Shadows and Light
The national bestselling author of the Black Jewels Trilogy returns with book two in the thrilling Tir Alainn Trilogy-a dazzling tale of romance, high adventure, and thrilling fantasy.
An encroaching evil threatens the lives of every witch, woman, and Fae in the realm. And only the Bard, the Muse, and the Gatherer of Souls possess the power to stop the bloodshed.
Standing in front of the morning room door, Liam smoothed back his dark brown hair and resisted the urge to give the tops of his boots a quick polish on the back of his trouser legs. His mother knew he'd already been out working, had requested this appointment during the time when he usually came in to spend an hour going over accounts and correspondence and, lately, to reply to the black-edged notes of condolence. She wouldn't expect him to look like anything but what he was-a man who tended the land that belonged to him and looked after the people who worked for him. The fact that he was now the Baron of Willowsbrook didn't change anything. He'd been riding over the land for twenty years now, had started visiting the tenant farms on his beloved sorrel pony when he was barely seven years old. She wouldn't criticize him for being dressed in clothes that were a bit sweaty and smelled of animals.
Maybe it was because she wouldn't criticize his appearance that he had the urge to run upstairs and put on a fresh shirt before stepping into a room that was bright, feminine, and soothing.
Giving the door a light rap with his knuckles, Liam walked into the room. His mother, Elinore, stood at the glass door that opened onto a small terrace, no doubt watching the birds that gathered to drink and bathe in the stone basin that was scrubbed and filled with fresh water every morning. The sunlight made the strands of gray in her light brown hair shine like silver. She was a small, slim woman with an inner strength that had weathered all the emotional storms of her marriage.
He may have inherited his father's looks-the dark hair, a face handsome enough to catch a woman's eye, height that was a little above average-but he was glad he'd inherited his mother's hazel eyes. Woodland eyes, she called them, because they were a brown-flecked green. Sometimes he wondered if, when she looked at him, she saw only a younger version of his father. At least when she looked at his eyes, she had to know there was a part of her in him, as well.
"Good morning, Mother," Liam said. He glanced at the tray on the table near the sofa and instantly became wary. The tea, thin sandwiches, and pastries weren't unusual fare for a midmorning chat, but the decanter of whiskey was definitely out of place. Elinore didn't approve of indulging in strong drink, especially so early in the day. That she'd arranged for the decanter to be here meant she thought one of them would need something more potent than tea to get through this conversation.
Turning away from the window, Elinore offered him a hesitant smile. "Good morning, Liam. Thank you for taking time out of your day to meet with me."
Heat washed through his body, a sure sign that his temper was rising. Making an effort to keep his voice calm, he replied, "Thanks aren't necessary. You're my mother. My being the baron now doesn't change that." At least, he hoped it didn't.
"No, but . . . it does change some things." She walked over to the sofa, sat down, and offered another hesitant smile. "Please sit down. There are some things I need to say to you."
Reluctantly, he sat on the other end of the sofa. Then something occurred to him that had him leaning toward her, tense. "Brooke's all right, isn't she?"
The surprise in Elinore's eyes, warming to amusement, made him feel limp with relief. His ten-year-old sister was a delightful child, but she did tend to get into scrapes.
"Brooke is fine," Elinore said, pouring tea for both of them. "A bit sulky since it's a lovely day and she's stuck doing lessons instead of working with the new pony a certain someone recently gave her for her birthday."
Taking the cup of tea she offered him, Liam gave her a bland stare. "I seem to recall another someone slipping money to that certain someone with the instructions to purchase new tack for the new pony."
"Is that what you recall?" Elinore asked innocently. "Do you also recall that certain someone telling Brooke she could skip her lessons this morning so that he could take her for a long ride so the pony wouldn't get bored working in the confines of the training ring?"
Liam choked on the tea he just swallowed. "I said maybe. After the midday meal."
" 'Maybe' means yes."
She just looked at him until he wanted to squirm. That was the problem with trying to argue with his mother, even playfully. She knew him too well and remembered far too many things from his own childhood.
