It loomed on the hill like a Disneyland dream: Fair Castle.
He felt a dull ache of pleasure at the thought that it was still intact, still standing--despite the fact that it was standing a few thousand miles too far to the west. Grateful that its American owners hadn't broken it up for salvage or turned it into condos, he lifted his binoculars for a better look.
It seemed bigger than in the photographs, smaller than in the paintings. The word that sprang to mind was: pleasing. It had good bones. From its soaring facade to its small domed turrets, Fair Castle was a satisfying mix of harmony and oddity.
He swept his glasses in a broad arc to the south and then to the north. He had to admit that the Americans had chosen their site well: a high knoll with sweeping views of the mid-Hudson valley, itself on fire with early autumn colour. He could easily have been standing at the edge of a wood in England.
He focused his glasses on the main entrance, marked by a massive arched door. Centuries of ancestors--his ancestors--had passed through those doors. As always, the thought was bitter. He put it aside. He was about to get into his car and drive around to some other vantage point when the door of the castle swung open and a young girl burst through it, her laugh carried high on the wind.
She was ten or eleven years old, with auburn hair and a gait like an ostrich. Clutching something red--a plume?--she ran down a path that led to a side promenade, then hid behind a huge stone urn, waiting.
He swung his glasses back to the entrance. Out strolled a taller, older, calmer version of the girl. Mother? Sister? From that distance, it was hard to tell. One thing was certain: the two were related. He watched as the older one cupped her hands to her mouth and, in a voice that echoed through the valley, called out to the younger.
"Izzzz-a-belle ... Isabelle!"
She yelled something else, but he couldn't make it out.
It drew the girl out from the long shadow of the urn. After waving the red plume through the air like a victory banner, she handed it over to the woman, who smacked her on the head in return. Then the two went inside, clearly still friends.
A grim smile played on his lips, then died. The heirs, he thought. Pity.
Wrapping the strap of the binoculars around the hinge, he slipped the glasses back into their case and laid them on the rear seat of his car. He was about to drop behind the wheel when he drew out the glasses again for one last look. Fair Castle: there it was. Dramatic. Potent. Irresistible.
His. Whatever it took.
From the battlement they watched together as he threw the binocular telescope onto the front seat of his vehicle and then made away.
"Will he be up to the quest, my love?" she asked in a pale echo of her former voice.
"He is determined to have it. I see it in his face."
"Aye," she agreed. "There is a ruthlessness there that he would do well to disguise, or it will defeat his purpose, and ours."
"He will not be defeated."
"I believe you. He has come at last, the issue of our desire. Flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood, he has walked till now in darkness. We will make that darkness flare."
"It galls me that it must come to this. I should not have failed you the first time, my sweet."
"Shhh. Too late for that; too late. You loved me with all your heart. Eventually you gave up your soul. A woman cannot ask more than that."
"You deserved more than that. Much more."
The cloud of dust raised by the wheels of the vehicle began to thin. Eventually it settled back into the dirt from which it rose.
"We have waited a small eternity," she mused, "for him to claim his birthright."
"And now," her mate said, "his time--our time--is come."
"Hand me the vambrace."
"You bet." Elinor lifted the small piece of armor and looked it over carefully. "Huh. No dents on this one either, Chester," she said. "There goes my theory about our man being left-handed."
Her stepfather hardly heard her. Chester Roberts was focused completely on the task at hand: assembling a complete suit of armor--the first in his collection of knightly odds and ends--for display in the great hall of Fair Castle.
Chester had gone more insane than usual at an auction on the day before, plunking down a huge sum for half a dozen boxes filled with what he hoped were carefully wrapped pieces of a suit of armor. For all of last night and most of the morning, he and Elinor had been working feverishly to get the steel contraption up and standing before the arrival of their first tour group.
But it wasn't as though a sixteenth-century suit of armor came with a set of directions. Did the fan plate go on before or after the knee cop? Did the tasset hook directly to the tace? And why didn't the chain mail fit?
"The suit's a composite, no doubt about that," Chester had told his two stepdaughters as the three of them unpacked the boxes on the night before. "But the auctioneer absolutely, postively guaranteed that all the pieces will fit."
Too bad it wasn't in writing. Nearly done now, they seemed to have several pieces left over--which was fine with them--but it was obvious that part of the chin piece was missing. Without the chin piece, the thin rod of the mannequin's neck showed through, completely ruining the illusion of strength.
