Salome: The Seventh Queen: 12 : The Hyenas

Salome: The Seventh Queen: 12  : The Hyenas

by Aline deWinter

The wheat field glowed and bent in a slight breeze. They walked on for a while longer. Nothing changed.
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“How long have we been here?” Aaliyah sighed falling to the ground in exhaustion.
>

“Give me the head of Jokannaan,” Salome whispered sharply to Aaliyah. “Give him to me now.”
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“The head, indeed. A mere fraction of a man, Mistress. How can he be brought back to life?” Aaliyah fretted, pushing the casque over the ground toward Salome.
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“What you do not see, what I do see, is Jokanaan’s  immortal soul.” said Salome holding the Prophet’s head in the golden field that spread around around him like a nimbus of golden light. “He comes to me in the night like a moonbeam walking over a field of lilies, like a shaft of silver; his flesh is cold, cold as ivory.  His body is like the lilies of the field after the mower hath mowed. The roses in the garden of the Queen of Arabia are not so white as his body when he comes thus unto me. His hair is as black as the long black nights when the moon hides her face, when the stars are afraid. The silence of the forest is not so black. His mouth is like a band of scarlet on a tower of ivory. It is like a pomegranate cut in twain with a knife of ivory. The pomegranate flowers that blossom in the gardens of Tyre, and are redder than roses are not so red. the beauty of his flesh shall be made more glorious by the terrible command of Ishtar, Queen of Heaven and Mother of All of Life.”
>

As she spoke, Salome looked at her maids, from one to the other, searching for some semblance of a soul in their frightened faces. She looked around at the endless wheat field, down at her scarlet cloak flowing over the stalks like a wake of blood, at her jeweled feet sparkling on the golden ground, and smiled.
>

Etana met her eyes. “I too love a man. In Judea. A soldier. And now I shall never see him again. My spirit goes to him in the night. I wonder if he senses me…”
>

“You? Love?” said Salome astonished. “But you are a slave, Etana. Surely you cannot compare the  profane lust of a slave to the divine passion of a Princess before whom the King of Kings has scattered jewels, to whom whole legions must bow? Your love can only as that of the ass to the mule, the ewe to the filthy goat with its keyhole eyes. What can you know of love, Etana?”
>

Etana closed her eyes and seemed to drift away.
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Salome knelt down and caressed the casquet.
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“Oh, Jokannaan.  Again you shall stand like a tower of ivory, shining white like the snows that lie on the mountains of Judea.  Your eyes gleam like dark emeralds, and your hair hang like clusters of black grapes. like the cluster of black grapes that hang from the vine trees of Edom in the land of he Edomites. Your lips shall be like redder than than the feet of him who cometh from the forest where he hath slain a lion , and seen gilded tigers. Its is like the bow of the King of the Persians that is painted with vermillion…There is nothing in the world so red as thy mouth…Suffer me to kiss they mouth.”
>

“You’re mad,” Aaliyah whispered so softly she thought the Princess did not hear her.
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“What is that?”
>

The cry of a hyena echoed across the field.
“Oh,” Aaliyah whispered rising to her feet. “Now we are pursued by wild animals.”
>

The cry again. A chorus of cries  broke forth, as of a pack of hyenas hidden in the wheat. Wild, shrieking music, as of bagpipes and drums began to play, and human cries rang out as of a soul in torment.
>

“Are my music makers with us after all?” Salome cried glancing around, looking for her players in the field. “I knew they would not desert me!”
>

The serving maids glanced around as well. Aaliyah covered her ears with her hands.
“Oh, what is happening?” she cried.
>

“This is not ordinary music!” cried Etana. “It is the singing of some sorceress over her vessel of abominations.”
>
The music was all around them. Salome sensed that the tormented cries were very close to her, rising out of the earth. She scanned the monotonous golden horizon like a lioness looking for prey. Where are they? She strode forwards, in the direction of the sound, attentive, her eyes dazzled by the brightness of the land against the sky.
>

High pitched laughter riffled through the wheat. Hyenas! Salome screamed. Surely her fate was not to be dragged down and torn by powerful jaws.
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Suddenly the waves of wheat undulated with the tide of trotting, scrawny, humped, hackle-raised backs;  the  still air reverberated with wild screams as the Dogs of Chaos raced  in for the kill.  Salome spun around  fixed on the sight of  a tall woman standing in the field gazing at her from over the top of the sheaves!