"After the midday meal, if she has her lessons done, I'll take her for a ride and we'll put the pony through his paces," Liam said.
"Listening to the two of you determine the definition of 'done' should be quite entertaining," Elinore said placidly.
"I-" Liam leaned back, feeling a bit sulky himself. He wasn't going to win this round. Brooke was his little sister. His baby sister. He'd already been away at school when she was born, and her first years were odd flashes of memory for him. A baby who drooled and giggled when he made funny faces at her. An infant who had learned to crawl between one visit home and the next, and had sent him into a panic when he'd put her on the carpet and turned his back for what he swore had been no more than a minute, only to have her disappear on him. The toddler who giggled and ran through the gardens as fast as her chubby little legs could take her. The bright little girl who chattered about anything and everything to the point where he'd nicknamed her Squirrel. The silent, wary child she became whenever his father was around.
As the male head of the family, he'd do his best to be firm about getting the lessons done, but the minute she turned those big blue eyes of hers on him, he'd cave. He remembered too well how it felt to be stuck indoors laboring over sums when the land beckoned.
"Liam." Elinore sipped her tea and didn't look at him. "Did you mortgage the estate?"
It didn't surprise him that she'd known his father had intended to take a mortgage out on the estate. No doubt the old baron had taken cruel delight in telling her he was stripping the land for everything it was worth.
When his father's man of business had gone over the accounts with him, he'd been appalled at the amount his father had intended to wring from the already foundering estate. And he'd felt an obscene kind of gratitude that the old baron had choked to death while dining with his current mistress before the papers had been signed.
"Yes, I took out a mortgage," Liam said, gulping down the rest of the tea. "A small one." Enough to pay off the tradesmen his father owed and give himself some money to honor his own bills for the next year or so. Elinore had provided him with a generous quarterly allowance ever since he'd first gone away to school, and he'd been grateful for it, but now that the estate was his, he didn't want to live off her money. With proper care and management, the land should be able to provide him and his family with a good living.
"I see." Elinore set her cup down, then folded her hands in her lap. She focused her gaze on the terrace door. "I'll make the same bargain with you that I made with your father."
Don't treat me like I've become him just because I hold the title, Liam thought fiercely.
"I'll pay the servants' wages and the household expenses," Elinore continued, her eyes still focused on the terrace door. "And I'll assist in paying any bills for the upkeep of the tenants' cottages. But I won't pay any bills for the upkeep of the town house in Durham, nor will I pay for any of your . . . personal . . . expenses."
Meaning, if he took a mistress as his father had done, he'd have to pay for his own pleasure. Not that he thought much pleasure could be had from a mercenary creature like the woman his father had been bedding when he died. On the other hand, he couldn't blame her for being mercenary. It had showed she'd had a better understanding of his father than the other women the old baron had enjoyed.\
"It's a generous offer," he said. It stung that he had to accept it, but he was practical enough to know it would be a few years before the estate would recover sufficiently to pay all the expenses. "I thank you for it."
"Your father didn't think it was generous."
"My father and I didn't see eye to eye about a great many things," Liam said sharply. "Your father gave you an independent income for your benefit, not for my father's and not for the estate's. You had, and still have, every right to do with it as you please. Willowsbrook should be able to support itself twice over. The fact that it can't quite support itself is my father's-and his father's-fault, not yours."
After a long pause, Elinore said, "Would you like more tea?"
What he'd like was a hefty glass of that whiskey, but he had the feeling they'd only chewed the edges of whatever she'd wanted to talk to him about. "Please," he said, holding out his cup. He waited until she refilled both their cups. "Would you mind if I sold the town house in Durham?"
"The estate and any other property is yours now, Liam. You may do with it as you please."
"Would you mind?" he persisted.
When she looked at him, he saw a bitterness in her eyes she'd never allowed to show before. "There's nothing in that place that I value."
