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 Female x Male The Twins

Discussion in 'Roleplay Execution' started by Malibu, Oct 9, 2018.

  1. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

    Messages:
    80
    Local Time:
    9:19 AM
    Scotland, 1850

    The highlands were battered by the winds. The trees shook and creaked, spring blooms blew away as if they were autumn leaves falling from the branches. Nature seemed alive today. Not lively like the chirping of a bird or the song of a river, but rather awoken like the roar of the ocean waves or the howling of a wolf, warning of what was to come. The morning had almost been sunny but now dark clouds had gathered above the small town. The skies, deep as ink, hinted at the upcoming storm.

    In the small church, someone sneezed, another sniffled. It felt so damp in the small stone building that one would have sworn it was the beginning of the winter instead of late spring. Nobody had thought about lighting up candles for the ceremony and now the whole place looked even more lugubrious. It was almost as black as night and yet Lady Mary's pale face seemed to be glowing in its coffin. Her red hair seemed almost obscenely bright against her ghostly skin.

    The priest was speaking in monotonous tone, reading a passage of the Corinthians.
    ...“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
    “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

    A loud thunder boomed, stained glass shaking and cracking, startling the crowd. Many parishioners signed themselves or brought their hands together. At the first row, Lord McLean looked up to the cross and signed himself as well. He had never been much of a believer, but his wife, Mary, was and today he was burying her.
    He had buried a son, Williams, his favorite, a good boy. Yet, it was Thomas's disappearance which had slowly brought Mary to an early grave. Thomas was his mother's favorite despite his flaws and for years, she prayed every night that he would come back to her.
    How could Thomas do that to his mother? How could he have disappeared in such a way? And why, oh why did William die?
    The poor man was never much for showing emotions but today he cried a heavy tear which rolled down his wrinkled cheek. He was alone. No heir to his estate. No future.

    His only consolation was his dearest goddaughter: Eileonor, who was sitting by his side. He took her hand and squeezed it in his. In his early fifties, tall but lean with intense blue eyes, Lord Henry McLean had always been a force of nature, but today he looked nothing more than a grieving husband. He gave a pale smile towards the young woman by his side. He should have been able to call her 'daughter' years ago as she was William's betrothed, but life had decided otherwise.

    "You're the daughter we never had." he said kindly to her. "She loved you as such." his voice broke.
    "Ten years exactly." he whispered. Lady Mary had indeed died ten years to the day after the twins had been struck by fate.

    ---

    From the small hills overlooking the town, a tall man was watching the church. A dark red curls escaping from under a black hat, his blue gaze was intently looking at the small construction and the adjacent cemetery. The tombs and holy building were surrounded by a low wall on top of which was a fence of thick iron bars. His square jaws and fists clenched and he took a deep breath. Another lightening followed by an immediate thunder shook the countryside, casting a massive shadow in front of the man. The wind brought the first rain drops and the stranger rose his collar before slowly making his way towards the stones.



    The bleak weather outside the small stone church seemed to perfectly mirror Ellie's own black mood. The wind seemed to swell and buffet the structure just as her heart gave an uncomfortable throb of grief and the thunder rattled the very foundations of the building each time a new tear spilled over and traced down her pale cheek. This day should not have been happening, not so soon. How much more must I lose? How many times must I say goodbye to the ones I love? It had been ten years since her beloved William had perished at the hand of the gypsies. Her own mother had succumbed to a severe fever that had leached every last bit of strength from her; she had died seven years ago. Her father, perhaps overcome with grief, had followed just a little over two years later. She had been the last of her family. That was until Lord Henry McLean, a long and steadfast friend of the MacFaolain clan, had taken guardianship over a young Eileonor. She would forever be grateful to the McLean clan for taking her under their wing instead of sentencing her to the life of an orphan sentenced to a poorhouse where she would likely spend the rest of her days.

    Over the years, Henry and Mary had become every bit her parents as her own parents had been. They'd always been kind to her and adored her and had happily given their blessing for William to marry her. But in her solitude their love and affection knew no bounds. She only wished she could have done more for them. Perhaps she could have pulled Mary out of the dark hole that wretched Thomas had thrown her into when he'd vanished and she would not have to lose a mother twice. A sudden swell of anger welled within her breast, just as a streak of lightning lit up the heavy, tenebrous clouds. For some reason beyond her ken, Mary had adored Thomas and had been heartbroken when he had disappeared the same eve they'd found William's bloody snow-covered body. The man had been vain, selfish, and cruel as long as she had known him, nothing like his compassionate twin brother that she had fallen so desperately in love with. If she ever saw him again, she'd happily strangle him for leaving behind his poor mother and father and his brother's cold corpse without nary a word.

    All that evaporated as soon as she felt Henry's fingers seeking hers for comfort. Ellie turned her head to face the man, usually a pinnacle of boisterous, intimidating energy, but now no more than a broken widow grieving the loss of his dear wife. She offered him as comforting a smile as she could manage though she knew her own expression was tremulous and watery with her own grief and squeezed his fingers hard with her long, pale ones. "She was every bit my mother as the woman who birthed me," she assured him, her dulcet voice low, meant for the comfort of his ears only. She turned her solemn amber eyes back towards the front of the church, wrapping her plaid a little tighter around her shoulders to ward off the chill in the air. Mary looked so pale and small in the coffin, the red of her hair garish against the deathly pallor of her skin. Ellie felt tears coming, the back of her throat swelling with her grief and it was only a small relief when the priest gave the last rights and a handful of men surrounded her coffin and prepared to lift it and carry it towards the back of the church where they would finally lay her body to rest.

    The small gathering of people stood and stretched their stiff limbs. Ellie kept her had firmly around Henry's, squeezing them once more in a show of comfort. She pulled the plaid over her wheat-blonde hair and wrapped another edge of it around Henry's weary shoulders. She would be with him today and for as long as he would have her to comfort him in his grief. The congregation waited patiently for the family to leave first and begin the dismal procession. "Come, Henry. We'll get through this together," she whispered in his ear.



    Henry swallowed hard as two of the men lifted the top of the coffin to close it. His last gaze on his beloved wife. The red flame disappearing into a shadow. A mighty gust of wind slammed the church's door open, it echoed against the stone wall, startling the small assembly, just as the first nail was set into the casket. Henry almost jumped as the hammer closed the body of wife away forever. Another nail plunged into the dark wood. There wasn't a sound in the church for the metallic hits.

    Soon the coffin was lifted then carried out, passing in front of Heny and his young protegee.
    "Yes, let's go Child." replied the man as he stood up. He'd always been a force of nature and yet, without Eileonor by his side, he didn't know how he would have been able to keep his head high on such an ominous day. He straightened his shoulder, patted her hand and let it go, only to offer her his arm in a more proper manner.

    They started the procession in silence, with strength and dignity. Heny was the chieftain of the McLean clan, with or without an heir, he was still a powerful man and as such very respected. He wore the tartan of his clan as did many of the men present, but some among the younger generation were wearing English gentleman suits. As they stepped out, they were welcomed by icy droplets falling from the stormy skies. It was not even tea time yet, but the town was draped in a darkness resembling the night.
    Behind them, an elderly voice shivered. "The old gods are restless..." She was immediately hushed by her daughter who signed herself several times as she spoke. "Mother, do not speak such ill omens."

    The cemetery wasn't very big and a couple of minutes later, the cortege was surrounding the hole as Lady Mary's coffin was lowered in it. The priest said a couple more words but with each passing minute, the rain was getting heavier, so he shortened his obituary.
    Lord McLean stepped forward and turned towards the crowd.
    "Family. Friends. Thank you for being here. She would have been touched to see you all here today. I am sure she can see us from where she is." A loud thunder rumbled behind him as if punctuating his words.
    "You are all invited at McLean's Castle. I shall see you there." he finished. He didn't want to linger either. His rose fell down to meet his wife's last resting place. He watched his goddaughter then offered her his arm again as they both took a carriage to get back to the warmth of the castle.

    ---

    From the other side of the small stone wall, the winds had granted him a last glimpse of his mother's face, opening the church's door instant before her coffin was closed. His throat tightened and although his eyes remained dry, pain tore at his heart. He stayed in the shadow of a large oak as the small group stepped out. He stared at the casket for a moment, watching each rain drop bounce back from the dark wood.

    His father, tall and strong as ever, followed. The stranger made a step forward then froze as he recognized the woman at his arm. Blond strands escaping from under her plaid which seemed to almost gleam under the darkness of the sky. There was no mistaking those amber eyes. The man's icy blue eyes looked passed Henry and his escort into the crowd, then back to the two following the coffin. His calm demeanor was slow shifting, as the man's gaze was scanning the assembly with more and more despair. He was looking for someone, someone who should have been there but was missing. In his haste, he grabbed the iron fence in his palm, only to jolt back as if he just burned himself. He cursed in his breath.

    He retreated to the shadow of the tree, hearing his father's voice for the first time in ten years, but unable to listen to the words. Hidden, he stayed, watching as everyone threw a rose, then hastily left for the McLean Castle. His father. Then she. His fist clenched but he didn't move. Soon the rain battered cemetery was empty. He swallowed a chocked cry, refusing to accept what was an evidence: his brother was not there!



    Ellie jumped as the door to the church clattered open, fighting her instinct to whirl in fright. With great difficulty, she forced her eyes to remain forward; Mary deserved her complete attention until the very last moment. It didn't stop her from wincing as the first hammer struck, driving the nail deep into the polished cherry coffin, or her heart from sinking as the attendants lifted the elaborate coffin and carried it out the side doors toward the little graveyard behind the church. Swallowing audibly, she stood and took Henry's offered arm, beginning the somber procession. The rain was immediate, pelting those gathered with stinging icy droplets. Ellie could feel their bite even through the thickly lined muslin of her black funeral dress and the protection her plaid offered, draped over her head to keep her dry. It was a miserable, terrible day in the Highlands; Mary deserved sunshine and clear skies to mark her passage to her eternal resting place.

    The young woman, in her sensible black dress and low-heeled boots, felt her neck prickle at the old woman's murmuring. It wasn't proper to invoke those old heathen gods at this Christian burial and she bit her tongue on a cutting remark. Her mother had still believed in the old ways, though her father had been a devout Christian man and had ensured his only child's immortal soul with a Christian baptism and upbringing. Her mother, however, had insisted on the old pagan spelling of her name. Countless times in her childhood, Ellie had come across little bits of bread dipped in honey left around the house ("an offering to the household creatures that protect this home", her mother had explained) and every harvest her mother had tithed a tenth of the first day's reaping and left it in the barn ("so that the harvest creatures will look favorably on our fields and we will never go hungry"). Ellie had turned from what she considered her mother's madness. She was tired of living with the shadowy spectre of the Sidhe, the gods that kept the elderly fearful but were nothing but fanciful stories to the likes of Ellie.

    The rain only seemed to increase in its anger and Ellie could feel the mud sucking at her boots. As much as she hated to leave Mary there in the ground, she was eager to get out of the freezing rain that had already soaked through her skirts and plastered a few wet curls to her face. She mumbled a final prayer for the Lord to receive his faithful servant before she turned with Henry and led the procession out of the cemetery. The sticky mud pulled at her boots and dirtied the hem of her dress as she made her way to Henry's waiting carriage. Lord McLean stepped in and the footman offered his arm to help the lady inside. But just then, she caught something out of the corner of her eye. Curiously, she turned her golden eyes towards the hill. She swore she'd seen a dark smudge on the hilltop, just between the trees. She tipped her face up, droplets of icy rain falling on her upturned face and long, dark gold lashes but she saw nothing, not even when another streak of lightning lit up the skies. Ellie shook her head; it was hard to see anything in this gloomy, misty weather and she waved away her concern as nothing more than her eyes playing tricks on her. Taking the footman's outstretched hand, she was lifted into the carriage.

    Ellie settled the heavy blanket over her lap though it did nothing for her freezing toes crammed into the uncomfortable boots. One thing was for certain, the English fashions were not nearly so comfortable as the Scottish dresses she'd worn as a child. There was a cry and a sharp snap and then the carriage was lurching into motion, carrying Henry and his ward towards the estate, unaware of the interloper who lurked on the other side of the hill.



    Did she see him? For a brief instant, he could have sworn that she was looking right through him. Those intense amber eyes hadn't changed, even though they were filled with sadness today. He stood by the tree, as if rooted like the wooden giant which was offering him shelter from the heavy rain.
    What could he do? What was the point of his freedom if he came back to an empty house? What had his sacrificed been for?! He looked down at his hands, they were shaking and it wasn't from the cold. Was that fear pulsing through his veins? He swallowed hard. There was no turning back and if he wanted answers, he would have to wait.

    He once again walked to the fence but made sure not to touch it. He went along the short wall until he was as close to his mother's grave as he could. It was just a hole at the moment which was being filled by two poor lads despite the rain. But as his gaze drifted to the side, it fell upon a name carved deep in the stone: Williams McLean, beloved son. He swallowed a sob but his eyes were dry outside of the icy rain which was whipping his face. That could not be!
    One of the men lifted his shovel and froze as he spotted the man on the other side of the iron bars. "Who's there?" he questioned.
    But no answer came, just an unsettling flicker of frozen light coming from the stranger's hidden eyes before he turned and walked away.

    --

    At McLean's castle, the fires were roaring in the rooms were the guests had been invited. There wasn't a feat per say, but a buffet had been served for everyone to enjoy. One of the rare occasions in which even the servants could take something for themselves. Mary had always been a kind Mistress and today Henry was honoring her legacy by inviting everyone to share his bread. As the Master of the house, the older Lord was welcoming everyone and thanking them for their condolences. He had made sure that his protegee was well taken care of by having placed her personally in a seat by the chimney. Hot tea and alcohol were poured, in an attempt to warm hearts and bodies.