Chester sighed as he fit the vambrace over the wooden forearm that should have been a knight's warm flesh. "I suppose I shouldn't carp. A little tweaking, and that German chinpiece of mine should work just fine."
"Besides, they did give you the extra pair of gauntlets," said Elinor, nudging her stepfather's mood back up. Big, balding, and bearded, Chester Roberts was still a kid when it came to emotions.
She watched him slip first the left, then the right gauntlet over the mannequin's wrist-stumps. Almost done.
"Too bad Izzy's in school today," she added. Her ten-year-old sister had been nearly as excited as their stepfather on the night before. "She's missing the best part."
"Mmm," Chester answered, hardly hearing her. He went back to the box, reached down to the bottom, and came up grinning. "And now, the crowning touch!" he said, holding the visored helm in both hands for Elinor to see.
With utmost care, he climbed to the second rung of the stepladder with it. Carefully, slowly--ecstatically--he began to lower the gleaming orb of steel over the featureless head of the mannequin.
"Oh, wait!" Elinor suddenly cried. "We forgot the plume!"
"You're right! We forgot the plume!"
Chester set the helm on top of the ladder and Elinor handed him a magnificent red ostrich plume, all too new, which he tried with fumbling hands to fit into the slot designed to hold it.
No luck. The quill was too large. Frustrated, Chester jabbed at the helm so awkwardly that the thing jumped from the ladder and hit the floor with a horrendous clang, skidding to a stop at the feet of Elinor's mother and the small group of tourists she'd just led into the hall.
"Chester!" her mother snapped, jumping back. "You've scared us half to death!"
Oblivious to his wife's annoyance, Chester ran to the helm and picked it up as if it were a puppy run down by a truck. "Oh, no," he said, shocked by his clumsiness. "If I've damaged it ...."
"Chester. It's armor," his wife said with a quick lift of one eyebrow. "Do think about it."
"Still and all ...." He ran his hand over the gleaming skull, feeling for dings. "It'd be tragic."
"Not as tragic as spending every last cent--!" She bit off the rest of the sentence and swallowed hard. Susan Roberts would much rather die than argue in public.
But Susan Roberts, stunned by her husband's latest extravagance, was clearly still fuming over the suit of armor.
"Elinor--dear," she commanded her daughter, "would you mind escorting our visitors from this point? I've just remembered I have a desperately urgent call to make." She swept past the group with a graceful shrug, headed, no doubt, for the aspirin. "I shan't be long."
Shan't. Someone in the tour must be European, Elinor decided. Her mother never dragged out her shan'ts for Americans anymore.
"Sure. I'll be glad to," Elinor said cheerfully, dismayed by her mother's mood. With every return visit to the castle that she made, she found that her mother seemed more bored, more weary. Was it with Chester? After only five years? Could it be with Fair Castle itself?
I'm beginning to lose touch with them all, Elinor realized. She was becoming caught up in her blossoming career as author and illustrator of children's picture books. And with the big-city distractions of New York. And, of course, with Tom. But Tom was over now. It was time to come home; time to re-energize. Without Fair Castle, without her family, there would be no children's books. All of the inspiration for her medieval stories was right here, smack dab in the castle.
Putting her fears and worries aside, Elinor turned to the five women and three men who were waiting patiently to hear how the hell an English castle ended up on the banks of the Hudson River.
"Well! Hello, everyone!" she said, making herself sound chirpy. "As I'm sure you've learned," she began, "we're a family-run castle. As a matter of fact, there are three generations living under this roof: my grandparents; my mother and her husband; and my sister. I was raised here, too, and still come up from New York City to visit whenever I can."
She swept them all with a good-natured grin and added, "Yes, it's a little eccentric--but not by sixteenth-century standards. Besides, we're all in the arts. People expect us to act this way."
Most of them chuckled, instantly put at ease by her friendly, confidential manner. Elinor said, "We're very good at pinch-hitting, so let me pick up where my mother left off. You know that Fair Castle was one of the last ones built in England, right? Good.
"Though the castle is English," she said, slipping into a tour-guide's voice, "it resembles the tower houses being built in Scotland during what's now regarded as the golden age of castles over there.