No, there wouldn't be, not when his father's string of mistresses had spent more time there than she had. Well, that was one burden and expense he could easily shed. He'd write to his man of business and set things in motion to sell the town house and its contents.
"Won't you need the town house when you have business in the city?" Elinore asked.
Liam shook his head. "I can rent rooms easily enough for the two times a year when the barons formally meet."
He felt a pressure building inside him, and he clamped his teeth to try to keep the words back as he'd done for so many years. Perhaps it was because the conversation was already difficult that he couldn't hold it back anymore. "Why didn't you leave him? He was a bastard, and you deserved so much better. Adultery is grounds for severing the marriage vow. You had income of your own, so you were never dependent upon him. Why did you stay?"
"I had three reasons," Elinore replied quietly. "You. Brooke. And Willowsbrook."
There was something about the way she said "Willowsbrook" that made him think she was talking about more than the estate.
"You're the baron now. You have authority and power, not just on the estate and tenant farms but over the villagers and the free landowners, as well. You can use that authority and power for ill or for good."
"I'm aware of that."
"How you act will set a precedent for the rest of the people here."
Liam snorted softly. "My father thankfully didn't set much of a precedent."
"If he'd ordered that something be done, that order would have been obeyed. The squires and magistrates in each village would have seen it carried out."
Liam rested one hand lightly over his mother's. "He still had to obey the decrees that the council of barons agree upon for the good of Sylvalan."
"The barons have the power to change the decrees or make new ones, regardless of what the rest of Sylvalan's people want. And a baron can impose his will over the people in the county he rules no matter what the decrees say."
She looked pale and unhappy, and he didn't know what she wanted from him. "To what use do you want me to put my new authority and power?" he asked gently.
"I want you to protect the witches at Willowsbrook-the Old Place this estate took its name from generations ago when your father's kin first came here to live and work the land."
Liam sighed, withdrew his hand. "Mother-"
"I have something to tell you," Elinore said hurriedly. "A secret I'd kept from your father because of a few things he'd said on our honeymoon. But you have to know. You have to understand."
Agitated, Elinore set her teacup on the table, then walked to the glass door. She stared at the world beyond the glass for a minute, as if she needed to draw strength from the view. Then she turned to face him.
"My great-great-grandfather was a witch's son," she said quietly. "He was the eldest son, but the Old Places always belong to the women of the family, and he wanted something to call his own. When he was a young man, he left home with his mother's blessing. He traveled for a few years, learned a bit about several trades as he worked for his food and lodging and a few coins to rub together. Then, one day, he saw a piece of land that made him want to put down roots, so his mother and grandmother helped him scrape together enough money to buy the land and build a small cottage.
"He had a gift for knowing what the land could yield and what needed time to ripen. He was canny when it came to business-and he was canny when it came to people. Like the land, he could sense what each could yield and when something or someone needed time to ripen.
"He prospered, and the people he dealt with prospered, as well.
"When he eventually married, he took a witch for a wife. They had several children, and the family continued to prosper. By then, his merchant business was turning a good profit, and he built a large, rambling country house.
"His eldest son went into the business with him, while the other sons and daughters found their callings in other kinds of work. In time, some of them fell in love, got married, and had children, and their children had children.
"And so it went. And while the family never hid their ties to the witches who lived in several of the Old Places, they also didn't flaunt those ties. As generations passed, not all of the spouses could make the same claim of having ties to an Old Place, and the gifts that come down through the blood became watered down or disappeared altogether." Elinore paused, then shook her head. "Not disappeared. Nuala says the Mother's gifts sometimes sleep in the blood, waiting to reappear again." She smiled sadly. "The name means nothing to you, does it? Our nearest neighbor for all of these years, and you don't even know who she is."
"Of course I know," Liam said testily. "She's one of the witches."
Elinore walked back to the sofa and sat down, folding her hands in her lap. She sighed. "Yes, she's one of the witches. She's also my father's cousin, several times removed."