    Next to Lady Eileonor, two older women were whispering, believing their were discreet enough for their younger neighbor not to hear them.
    - Mark my words, it's not going to take long!
    - You're right. Now that poor Lady Mary is gone, the woman signed herself before adding, nothing stands in her way!
    - Indeed my dear Madame. Did you see how she was clinging to Lord McLean's arm, as if she was already his bride!
    - No sense of propriety!!

    --

    When he arrived in sight of the family estate, the traveler stopped and stared at it from a distance. A sense of dread flowed through his body and he passed an uneasy hand on his bearded face. He'd learn to trust his guts and right now they told him he wasn't welcome in his father's house. Maybe it would be better if he stayed away? He could protect them if he left. But now that he had seen them, seen her. His fist clenched at the thought. He had waited a lifetime to be back.

    He forced himself forward, his dark red locks sticking to the back of his trench coat. Instead of taking the main entrance packed with carriages and horses, he forked to the west where the servants' entrance was. He waited by the door and listened. Nothing. He lifted his hand, fingers hesitating before pressing his rugged palm to the wooden door. The contact sent shivers down his spine. He had dreamed this moment so many times, but today it was real. He was home! Holding his breath, he pressed further, stepping inside the castle as another bolt of lightening striped the darkened skies.

    --

    In the reception room, the walls and windows shook as deafening thunder roared above the highlands. The storm was here.



    The warmth of the McLean castle was a welcome relief after the drafty interior of the church and the unseasonably cold rain that ravaged the Highlands and had nearly drenched them all through in the short walk from the carriage to the door. It was a rotten enough storm that even the carriage drivers and footmen had been invited inside, offered hot spiced wine and mead, and ushered into a separate drawing room for the servants that was heated by a blazing fire. The cook had made some lovely hors d'oeuvres and delicate finger foods in place of a riotous feast. But, Ellie decided, that was what Mary would have wanted. She hadn't been a woman for large parties or lavish displays. Despite her wealth, she was a woman with simple tastes and pleasures and she'd have much rather spent the time conversing and laughing with her guests than fretting about the details of an opulent soiree.

    Ellie was chilled to the bone and gratefully took the seat close to the hot bricks of the chimney and the warmth radiating from the fireplace. In minutes, her damp hair had begun to dry, though she did not have the good fortune of having silky, smooth hair. Her wild curls, the tight curls she'd had since her girlhood, were often unmanageable and frizzy, especially when wet. Even now, pulled back as they were, she could still feel flyaway tendrils curling haphazardly about her temples and ears and fighting the knots and twists she'd put in it that morning as it dried. But her hair was the least of her worries. Her stomach was churning uneasily. It had been since that morning. She'd written it off as simply grief; it was never easy to lay a loved one to rest. But as the hours went by, she realized that something didn't feel right and it wasn't just the grief talking. There was some strange charge in the air that had absolutely nothing to do with the storm pounding the lush hills outside. If she'd been a more superstitious person, her mind might have thought up all manner of crazy explanations.

    But she was not superstitious. She just knew that something felt off. Ellie looked down. She held a cup of hot honeyed wine in her hand, her hands warmed through the delicate porcelain. She tried to focus on that, on the rich amber color of the wine and how it reflected the dancing light from the sconces and the fireplace, not her unsettled stomach. But then she heard the susurrus whispers next to her, the ladies hardly being discreet. When Ellie finally clued in as to what the elderly women were discussing, she blanched. Her already fair skin went even paler, enough to see the freckles across her cheeks and nose in stark contrast. Her stomach pitched again, but this time for an entirely new reason. She tried her best to school her face, to make it look like she was unbothered or ruffled and she placed a fist at her stomach, willing it to stay calm even though it roiled in anger and sorrow and disbelief. She wasn't sure what to do. It wouldn't do to simply turn and snap at them... not on a day like today. But she simply couldn't stay next to them, simpering and quiet.

    Thankfully, at that very moment, a particularly loud clap of thunder sounded overhead, shaking the very walls and foundation of McLean castle. All the guests started and Ellie used that as her distraction to jump out of her seat and whisk herself quickly and discreetly from the room. She placed her largely untouched drink on the nearest table and scampered down the hallways, seeking somewhere quiet. She found the kitchen, still smelling of warm bread and lit by a hearty fire, empty and she rushed in. Ellie felt as if she might retch right there. She bowed over the table, burying her face in her hands. No, no, no! How could they possibly say those cruel things about her? Mary had practically been her mother and Lord McLean was every bit her father as her own father had been. Marrying him would have been an abomination, even if only in her heart. She'd loved William and had never found anyone else she'd loved so strongly. Oh what she wouldn't do to have him back in her arms again!



    The stranger closed the door silently behind him. His ears opened to the slightest noise inside the narrow hallway. Nothing. Even the servants were in the warmer parts of the mansion. The familiar smell of old stones and varnished wood filled his nostrils and he didn't move at first, taking in that he truly was home. His rough palm pressed against the closest wall as if he needed to steady himself. Was he free at last? The shadow of a smile crept upon his thin lips. It was real. He slowly shook off the water which was streaming from his cloak and tapped his boots on the doormat. Despite the hangers destined for servants' coats next to the door, he moved forward without removing his still dripping leather cloak.

    At the end of the hallway, the kitchen door was ajar. A warm welcoming light was filtering through the opening, so inviting. He felt like a moth in front of a flame, unable to turn away from the pull. His entire being felt that he needed to move forward. He could almost hear a voice deep inside him whispering 'come'. With each step, his pulse quickened and his breath sharpened. When at last he reached the handle, his hand was almost shaking and his body so tensed that he could barely breathe. When he pushed the old creaking door, it moved without any resistance and in an unsettling silence.

    Welcoming him home wasn't the delightful scent of warm bread, the burning light of the flames or the cracking snaps of the vivid fire, it was Eileonor's back wrapped in this o so familiar plaid. Her small frame looked away from him, blond curls teasingly playing with the tender skin of her nape. Face buried in her hands, he could have sworn he saw her shoulders shake. Was she crying? At the realization, his hand moved instantaneously up towards her before falling back silently to his side, fist clenched. Frozen in the darkness of the hallway, he didn't dare make a step forward. His greatest critic was the one who had been chosen to welcome him home. How ironic. The gods were indeed mischievous.

    He draped his face in nonchalance and annoyance. His sky blue eyes took the ice of a cold blade and his square jaws lifted up.
    "Are you alright?" the voice was deep and dark, the worry hidden behind disdain.
    He moved inside as the hallway door all but slammed behind him. He didn't stop at Eileonor, going straight for the fire to extend his cold hands to it. He looked nothing more than a six foot plus shadow with massive shoulders, all clothed in black except for a baggy white shirt which was currently hidden under his long leather cloak whose hems were as muddy as the man's boots. He looked more like a gypsy than a gentleman.
    He stayed immobile a moment, back to her, except for his hands which were searching for warmth, or maybe it was courage the man was looking for. His throat was so tight that it hurt even just to swallow. After what seemed like an eternity, he turned slowly to face the young woman. He removed his hat, revealing long dark wavy locks and a matching short bear. The shade was deeper than Mary's, but the hue made no mystery as to who the man in front of the shaken woman was. His intense gaze settled upon the burning amber of Ellie's.
    "Eileonor." The stranger greeted her with detachment.



    Ellie jumped, starting upright in an instant at the sound of the deep voice rumbling behind her. She'd been caught unaware, something that didn't happen often, and in a most unflattering position. She quickly swiped at the few tears that had spilled from her eyes, dashing them off her cheeks so the evidence of her broken heart and burning shame wouldn't be quite so apparent. "Aye," she said quickly and without thought. She turned to address the stranger who'd waltzed in on her but drew up short. She couldn't see his face, only a vague outline of a profile, hidden by the high collar of an unusual leather coat and hat pulled low over his ears. Her golden eyes took in the little puddles of water that followed his steps through the kitchen, a larger puddle beginning to form beneath him as he stood in front of the fire. He was rumpled and wet and muddy and had the distinct straggly look of a gypsy or vagabond. Immediately she began to grow nervous. It had been the gypsies that had taken her darling William's life... was it cruel irony that another had somehow managed to sneak into the manor on the day of Mary's death. But something about the line of his shoulders and the arch of his neck was too proud and aristocratic to belong to the travelers.

    Perhaps, if she'd been of the more superstitious lot, she would have said that he was a creature born of the storm. He certainly had that look about him, dripping and bedraggled as he was. But that would be giving into a belief in magic that she did not possess. That was the voices of the superstitious old women, of her own mother, speaking inside her head. Instead, she contemplated his back. Her nerves screamed at her to move. They told her that, whoever this muddy, wet stranger was, she should not be alone in this room with him, especially where no one would her hear scream. Slowly she began to inch backwards towards the door, intent on fleeing and informing Lord McLean of the intruder in his home. She prayed that her low-heeled boots would be silent and mask her escape.

    But then he turned to face her and Ellie froze in her steps. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, he removed his hat. The man's dark auburn hair burned red as the fires of hell in the glow of the flames. But even without that, she would have known exactly who this was. It was the eyes that gave him away. They were the same clear aquamarine as her beloved William's but devoid of all the warmth and love he'd had in his eyes. Thomas, her mind told her, though she couldn't get her mouth to form the name aloud. Her surprise and shock was too great. Ten years he'd been gone without so much as a goodbye! And now here he was, the day they put his mother in the grave. The heartless devil! The open-mouthed shock quickly morphed into a simmering, bubbling fury, evident in the sudden pinkness of her pale, freckled cheeks and the bright light in her glittering golden eyes. "What. The bloody hell. Are. You. Doing. Here?" She hissed. It was not a ladylike way for her to speak, nor a very Christian way of speaking. But right now the only thing she could focus on was her anger over Thomas' sudden arrival.



    Time seemed to be suspended. Past meeting present. The only light in the room was the hearth whose vivid flames were casting ghostly shadows on the walls. Silence shattered only by nature as thunder rumbled once again, echoing against the stones and shaking the man's very core. It had been ten years. So much had happened, yet it seemed that nothing had changed. His heart ached.
    He took it all in as her grief stricken tears rolling down the porcelain of her soft cheeks and petrified stupor slowly gave way to a dark fury which set ablaze the fire of her eyes. He met her anger head on, his steady gaze never leaving hers. Ice clashed against fire.

    At her question, his fingers clasped on the brim of his hat. His entire body was a bow so strung up that it could snap at anytime. He didn't answer at first, as if he hadn't heard her. But the truth was that he needed time to regain his composure and steady his voice. His role was set for him, always had been and he would play the part.
    Slowly the corner of his lips curled in that usual scornful smirk which he often wore when he was in presence of Eileonore.
    "As proper as ever Miss Eileonor." he mocked. "Such foul language for a Lady, but again were you ever one?" he let his answer trail, the unfair barb catching at his soul. He dismissed the pain with a flick of the wrist, sending droplets of his drenched hat into the fire. For a short instant it sizzled and the flames faded, but the strong embers revived it quickly.

    The tall man moved towards the table which laid between them and dropped his hat on top. His presence was filling up the room, making it appear stuffier and smaller. He removed his cloak and draped it folded on top of his hat. Mud and rain dripped down the tails to the floor but he didn't seem to care. With his white blousey shirt, loose black pants and dirty boots, he surely didn't look like a Victorian gentleman, but strangely enough he didn't look like a gypsy either. His clothe were dirty but neither damaged, nor indigent, the cut however looked just off, as if coming from another time, another place.

    "Not that I owe you an answer, but I am here to see my Father." he stated at last. He moved again, walking around the table towards her. The young woman was standing between him and the door. He stopped barely a foot away from her. He looked down at her. William's bride hadn't changed with her delicate features and sunshine hair.
    "Are you going to stop me?" he asked, his voice lower and almost husky.



    Seeing Thomas standing there in the kitchen was like looking upon a ghost... only, it was not the ghost she would have wished to seen. She would have prayed for anyone but arrogant, cruel Thomas McLean. But neither the old gods nor her Christian god seemed to hear her supplications this day. Her jaw worked and tightened at the glaring jab and it took every ounce of willpower she possessed not to snap back a furious retort or to wrestle him down to the ground in anger like she had done when they were children. She refused to let him rattle her now. She was not the childish, impulsive, short-tempered chit she'd once been and neither was she the awkward, gangly, and insecure young lady she'd been when he left. She was a woman now, rounded where it mattered. She'd lost that awkwardness that had come from long limbs she'd needed to grow into and shed the willowy softness of youth. Even though the black of her mourning dress was too harsh a color for her pale, freckled cheeks and wheat-colored hair and even though the neckline was high and modest, as befitting the occasion, it was easy to see that she'd finally grown into her body. She was tall and slender, full of gently sloping curves and angles and an aesthetically pleasing roundness to her woman's curves. Her face was slim, boasting high cheekbones and wide amber eyes, fringed with dark blonde lashes, a long, thin, aristocratic nose, and full bow-shaped lips. There was a certain pixie-like quality to her small, round chin. But the way she carried herself demonstrated that she was proud and dignified and capable of conducting herself with civility and gentility.