>
Salome fell back with a groan. The woman’s face was stiff as a mask, her head was large and her face round, on her head was a serpentine crown of wheat withys. When she smiled, and then her tongue hung out and her large eyes blinked at Salome as if she knew her.  The woman suddenly rose higher to reveal large, copious breasts and a full round belly.

<

She began walking in Salome’s direction.

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Salome: The Seventh Queen: 11: Endless Gold

Salome: The Seventh Queen: 11: The Golden Land

by Aline deWinter

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On the other side of the lake the Fourth Gate towered over them. Carved of black obsidian over-laid with gold, it was, incised with symbols of life in death barely visible under silver dust and matted yellow vines. A tall, wraith cloaked in the black of burning embers, blocked the entrance with a shield of smoldering torches. Salome’s serving maids clung to her cloak, gazing up at the burning guardian, and then further up at the two gatehouse towers, high and pointed, one on each side of the door.
<

‘Oh, Mistress, let us go back!” cried Aaliyah. “For over the door and bolt is spread the dust of the dead.”
<

“Yes, we must,” Etana said. “For if we go further, we shall never come out again.”
<

The place in which they stood was so far below the rim of the earth that, when Salome turned her head to look back along the way they had come,  she saw only a small circle of sky. Aaliyah and Etana followed her gaze and, clinging to each other, cried out for pity. They hung their heads and their arms drooped as if they were bowed to the earth under great burdens. Etana could barely hold the torch upright and the mirror lay face up upon the ground, flashing Salome’s golden eyes back to her, wild and hard. Aaliyah sat down and leaned upon the casque, the broken roses scattered at her feet.
>

“We must go on,” said Salome grinning at the maids helpless in their fear. “I am not afraid! Let us see the next garden we must cross. It may be very unusual, or perhaps beautiful. O Guardian! Open the gate so that I may enter!”
>

The gatekeeper’s cold eyes glinted, and a reptilian smile stretched across his face half hidden in the shadows of his cloak. His thin black hand reached for her jeweled bracelets and snatched them off.  Salome watched in dismay as the precious circlets vanished into his shadowy form.
>

“Ah, why do you take the bracelets from my arms?” Salome cried, pulling back with a hiss.
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The voice of the wraith echoed around the stones of the portal like the voices of the many. “Thus are the rules of the Mistress of the Abyss. Now you may enter, my Princess.”
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“Oh, let us not pass through, Mistress!” cried Aaliyah grasping Salome’s slender ankles. “Surely we shall regret it.”
>

“The dead shall rise up and eat the living so that the dead shall outnumber the living,” Etana whispered. “Thus it was said of old, and so it is.”
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“The dead shall always outnumber the living,” said Salome. “Now we shall bring death to its knees, for love is more powerful than death.”
>

Aaliyah staggered up. Her doe eyes wide, she lost her balance briefly. “How can it be, Mistress?”
>

“She is the Goddess of life and death. She is the womb of all of nature. She it is who determines our span upon the earth. She who is the Origin of Life must be powerful in restoring life. That is what I was promised of her Priestess in the Forbidden Temple. Forbidden because Herod does not wish us to know these things.”
>

“How do you know it, Princess?” Aaliyah asked.
>

“My mother, Queen Herodias, knows it, and I learned it at her breast.”
>

Etana stood quietly, expressionless. “We are beyond all gates now. Indeed we shall never return to Judea.”
>

“Come. Where are my musicians? Come!” Salome cried. “Play something triumphant and brave as we enter this gate to Ishtar’s Realm!”
>

The musicians began abruptly, playing a loud, shrieking, rhythmic dance that would drive a team of donkeys forward.
>

The gate was opened and the smell of fire and ash poured forth. A golden light streamed through, as of the sun at midday. The Princess of Judea, and her little entourage, stepped out into a field of tall, waving wheat that spread like a golden ocean to the far horizon. But there was no solar orb shining the darkness of the Netherworld sky, but rather the wheat field itself shone brightly from within.