"The walls aren't as thick as Scottish tower-houses; and obviously there are too many entrances for Fair Castle to be impenetrable. But the original owner was still a conservative man by English standards. After all, by the 1550's no one in England was building strongholds any more."
She went on with her spiel, sizing up the group while she talked: three ladies with gray hair and sensible shoes who looked like seasoned travellers; a young couple holding hands who were clearly there for the romance of it; and a ponytailed college kid in hiking books and backpack who'd no doubt stumbled onto the castle by chance.
And, of course, the European. He wasn't German; not Italian. Not Dutch, Slavic or French. British? Could be. He wore a tweedy jacket and an air of reserve. Or maybe he was a Scot: there was something stern and unforgiving in his slate-blue eyes as he swept the vaulted hall that loomed around and above the group.
Elinor had been giving tours of the castle for fourteen years--ever since she was sixteen--and was very, very good at reading people.
Everyone turned toward Chester, who'd finally got the plume in the helm and the helm on the mannequin. Fair Castle's knight in shining armor was ready for battle--or as ready as he was going to be, until he got his German chin piece and a mace or a halberd in his grip.
Chester had his ham-sized fists planted firmly on his hips and was beaming like mid-May sunshine.
"As you can see," said Elinor, flashing her stepfather a victory sign, "we've just acquired a wonderful new addition to our collection of armor and weapons. The suit dates from the sixteenth-century, although some of the components are not original to it. The armor is in very fine condition--the guy who owned it must've been in the reserves," she quipped.
Apparently her flippancy annoyed the fella in tweed. He decided to set the record straight. "Actually," he said, "by the end of the century the use of armor in warfare had declined."
All heads swung toward him. Elinor said, "I'm sorry?"
The man's smile was thin, aloof, superior. "The reason the armor is in such fine condition," he said in a clipped accent softened by a burr, "is that by the mid-sixteenth century, military strategy had changed from the medieval period. Armies had to be capable of long marches and quick maneuvers."
"Oh!" she said, taking it in. "In other words, by then armor was becoming--"
"Obsolete," he said as he glanced around the cavernous hall.
Uppity son of a gun, Elinor decided. She pursed her lips while she searched her brain for a snappy comeback. Not a one came to mind.
"I haven't had time to research that particular subject," she answered, feeling the color rise in her cheeks.
"Of course," he said absently. "Please continue."
Just what she needed: a know-it-all. Every once in a while someone like him came bopping along, an expert on some tiny little niche of history who just had to let everyone in on it.
Smiling gamely, Elinor resumed the tour. "We tend to think of the great hall as the place where the lord ate with his knights and their ladies," she said as their heels echoed on the slate-floored hall. "But by 1550's, that practice had all but ended. A nobleman ate apart in other rooms from his entourage and appeared in the great hall only on ceremonial occasions."
One of the gray-haired women said, "Why even have a great hall, in that case?"
"Status," Elinor said. "Consider this the forerunner of the modern two-story foyer. Great halls did have other uses, of course: servants were sometimes fed there, and once in a while the host would put on a play or celebrate a feast in one."
She glanced at the blue-eyed expert, expecting him to put in his two cents. But the man was listening quietly. Apparently she'd misjudged him.
"It's so old, so big, so ... old," said the young woman, snuggling into her boyfriend's side. "Is it haunted?"
It was the number one question that tourists asked.
Elinor gave her the usual answer. "All castles are haunted," she said with a mischievous smile. It was what visitors wanted to hear, but her sense of honesty made her add, "If you're asking if any of us has ever seen a ghost, the answer--darn it--is no."
A sympathetic chuckle rippled through the group. Elinor had no intention of confessing that she absolutely, positively, did not believe in ghosts. It would be bad for business.
"Hey! Those are pretty cool," said the boyfriend, pointing to Chester's antique sword collection mounted high on the wall above the vast stone fireplace.
The weapons were mounted high for one reason: safety. Two years earlier the castle had been broken into and three of the swords stolen. Nothing else had been taken. Elinor's mother was certain that the swords were now being used in black masses and other unspeakable rites.
Elinor's grandmother, who did believe in ghosts, had another theory altogether. She was convinced that the original owners had simply come to claim their stuff.
Elinor was tempted to toss in those tidbits--just to get a rise out of the surly guy in tweed--but she kept to the standard storyline. "The sabres and backswords and rapiers are from the period," she said, then added lightly, "but the dress swords and the boarding cutlass are just impulse buys."