    Although, perhaps not all the vestiges of childhood had been wicked away over the years. It had taken only a few seconds in the auburn-haired man's presence for her to forget all her lessons in comportment and decorum and for that short temper to come flaring back to life and for her Highlands burr to come roaring back to life. The desire to hook a fist at his jaw and knock him to the floor was overwhelming. She wanted to scream at him and berate him. Where had he been all these years? Why had he not even bothered to come to his twin brother's funeral? Why had he never reached out to let his worried mother know he was alright? Why, why, why? She burned with questions, with anger and twin blooms of fury lit up her pale cheeks.

    She bristled as he stepped around the table, his body large and imposing. She was on the taller side for a woman, but the even taller Thomas made her feel delicate and fragile. There was also something different about his presence, something wild and feral and unknown that felt distinctly... inhuman was the only word she could find. She tipped her chin, meeting his icy eyes with her own snapping amber gaze, refusing to let him cow her into simpering submission. He crowded close, indecently close. At the core, he was still the same bully he'd been when he'd left. His words issued almost like a challenge and for a moment, she thought she just might. She didn't know why Thomas was suddenly home after ten years of being gone, but something reeked of being not right. She felt protective of Henry and wanted only to keep him from this strangeness. But what could she really do? There was nothing stopping him from pushing her out of the way and Thomas looked far more powerful now than he did when she'd seen him last. Gritting her teeth, she stepped nimbly aside. "Far be it from me to keep a son from his father," she told him with saccharine sweetness. But as he passed her, her voice dropped to a whispered hiss. "How dare you come to torment your father, today of all days." Her scowl was deep and her amber eyes narrowed to murderous slits.



    So close, he could see her much better. He could even breathe her scent, behind the crisp rain and the wooden fire was the subtle hint of the heather, a mixture of young grass and blooming flower. He tensed up, his square bearded jaws clenching, but his eyes stayed on her. Her pale cheeks flushed with the burn of rage and her eyes lit by anger. Yet how could he overlook the delicate curve of her high cheekbones and dainty nose. As for her lips, they'd grown full almost luscious. William had left quite a lovely prize behind. Even under the deepest fabric of her morning dress, the enticing curve of her bosom contrasted beautifully with her thin waist. She was tall, yet he dwarfed her, but she wasn't the skinny creature, she once was. Still graceful and lithe of course, but oh so feminine. He was surprised she hadn't been whisked away by another man if William was indeed dead. He blinked, frozen in a sudden realization. Maybe she was...married. Maybe she'd given his father her arm for support, but maybe her husband was walking behind. His eyes had focused so much on the pair and the absent William that he hadn't paid attention to the rest of the crowd. From where he was he couldn't see her hand and he had to close his fist not to grab her petite fingers in his rough palm.

    To his surprised, she let him pass, moving gracefully to the side in a ruffling song of petticoats. Her dulcet tone though was sign enough of her contempt and disgust towards him. He ignored it. He wasn't going to explain himself to her. They hadn't seen each other in ten years and yet, in less than two minutes, she thought she had him all figured out! She might have looked like a charming and elegant lady with manners and grace, but had she really grown up? He could see the glimmer of her free and feisty child's soul still sparking in her amber orbs.
    The man stopped mi-step when her low insult came to his ear. Their shoulders were almost touching. Was that pain on his face as he swallowed?

    "You believe it gives me pleasure to be here now?!" he snapped, his cold eyes darkening, clear ice taking the ink of the storm. "Eileonor, always so quick to judge and presume, while you know nothing!"

    He was about to storm out of the room when he heard the laugh. It sounded an awful lot like the tiny squeak of a small house mouse but he knew the truth. He immediately wheeled around, his eyes searching the darker corner of the kitchen. Before he realized it, the flat of his hand was already pressing against Eileonor's skirt, pushing her back behind him.
    Another giggle which sounded nothing more than another mouse's thrill to any human ear. He cursed in his breath and lounged forward to the nearest pantry, violently opening the door and pulling out everything that fell upon in his hand. Cutlery and pots hit the ground in a painful cacophony of metal which seemed to echo indoor the booming storm outside. The man seemed overcome with madness, not even realizing that at some point he'd grabbed one of the knives by the blade and now a small stream of blood was dripping on anything he touched.



    Ellie felt the anger rolling off him before he turned his furious countenance towards her. She flinched only slightly before she squared her shoulders; she would not let Thomas cow her with his presence. She clenched her jaw, keeping her face turned studiously away, flicking only her eyes sideways to shoot him a scathing look. She was surprised at what she saw there. It wasn't the look of arrogance or lofty superiority she had always remembered. It was something dark, raw, and it wasn't just his anger. It looked stricken, pained, as if today really and truly brought him no joy whatsoever. She couldn't quite find the word to describe that haunted look in his eyes. Maybe it was despair... helplessness.

    Regardless, she decided to hold her tongue. There was no joy or satisfaction in needling an already desperate man. Ellie expected him to brush past her then, to push his way further into the house of his childhood and seek out his father. She was alarmed then when he stiffened suddenly and a wild look came into his eyes. The suddenness of it alarmed her and she swallowed just once, subtly shifting a half step to the side. His head whipped around sharply, eyes narrowing on somewhere deep in the kitchen. She squeaked in alarm when he abruptly lunged forward. "Thomas!" She cried, stunned as he ripped open the drawers on the cupboard. In what appeared to be a fit of madness, he tore through the contents, flinging pans, crockery, cutlery, and other assorted items that were inside every which way. Ellie narrowly dodged a flying butter dish that shattered against the counter behind her, spraying her with bits of ceramic.

    "Thomas! THOMAS!" She shouted now, trying to get his attention. She didn't know what he sent him into such a state, but surely this was madness and she didn't know how to deal with it. Carefully avoiding the projectiles he hurled, she managed to find her way to his side. She wrapped her hand around his wrist, yanking and pulling and trying to get him away from the sharper implements he might get his hands on. With a queasy flicker, she realized he must have already found something. There was a slit across his palm, oozing and spraying his blood everywhere. "Thomas, please, stop!" She pleaded, her voice little more than a panicked whisper now.



    Her screams didn't calm him down at all, they only fueled what seemed to be the hallucination of a lunatic. Her strong pulls on his arm only made his violence roar. He kept at it, totally ignorant of the blood which was trickling down his fingers. He had but one goal: to locate and exterminate the origin of that noise. House mice were common, so why was the man so hell bound on finding what seemed to be a mere rodent. The pantry was now empty, drawers pulled and bare in the middle of a mayhem of kitchen instruments.

    Eileonor's whispering plea however resonated in his mind as loudly as church bells. He froze, heart pounding, breathless. His eyes shifted from the dark emptiness of the shelves in front of him to the pale almost trembling fingers which were wrapped around the cuff of his sleeve. He blinked as if awakening. His clear eyes moved to Ellie's face, they were filled with the wisdom of one who lived a full life and has seen death. Peace and serenity floating in them, for a second so similar to William's when he used to look at her.

    Another chirp jolted the man. It sounded so close, that if Eileonor hadn't heard the previous ones, she would hear that one. This time however Thomas didn't explode, he moved slowly, detaching his gaze from his brother's bride to look at the wall. He'd shifted his weight and was placing himself between where the sound was coming from and the young woman. He opened his arm and pressed his palm on her waist, pushing her behind him in a protective gesture, unaware of the deep cut which was staining her black mourning gown.

    "Go away." his voice was disturbingly cold and murderous at the same time.

    Seconds ticked by, the storm was getting more violent. Then suddenly the door from which Thomas had arrived flew opened and in a flash of lightening, a humanoid silhouette, no bigger than a hand could be seen or was it just a shadow? There was a gust of wind, a booming roar of the thunder then the room fell silent again, except for the fire.

    A sting in his hand had Thomas step aside from the woman and he looked at the gash with a sigh. "You should go back upstairs." he said without looking at her and he crouched to pick up a pot. Apparently he didn't seem eager to tend to his wound.



    Ellie saw the change come over him. She saw the sudden clarity that returned to his eyes, that mad light that had made his already light eyes impossibly blue recede. They darkened with something she couldn't quite name. Both she and Thomas were staring into the empty cupboard, the contents strewn about them, some of the more fragile pieces left in shatters. "There's nothing there, Thomas," she said quietly, not sure if she was trying to reassure him or if some part of her was still trying to be mean and to taunt him. She saw his eyes flicker towards where her pale, elegant fingers wrapped around his wrist and, slowly, she pried her fingers up. She loosed his wrist and only then noticed his blood on the palm of her hand. She looked at it, but couldn't seem to muster the appropriate amount of horror or disgust. She was surprisingly numb, a side effect she supposed from being scared witless by Thomas' abrupt violent outburst.

    A tiny little squeak could be heard and Ellie stiffened. A mouse, nothing more... was that what had set Thomas off? Why would a mouse, common and harmless enough, have sent him into such a rage? She watched his face closely, waiting for a sign of that wildness to return to his eyes, prepared to grab something to restrain him the best she could or defend herself if he turned violent. But he was eerily still; even his breath seemed barely to move his broad chest. His jaw was tight, but he seemed finally calm, frighteningly so. Slowly, he moved, pushing himself in front of her in what could almost be described as a protective stance. But that was silly! Thomas would never want to protect her from anything; he hated her about as much as she despised him. Besides, why would he need to defend her from a mouse? Ellie hissed in a breath of surprise as his warm hand landed on her, those fingers wrapping around her slender waist. This was highly improper... yet she couldn't get her mouth to form anything, not even a sound. She only prayed no one walked in on them like this.

    When he spoke, the very temperature in the room seemed to drop and Ellie felt her heartbeat begin to pick up. Her amber eyes were focused on his lean back so she couldn't see his face. But she could imagine the cold, unflinching expression that twisted those features in accompaniment of such a cool, emphatic statement. But what on earth was he talking to? A mouse wasn't likely to heed his command, nor would it do any real harm to the contents of the kitchen. Perhaps... perhaps, he was speaking to her. Perhaps that murderous tone was directed at her. The thought sent a shiver of unease down her spine. Slowly, so as not to disturb him, she leaned to the side, peering cautiously around the edge of his arm, trying to discern what or who the statement was directed at. It was at that moment that a particularly loud peal of thunder crashed above the house, sending the floorboards shaking and the back kitchen door flying open. Ellie jumped and squeaked in alarm, taking a half step back. Lightning flared outside the door, filling the room with bright light. It was enough to give her little black spots across her vision. But just before the light had shuttered, Ellie had sworn she'd seen an impossibly small figure silhouetted in the doorway. The young woman crossed herself and shook her head. This storm was a hellish curse, only serving to upset her already fragile nerves and to exacerbate her sorrow over Mary's funeral and her confusion and anger over Thomas' sudden appearance.

    More than anything, she wanted to run across the valley to her own home, to leave behind the things she had seen and heard and experienced in Lord McLean's home this day. She wanted to fling herself into her bed and sob and pray for the Lord to rid her of the frightening demonic shadows that lurked in this horrible storm. Her tears were barely controlled when Thomas finally stepped away, looking oddly defeated. "You should go back upstairs," he told her, his shoulders slumping as he bent to salvage some pieces from the mess he'd made. Ellie hesitated. Some part of her was eager to heed his command, to leave behind his obvious lunacy and madness and the tense exchange they'd shared in the kitchen. But then her eyes fell to her palm, stained rust with his blood, and then fell to the similar stain that marred the heavy black muslin of her mourning dress, a crimson stain of impropriety on her person. Her eyes flickered to his hand, still freely bleeding, and she swallowed.

    Finally, she decided to listen. She wouldn't be any help in patching him up and the taint of his outburst still shadowed the room, made the air heavy. Ellie heave an equally heavy sigh, slowly turning towards the door and brushing out into the hallway. She'd made it only a few paces before she bumped into someone. "Oh!" She cried out, just a hand reached out to steady her by her elbow. She raised her eyes only to see Henry himself, looking particularly pale and drawn. "Lord McLean!" She declared in surprise, her own face looking stricken. "What are you doing here?"



    Thomas had heard the footsteps of his father before the exclamation of the young woman and slowly rose to his feet, a frying pan in his hand. He couldn't imagine what was going through his father's mind at that instant upon discovering him in the middle of the vestige of what once was a very proper Victorian kitchen. The prodigal son had returned, yet Thomas knew that just like the blond beauty who'd snapped at him when he first set foot in this house, Lord McLean would have given anything to have William be alive instead of him. The traveler was taller than the lord himself, yet for a brief moment as both men stared at each other, it was the master of the house who was filling up the room with his powerful presence.

    Yet, instead of saying anything to his own son, Henry's clear eyes looked down at Ellie, a fatherly tenderness in them. She seemed shaken but as always, she was holding herself like a proper lady. What a perfect mistress of McLean's castle she would have made. "Are you alright dear?" he asked kindly, his brows furrowed. He took her shaking hands as she reassured him. A smile pressed his thin lips. "Good. Good. Your hands are cold. You should get something warm to drink upstairs. I know I can trust your discretion." he was referring to Thomas's return. "Please Ellie, do me the honor of entertaining my guests while I handle the situation here." The words stung deep into Thomas's heart.

    The chief clan spoke again. "Many guests are feeling uneasy, they say this storm..." he paused, his gaze shifting from the dainty lady towards his own flesh. "...this storm is unholy." he finished. He gave a soft pat on the woman's shoulder as he stepped into the kitchen, inviting her to leave the men alone.

    There was a silence.

    Once again crackling kindles and booming thunder gorged the air. It was Thomas who broke it, his tone as sharp as the blade which had dug into the soft flesh of his hand. "Father."

    There was a grimace on the older man's face, a slight quiver of his lips and moisture came to his eyes. "You're too late." his voice was threatening to break. Fatality meeting incomprehension at seeing his son now while Mary had been praying and begging for months to see her dearest Thomas at least one more time before she passed. She'd even asked the old Gods to grant her one last wish no matter the cost.