The Princess passed through the garden silently, commanding Aaliyah to hold the casquet high. As she walked forward, her scarlet cloak clung to the wheat shafts, trailing along the top like a wake of blood. She moved in straight towards the horizon where waves of bright gold met the dimness of the sky. There were no marking stones to guide her, only currents of dazzling gold rippling away forever. Occasionally a dark bird flew up, startled, at the approach of Salome’s delicate feet.
<
“Oh, Mistress, we are lost!” Aaliyah cried. “Never shall we find our way out of this field.”
>

“Shhh!” Etana breathed sharply. “This light is unnatural. It rises up from below us, feeding the wheat with infernal fire. It is food that cannot be harvested, cannot be eaten, for its roots are fed by demons in the underworld without the celestial quickening of God.”
>

Salome stopped and looked at the horizon, hoping to see a high tower indicating the next gate. Nothing met her eye. There were only a currents of  waving wheat sheaves and the luminous dark blue of the sky. Yet still, the gate must be there, ahead, not close, yet not too far away. Suddenly, she did know whether to trust or distrust the promise of She-Who-Resides-Within, but she  had to move forward. Retreat would admit a dishonorable lack of faith.
>

“Lost. At last we are lost, Mistress. It was a curse, a game, that the Priestess has played upon you. She wished vengeance on the Tetrarch’s house for banishing her and her Gods,” said Aaliyah.
>
“Silence!” Salome cried. “I know what I was promised…”
>
“By whom?” shouted Aaliyah. “You have not even found the Goddess yet…”
>

Salome turned to her serving maid, eyes blazing, her voice lashing as a whip.
>

“Insolence! If you don’t believe, perhaps that is why we are lost here. Your constant lack of faith has led us astray so that we are tested by the Goddess.”
>

“There was but one gate to enter, Princess,” said Etana. “We had no other choice. Now we are here in this featureless land. And how will you dance without music?”
>

“What?” Salome turned and saw indeed, that she and her women were the only ones standing in the field. “Where are my musicians?”
<
>

“They fled!” cried Aaliyah. “They were clever enough to turn back!”

>

“Enough!” cried Salome. She was worried. How would she dance without music? Was she being thwarted in attaining her desire after all?
>

Etana turned around and looked back where a row of wheat stalks had been flattened by their feet.
>
“There is the way back,” she said. “Perhaps we too should retreat.”
>

“No!” cried Salome. “I will continue!”
>

“This is worse than the desert,” said Aaliyah. “For here we are alone.”

To be continued…

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford: A Paranormal Regency Romance: Part II

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

a Paranormal Regency Romance

by Aline deWinter

Part II

<

<

When the guests entered the dining room, they were amazed to see the long table glistening with crystal and silver and glittering with candlelight from candle branches along the table and chandeliers overhead. One side of the room opened onto a large garden conservatory where the budgies soared and flitted around before settling in a grove of silver birches, and a great black shadow of a horse stood gazing at them through the flowers of a bright yellow forsythia.  A fire crackled in the ornate hearth at one end of the room, and doves glowed from perches in the groined ceiling and at the tops of foliate columns. As the Suitors took their places at table, they looked around and noticed a disconcerting lack of mirrors which meant that they had only each other to gaze at to ascertain whether putting food into their mouths, snouts, or jaws, would mar the effect of their masques, or if crumbs in their whiskers would detract from their general attractiveness to Lady Mary.

<
Perhaps the test was whether one should participate in the feast at all, perhaps one was meant to go out hunting instead. Perhaps the greater authenticity of bringing back a dead pheasant or a hedgehog in one’s teeth would have been just the thing to win Lady Mary’s heart.