A few more impulse buys like the swords and the suit of armor, and Chester will be the rest of the way into the poorhouse. The thought came and went like a shooting star, but it fed Elinor's growing sense of unease that all was not well financially at Fair Castle.
"What's that weird one on the end?" the young man asked.
Elinor said thoughtfully, "It's Asian, I think. Some sort of ceremonial sword."
"African," the man in tweed said. "An executioner's sword."
Elinor blinked. How would he know that, for Pete's sake?
"Our visitor from--Scotland? England?--sounds pretty sure of himself, so it must be true," Elinor said with a cutting glance in his direction. Just where was her mother, anyway?
"England," he said. "Near Berwick-on-Tweed."
"What? Oh. Well, that's a border town," she said flippantly. "It's practically in Scotland."
"Don't tell that to my ancestors. They fought hard to keep it in England." By now there was a militant glint in his eye.
Elinor suspected that he used both his good looks and his cultivated accent to intimidate poor, ordinary Americans. Well, tough. He could be English, he could be Scottish, he could be the devil himself, for all she cared. His high-handedness annoyed her intensely. Intensely.
Turning deliberately away from him, she began pointing out the simple detailing in the rough-hewn, drafty, but still imposing hall. Fair Castle was no sissy country house, she explained, back on automatic now. Though fairly comfortable, the castle was the last of a breed: a four-story tower that was immune to fire, anarchy, raiders, and neighbors with grudges.
Better. She felt in control of the tour again. It was much easier when her back was to the man; she was almost unaware that he was there.
"On this floor," she said, "we'll tour the chapel, the buttery, and the kitchen. On the next level we'll view the great parlor, the dining chamber, and the library. And we'll peek in the archives room, which houses a growing collection of works on English history--in fact, an eighteenth-century scholar will begin a stay at the castle tomorrow to do some research," she said, unable to resist a smug glance at the Englishman.
"After that we'll stroll down one of the unusual features of Fair Castle, an outdoor gallery. And finally, we'll go up to the roof and enjoy the wonderful view from a delightful turret where you'll all be served tea."
It was that cup of tea in the turret that made Fair Castle such an unusual tourist attraction. Elinor had come up with the idea herself and had designed their brochure around it; she was very proud of the whole thing.
Ah--but today they had an Englishman in their midst. Nuts! He'd have his own ideas about a proper tea. Nuts! They didn't even serve clotted cream. And that high-school kid they stole from MacDonald's to serve the tea--oh boy. If the Brit was expecting a sweet little lass from the Cotswolds, he was in for some first-rate culture shock.
Elinor looked around without much hope for her mother, then began taking the group along the ceremonial route to the great chamber.
She paused before a wall hung high with half a dozen portraits, four of them acquired by Chester at auctions. "Portraits came into fashion in the sixteenth century," Elinor explained. "Generally they were displayed in an indoor gallery, but since we don't have one, we've hung them here."
She pointed to the fourth portrait of the group. "See the woman with blonde ringlets wearing the dark panniered gown and rakish feathered hat? That's Lady Norwood, wife of one of the owners of Fair Castle. Her first name was Elinor; she died in 1780. The portrait of her was one of the possessions that got thrown in with the sale of the castle; so was the one of Lord Norwood--her husband Charles--to her left. The baron died much earlier than she--but then, life spans were short back then. The paintings aren't by Gainsborough or Reynolds, obviously, but we think they're wonderful."
One of the women in sensible shoes said, "Didn't you say your own name was Elinor, dear?"
Elinor grinned. "My grandfather liked the name so much that he got my mother to name me after her. Except for the hair and the eyes and the nose and the body, I think we look identical, don't you?" she quipped.
"Elinor! Hateful woman! I am jealous of her still."
"She meant nothing to me."
"I know; I know. And yet I cannot rid myself of the notion that somewhere, somehow, she is smug in her triumph."
"It is because of the family who flaunt their possession of the castle. They are the ones who keep alive the vile myth."
"Fie upon them, then! They shall feel my wrath."
"No. Not yet. We must wait. And watch."
"But we have waited generations! How much longer--?"
"You have little patience. In that, you are not changed."
"And you, my love, are too at ease with eternity."
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