    "I know." replied Thomas, his jaw tight. He sounded almost like a little boy who was being scolded. "I know." he repeated, closing his bleeding hand in a dark fist as he tried to control the shaking which was coming over him. Frustration and humiliation, his old best enemies were taunting him. For years, it had endured belittling from his father and in a mere second, with only one sentence, lord McLean was bringing back this flood of disappointment which had been his childhood. He took a deep breath. He was back and he wasn't the boy he used to be. He was a man, a worthy man. He spoke again, his ton more poised. "I'm sorry Father. I-"

    Henry stopped him with a gesture of his hand. "I will send old Jenny to clean up your mess and make yourself presentable. I will talk to you after my guests are gone." then he left, expecting the pan that was in Thomas's hand to come flying across the kitchen. But there was nothing but silence at the end of the hallway.

    Lord Henry headed back upstairs and asked his most trusted maid to take care of the kitchen. By the front door, several guests were already taking their leaves and he joined Eileonor to big them farewell. The old man took the young lady's arm and led her back inside, but instead of returning to the buffet, he headed for the library where they'd be alone. He rang a domestic and asked for two warm ciders.

    "Have a seat my dear." the gentleman said as he took one of the big armchairs by the fire. "You must be shaken." he stated, observing her. "Did he hurt you?" he asked. This was a very odd question for a father to be asking about his own son. Truth be told, if Henry had held his ground in front of Thomas, his mind and soul were torn by the sudden reappearance of the one who was now his sole heir.

    ---

    By the time, Old Jenny made it downstairs, the kitchen was mostly put back together and Thomas had wrapped a small clothe around his palm. He was swiping up the floor with a broom. The old servant almost had a heart attack. "A ghost!" Thomas raised his eyes in her direction. "Good evening Jenny." The woman blinked and almost pounced on him to press her palms on his cheeks and torso as if to make sure he was real. "You are back Sir. You are back! Good bless you! But on such an horrible day. I feel for you my young Lord!" The plump woman grabbed the broom from his hand. "This is not a task for a Lord." she scolded him, yet her green eyes were glimmering with happiness. For the first time since he arrived, Thomas felt welcome and he had to sat on a chair.

    "Young Master?!" exclaimed Jenny. Thomas wiped a tear with the back of his hand. "Thank you." he said. "I'm fine, I'm just..." he drew a long breath. "I haven't eaten in two days." he admitted.

    "Oh, but that cannot be! Not on my watch!" replied the little woman who quickly busied herself to cut some bread and slice some cured meat which the tall man devoured quickly.

    Minutes later, she had preparation made in the old room of the Twins, which Mary had refused to change, so that Sir Thomas could bathe and change himself.



    Ellie found herself pinned uncomfortably between Lord McLean and the younger. Her eyes shifted anxiously between the pair, falling on Thomas' sorrowful, almost haunted expression on on side and Henry's look of muted, dignified surprise at his son's sudden appearance. Thankfully, Henry said nothing to Thomas in her presence; she wasn't sure that was a conversation she wanted to be around for. He turned tenderly towards her, a look of fatherly concern in his eyes, and scooped up her hands. She made sure to keep her palms closed so he wouldn't see Thomas' blood staining the inside of her hands. She offered as convincing a smile, though she could tell it was watery and tremulous and probably not entirely convincing. She nodded and mumbled a quiet "of course" to which he kindly ushered her upstairs for a warm drink and to, ah... keep the matter at hand quiet. She nodded slowly, the weight of what he was asking of her taking a moment to settle on her. The heaviness only increased at his next comment and Ellie had to suppress a violent shiver. His words echoed her thoughts of only minutes before, that this storm was straight from the depths of hell, cursed and unholy.

    Lord McLean dismissed her by kindly stepping around her and once the hallway was clear Ellie wasted no time in bolting down it. Her mind was positively swirling with everything that had just transpired. It was overwhelming to say the least. A small, throbbing headache had begun at her temple. "I think I might need something a little stronger than tea," she muttered sourly to herself. On the way back towards Henry's receiving rooms, Ellie stopped in the nearest guest room and took a moment to rinse the dried blood from her hand. No sense in frightening the superstitious, gossip mongering crowd assembled in Henry's parlor anymore than necessary, she thought. There was naught to do about the blood stain on her dress now, but at least the dark black fabric helped to hide the unsightly splotch. She dutifully did as she was bid, returning to his guests with a polite smile on her face. She made the rounds as quickly as possible, planting the idea in everyone's head that they really should get home before the storm made the roads utterly impassible. Truthfully, she just wanted all these horrible people out, especially the horrid old women who had said such nasty things about her. There was an entirely unprecedented event currently afoot and she believed that both she and Henry needed privacy to process Thomas' abrupt return. At this rate, she wouldn't even be able to return to her own home this evening and would have to fall upon the graciousness of Lord McLean once again. Unfortunately, that also meant spending the night under the same roof as Thomas and she wasn't sure she was looking forward to that...

    She was thankful for Henry's reappearance at her side, firmly but politely ushering his guests out the door and to their waiting carriages. Once the final coach had cleared the long drive that led away from McLean's manor, the door was shut, blocking out the thrashing storm. With a gentle hand around her arm, Henry led Ellie bak through the house, leading them towards the library. Between the late hour and the black clouds darkening the sky, the library was positively dim and gloomy. Even the fire in the hearth only offered a small circle of light that couldn't seem to permeate the thick darkness in the room. Her gaze was drawn longingly towards the comforting flare of the fire, its crackling heat. Only Henry's question jerked her from her thoughts. She looked positively stunned at his questioning and immediately chagrined. "Of course not, my Lord," she assured him. He had frightened her surely, even brought out her temper. But he hadn't hurt her, much as he might have wanted to. Sheepishly, her hands twisting nervously in her lap, she looked up at him. "Are... are you all right?" She asked tentatively.



    Lord Henry sighed at the young woman's question. He didn't answer. "I always knew he would come back." he stated. "Or rather, Mary did." there was a pause. The name of his beloved wife held so much sadness. "Her conviction rubbed off on me." he tried to say more lightheartedly. "She prayed so much for his return." He looked up at the cross above the mantlepiece. "Even to the old Gods." he added with a shake of his head. He never believed in those old tales and Mary had always been very pious, but towards the end, as her health was failing, she had turned back to the ancient ways. With the day's dreary storm and Thomas's return, he had to admit that he felt slightly shaken in his convictions. The older man looked at Eileonor, from the corner of his eyes, he could have sworn she just signed herself, or maybe she just took her glass of hot cider in which a shot of alcohol had been added to warm the body and soul.

    "In any case, Mary's last wish was that should Thomas return, he would be welcomed as if he never left. I..." he took a long sip of his own beverage. "I cannot deny her that last request." The man's blue gaze turned grayer as he looked at the young woman. "May I ask of you that you respect her wish as well?" he knew that Ellie loved William as much as she despised Thomas. He had a small smile. "You do not have to appreciate him." he added. It was going to be hard for him as well. William had always been following his orders and teachings. Thomas was wilder, doing as he pleased because he wasn't the heir of the estate. William was calm and composed while Thomas was loud and ill-tempered. William was tender and attentive towards his betrothed while Thomas did everything he could to pick up a fight with her. The one surprising thing though was that the two boys got along very well. They were often seen together walking across the highlands.

    The Master of the house remembered sending the two boys to supervise the hay stacking at the end of the season. When they came back, Thomas looked like a peasant, covered in hay and dirt, sweaty and dirty. The boy never seemed to know his place. He had punished him for his misconduct and Thomas had still had the audacity of glaring at him afterwards. He was definitely untameable and Henry never understood why his wife was so attached to Thomas.

    "I still want answers." added the old man. William's body had been found off a cliff not too far from a gypsy encampment, who was gone by the time Lord McLean and an officer of the law arrived. William's body showed sign of a fight and it was ruled that the gypsies were probably the culprits. It was assumed that Thomas had been kidnapped by the same gypsies. Henri and several men had tracked the gypsies, but the travelers had taken the boat across the channel to France. A telegraph announcing that Mary's health had taken a turn for the worst had stopped the Lord's research and he had come back to be with his wife. He employed a private detective who didn't find any evidence, nor trace of Thomas. But Mary never stopped believing that her son would come back.

    ---

    Upstairs, Thomas was composing himself upon entering his old bedroom. He stared at William's empty bed then sat on his. Up until hours ago, he was certain his brother was still alive. For the last fifty years, he had been hanging to that single certitude: William was alive and happy. And now he was coming back to an empty nest. He swallowed, trying to settle his thoughts. It was not entirely true. When he stepped out of the circle, back into this reality, something in him had broken, a premonition, as if a bound had been severed. But for the long two days that lasted his journey home, he had refused to listen to this voice screaming in his head that he had lost his Twin.

    "William." he whispered.

    Old Jenny brought him some clothes from one of the servants who was as tall as the young Lord.

    "I'm sorry young Master. But your father's clothes would be too short. Please don't take offence." She apologized for the simplicity outfit but he thanked her warmly. "This is perfect Jenny."

    Bathed, he buttoned the beige shirt and brown wool pants. He knew very well that Lord McLean would not approve of this outfit so beneath his condition. He remembered taking a beating more than once because he didn't look like a Lord should. He combed his deep red hair and tied it in a low ponytail. As he passed in front of a mirror, he looked at himself. For a brief instant, the young face of William stricken by pain, a trail of blood pearling at the corner of his lips stared back at him. "Brother..." a whisper barely audible.

    Thomas jolted back. When he looked back, he saw nothing but his own reflection. Ageless face with a small beard. With a sigh, he headed downstairs. He knocked at the library door then stepped in without waiting for an answer.

    "Good evening." he said, raising an eyebrow when he saw that his father wasn't alone.



    Ellie couldn't help but blanche at the invocation of the old gods, the spirits and fairies that supposedly roamed these lands. This storm had brought out the superstitious in everyone tonight it seemed. She quickly lifted the cup of mulled cider to her lips to disguise the small grimace that turned her features. There should be no more talk of unholy things this night, not on Mary's resting day. Her assent into Christian heaven should be upheld by a confirmation of the Christian god, not the pagan spirits the old folk still left offerings for. She dared not say any of that to Henry, though, not when he was already so overwhelmed by his beloved wife's funeral and his wayward son's sudden return. She composed her face into something she hoped resembled solemn tranquility.

    She sipped calmly at the brandied cider up until he made his request at which point she had to try very hard to not sputter and choke on the hot liquid. She hardly thought it was a secret how much Thomas irked her, how he had aggravated her and harassed her practically her entire life (though, admittedly, she'd done plenty of harassing of him in her younger years). Ellie had always been aware that marrying William and marrying into his family meant also marrying into Thomas' family. But she'd loved him enough that it hadn't bothered her, not in the slightest. A part of her was tempted to tell him that she simply couldn't do it, couldn't bear to forgive and forget the man who had hurt her, his brother, his mother, his father, and everyone else in his life. But perhaps there was a bigger reason that Thomas had returned to them today of all days.

    Perhaps Mary's death was a reminder of how short life was, a reminder of grace and mercy that should be extended, and a prominent sign that all of Thomas' sins should be forgiven, as befitting a Christian. Besides, Henry had already done so much for her after her parents' passing what with helping her to run her estate and caring for her as his ward. Could she really deny the man who had been like a second father to her (and Mary, God rest her soul, as well) this one request? Ellie sighed heavily, gently setting aside her cup and saucer. "Of course, my lord," she agreed. She would try her best, at the very least. Besides, as he said, she didn't have to abide him... she merely had to pretend he hadn't been gone nearly ten years and destroyed countless lives in the process.

    Speak of the devil, Thomas chose that moment to enter into the library. She saw his lifted eyebrow and the expression that came over his face when he saw her. So she gave him a hard look of her own, scrutinizing his appearance. Now that he'd at the very least bathed, he looked somewhat more presentable, less dirty and storm tossed. His dark auburn hair was a bit too long to be fashionable and both that and the beard on his face could do with some trimming. A lot had changed in ten years and Thomas looked horribly out of time just then, especially in the old, roughspun clothes he currently wore. Primly, Ellie rose to her feet. "I thank you for your hospitality, Lord McLean, but I think I should take my leave now. I should get a carriage ready before the storm gets too much worse as I already fear the roads are nearly impassable at this late hour. Besides, I wish not to intrude on your talk with your kin."

    The last part was only partially true. Ellie, like Henry, was dying for answers. She wanted to hear Thomas' recounting of that fateful night, of where he'd been hiding for the past ten years, why he'd decided to return now of all times. But she knew it would be impolite to impress her company on them any longer than was necessary. And, besides, if she didn't want to have to fall on Henry's generosity for a room tonight (what with this wicked storm) and be forced to sleep under the same roof as Thomas, she would need to start making preparations for a carriage to carry her to her own estates.



    Henry's eyes narrowed at the sight of his son dressed in such a peasant attire. "Couldn't you find something more suitable? You look like a peasant!" he growled. Thomas met his father's disapproving gaze with a blank stare. The memory of the beating he once received years ago for coming back from 'supervising' the haystacks all dirty sill raw in his mind. His father was beside himself that he didn't look like a gentleman of high rank and had refused to listen to his explanation. He just assumed that his son went rolling in the hay with some peasant girl or drinks with the peasant boys. He couldn't have been further from the truth, if only Henry had listen to both his sons, many hard feelings would have been avoided.