<
Suddenly Lady Mary stood up and, dimpling into a bright smile, she said in her low, velvet voice:

<
“My good-hearted Ladies and Gentlemen, I cannot express enough my gratitude that you have all taken the trouble to come to my little gathering in such wonderful fancy dress. This table looks quite marvelous! I would be hard pressed whom to award the prize to based on appearances alone when such an inspiring menagerie is placed before me! Remember to hold true to form and I and my servants will take proper notice. The winner shall be told of his prize in utmost secrecy…Tomorrow, I will post the rest of you that a winner was chosen, but I will not give out his name.”

<
There was great murmuring among the guests, shocked laughter, tinkling of silver on raised wine glasses, Suitorial moans as red wine spilled on white shirt fronts, and growls of frustration at the awkward difficulties of drinking wine while wearing a masque. Lady Mary smiled and sat down, gently waving her feathered fan, and gestured to a ferret-faced butler to order the waiters to bring in the first course.

<
Rusty MacClaren grumbled and pushed his fingers under the neck of his lion’s head to get some air, for it was stuffy in the dining room with all the candles and the fire and the bodies, and hot, steaming food. He heard a scratching sound behind him and, turning about, saw a serving wench dressed as a white cat scribbling notes.

<
“Bloody hell,” he mumbled.

<
Dark Robbie sniggered and opened his jaws to yawn. “Don’t be rude, Rusty.”

<
Oliver smiled cheekily at them, looking quite pleased with himself for choosing a masque that ended at the bridge of his nose. With a hail fellow well met, he popped a piece of mince pie into his mouth and chewed with obvious enjoyment.

<
“I suppose you think you look like the Monarch of the Forest itself with your chin whiskers hanging where you throat is supposed to be, don’t you Ollie?” Dark Robbie whispered. “And that ruffly blouse makes you look more like a Morris Dancer than a great rutting stag…”

<
“That’s a horse,” said Oliver, quaffing some wine without spilling it. “In the Morris Dance its a hobby horse. Not a stag! And what about you? A wolf dressed as Bonnie Prince Charlie! You should have come as Puss-in-Boots.”

<
“That would have suited him,” mumbled Rusty pulling on his neck ruff. “God, this thing itches!”

<
Dark Robbie smirked. “Perhaps you’re right. He did make his way into his Lady’s chambers, did old Puss-in-Boots.”

<
The guests went silent as the Suitors struggled to aim their forks between furry lips, and jaws, and beaks without spilling, watching with consternation. Rusty groaned, Dark Robbie broke out into a chill sweat, and Oliver spun his rack of antlers around in surprised amusement, narrowly hooking a candle branch with his tines.  Rusty sneered at Old Mr. Symmonds who wore his owl masque perched on top of his head as he nearsightedly wiped the gravy from his plate with a piece of French bread and stuffed it into his mouth.

<
Mr. Symmonds winked at the three Suitors. “Wonderful food, isn’t it? I wonder who does ?Lady Mary’s cooking for her. I have never had such a superb roast of beef in all my life.”

<
“Thanks for letting us know,” snarled Rusty.

<
Oliver burped. “Sorry.”

<
Dark Robbie watched Lady Mary rise from the table and go out into the conservatory.

<
“She’s speaking to the horse now. I suppose she’ll go off for a ride and leave us all here to wonder what’s next,” he whispered.

<
“Good, I’ll take this thing off and eat properly.”

>
“The servants shall see you, Rusty. Why don’t you forget it? I’m the only one here who hasn’t ruined the effect…,” Dark Robbie sniffed.

<
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Robbie,” Rusty replied.” I would like to know who’s in that horse costume…”

<
“Gentlemen,” came the old silvery whisper. “That is a real horse.”

<
“You don’t say,” said Robbie.

<

Suddenly alarmed about he knew not what, Dark Robbie stood up and excused himself with a short bow.

<

The guests looked around to see if anyone else was leaving. Some of them started to stand, then sat down again, only to stand up and look at the others for a sign. No one left the table except Dark Robbie, for three great flaming cakes were being carried in by servants most convincingly attired as hares. Three ladies in striking peacock gowns were carrying in more wine.

