England, August, 1735
A thick canopy of oaks blocked out all but the most daring of the sun’s rays. No breeze lifted the damp tendrils of her heavy hair as Ellen stooped to rescue a buttercup from the woodcutter’s crude lane. Ellen foraged among the brambles for berries, but more often than not, she dawdled over a purple violet or the flight of a butterfly.
The dull thud of hoof beats startled her, but she made no effort to run and hide as her brothers did when strangers intruded upon the forest. The boys were older and wiser and warned of confronting danger in the open. Ellen, however, greeted strangers with curiosity, though she often felt the stripes of the woodcutter’s switch for her foolishness. The boys called her a dull-witted clod for not learning the sly ways that allowed them to escape their father’s ire. Ellen ignored their insults as she ignored all else, traipsing through her childhood, accepting whatever life brought.
This day it brought two elegantly garbed gentlemen on horseback, or rather, one gentleman and one youth. The elder was garbed conservatively in a long waistcoat, knee breeches of rich satin, and bagwig, but the younger had discarded both coat and waistcoat and rode in shirt sleeves, with his lace cravat untied. The boy’s golden hair shone like candle flames against the forest’s dark backdrop, and his laughing eyes made a mockery of any dignity he might have achieved with his noble mount and wealthy dress.
As she watched the intruders, they returned her regard, for forest sprites were seldom encountered in these modern times. The child’s thick auburn hair gleamed like burnished copper. She could be no more than nine or ten, and beneath her tattered gown, she seemed slighter than any elfin creature. But the bold stare of her silver eyes inflamed the boy’s imagination. Like the mirror of a still pond, her eyes captured the clouds and reflected the light, revealing nothing of hidden shadows.
“Have we entered an enchanted forest?” The boy asked seriously, but his eyes continued to laugh. “Are you the fairy princess who lives here and guards the inhabitants? Are we trespassing?”
The child seemed to consider this question solemnly but did not reply.
With little patience for foolery, the older man intruded. “Is there a well around here? A stream? Somewhere we might rest the horses and take a sip of something cool?”
“A morsel of bread or a crumb of cheese would be appreciated also,” the youth said with a laugh. “My belly growls and threatens to eat me alive. Surely fairy princesses can command a feast, if it be only an apple?”
A flicker of something like laughter lightened still gray eyes, and the child motioned for them to follow before turning down the right-hand path.
Quicker than his father, the boy hastened to turn his mount after her. Too hungry to keep the sedate pace required by her small steps, he removed his foot from the stirrup and leaned over to offer his hand to the child.
“Ride with me and point the way, princess.”
A flicker of delight lit her eyes before they shadowed again. Taking his hand, she placed her foot in the stirrup and allowed him to haul her up in front of him. She rested effortlessly in the curve of the saddle, as if accustomed to riding in such a manner.
She led them to a clearing containing a small thatched cottage. No flowers bedecked the windowsills, though an exhausted, unkempt garden grew in one corner of the lot. One ancient donkey swished its tail at a nagging fly. The child gestured to be let down.
Both strangers dismounted, eyeing the dark windows with unease. The child’s shining eyes and scrubbed cheeks had given the impression of rude health, overriding the crudity of her gown. Her gestures had led them to believe she belonged to a wealthier house, perhaps as servant or child of caretakers.
The girl directed them to the stream trickling through the yard. As they watered their mounts, she disappeared through the gaping cottage door.
In a twinkling she returned, carrying two battered mugs and a jug of cider on a platter, as if she were indeed a princess and serving tea to royalty. The effect was spoiled by the appearance of an unshaven scarecrow of a man, who yelled after her.
“What do you mean to do with that jug, girl? Come back here, you little hellion!” He halted at the sight of the visitors.
Ignoring the shouting brute, the girl poured the drink and offered it to her guests.
Glancing from the scarecrow to the child, the youth rebelliously drank long and deep from his mug. His father shot him an angry glance, but now that the damage was done, he, too, sipped the offered refreshment before speaking to his host.
“Do not scold the child, man, she only does our bidding. I will pay to replace the jug. We have come far this day and the next inn is farther still. Would you begrudge us a drink on a day such as this?”
The man tucked his filthy hands beneath his armpits and glared. “A drink and no more. This ain’t no alehouse.”
While the men confronted each other, the child slipped away, motioning for the boy to follow. Five or six years her elder, he was caught between the need to hold his place among the adults and the desire of a child to explore. Curiosity and hunger won the battle, and he followed the sprite around to the back.
She vanished into a shed and reappeared bearing a leather pouch that seemed to carry a heavy weight. Keeping it hidden in the folds of her skirt, she surreptitiously passed it to her newfound friend.
Knowing at once its contents from the mischievous gleam of silver eyes, the youth grinned and accepted the package. Keeping one eye on their elders, who continued to argue, he led the girl back to his horse, where he deposited the pouch and rummaged in the capacious pockets of his coat. In a moment he withdrew a small packet of ribbons.
“My sister has no need for more of these. I daresay even fairy princesses can find use for ribbons. I like the yellow best.”
The unexpectedness of this gesture brought an instant’s joy to childish lips, but then, remembering her manners, she dropped a clumsy curtsy. The effect of this respectful gesture was lost when she used the moment to hide the packet in her garter, but the youth had no appreciation of respect and more interest in her quickness of wit.
Before he could question her, she gestured toward his departing father and motioned for him to mount. Her fingers flew in a manner that left no doubt to her message, though she spoke not a word. With a gesture of farewell, he followed after his furious parent.
Out of sight of the cottage, his father turned in suspicion at the sound of a crunching apple.
“Where in hell did you steal that?” he demanded irritably.
“The Princess of Apples gave it to me. Would you like one?” Blue eyes laughing, he reached in the pouch and produced another.
His father glared his but took the apple. “Charm your sister with your fairy tales if you must, but leave girls like that one alone. I doubt if Lady Pamela would understand if you are knee-deep in bastards before your vows are said.”
His son snorted rudely and took the last bite of his apple. “One does not bed fairy princesses, Father,” he replied. “I trust Lady Pamela does not consider herself in that category.”
Remembering that young lady’s haughty demeanor, his father gave a curt bark of laughter. “She will grow out of it soon enough if she does. You’re both too young, for now. There will be time enough to please each other after she comes of age.”
The boy looked doubtful but had the wisdom to remain silent.