    "Would you rather have me wear one of your suits?" Thomas suggested in a calm and cold voice. He would surely have looked more like a gentleman, except that two inches would have been missing in the legs and arms, and he would have looked plain ridiculous.

    Lord McLean didn't rise to the provocation, distracted by Ellie's sweet voice.

    The old Lord turned to look at the pretty young woman and shook vigorously his head. "Nonsense my dear! I am not letting you out in this god forsaken storm. Tonight will be sleep safe and sound here. I would not have it any other way." His voice was his old authoritarian self as if Thomas's return had brought the man back some of his dignity and strength as the ruler of the house.

    He softened his tone. "Please Ellie, it would appease me if you stayed with us tonight. Your room is always ready and some of your gowns are still here from the days you spent by my beloved Mary's side." he had to collect himself at the mention of his wife. "You are as much my kin as he is." added the man with an encouraging smile.

    The younger Lord watched both his father and brother's bride. He didn't react when Henry put Eileonor at the same level as he was in the family tree. He didn't look more or less offended that she would be taking his place. However, he didn't move from where he was, which was between Ellie and the door. Something in his demeanor was clearly indicating her that he would not allow her to leave either. Was it out of filial duty or did he have other motivations?

    Only when the young lady took her seat back did Thomas move into the room, standing by the fire.

    "I am sure you have questions." he stated looking at his father, then at Ellie, holding her gaze a little longer than the etiquette would have allowed.

    "Where were you all those years?! What happened?! We found your brother's body and no trace of you! Was it those gypsies?!" Lord Heny had to force himself to stop. He had waited ten years for those answers and his hand shook slightly on his glass of cider.

    Something strange happened. Thomas grabbed onto the mantle piece above the hearth as if he was steadying himself and he turned his back to both of them. He didn't say anything for a long moment and from where she was Ellie could see his right hand so tensed on the wooden border that his knuckles were white.

    "So....he's dead? William is dead?" the voice seemed outlandish, removed.

    In his back, Henry didn't understand his son's attitude and he exploded jumping to his feet. "Of course he's dead! He's been dead for ten years!"

    Thomas turned, towering over his father, his father filled with anger and sorrow. "That's not possible!" his tone was distraught, as a child who was refusing something obvious.

    "What non-sense are you talking?!" barked Henry, forgetting that Eileonor was there, watching them. "I was the one who found his lifeless body by the cliff!" He took his son's upper arms and shook him. "What happened?! Why did William die?! Why did you disappear?!"

    Thomas immediately shrugged off his father's touch but he couldn't back away. His jaws were clenched and his icy gaze fell passed his father's shoulder into the burning embers of Ellie's eyes.

    "Calm down Father we have company." he parroted what his father had berated him with for so many years when he had an outburst of temper when they weren't alone.

    Henry felt the sting and backed away, sitting back in his seat. "Forgive me my dear." he sighed to Ellie, taking a long sip of his drink to silence himself.

    Thomas's cool blue eyes hadn't left Ellie's. "I thought he was alive." he told her with a sincerity which was disconcerting as if it mattered that she would believe him.

    He paused, then looked away.

    "What do you want to know?" he asked the beautiful bride, letting her lead the interrogation rather than his father. William was hers and she was his. She was the only one he felt an obligation to give answers to.



    Ellie opened her mouth once more to politely decline Lord McLean's invitation. But another crash of thunder shook and rattled the windows and even the fire in the hearth guttered momentarily in response to the abysmal weather plaguing the manor. She bit her lip, considering. No, it wouldn't be prudent or safe for her to venture out into this wretched storm. But neither did she seem enthused about spending a night under the same roof as Thomas. Her gaze slid opposite Henry to where the younger McLean stood, his tall frame taking up most of the doorway. He stood rigidly, his hands behind his back. A bit of that old imperiousness had seemed to returned to him; his jaw looked proud and as he looked down his nose at her, she thought she could sense some of that old condescension and disdain he clearly had for her rolling off him. It was clear he wouldn't allow her to pass through that door, even if that meant throwing her over his shoulder in a most ungentlemanly way and locking her in her room. Finally, Eileonor sighed, defeatedly sitting back against the cushion and taking up her cup of brandied cider. "Thank you for your hospitality and generosity, Lord McLean," she murmured quietly, lifting the cup to her lips so she wouldn't grimace and dropping her eyes studiously towards the elegant carpet so neither of the McLean lords would see the turmoil in her eyes.

    Thomas moved further into the room then, drawing Ellie's gaze toward him. He came to stand before the fire, his face and auburn hair only partially lit in the golden glow of the fire. His eyes considered his father and then her and, though she couldn't see his eyes too clearly in the dark library, she could feel his gaze lingering on her far longer than was proper. She felt a blush crawling up her neck and across her cheeks and she quickly ducked her head, smothering her expression in her cup of cider. Henry launched immediately into questions, his tone both heartbreakingly broken and stubbornly authoritative. Her golden eyes lifted, catching just a glimpse of Thomas' stricken face before her turned towards the fire, gripping the mantle tightly in his hands. She cocked her brow, watching his knuckles tighten on the old stone until they gleamed white. Even his shoulders looked perplexed and devastated. "So... he's dead? William is dead?" He asked quietly, the voice seeming uncharacteristically detached.

    That only seemed to draw the elder McLean's ire. The older man jumped to his feet, his face an ugly red as he began to rail and fume against his son. Ellie couldn't seem to get over the strange reaction. It was almost as if... as if Thomas truly hadn't known that his brother was dead. He'd seemed just as surprised and overwhelmed by the news as the rest of them had been upon discovering his body, even if Thomas' voice didn't convey those feelings exactly. Something was so wrong about this situation... she just couldn't put her thumb on just what. Henry berated and shouted at his son and the vehemence in his tone absolutely appalled her. Ellie looked stricken and a hand flew up to cover her nose and mouth to disguise the worst of her shock and for a moment she looked truly frightened as father and son stared each other down. She met Thomas' cool gaze for half a beat before he turned back to his father, reminding him that there was a woman present.

    Henry seemed thoroughly chastised and looked over his shoulder at Ellie who had begun to tremble. His expression look chagrined and with sagging shoulders, he returned to his spot on the couch, murmuring an apology to her. She nodded graciously, lowering her hand so she didn't look any more frightened than she was. Her eyes never left Thomas though, not even for an instant. When he informed her that he hadn't been aware of his death, she let out a sob, a deep sob that caught in her chest. All the pain and agony she'd felt over his loss seemed to come rushing back. She didn't care if she looked like a pathetic, lovesick sop to him in that moment; she was breaking all over, reliving the pain of William's sudden and brutal death.

    It took her a few minutes to compose herself again, to dash away the tears that had fallen down her pink cheeks.She couldn't speak for several long moments. Her throat felt too raw and her eyes still stung with tears. Plus... where did she even begin? She had so many questions, so many answers she needed about that night and she knew she might never receive all of them. Finally, she managed to get her croaking voice to work with her long enough to get one question out. It wasn't perhaps the most pressing question, but something about it burned at her consciousness. "Why.... why did you come back now?"



    If Lord Henry seemed uneasy by Ellie's sobbing tears, Thomas didn't shy away from the beautiful face bathed in sorrow. He looked at her, taking in her pain as his own, even though his face didn't shift. Each sob, each whine was boring a hole deeper and deeper in his soul. His jaws clenched and so did his fists upon seeing the woman's despair at the loss of her fiance. William had been gone for ten years and yet, she mourned him still. The raging storm outside was echoing his mind but years of practice at buckling his own emotions left no trace of his own torments on his features. Yet, if only... He could... He would... he pushed away the thoughts. They were ludicrous.

    Digging in his pocket, he pulled one of his handkerchief which old Jenny had made a point of giving him. "A gentleman always carries a hankie!" she had told him even though he was wearing a domestic's clothes.

    He dropped it on Eileonor's laps almost hastily before retreating to the hearth. He waited for her to calm down and speak.

    Why?

    The tall man was surprised by her first question, yet he answered without hesitation or deception.

    "I was only freed two days ago." he said, looking calmly into her reddened amber gaze. Two days ago. The exact day of his mother's passing. Ten years exactly after his disappearance and the death of his Twin. It couldn't be a coincidence. Yet he wouldn't get answers yet, he had to wait for the next 'circle' to appear.

    He could tell that both Ellie and his father were expecting more.

    "You're right Father. I was kidnapped by the gypsies. But they didn't keep me. They sold me." he continued. "On the continent. Somewhere East." he stayed vague on purpose. "I worked in the fields." This part at least was close enough to the reality. He showed his hands, rough and brown like those of a peasant. "I tried to escape." This too was the truth. "They always caught me back." And I paid a heavy price each time. he thought, remembering the marks on his back, mixture of scars and tattoos.

    "Anyway, by a turn of event, we got a new owner who took a shine to me and granted me my freedom after five years of hard work. I immediately tried to get back home." he paused, once again settling his intense blue eyes into Ellie's. "But as you said...I was late." a sad smile passed upon his thin dried lips.

    "So why? Because this is my home. Why now? Fate." he concluded, almost spitting out the last word. He'd been trapped alright for ten years, but he knew that he couldn't share the truth with those two proper people. They would never believe him.

    He waited. He knew that more questions would come.



    Ellie twisted the handkerchief in her hands, alternately balling it up and smoothing it out. She had too many thoughts, too much pain settled in her breast, too much of everything coursing through her body and she needed to let it out somehow. When she was younger, she would have taken to the hills surrounding her home, running through the wild heather and moss and the towering trees until she was exhausted and spent and her hem was knee deep in mud. She was a young woman now, though, and couldn't just run off now every time she was distressed. She had to bear her grief and agony with stoicism. Squeezing and wringing the flimsy bit of cloth at least gave her mind something to focus on besides the strange events of the night.

    A look of concern passed over her features as Thomas recounted his tale, reliving his days in captivity. She listened with a hand over her mouth to disguise the shocked little 'o'. She couldn't even imagine being taken from your homeland and sold into servitude. And for ten long years! Something about his story niggled at her brain, but she couldn't figure out what. Something was off. Perhaps it was the way he was gritting his teeth as he told his story, as if he were fighting back certain words. Perhaps it was the haunted look that entered his eyes, a look that spoke to more than just discomfort and pain, but abject terror and fear. Something of his story rang as false, a half-truth, but she couldn't put her finger on what.

    Still, she didn't doubt the sincerity of Thomas' own sad expression. She saw the hurt, the guilt, the anger, the sorrow over losing first his brother and now his mother. He too was losing everything, just as Ellie had and, having been through that grief herself, she would never wish it on anyone... even Thomas. He had come home and found everything much changed from when he'd left. She could understand his confusion, his anger over that. He went silent and looked at her, his cutting blue eyes bearing down on her amber gaze. He was waiting for her to ask more questions. But she couldn't. She felt empty and numb. It was if her mind had shut down, too overwhelmed with the events of the evening.

    Clearing her throat, Ellie set aside her cup and saucer and stook shakily to her feet. "My lord, I thank you again for your generosity. I'm afraid I'm beginning to feel rather... ill." She pressed her fingers to her temple, as if to indicate a headache. "It's late and I think I should retire." Henry, ever watchful and considerate of his ward, agreed, murmuring his assent. Ellie offered a wobbly smile, dipping her head in respect to both the elder McLean and finally towards Thomas. She extended his handkerchief towards him and it was several long minutes before he finally took it, careful to keep his fingers from brushing her own. She swallowed thickly and gave a brief curtsy as she left the room.

    Of course, her next question would have been a selfish one. She'd heard Thomas' account of that night, of what had happened to his brother and to himself, and why he'd been conspicuously absent these past ten years. But now he was back and Ellie had to selfishly wonder what that meant for her. After William had died and Thomas' disappearance, coupled with her own parents' tragic deaths, Henry and Mary had had no one to look after and so they'd taken Ellie under their wing. They had extended her every kindness and grace as if she were truly their daughter. But now, their prodigal son was returned and Ellie... what would happen to her? She heaved a sigh, feeling suddenly very weary.

    A maid met her in her borrowed room and help her undress. The girl exclaimed loudly when she spotted the dark stain of blood on the black fabric. "What happened, miss?" She'd questioned and Ellie had looked up wearily at the mourning garment. She shivered as she remembered Thomas putting his bleeding hand against her hip, standing between her and the spectral assailant he'd been looking for. "There... was an accident in the kitchen," was all she offered and though the serving girl didn't look quite convinced, she said nothing more and returned to braiding Ellie's long golden hair and pulling back the blankets for her to slip under.

    The storm still raged, flashing and thundering just outside her window as she fell into a fitful sleep.



    || Post is missing ||



    The highland mists disguised truths, often until it was too late. They were often thought to have a mind of their own. Many a traveler had been led astray or to their death by the visions and whispers they heard in the coiling fog. It clung to one's skin like clammy fingers, all while it whispered hopeless, fruitless promises in one's ear. In many ways, the highlands was still wild country, held in the thrall of the old gods and creatures that haunted it, specters at the corner of one's vision. No matter hoe Christian they had become, the untamed land was still shadowed by the Others' breaths.

    The shadow Thomas saw on the bridge looked skeletal and wraithlike in the creeping mist. Thomas was right then to be concerned. His clear call, oddly enough, seemed to startle the fog for a brief moment. There was a rush, as if it were jumping with surprise, offering up a brief glimpse of the shrouded figure on the bridge. Through the gaps in the mist, the shadow coalesced into a sturdy, human figure.

    Eileonor.