<
Without the sparkling presence of Lady Mary at the head of the table, the guests grew quiet and restive. Candle flame, pale as amber, cast faint halos over their faces. They ate their cake and drank more wine in silence, barely glancing at each other, for the atmosphere was heavy.  The ferret faced butler drew open a set of tall doors, revealing a full moon rising just above the horizon between the low hills and the clouds. Lady Mary was standing in its beams upon the grass beside a patch of midnight darkness that had the shape of a fine horse. The crystals on the train of her gown shone like dew drops, and her face was as translucent as the moon’s reflection on the surface of a deep pool.

<
“Do you hear it?” she called out, her eyes shining as if with tears. “The music has begun to play. Now it is time to dance! Come, all of you, out onto the lawn. Take off your shoes!” she cried kicking her delicate silk slippers off, and pointing her dainty feet.

<
“Damned if I can hear any music,” Rusty grimaced. “I’m having strange doubts about Lady Mary’s sanity”

<
“Its probably easier to hear outside,” said old Mr. Symmonds. “I think I see a string quartet in the garden.”

<
“I’m game,” said Oliver rising. “Who shall I dance with? There isn’t much choice of ladies…What does it matter, man?” he chucked Rusty on the shoulder. “Let’s just have a laugh and forget about Lady Mary’s prize.”

<
Rusty sat back and crossed his arms over his brocade chest. “Where’s Robbie gone to? He should be back by now. I’ll just wait for him, I think. Perhaps he’s gone a-hunting. He’s competitive enough.”

<
“Have it your way. I think I hear the pipes marching over the hill, and there’s a nicely built lass over there in a hare’s masque I’d like to chat with,” said Oliver pulling his stag’s head lower over his face.

<
Rusty waved a vexed hand at Oliver who pranced over the threshold with a Morris-like hop and, but for the height of his antlers, would have been lost among the crowd.

<

Leaning back in his chair, Rusty noticed a few half empty wine glasses scattered on the table. Gathering them up, he poured their contents into his own goblet until it was full and, sipping thoughtfully, watched the revels through the open doors. A few grapes lay about on the white table cloth. These he popped into his mouth while tipping his chair back and putting his feet upon the table.

<
“Best animal impersonator wins a prize,” he scoffed looking around for more wine.  “She’ll be lucky she doesn’t end up choosing one of her servants. They look the part more than any of us. I wonder if she doesn’t play this game all the time.”

<
It suddenly seemed as if hours had passed.  Rusty grew tired of wondering what had become of Dark Robbie and went out onto the lawn. The shoeless guests were running in a ragged circle around Lady Mary and her horse. Strangely, she did not seem to have moved from where she was when she first beckoned them out, though Oliver assured him, she had danced with all the lads — except Rusty, and Dark Robbie of course.  There was definitely music, but Rusty couldn’t see who was playing it. The sad sound of pipes and fiddles just seemed to be streaming over the hills with the moon’s rays that turned the distant hills inky black in contrast to its light.

<
He felt a soft tap on his arm and spun about. Lady Mary smiled up at him, holding her yellow fan over her face, coy as lynx.

<
“Will you dance with me, Mr. Lion?” she asked, extending her long-gloved hand.

<
“Yes, of course,” Rusty stammered, shocked at a welling up of emotion he did not expect. “How lovely you are.”

<
“Thank you,” she said with a little curtsy and allowed him to lead her out onto the lawn. “Off with your boots…”

<
Awkward and embarrassed, he pulled his boots off, standing on one leg and then the other, and threw them onto the pile of colorful shoes. When he turned around, Rusty was a bit disconcerted to see that Lady Mary and he were to be the only dancers. The others stood in a great ring around them, watching. In their midst, Rusty and Lady Mary waltzed to the most exquisite music he had ever heard. It seemed to carry them, lift them up off the ground somehow, in endless circles of delicious dizziness. When they finished, Rusty let go Lady Mary’s hand and bowed his way back to the edge of the circle. He was sweating with fever and his heart pounded madly. Enchanting as Circe, she took her former place beside the horse that was now shimmering with moonlight, and casting a blue nimbus on the ground.

<
“Where is Dark Robbie,” she finally asked. “I hope he hasn’t taken his wolfishness so seriously that has shied away from human company.”