Having no idea what she expected him to say, Liam drank his now-cold tea to give himself a little time. Given his father's animosity toward the witches who lived in the Old Place that bordered the estate, he understood quite well why his mother had never mentioned this aspect of her family heritage. But . . .
"As you said, it was several generations ago," Liam said, thinking she was worried about his feelings toward her changing. "You've no reason to feel shame because of it."
Elinore's eyes widened. "I'm not ashamed of my heritage. If I regret anything, it's that my gift from the Mother is so weak." Then she looked slightly annoyed. "Perhaps it's because it came down through the paternal line in my branch of the family that the men's gifts from the Mother were less diluted. My brother certainly has a stronger connection to water than I do to earth."
Liam opened his mouth, then shut it again before he said anything. What was she trying to tell him? That she regretted not being a witch? How could she want to be like them?
"Mother," he began hesitantly. "I can appreciate your concern for those . . women . . . who live in the Old Place since they're distantly related to you. But they're distantly related."
"To me," Elinore replied. "But not so distant to you." She took a deep breath, let it out slowly, then looked at him. "The youngest of them is your half sister, one of your father's bastards. She's four years younger than you, and she's not distant, Liam. She is family."
"No!" Unable to sit anymore, Liam restlessly prowled the room. As he passed the table, he snatched up the decanter, splashed some whiskey into a glass, and downed it. He poured another two fingers into the glass, but, this time, resisted the urge to gulp it down.
"No," he said again as he continued to prowl around the room. "She's no more family than any of the other bastards my father seeded in the women he seduced. I know you established a fund to help those women and assist the children in learning a trade so that they could have a living, but they've never been acknowledged as family."
"No, they never have." Elinore looked down at her hands. "I'm not proud that I couldn't find it in my heart to accept the children, but it is, I think, an understandable failing. But Keely is different. She was only fourteen when your father took her, and what he did to her scarred her mind in ways that time has never healed. And with the talk and stories that are starting to be told about witches, your sister-"
"She's not my sister!"
"-is more vulnerable than any of those other children."
"If she's four years my junior, that makes her twenty-three," Liam said. "She's no longer a child."
"Which doesn't change the fact that she needs your protection." Elinore stood up. "They all need your protection, Liam. There are troubles in the east. Things are happening there that threaten every woman, not just the witches. My cousin Moira-"
"Oh, yes, cousin Moira," Liam said nastily-and then realized he'd used the same tone of voice his father had always used when Moira was mentioned.
"Did you know that the girls in her village were turned away from school last fall? The baron who rules Pickworth declared that too much learning is unhealthy for females. It makes them unfit for the duties that are beneficial to a man's family. So now they are permitted to learn how to read and write and do sums to the extent that it is sufficient for them to run a household. By those standards, Brooke should be learning nothing more than how to do fine needlework and write out a menu rather than learning how to think for herself."
"You misunderstood what Moira said," Liam insisted. "Or she exaggerated something sensible, turning it into the ridiculous."
"Sensible? Do you call leaving women totally dependent on the men in their families, with no way for them to earn a living on their own, sensible? What about the Widow Kendall? Should she have become little more than a beggar when her husband died instead of running the merchant store and making a good living for herself and her children? Or maybe she should have accepted any man who offered to marry her, whether she cared for him or not, trading the use of her body for sex in exchange for food and lodging for herself and the children. It isn't sensible, Liam. All it does is turn women into unpaid domestic help and legal whores."
"If a woman is controlled by the male head of her household until she marries, performing whatever duties are required to provide him with a comfortable, well-run home, and then has to spread her legs when she does marry in order to earn her food and lodging, what would you call it?"
He said nothing for a moment, staggered by the crudeness of her words. "What's wrong with a man taking care of his family?" he finally asked. "What is so wrong with him making decisions for his children or younger siblings since they would be too inexperienced to always make good decisions for themselves?"