    She stood at the very center of the bridge, leaning her arms against its edge. She looked damp and bedraggled, wreathed in mist, her braid hanging limply down her back. She was dressed only in her flimsy nightgown and a thin wrap over her chemise, her feet in muddy slippers and her plaid wrapped around her shoulders for warmth. The early morning, misty light gave her pale skin an oddly translucent quality and the edge of her nightgown stirred around her ankles as if teased by phantom fingers, making her look a bit like a spectral being of the mist.

    The face she turned in his direction though was fully human, cheeks faintly flushed with the pink of vitality. Ellie heard the call, but the deceptive mist turned it into a susurrus whisper that seemed to come from every direction at once. She stood a little straighter as it tickled her ears, swinging her head to try to discern from which direction the greeting had come. She didn't see Thomas until he was practically on her, his solid figure suddenly appearing from the mist beside her. It kept him shrouded until the very last possible moment, as if playing a cruel joke on her.

    Ellie gasped and let out a cry of alarm, her heart beating fast in surprise. "Thomas!" She gasped, bringing a hand to her cover her racing heart. "I didn't see you." Once the shock had passed, she realized that she was hardly dressed appropriately to be around a gentleman and she had the good sense to look embarrassed as she wrapped herself a little deeper in her plaid. "I... I trust you slept well," she said, entirely unsure of what to say to the newly returned Thomas after all this time.

    It wasn't unusual to see Eileonor about this early. She found this time of day quite soothing. There was a certain stillness to this strange hour, the time just before the sun broke across the horizon, before even the beasts and the servants of the house had roused. Her own staff knew she was prone to early morning walks across the glens surrounding her home, a pale beacon among the emerald grass and trees tall as sentinels around her. The instinct didn't leave her even when she stayed at Lord McLean's holdings, though his lands were far better tended and much better landscape. Her mother, ardent in her belief in the old gods, had insisted on leaving the lands surrounding the MacFaolin estates as wild and untamed as possible in an effort to appease her invisible, mystical nature deities.

    "Can I... can I help you?" She asked after a moment of uncomfortable silence.



    His shoulders, instead of relaxing at the sight of the frail beauty, stiffened even further. He had been so ready for a fight, that he had trouble settling down his troubled mind. In a way, he wished it had been quite another kind of creature who was roaming the estate at this early hour of the day. He stared down at her, towering over her shorter frame, so close that the slight breeze which was slowly dissipating the mist, also brought the delicate scent of the woman to his nostrils, so real, so human.

    She looked like she was afraid of him. In the past, he had laughed it off when he had startled her, sounded very pleased with himself, but today, this seemed to anger him more than satisfy him. Fine droplets were caught in his beard and some of his long curls, with his servant clothe on, he sure didn't look like a gentleman but he didn't care. After all, despite his birth and education, his ways weren't those of a gentleman anymore...or maybe they had never been.

    Thomas did not hide his gaze as it trailed down the graceful curve of her neck and shoulder when she readjusted her plaid. She might have been embarrassed but he wasn't. He'd seen plenty of naked women during his time away, so the birth of a shoulder was nothing to be ashamed of. He dismissed her small talk and at last, pealed off his clear gaze from her, to look around them. The pond was now emerging from the fog, glimmering under the soft warming sun. Birds now started chirping, as if the words uttered by Eileonor had broken the silent curse cast by the mist. As nature awoke and a carp flickered the water surface under them, the man's features relaxed some. He stayed, immobile like a rock, right next to the young woman but this was as if she didn't exist anymore.

    He was home.

    She spoke again and his head turned slowly, his blue eyes slightly surprised. "No." he replied simply.

    Then he raised an eyebrow.

    "What are you doing here?"

    He remembered as a child that one day he had found William and Eileonor on that very same bridge. Jealousy had torn at his heart, venom spreading in his veins. This was his favorite place! It was sacred to him and his brother. He didn't want to share it, especially with her!

    So later that day, he had told the young girl of the ghost who inhabited this pond. The spirit of a maid who had been abandoned by her lover when she told him that she was with child. Driven mad by despair, she then had thrown herself from the bridge and drown. Since then, she haunted the place, mourning her lost love and trying to drown lost souls to appease her loneliness. Thomas wanted to scare his brother's betrothed so that she would never ever come back to the bridge and his ploy actually worked. After he told her his little tale, she refused to come near the bridge and that made him happy. He could enjoy this sanctum, alone or with his twin. William wasn't very pleased with his brother's lie, yet he didn't try to convince Eileonor that Thomas's story was fake.

    "I take it you are not afraid of ghosts anymore?" there was a cold sarcasm in his voice.



    Her first instinct was to offer a sharp retort. What did it look like she was doing here? She was a young woman standing alone on a bridge in the still, cold, wee hours of the morning. Ellie could brood just as well as any man, she wanted to say. But she was silent instead, remembering Henry's request that she treat him with fairness and kindness, as if he had never left all those years ago. Lord McLean was all she had left in this world, and antagonizing his son would only push the closest thing she had to a father away from her. And that she could not bear. It was probably for the best anyways, as his next question immediately killed whatever acidic words had bubbled up in her throat.

    Ellie let out a long, weary sigh and her expression was one of barely disguised anguish. She shook her head slightly. "I am haunted by far too many ghosts these days, Thomas, to be frightened by one more." It was a grim reminder of the young woman's circumstances. Her own mother and father were passed and gone, her betrothed had been violently struck down, and now she was close to losing the closest thing resembling a family that she had with the loss of Mary. She was alone in this world and the only thing keeping her from a poor house or a lonely life of spinsterhood was Lord McLean's generosity and kindness.

    Her shoulders lifted with another heavy sigh and she leaned forward to rest her elbows against the cool stone edge of the bridge once more. Her amber colored eyes followed the lazy movements of the fish in the pond, watching the ripples on the surface, the flash of shiny scales beneath the water. Bird song finally warmed the area and the first rays of sun broke up the pearly grey of dawn, burning away the clinging damp and mist. "Sometimes... sometimes I swear I can... feel his presence here," Ellie said, in way of explanation. She wouldn't look Thomas in the eye, her tired eyes staring out across the pond and the well-manicured rolling hills of Henry's estate.

    "I'm a sentimental fool, I know," she began, before Thomas could mock her for her childish yearnings or her silly womanly wishes and whims. "But it's true. I stand here, and... and I feel like he's here. Like his spirit is standing at this bridge... waiting." Here she cast him a brief sideways glance. "Perhaps he was waiting for you to return." She stood straight then, moving away from the edge of the bridge. "I know this spot was special to the both of you."

    Ellie brushed around him, making her way back towards the house. "I'll take my leave of you now. I would not want to subject you to my morose company for longer than necessary." She managed to get a few yards away before she stopped, paused. She turned halfway towards him again, the rising sun caressing the gold in her hair and eyes. "I believe he's happy, you know. Your father, I mean. Your sudden return, it was... difficult for him. He's lost so much, even you at one point. He's frightened, I think, of losing you again. But he's happy to have you back. He even asked that I treat you as if you had never left. I made no promises." Her lips twisted in a sad smile. "Welcome home, Thomas," she murmured before she turned back in the direction of the house, the hem of her nightgown growing damp and muddy with every step.



    The young adolescent he knew would have either run away crying or snapped back at him, but the young woman in front of him wasn't a child anymore and she refused the bait, refuse to enter a game which would only create a wider rift between them. The way she spoke, that true pain he heard behind every word she said, even when she pronounced his name. He shook his head slightly as if brushing off thoughts or feelings. He watched her with intensity as she moved to the edge of the bridge, leaning over, the sun playfully catching hints of her golden hair. She had looked like a ghost hidden in the morning mist, but now, she looked very alive.

    Thomas didn't move as she spoke again. His clear cold gaze was locked onto her profile as her lips moved. He wasn't frozen by her beauty, he was frozen by her words. There was no smile, no sarcasm from the man as she told him about William. He didn't call her names, nor did he laugh. He simply listened. If only she knew what she was saying, if only she believed as much as he did, but he couldn't say that. It was too soon.

    He nodded when she mentioned the bridge as a special place for them. Indeed it was. He was unable to speak. He didn't know what to expect from her or maybe he would have preferred her harsh words or even insults rather than this confession. If only she knew... His fist clenched. The need to speak bubbling in his throat.

    She swirled by him, almost immaterial, yet the smell of heather tickled his nose. She was real. His hand rose to stop her, but he halted his gesture, letting her slip away. If her company was morose, he wondered how she would call his. They were speaking of ghosts, her ghosts, but his were far more heartwrecking.

    "I know." he stated when she spoke of his father. Behind the anger and pain, he had seen a relief in his father's eyes. It was better to have a bad son, than no son at all. Although he was surprised by what Lord McLean had asked of her. And even further, despite refusing to promise, it was obvious that she was giving him a chance.

    Welcome home, Thomas.

    Those words. They drilled into his chest. They tore at his soul. His throat tightened and he couldn't answer. He just watched her frail silhouette, wrapped in plaid and white slowly heading for the house. Alone on that bridge, he suddenly felt out of place. A cold shiver ran down his spine. Then the wind brought him a whisper and he turned his gaze away from the young woman. But there was nobody. Except for yet another gust of breeze while the rest of the garden was strangely silent and still. Another whisper. It sounded like his name. He took a step where Eileonor was only moments ago, leaning over the edge to look at the water.

    His own reflection was staring back at him. Bushy red beard and unruly red curls. The face of a thirty year old man, of a vagabond. Yet his eyes were as wise and old as his father's, as if he had lived too long, seen too much.

    Brother.

    He looked more attentively at the water which suddenly undulating. When the surface settled back down, flat as a mirror, he was staring at the young face of his brother, blood trickling from his forehead and the corner of his lips. He jolted back, gasping for air.

    Brother, help me.

    But when Thomas mastered the courage to look again, the reflection was his own and the pond was lively and merry again.

    ---

    When the young miss arrived for breakfast, Lord McLean was already sitting at the table. His face looked tired and still full of sorrow, yet he had an earnest smile for the young woman.

    "Good morning my dear. How did you sleep?" he asked kindly. "Please have a seat. You must be famished."

    Then the old Lord had a sigh.

    "I can't believe he's still in bed at this hour!" he grunted to himself, obviously referring to his offspring.

    "I really don't know what I am going to do with him." he admitted to Eileonor. He looked at her intently, then asked. "I know you must be eager to return to your home, but would you stay a short week here. You've been here for so long, helping with...Mary. If you were to leave so soon, I would feel as if...I had lost you both." he told her with emotions in his voice.

    When Ellie finally returned to the manor, she was damp from head to toe and shivering violently. When Jenny, her maid, spotted the young woman returning to her quarters, she looked aghast. "Och, miss, what were ye doing about on such a wet morning? Come sit before the fire, lass, before you catch a chill." Ellie replied, moving numbly towards the chair Jenny had pulled forward to her and relinquishing her damp plaid for a warm wool blanket in front of a freshly stoked fire. Her golden eyes were glazed and distant looking as she peered at the orange flames crackling in the hearth and she seemed to be barely aware of Jenny running a comb through her long blonde locks and twisting it up in an elegant shape that would disguise it's lank wetness.

    Her mind was otherwise occupied. What she had felt on the bridge that morning had been so strong. She swore at one point she'd even felt ghostly fingers touch her arm, though in comfort or in warning, she hardly knew. It was then that Thomas had mysteriously appeared, startling her already tense nerves, and the spectral presence she'd felt had drawn away suddenly, as if it too was frightened by the untamed, wild appearance of the younger McLean's hair and clothing and the borderline manic look in his bright blue eyes. She'd been on edge ever since Mary's funeral the afternoon earlier. First it had been the unholy storm that had darkened the hills of the Highlands, then Thomas' sudden appearance and his strange behavior in the kitchen, then the agonizing confession in the library. When she'd awoken that morning, there had been the feeling of... something in the air, something like Old Magic permeating the land and the air. But that was a silly, pagan thought, not worth her attention. So she'd taken her morning stroll to distract herself from the strange thoughts entering her mind.

    Only, the sense of magic and Other only grew stronger the closer the sun came to breaking over the hills. It had all seemed to coalesce on the bridge, almost as if drawing her there. But she'd seen nothing, heard nothing. And why should she? Magic was not real. This was all some silly, sleep-deprived stupor she was in, that was all.

    An hour later, Jenny had declared her dried enough for company and helped her mistress into a simply day dress of navy muslin. It was somber enough to still respect the recently departed, but not so severe with her golden coloring as the black mourning dress had been. Jenny had grimaced at the slippers she'd worn for her walk; they were soaked through and stuff with mud and wet grass and she wasn't sure they were even worth salvaging at that point. She slipped her lady into some sedate, sensible heeled shoes, applied just a bit of powder to her cheeks to give some color to her pallid expression and instructed her mistress to bite her lip until they were flush and rosy. She had been deemed acceptable to take breakfast in the dining room at last. She was making her way for the door when Jenny cleared her throat behind her. Ellie turned, giving her lady's maid a curious look. "Pardon, miss, but... the word is that... the younger Lord McLean... is back. Is it... Is it true?"

    Ellie's look went suddenly distant. "Aye, Jenny. It is." Though something about Thomas' arrival didn't sit right with her. Something was wrong with his presence, but she couldn't quite put her finger on what. At some moments though it seemed like Thomas had not returned as whole in the head as he once was, a worrying development to be certain. With nothing more to be said, the young lady whisked out the door, her skirts swishing at her ankles.