<
“He just got up and left, your Ladyship,” wheezed old Mr. Symmonds.

<
“Soon it will be too late and he will have forfeited his chance at the prize. But if it is meant to be so — it will be,” she said with a small shrug.

<
The guests stood around for a quarter of an hour more. Suddenly, Lady Mary mounted the black horse and, without a word, rode away towards the wood. At that very moment, a thin ribbon of liquid yellow light shone above the hills.

<
Confused by her departure, the crowd broke up.  Lady Mary’s animal-headed servants calmly led the utterly astonished and chagrined guests back through the house, and let them out the front door to the courtyard where their coaches and carriages were waiting. At the sight of the servants with their animal heads, every one of the horses whinnied and leapt in their traces as if they had taken fright and were anxious to fly away.

<

Pulling off the stifling lion’s masque, Rusty climbed into his carriage with a nod to Oliver, who looked lank and small without his crown of antlers. Oliver waved back and got into a large coach-and-six with some other guests. The horses were in such a hurry to escape, that the coach immediately jerked forward, and quickly vanished down the avenue of trees.

<
The grounds of Crawford Priory were now littered with jeweled feathers, animal masques, long gloves, a mink garter, a spotted sash, a long black tail. Trinkets and tinsel that had been dropped, and then crushed under the feet of the guests as they scattered hurriedly away, now glittered in the mud.   In a fit of pique, Rusty MacClaren threw the lion’s masque on the ground with the rest of the tawdry finery, and told his driver to move off.

Photos: Simon Marsden: www.simonmarsden.co.uk

The Company of Wolves

End of Part II

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford: A Paranormal Regency Romance: Part I

A Word from the Author:

I had a much shorter version of this story at www.themysteriousdomain.com, but I was never happy with the ending. I was trying to keep the story under 5,000 words — so it would be a genuine short story — but in the end I not only had to put more detail into it to make it better. I had to add another 5,000 words to have an ending that worked. Characters will do that to you sometimes. They know better than the author how its supposed to go.

So I deleted the story from My Mysterious Domain, rewrote it, and am offering it here in parts.

The story was inspired by this photograph of Crawford Priory, an extravagant Scottish ruin, by the excellent Simon Marsden. ( See more of is amazing photography and beyond at :  www.simonmarsden.co.uk ) It was on a calender that included the story of Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford, who in her life never married, and was known to be a great lover of animals who were her friends and constant companions.

I don’t know how Lady Crawford would feel about my fictitious portrayal of her, but I think she might understand how this brooding image and her alleged haunting of the place with her animals might lead the imagination down some strange passages.

This is told in five installments. I also plan to podcast it. I hope you like this rather old style spooky story.

The Strange Marriage of Lady Crawford

A Paranormal Regency Romance

Part I

by Aline deWinter

Fife, Scotland

1815

It was to be Lady Mary’s first appearance for many months.

<
After the death of her father, she had retired into the gloom of her high Gothic mansion as if Society had ceased to exist. She did not call upon anyone, and no one called upon her for, though young and extremely charming, she was known not to need people and had a way of gently, but effectively, putting them off. Then, out of the blue, she sent out lilac-scented invitations for a Ball to be held at her home on May Eve. It was to be a Masquerade, set to begin in the long twilight, and continue with feasting and dancing until dawn. Lady Mary invited everyone who had known her father when he was alive, and all those who had shown an interest in her. She hinted that whoever wore the most convincing animal masque would win a secret prize! It was hoped, and surmised, that the prize was to be Lady Mary’s hand in marriage, for, now on her own and lonely, she must surely have decided that it was time to choose a husband and settle down.

<
On the evening of the Ball, the twilight was exceedingly long and luminous, a glow, like reflected firelight, throwing the low hills into dark relief at the horizon.  As the guests leapt from their coaches, they were welcomed by bright torches along the walkway and up the stairs to the open doors of the house. The ground floor windows blazed with light, while overhead, a sombre crown of pinnacles and turrets rose against the sky like the peaks of a dark forest. A flock of rooks circled around them cawing on their way to the woods.