Elinore sighed. "There's nothing wrong with those things, Liam. But I'm not talking about children. I'm talking about grown women, independent women who are as capable of thinking for themselves and making choices about their lives as any man, who are now being forced back into being as dependent as a child. I don't think a strong, healthy community can exist with that kind of forced dependence, but it's my gender that is vulnerable. You, being a man, may see things differently."
Liam shook his head. "You've misunderstood something."
"No, I think I understand perfectly what is at stake. I don't think the eastern barons care about healthy communities anymore," Elinore said. "I don't think they care about anything but having domination over women, over the land, over life." She paused, then added bitterly, "But I will not stand by and let it happen here."
"It would never happen here, so it's a moot point." Liam angrily circled the room.
"Won't it? Your father was going to make the same decree, forbidding girls to receive more than three years of formal education. He was also going to follow the example of some of the eastern barons and forbid women of any age to read anything that wasn't approved of by the male head of the household. And he was quite pleased to inform me that the barons were considering a new decree that would prevent a woman from owning property in her own name, or running a business, or even having an independent income."
"But that would mean-"
"That your father would have had control over my income. He could have spent it as he pleased, and I wouldn't have seen another copper from it except what he chose to dole out to me."
Liam shook his head. His father had made some dark hints about changes in the wind, but this?
"Even if he wasn't just baiting you for some cruel reason," Liam said slowly, "it still has nothing to do with the witches."
"It has everything to do with them!" Elinore's hands clenched. "Don't you see? These troubles all have the same root. The witches were the first to be destroyed in the east. Once they were gone, other things began happening to the rest of the women. It's not that far a step from killing one kind of woman to enslaving the rest."
"That's nonsense, and you know it!" Liam shouted. "Why are you pushing this?"
"Because I'm afraid!" Elinore's breath hitched. It took several seconds for her to regain control. "I'm afraid for myself, but I'm more afraid for Brooke because I don't want her to live in fear that any thought she has, any comment she makes, anything she does might give a man an excuse to brutalize her. If these decrees are passed, fear and pain are the only things she'll know."
"You're jumping at shadows, Mother, and I've heard quite enough of this." Realizing he still held the glass of whiskey, he drank it.
Spinning around, Elinore rushed to the work basket next to the chair near the windows. She pushed aside the needlework, pulled something out of the bottom of the basket, strode back to the sofa, and tossed two objects on the cushions.
Liam studied the strips of leather that had brass buckles and were connected to what looked like a leather tongue. Harness of some kind, but, for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what animal a harness like that would fit.
"It's a scold's bridle," Elinore said, her voice deliberate and cold. "A tool and a punishment to teach females never to speak unless their words are pleasing to a man's ears. You don't like what you've heard? You don't like the feelings and opinions I've expressed? That's your answer, Baron Liam. You're bigger than I am, and you're stronger. Will you force me down to the floor and shove that leather tongue into my mouth and buckle that bridle around my head? Will you use your fists to subdue me when I fight you so that when you order me to open my mouth to be bridled I'm too frightened and hurt too much to do anything but obey?"
Liam swallowed hard to keep down the whiskey that threatened to rise up in his throat. "He did that to you? He did that?" He suddenly understood the days, a few months ago, when his mother had barely spoken, had moved so carefully, had denied there was anything wrong. The whiskey glass slipped from his fingers, hit the carpet, but didn't break. "Why didn't you tell me?"
"If I'd said anything, he would have hurt Brooke."
Liam looked at the second, smaller bridle. "Did he-? Did he ever-?"
"No," Elinore said. "If he had, he wouldn't have lived long enough to choke at his mistress's table. I would have cut the bastard's heart out before then."\
A long, uneasy silence hung between them.
"You have a choice to make, Liam. You can give me your word that you'll do whatever you can to protect the witches in the Old Place."
"And if I don't give you my word?" he asked hoarsely.
"Then I will pack my things, take my daughter, and go live with my kinswomen."
--from Shadows and Light by Anne Bishop, Copyright © October 2002, Roc Books, a member of Penguin Putnam, Inc., used by permission.
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