    She offered a small smile as she saw Henry waiting for her in the dining room and she made sure to touch his arm in fond acknowledgement as she went to take her seat by his side. "I slept well enough, thank you," she replied demurely, disguising the fact that the storm had made her sleep fitful at best last night. A cup of warm broth was placed on the plates in front of them and Ellie lifted a hand to her spoon when she suddenly realized Henry's eyes intently on her and the sorrowful expression on his face. Ellie couldn't stop her throat from constricting with emotion as she took in the raw pain and sorrow on the older man's face and she gently laid a hand on his arm. "I wouldn't think of leaving you when you need me most, Lord McLean. It is the least I can do for all the generosity and kindness you have shown me. Of course I will stay." He seemed mollified and pleased by her response and both turned their attention to the thin broth they'd been served before the rest of breakfast was set down on the table before them.

    "I'm sure Thomas is on his way," Ellie told Henry between sips of her broth. "He was already up this morning. I ran into him on my return to the manor this morning after my walk. Perhaps he simply wished to reacquaint himself with the grounds and got carried away." It was as much a defense as she was willing to extend to Thomas in his absence. Of course, some small part of her worried that something had gone wrong. Thomas had already disappeared once... would it be likely to happen again? Thankfully, Thomas chose that moment to enter the dining room. It appeared as if a valet had come by his room and helped to tidy up his hair and beard, at least a little bit given the time frame, and he wore some clothes of Henry's, let out in the pants to accommodate for his height and again in the shoulders. Though he looked far more the proper gentleman, there was something hollow about his eyes, Ellie thought as she watched him approach the table.
     
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  2. Zulma

    Zulma Wild Member Member

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    Thomas looked at himself in the mirror, or rather stared at himself. Mirrors were man-made artifacts, which meant that he hadn't seen one in many, many years. He'd only been able to see his own reflection in the placid water of lakes, and even then, more than once his eyes had betrayed him...or rather, they had lied to him. He shook his head. It seemed like yesterday and a lifetime ago at the same time. Would his mind be able to handle this return to reality?
    The proper gentleman standing in front of him seemed ready to take over the world and the hearts of any young maiden crossing his path, but deep down, he was far from certain. Maybe he shouldn't have come home.
    "Your jacket Sir." the domestic behind him presented him with yet another garment from his Father's collection.
    He sighed and put it on. "Thank you. I will finish by myself."
    Alone, he let out a sigh. This masquerade was going to be more painful than he had anticipated.

    With heavy steps, he made his way downstairs to the dining room where his father and Eileonor were eating.
    "Good morning. Father. Miss MacFaolain." he greeted them both. His eyes trailed on the pale silhouette of the woman. She had changed and didn't look as ghostly as she had when they met in the morning fog. For a second he had wondered if she was one of them. She wasn't. But there was a frailty about her which didn't exist when they were younger. As if the loss of William, then Mary, took a piece of her soul. A frown passed his brows at the thought.
    He sat to the left of his father who was, as usual, at the head of the table. Ellie being at his father's right, the young people were now facing each other. In silence, Thomas took a spoon full of his broth, welcoming the warmth.
    "Eileonor has kindly accepted to stay with us for a little while." started Henry. "So please do not be late for breakfast again, it would be impolite to make our guest wait." The slight wasn't lost on Thomas but he didn't flash in anger as he would have when he was a young man.
    "Of course Father." he replied.

    The sun filtered through the windows. Today was going to be as bright and cheerful as the previous day had been dreary and gloomy.
    "Many things have changed since you...left." spoke the Lord.
    Thomas's fingers clasped tighter on his spoon, as if it was his fault, as if he willingly left those he loved.
    "Maybe you should take the opportunity of this beautiful day to walk our lands and see for yourself. Ellie, dearest, if you feel so incline, maybe you could be his guide. You have been with us so frequently, you are family." encouraged Lord McLean.
    "I am sure that Miss MacFaolain has better things to do than walk around in the mud." replied Thomas, putting down his knife which he was using to butter a toast.
    "Silence boy!" the Lord's voice fell like an anvil, silencing the room, even the happy chirping of the birds outside seemed to be muted for a dragging moment. Henri stoop up. "I have paperwork which require my attention. I will be in my study and do not want to be disturbed. I shall see you both for luncheon."
    With a polite nod towards the young woman, the Master left the room.

    Thomas closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. That belittling, that scolding. He had hoped that with his return, it would be gone. But it seemed that his father's sorrow and pain had only heightened his old disappointment in his second son. It was obvious that not only had Lord Henry never forgiven him, he even held him accountable for what happened...and maybe he was right.
    The young Lord turned towards Ellie, clear eyes passing on the soft face.
    "Let us not pretend that we like each other. I know very well how you feel about me, even...or rather, especially after all those years. However, to honor the memory of William, I will always make sure that you are never to do something which you do not wish to do. You are free to come and go as you please." he stated. His blue eyes never faltered as he spoke, holding her hazelnut gaze with strength.
    "The choice to accompany me this morning is yours, and yours only." he concluded, then he waited. He wondered how sheltered Ellie had been in their youth from his Father's outburst towards him. Lord Henry was right on one point: she was family, if the old man wasn't keep propriety and screaming at his son even in the presence of the young lady. Maybe it would have been better for the young miss if she had gone home.
     
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  3. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

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    Ellie had never had the opportunity to sit at breakfast with the McLeans. As children, they had played and roamed after the morning meal had passed, snacking on berries or nuts that they found in their adventures. The families regularly partook in luncheons and suppers with the other. But never before had Ellie been in the same room with Lord McLean and Thomas for breakfast, the first meal of the day and the one that was likely to set the tone for the remainder of the afternoon. She had no way of knowing if meals had always been this tense between father and son. She only knew that the tension in the room was palpable, an almost physical thing that she could reach out and sever with her knife if she so chose.

    Her eyes followed Thomas discreetly as he took his seat across from her, acknowledging his greeting with a curt dip of her chin. All three consumed the thin broth which was quickly replaced by more hearty mash and a platter of sliced fruits and sweet breads. Silence fell over the dining room for some time, only the delicate chiming of cutlery against plates breaking the heavy atmosphere of the room. Ellie had never seen Henry like this before. Certainly the room had been morose at times, even dour or sorrowful, after William's death and Thomas' unexplained disappearance. Mary had grieved for both of her lost sons and her moods had often had the ability to fill and suffocate a room by themselves. But she'd never before encountered this sullen, brooding, judgmental silence that stifled the room now. It made even the normally unflappable Ellie feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

    She masked it the best she could, making sure to keep her eyes studiously averted and focusing on the food in front of her instead of either the McLean men. She had just picked up the sugar spoon to add some to her bowl of oat mash when Henry's angry bellow reverberated through the mostly empty dining room. Ellie jumped in surprise and the spoon fell from her fingers, clattering noisily to her plate below, granules of sugar flying around to coat the table. She hadn't thought it possible but the atmosphere had grown even thicker with tension, and Ellie's heart began to beat rapidly in her ears, loudly enough she was sure they could hear it. She dared not meet Henry's quietly furious gaze and Thomas' own look of barely disguised fury. Several tense moments later, Henry pushed himself away from the table and excused himself from the room, the thud of the dining room door closing behind him sounding oddly final.

    There was a slight tremor in her fingers that she tried to disguised as she reached for the fallen spoon. She had just scooped another small spoonful of sugar onto her spoon when Thomas spoke. Her hand stilled and her hazel gold eyes flicked up to meet his across the table. She found herself actually... surprised at his statement. So Thomas wasn't intending on willfully and intentionally inflicting his presence on her, no matter how unwanted it might have been? He wasn't going out of his way to make her miserable? What a pleasant change from their childhood, she thought dully. Wherever he had been the past ten years, clearly he had done some maturing.

    Ellie finally poured the sugar over her cooling bowl of mash, twisting her lips as she formulated her response. She stirred her mash thoughtfully as she spoke. "You're right. I'm certainly not chomping at the bit to take you on a tour of your lands. But after the rather dreary weather yesterday and the... unfortunate affairs, I'm eager to get out today and stretch my legs. I think I shall take a walk around the grounds and, should we manage to bump into each other on the way, well, I suppose your father will be pleased, if nothing else." She lifted her glowing eyes to meet his. "Perhaps in honor of both William's and your mother's memory, we can attempt to be civil with another going forward."
     
  4. Zulma

    Zulma Wild Member Member

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    It was hard to tell if Thomas was pleased or disappointed by her answer. There was an odd blink of his eyes as if he was trying to understand her or was he attempting to control himself. There was a silence, a suspension in the air but it was less heavy than earlier between father and son. It was more of a questioning pause. An hesitation on the part of the young Lord. For such a tall colossus, he was surprisingly unsure of himself. A bull in a china shop wondering whether he needed to step forward or back away. He tugged at his collar as if the gentleman's suit was too tight and uncomfortable for him. His blue eyes betrayed a back and forth between moods which was unsettling to say the least, yet his voice remained strangely calmed and composed when he once again spoke to his brother's bride.
    "I do not make any promises."

    He knew that his reply to her peace offering would most likely not please her. But he wasn't one to lie. And if she paid attention, she would noticed that the way he held his knife wasn't very gentile. He had a sigh which sounded the huffing of an annoyed stallion. Another tug at his collar. Those clothes were too tight, too rigid.
    "I didn't just spend ten years in a golden cage." he added with a sharper tongue. This time he pulled at the tie which trapped his neck and loosened it, unbuttoning his collar. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. Even just sitting in a chair felt foreign to him. This place which had been home seemed like a dream. A dream he'd dreamed so many times only to wake up to the nightmare of his reality. A reality that Miss MacFaolain would never understand and if he uttered but a word on the matter, she and his father would certainly have him locked up.
    "My father has no idea..." it was but a whisper. His fist clenched and he remained immobile as a stone.

    He stared at the plate in front of him and once again found himself unable to eat. He had longed for the taste of home and now, the food felt like sand and dirt against his tongue. He swallowed hard, then stood up. His eyes settled on Eileonor, his lips opened but closing without a sound. He hesitated.
    "I am sorry you got caught in all this..." he finally said.
    A step away from the table then he spun and looked at Eileonor as if he was trying to read her mind. He wasn't eyeing her, rather staring at her, almost like a child looks at something unique or interesting. He grabbed the back of the chair as if to steady himself.
    "Why didn't you marry?" the question was blunt and totally inappropriate but he didn't care. "You were young, beautiful. Why stay? Why not find a husband?" he waited, no doubt on his face or in his mind that she would decline to answer. He waited with the certitude that she owed him an explanation.
     
  5. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

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    Ellie lifted her shoulders in an indifferent shrug. Truly, she couldn't fault him for his dodgy answer. She'd given a similar answer to his father only the night before, unwillingly to fully agree to civility around Thomas. It was as close to a truce as the two might ever get. She didn't let it bother her too greatly; she went back to delicately breaking her fast. She plucked berries and pieces of sweet meats off her plate, bringing the morsels daintily to her lips with the fork. She lifted her amber eyes only once to see the heart of Thomas' struggle. She nearly laughed at the dour expression on his face and the fussy tugging at his collar.

    True, Thomas had never had the easy carriage of his twin brother. Where William had been confident and smooth and had been so at ease in his own body, his brother had always been a little rough around the edges. It didn't help that Thomas was also quite a bit taller and broader through the shoulder than William and the past ten years had only seemed to make him taller and broader. He'd never had the same gentleman's carriage that William had and he had never fully looked the part of a lord's son; perhaps this was part of the reason Henry was always so cross with him. But there was something decidedly different about him now. It wasn't just he was uncomfortable in his clothes, in his chair, in his home. By the look of utter frustration and irritation glowing in his blue eyes, it was positively foreign to him.

    Ellie had to wonder at that. She imagined that, as a slave worker these past ten years, his life had been far from comfortable. The sun-dark skin and new lines around his mouth and eyes and hands were testament to that. But she couldn't imagine why coming back would suddenly seem so strange to him. Surely there had been enough civilization around him to at least remind him of his beginnings, to make him remember who and what he was. And yet, Thomas looked uncomfortable even in his own skin, as if his body wanted to reject the very air around him. "I didn't just spend ten years in a golden cage," he muttered savagely, and Ellie paused, glancing up at him through her lashes.

    "No one is suggesting you did," she murmured quietly, unable to hear his breathed follow-up. "I imagine your time after being sold was... difficult and arduous." Of course, it also reeked of suspicion. Ellie was not completely sold on his excuse. It seemed just a bit too convenient. And sometimes she swore she saw a flicker of something dark in those bright cerulean eyes of his that convinced her there was some other horrid, dark secret he was keeping. She didn't want to accuse him of anything though. Not yet, anyways. It was too soon after Mary's death and funeral, too soon after his sudden appearance. The pieces were just not all there in her head.

    She had just speared a berry with her fork when Thomas abruptly stood. Her amber eyes locked onto his conflicted gaze and her lips pursed with a question. Her lips parted slightly at his odd statement and her brow crinkled with confusion. She meant to ask him what exactly he meant, how she'd "gotten caught up in all this", when he spun around and asked her the most pointed question he'd yet dared.

    Immediately her cheeks turned pink with some combination of indignation and anger and her eyes glittered with fury. How dare he ask her such a thing?! It was highly inappropriate, not to mentioned rude and scathing and mocking and... well, the list went on. But Ellie bit her tongue fiercely in an effort to keep herself from screeching all manner of outraged vitriol at him. She popped to her feet in anger, the expression on her face dangerous. "How dare you," she seethed, her voice low and quiet and all the more menacing for it. But he seemed unperturbed by her display of heated emotion and watched her expectantly, assured that she would answer him.