<
Posing about in their finest, most extravagant costumes, several hopeful Suitors cut a swathe in the candle lit drawing room. Their animal heads had them looking, rather disturbingly,  like devils in fancy dress. The other ladies and gentlemen, friends of Lady Mary’s late father,  held small half-masks, attached to sticks, in their hands, ready to hold them up at the first sight of their mysterious Hostess.

<
The great clock in the hall chimed the hour. Impatient for a sight of Lady Mary newly emerging from her dark cocoon of grief,  the guests gathered in a knot at the bottom of the stairs with bated breath. Their anticipation was increased when a tribe of be-ribboned Burmese cats suddenly flowed down the stairs carrying flowers in their mouths. They were followed, from above, by a whizzing flock of multi-colored budgies that perched in the chandeliers, and at the tops of the potted orange trees, or clung upside down to the vines that were trellised along the tops of the walls. When opening their beaks to sing, they dropped round, red berries onto the heads of the Suitors. The crowd laughed uneasily.

<
“Oh, ho, ho,” chuckled Rusty MacClaren, blinking as he picked a squashed berry out of his lion’s eye. “We’re in for a fine time already…” He flicked his fingers anxiously through his mane in case some berries got stuck in it too.

<

“I’ll say,” said Oliver Brodie, swinging his stag’s head  around to look through the tall windows off to the side, his attention drawn by a commotion outside in the yard. “That’s strange. It appears Lady Mary has just returned from a ride.”

<
“It can’t be her,” said Rusty. “She’s supposed to be upstairs getting herself ready. You know how long it takes a woman to dress for a Ball.”

<
“Well, that big black charger of hers is still prancing about like he’s trying to follow her into the house. I just heard her running in at the back door,” said Oliver as a distant door slammed.

<
“Guess we’ll see, won’t we, lads,” said Dark Robbie, the wolf, shaking some berries out of the cuffs of his Restoration sleeves. “She’s a wild one.”

<
“What do you mean by that?” Mr. Symmonds’s old, soft voice floated across the room.

<
Suddenly, the room darkened as if a cloud passed over it.  The very air was charged with the mystery. The guests shuffled about, restless, and the house grew quiet as a gathering storm, waiting for thunder to roll. The guests went very still, looking at each other quizzically, and then, on meeting each others eyes, looking away again, and then around at the ceiling at the bright budgies perched above, their empty beaks sunken into their puff-feathered, pastel breasts, and at the floor where the cats lolled about, getting snagged in their ribbon streamers, and preening, oblivious to the danger of shifting human feet, as if the guests were no more than trees in the wood.

<
Finally, the of barking of dogs, and the howling of Irish wolfhounds echoed from the top of the house, announcing that Lady Mary must be leaving her lofty bedchamber.  The guests milled around so that the row of Suitors stood at the fore, while the ladies and remaining gents chose the best vantage points for a view of the stairs, and held up their masks. They glanced around at each other grimly through their eyeholes. A red fox sauntered down the stairs, brushing against the Suitors and eyeing them suspiciously before it leapt, with flash of its white-tipped tail, through the open French casement, and out into the garden.

<
Dark Robbie took a gentle swipe at it with his riding crop, hitting his neighbor on the leg instead.

<
“Imagine, a woman who keeps wild animals in the house! I’ll wager the whole top of the house is really a forest…where she sleeps naked under a canopy of trees…her hair tangled with leaves, and her little foxes licking her face…and doves settling on her shoulders and arms,” Dark Robbie said quietly as a flock of white birds flew over.

<
“Forget it Robbie. She’ll have none of you, you popinjay! Lady Mary has taste. She’ll choose me.”

<
“Yes, Oliver. That’s all she needs…a pile of debts and a sot for a father-in-law.”

<
“Now, lads, what’s the fuss…,” the soft voice of old Mr. Symmonds silted over their high words. “You know as well as anyone that this is a mere formality. Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford has never been known to accept anyone to her hand.”

<
“Yes,” retorted Rusty. “Even her dear father couldn’t marry her off to save his soul from the Devil.”

