a quick trip to the library. The household was usually asleep at this hour.
          And without a doubt, if the two of them had plotted some new wickedness involving her, she needed all the rest she could get to keep her wits sharp and her anxious spirit under control.
          She could not allow herself to become ill as she had the last time they moved against her.
          She slipped from her room, then picked her way carefully down the hall close to the wall. She knew the location of every creaking floorboard in the old manor and had long ago discovered how to move silently when her parents were about. Nor were there any squeaky hinges to give her away—she oiled them herself and did so often.
          Ninety percent of being invisible was being soundless, she knew. As a child she had often pretended to be a ghost. There had been times lately when she wondered if she wasn't becoming one in fact.
          The stairway was dark, but a small candle lit the lower entry hall with enough light to keep her from stumbling. Someone must have forgotten to put it out, she thought. Either that or Darby had gone out and the candle left for his return.
          She hoped he wasn't off ravishing some poor local girl who had neither the position nor the money to complain. Years ago, one girl had gone to the magistrate with a charge of rape. Her badly beaten body had been found several days later. Since Darby had been on his way to London at the time, no one could lay the blame at his feet. She could still recall the arrogant smirk he had worn while escorting the apologetic magistrate to the door. 'What could anyone expect, sir? She was the village whore. It's a common enough ending for women of that sort.'
          Mercy believed he had hired someone to do the deed, but she had been powerless to prove it. All she had was a young girl's memory of Darby standing at the far end of the garden with a rough looking man, conversing in low taut tones, then handing him what appeared to be bank notes. An hour later, he had left for London.
          She still mourned her own defenselessness and inability to give justice to the hapless girl, but silent acquiescence to both her parents was all that kept her from a fate worse than the one in which she lived.
          As she turned at the bottom of the stairs and crossed the hall, she noted the library door ajar. A shaft of flickering light marked the perimeter of the door frame. The murmur of amused voices, punctuated with subdued laughter sounded promising, she thought. Perhaps they were just in a good mood this evening, and, for once, her fears nothing more than a bit of foolishness.
          She began to turn away, when one particularly nasty laugh, accompanied by what sounded like her name, caught her ear.
          A sharp pang of apprehension made her hesitate. Fearful of being caught, but with a curiosity born of an all too familiar dread, she inched her way to the crack of the door.
          Darby and Druscilla lounged on the sofa in front of a small blaze in the fireplace, both with amused expressions on their faces while they enjoyed their brandies. If she stayed quite still, Mercy could make out Darby's profile. And if she moved her head an inch to the right, she could just make out the side of her mother's head and a portion of her features.
          "Then all is arranged, a fait accompli," said Druscilla with evident satisfaction in her voice. She watched as her mother's hand reached up to stroke Darby's cheek. She wondered what that loving gesture felt like. She had never known anything but the backside of that hand. "You are so very clever, my love."
          Darby smiled seductively. "It's nice to know you still appreciate me after all these years. But then, you are the only woman who has ever truly understood me.
          Druscilla chuckled low in her throat. "Never forget it, darling." She paused to sip her brandy. "I am surprised you managed to contract such a handsome marriage settlement with that decrepit, old lecher though. I wonder how the dwarf will like being married into that sort of situation?"
          "Leicester has gotten rather desperate I gather. No decent family will have him. Money and title don't seem to be enough these days to provide him with fresh victims. But who cares what she thinks," Darby growled. "All that matters is that we will again have the funds to go about as we deserve. Although the settlement is extremely generous, in essence it costs him nothing as he will recover that and more from her inheritance. An excellent bargain on both sides. Hopefully, she will provide the quality of novelty he craves and give him that heir he wants. None of his other wives seemed up to the task and I would hate to see him not get his money's worth."
          "I swear it is so tiresome being forced to idle ourselves here in the country for lack of a bit of money," she said peevishly. "But now the annoying little creature will finally provide us with what should have been ours all along."
          Silence flowed for several moments, broken only by the occasional sound of wood snapping in the fireplace. Mercy held her breath and tried to bank her own flames of fear. And anger too, she admitted. She could feel it like an evil worm coiled inside her heart, ready to unleash itself. It frightened her more than anything her parents could devise against her. She fought back the greasy feeling in her throat and focused on her immediate problem.
          They were going to marry her off to some horrible person she had never met and steal her inheritance in some sort of bargain.
          What inheritance? And from where had it come?
          Her ears had heard, but it made no sense.
          Druscilla had always said she was totally unfit to be any man's wife and yet here they were planning to sell her for just that purpose.
          "I was thinking, Robert. What if she refuses to marry him? You know how she defied you about those asinine recipes of hers."
          "She wouldn't dare! After that episode, she knows what her fate will be if she dares cross me again!"
          "Still, she might, you know," Druscilla insisted.
          "Nonsense. She doesn't know anything about the man or his reputation. I doubt she will suspect a thing. Besides, the old reprobate is nearly seventy years. He has agreed to provide something for her in his will should he predecease her. At his age, it is possible and something we might wish to remember in future. However, he has conveniently outlived two much younger wives and their families were given to believe the same. It seems the chits were prone to commit suicide over their failure to provide him with an heir. Rumor has it he's given to fits of monstrous rage, but since both ladies jumped from high places to end their sorry lives, there is no proof he did them any harm." He chuckled coldly.
          "And I daresay," he continued, "he is in for a bit of a surprise this time. Mercy is nothing, if not novel. If I were to place a wager on who would win a battle of fangs and claws, I would place my money on that vicious little witch."
          "You would have made a great marriage broker, my dear. The two of them seem perfectly matched. A madwoman for a madman."
          Mercy heard the snide amusement in Druscilla's voice and nearly screamed her frustration. She bit her lip until she tasted blood and fisted her hands at her breasts.
          God, why does she hate me so much? she asked bitterly of a Divinity in Whom she had nearly stopped believing. He never answered in any event, never seemed to hear, or offer relief for her pitiful situation.
          Suddenly, her vision narrowed as if entering a long tunnel and her muscles began to turn to stone.
          Not now! she cried silently from the depths of her soul. A spike of adrenalin answered the panicked plea and jolted her back. With great concentration she forced herself to take a small, quiet breath and relax her hands. The darkness receded.
          "Still, my dear, I am concerned she might defy us on this," Druscilla insisted.
          "It matters not, my love." Mercy saw the malicious smirk on that once handsome face and began to shiver. It was a look that always boded ill for her and froze her to the marrow of her bones. "If she refuses to go through with this plan, we shall wait until she comes into her inheritance. For a price I can get a certain physician to do the deed, but I doubt we will need him. Almost any physician would certify her mad before her solicitor, after seeing one of those spells of hers." He grasped Druscilla's hand and brought it to his lips with a soft laugh. "You do seem to have that effect on her. And then she is off to Bedlam and we gain control of her monies. Of course, it would take a bit longer, and we really could use it now, but in the end we will have what we want. In any event, Leicester will arrive sometime tomorrow and whisk the little nuisance away before she knows what is happening. And we, my dear heart," he leaned over and kissed her soundly, "will be in London in a few days time."
          Druscilla laughed. To Mercy it was the sound of icicles clinking together in a cold winter wind; a dirge-filled gale of frozen shards that seemed to travel to her chest and pierce what was left of her heart.
          No longer able to draw air into her lungs, she didn't wait to hear more.

© 1997 by Ernestina Parziale