<
“I’ll wager he did sell his soul to the Devil,” said Oliver somberly, pointing around at the room. “Where else did he get the money to buy this?”

<
“I can’t wait to just see her. I heard she was running about the graveyard with her hair disheveled and her bodice undone like Ophelia in the mad scene…with her hounds circling around her like witches imps,” said Dark Robbie grinning sarcastically at the fluttering budgies. A diminutive orange fell down and hit him on the nose.

<
“Please, gentlemen. The poor girl has been tragically bereft of her only living relative…”

<
“And got a fortune out of it too…”

<
“Shhh! Here she comes.”

<
It was the three wolfhounds they saw first, their aquiline heads curving around the bannisters, their long legs getting tangled up with each other as they tried peering at those assembled below them on the Oriental carpet. Their leads were so long that they were at the middle of the stairs before Lady Mary appeared. Her light brown hair floated around her head like a frothy cloud made higher with a jeweled black plume. A dark blue-gray gown of rustling silk, embroidered with crystal beads, drifted in translucent layers about her figure like a storm. She smiled at her guests, lowering her dark eyelashes as if she had been caught having naughty thoughts. The creamy beauty of her skin was heightened by the flame of high color in her cheeks. She looked as if she were always blushing, but it wasn’t with modesty, rather with a noticeable undercurrent of seething passion.

<
“How can that woman stay alone?” Rusty growled.

<
“What makes you so sure she’s alone?” whispered Dark Robbie.

<
“Hush lads. Don’t speak of the Lady like that. She’s an outdoor girl. Healthy,” Mr. Symmonds sighed, lifting his owl’s mask up for air. “Vital.”

<
She strode between the rows of Gallants smiling like a Grecian Queen and leading a goat wearing a may crown. They were followed by a Shetland collie who kept running around everyone and barking at them as if they were sheep, more cats, some hares walking on their hind legs, and three peacocks. There was a purple brocade settee in an alcove in front of a glassed-in aviary where Lady Mary sat, gesturing with a bright yellow feathered fan to her guests that they should also be seated on the various upholstered chairs. Beside her was an urn filled with the long stemmed gladiolas and lilies that the cats had carried in, the last being gingerly but elegantly positioned among the rest by a shining mahogany Burmese. As the guests sat down, they marveled at it.

<
Rusty MacClaren proposed a toast, and they all stood up again.

<
“To Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford…welcome back to the world,” he cried raising his third glass of whisky.

<
“Cheers!”

<
Mr. Symmonds’s voice whispered above the laughter, “You look very lovely, Lady Mary. I hope we shall all see more of you now.”

<
“Agreed!” cried several of the gentlemen, lifting their glasses high.

<
Dark Robbie bowed and reached for her hand. She held it out to him. He nuzzled it with his wolf’s snout. “Lovely to have you back, my Lady.”

<
Lady Mary’s grey eyes flashed. “Thank you, Robbie,” she whispered.

<

Then, glancing over her assembled guests, she announced, “I want to thank you all for coming to my little soire in honor of Lord Crawford, my father, who passed beyond the veil just two and half years ago. I am sure he would be made very happy if he could see how many of you have come to pay your respects as well as to welcome me back into Society again. Father was a retiring character, but as you all know, his good works were many, his generous giving has mede a difference to many lives. Now, shall we all repair to the dining room? Cook has prepared a wonderful feast. It is my gift to you. Come my loves…” she said to her pets who were gathered around her skirts like orphaned children.
A deer suddenly bounded up to the tall windows and looked in, its ears pricked up, as if, being late, it feared missing out.

<
Oh, come now, Violet,” Lady Mary said opening the casement to allow the deer inside.  “You know I haven’t forgotten you. Everyone, follow me.”

<
She led her guests down a corridor, and through a series of magnificent though dusty rooms, towards the back of the house. They were accompanied by nine cats, two dogs, five hares, a goat, with a monkey in its back, a deer, three peacocks, and a colorful cacophony of budgies.

<

End of Part I

Photos by Simon Marsden : www.simonmarsden.co.uk