    Her breath left her in a hiss. "Because, Thomas, despite what you may think, I love your family. Your brother-" Her voice hiccuped with an unexpected bout of emotion and suddenly tears, whether angry or sorrowful, threatened behind her eyes. "Your brother," she continued, her voice slightly more subdued, "was the great love of my heart. And your parents are just as dear to me as my own were. When my parents... when they passed, your family was all I had left. They saved me from a poor house, a nunnery, or anywhere else an orphaned, unmarried young woman of my age and status might be sent to. And to pursue any sort of other romantic relationship after they had opened their hearts so generously to me... well, it seemed like the ultimate betrayal."

    Here, her eyes sharped into bright amber points, the expression in her eyes fervent and impassioned. "I wanted to honor the memory of the son they had lost... of both the sons they lost that day. To invite someone else to court me would have been rude and selfish. Plus, I-" she broke off suddenly and sighed. Her shoulders slumped and seemed to hang in sorrow. "I couldn't bear the thought of giving my heart to another. I loved so fully and so completely with William. Perhaps I should have married, if for nothing else than my duty as a woman of status to be married and have children. But... but I couldn't stomach it. The very thought made me heartsick. I would have rather spent my life at a nunnery than see myself shackled to someone else strictly for duty's sake." She lifted her eyes back to his. "So, I suppose when your father someday leaves this world and you toss me out of your home, I will have my wish and spend my days as an old maid forgotten in a convent somewhere and the MacFaolain line will end with me."
     
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  6. Zulma

    Zulma Wild Member Member

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    Oh that rage and those emotions, he had believed she had tamed them behind her demure and poised manners but they were still there. That free child which loved walked and laughter. Her outburst brought a crooked smile to his lips. Maybe she hadn't changed as much as he thought. Life and circumstances had forced her to play the grieving bride and dutiful daughter but she still was William's Eileonor. He mentally shook his head, she never had to pretend when it came to the mourning of William. He knew how much she loved his brother, the perfect son and perfect husband. He had witnessed day after after day her adoring gaze at the young Lord. The one advantage to being betrothed at birth was that they could be less guarded, they were allowed some privacy that any other suitor would have never been granted.

    As far as he could tell and remember, Eileonor and William never argued. Except once... he remembered that day like it was yesterday...as vividly as he remembered the day his brother died. He didn't know why they argued, he just remembered that Ellie left for the cliffs despite the storm which was clinging to the rocks, threatening to crash the lands. A storm so similar to the one which had been shaking the estate the previous night. A search party had been made and every man in the village had gone to look after her. It was so unlike her to behave like that. William had found her soaked and feverish and brought her home. Thomas wondered if she remembered. The twins were merely 18 at the time. He had never forgotten that day, that day had changed so much both for William and himself.

    The Lord focused back on the burning embers staring at him. She gave him his answer with a fury that lingered in the air even after she seemed to give up. She gave him the truth and he couldn't tell if it hurt and comforted him.
    His fist clenched, a habit he had taken while away. It might have looked menacing, but it had always been either a gesture of defense or an attempt at steadying himself.

    "In their loss, my parents are lucky for they truly found a daughter." he stated.

    A thought came to his mind and despite himself, he had a small snort which might have been a laugh. Ellie was speaking of the duty of a woman and how she would have no place anywhere because of her sex. And while he endured pain and humiliation for a lifetime while he was away and loathed the abyss which swallowed him for so long, there, women...or rather female were just as powerful and strong as males. It was sadly ironic.
    The memories of the other place brought a bitter taste to his throat and he back away, suddenly needing air.

    "I am sure that my Father will have a word for you in his will." he added. Was that an apology? A promise that he wouldn't kick her out? Before she could question further, he had left the room.


    Hours later, '...the ultimate betrayal...' Eileonor's words were still playing in his mind again and again. His stroll in the gardens, despite the warming sun and cheerful chirps of the birds, wasn't able to calm his nerves. Images of his parents' house had been so fundamental in keeping his sanity and yet, everything now seemed to different. Time had passed. Trees had grown, trees had died, and the gardeners had changed the alleys to accommodate for the changes in sunlight and shadows. He felt as if he was a step behind with every turn, every stop.

    He finally plopped on the grass, finishing to untie his tie which was too tight and letting loose on each side of his collar, still not mastering the strength to go visit the stables or the fields.
    "Ten years?" he spoke to himself. "Only ten years? I've lived a lifetime..." he sighed, hiding his face in his hand. He looked up at the sky, staring at the perfect blue above him. "What am I going to do?" he questioned.
     
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  7. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

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    "I am sure that my Father will have a word for you in his will."

    Ellie looked sharply at Thomas as he murmured those words. But before she could ask him what he meant by that, he was exiting the room, quickly, as if there was something dark and snarling snipping at his heels... a memory he couldn't quite escape. Her spine was ramrod straight as she sat stiffly in the chair, her heart and mind a conflicting mess of emotions. She couldn't quite figure out whether to be angry at his parting statement, or silently thrilled and joyful. Had Thomas resigned himself to having her presence in his life for the foreseeable future? Or was he humbly offering her the same kindness that his father once had?

    She couldn't quite tell. Thomas was... different upon his return. But she wasn't sure how to describe that difference. It was something in his bearing, his attitude, his mannerisms. There was something simply not right about him, but she couldn't put her finger on what. And, despite her promise to his father, she wasn't quite ready to forgive all his old slights against her.

    Abruptly, she stood to her feet. Her appetite was gone now. Her steps were clipped as she hurried from the dining room and down the halls of MacLean's manor. She couldn't shake the feeling that there was some dark secret Thomas was keeping from them and that that something had everything to do with why she was so ill at ease over his sudden return. And she was going to find out exactly what.

    She was relieved to find that he had not run to his quarters to escape whatever vengeful spirit was dogging him. She meant to barge straight into the room, to pull through everything and find out what exactly Thomas was hiding. But she froze just outside the door, her expression of anger smoothing into one of deep sorrow. Jenny had put Thomas in the twins old room. It was a room Ellie hadn't gone into since well before William's death and Thomas' disappearance. She also knew that Mary had not touched anything in the room since the loss of both her sons. If anything, this room was more a mausoleum than Will's actual burial place.

    The anger seemed to leech right out of her, and her feverishly bright eyes warmed to the amber color of raw honey. She placed a hand on the heavy wooden door and felt a pulse go through her, as if his spirit were still somewhere inside the room, and a sob rose up unbidden in her chest. Ellie pushed it down and steeled herself; she could not afford to get emotional now.

    The door swung open silently at her forceful push and she peered inside to make sure Jenny or another maid was not tidying up the place after Thomas' abrupt return. The room was empty and so was the corridor in which she stood. Ellie slipped inside and closed the door carefully behind her then turned to face the room. She sucked in a harsh breath. It was precisely how she remembered it.

    Other than the draperies, which had been regularly cleaned and aired, and the rich rugs adorning the floor, which staff took out and beat yearly, the room was exactly how it had been in the twins' younger years. Two beds, the slightly too small beds of boys, had been pushed close together. She remember Will telling her about how he and Thomas had decided on that one night. They'd decided that, even though they were growing up and growing older and were not entitled to rooms of their own, they couldn't bear the thought of parting with the other. They were siblings, brothers, twins through and through. The knickknacks and baubles strewn on various shelves and surfaces were a haphazard collection of their life together, a portrait of the secret intimacy they had shared as twins, a bond Ellie would never be able to understand.

    She felt tears threatening at the sight of such an achingly familiar space, but she quickly shook her head. She wasn't here to reminisce, to pull up old pain and sorrow. She quickly and methodically went about searching the room for anything that might give her a hint as to what was going on. Unfortunately, upon first glance, it appeared that Thomas had brought very little with him when he'd arrived in the middle of the storm. Nearly everything in the room was a remnant of childhood and not the adult he now clearly was. Just when she was about to give up, she recognized the dirty, mud-splattered coat he'd arrived in, pushed deep in the back of the armoire.

    Ellie pulled it out and began rifling through the pockets. There were a handful of objects, some as plain and ordinary as a smoothly polished pebble. She could make no sense as to why they were in his pockets.

    Her search yielded nothing.

    "Damnit!" She cursed, the anger returning once again. Thwarted at every turn, she thought brusquely.

    She left his room in a huff after shoving the ugly coat back into the depths of the armoire, her temper rising by the minute. Something was afoot here, and she was bound and determined to find out.

    But first, she needed to clear her head.

    She changed into her riding habit and practically stomped her way to the stables. An attendant graciously saddled a horse for her, and Ellie had to remind herself not to be short with the staff. After all, they had done nothing to irritate her. As soon as she was astride the horse, she bolted out of the stable doors, urging the horse into a rapid, hard gallop. The hooves flashed and tore at the ground below. Similarly, the wind pulled and tore at her golden hair, her scalp prickling with the sensation. The pain was a distraction from the confusion and anger and sorrow she felt swirling in her breast.

    In finishing school, their teachers had done all they could to breed all of the Scottish out of them. They had been taught to walk, dress, talk, and behave like proper English ladies. Even now, her voice did not carry the Scottish lilt, or even a hint of the Highland brogue. Unless she was angry, of course. Then it seemed as if all that hard work was erased and she was once more the wild, impetuous child of the heather-covered hills she'd been as a child. She was the same child who was at home on the back of a horse, tearing across the rolling, verdant hills and valleys, and the craggy, rocky coast and cliffs. She reveled in the lawlessness and recklessness she felt in that moment, the cold, sharp air stinging her face and bringing her sharply back to the present, forcing her to live in just this moment. Nothing more, nothing less.

    She rode for what felt like hours, until the beast below her was sweating and frothing with exertion and her habit was streaked with mud and dirt. She finally slowed her manic, frantic pace and dismounted to allow her horse a drink by the river, some rest, and fresh grass. All too soon, Ellie realized she would have to return; she could not run away from her responsibilities and duties, no matter how much she might wish to do so with Thomas' return.

    Her return was more sedate, allowing the horse to walk at its own leisurely place back towards the manor. The stable boy said nothing about the lady's windswept and dirty appearance as she returned and she silently thanked him for doing so. The hectic gleam in her eye was gone and she finally looked under control once more... well except for her tossed, tangled hair and mud splattered hem. She was still almost breathless when she wound her way through the garden, seeking out a quiet corner to rest and calm herself before she changed and crossed the bridge toward her own home. It was in such a quiet, secluded corner that she noticed Thomas. She stopped some ways away, not wanting to alert him to the fact that she'd seen him. Instead, she strained to hear his agonized moan. His words, spoken only to himself, of course, meant nothing to her. In fact, if anything, they brought back the earlier confusion she'd wrestled with. Thomas made no sense, in either words or actions.

    Finally, she did approach, stopping just a few feet away from him. "Well, for starters, you might want to get some clothes that actually fit you," she declared. "Nothing will get done if you're confined in too-small clothing. I can call for the tailor if you like."
     
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  8. Zulma

    Zulma Wild Member Member

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    The woman's sudden appearance should have startled Thomas and yet, he didn't even acknowledge her at first. Clear gaze still detailing a blade of grass he had plucked as if it was the most intricate object he'd ever seen, he deigned only turn his head after some long lasting seconds passed.
    He looked up at her, taking in the wild curls which had escaped her hairdo and were now teasing her face and shoulders. Her breathing was still unsettled and her cheeks flushed by the exercise. If his father saw her like that, he would probably choke on his tobacco. Thomas wished he could have laughed at the sight, but his eyes only seemed even more hollow than at breakfast. He stood up abruptly. In his haste, his tie slipped off his collar to land silently on the ground. When he gained his footing back, they were merely a foot apart.

    His throat tightened suddenly. The urge to tell her, to speak to someone, bubbled to his mouth. He wanted to share his ordeal. He needed her to understand so that the glossy veil of distrust would disappear from her amber eyes. He owed her the truth, didn't he? But if he spoke...
    You're a fool... who would forgive you...?
    The thought jolted him back to his signature smirk.
    "A tailor hmmm?" he said almost sarcastically, as if clothing were beneath him, a woman's concept and worry. "I guess you're right." he shrugged. He paused before adding more freely, clear eyes leaving the woman's face to look at the garden around them. "Although there's something refreshing about not having to wear gentleman's clothes."
    His lips pressed a thin smile, but it was a smile instead of a scornful smirk. Dressed like a domestic meant that no demands would be made of him.

    His gaze came back to the young woman's face, he hesitated, one hand rose mid air then fell back to his side. He stepped aside with a sigh. He rolled his shoulders and neck, making them crack and pop as he stretched. His physic was definitely closer to the one of a man who had done hard labor, rather than the one of a gentleman. His shirt was tugging at the seams were the muscles of his shoulders and arms pressed.

    "I know that my father will never listen to me if I'm dressed like a servant... not that he would if I were dressed properly." he had a dark chuckle.
    He paused, took a step, not really going away from her nor closer to her.
    "I wish it was Will standing here instead of me." The sentence was sincere, which made it even more tragic and painful.
    He shoved his hands in his pockets like he did when he was a teen and stared at Eileonor.
    "My dad would be happier."
    "You would be happier." he caught her gaze a brief moment before looking away. He didn't want her to feel guilty or try to sugar coat a lie (although that wasn't her style) when he was only stating the obvious.
    "I would be happier."
    "The only person who would be actually happy about my return is gone..." his jaws clenched. "...and I didn't even get to say goodbye." he finished in a broken voice which he tried to hide behind anger.
    In his pockets his fists were clenched.

    He swallowed. He knew that his manners were similar to those of a child and that bothered him. Being back here was as if he never left, so much unfinished business was throwing him back ten years back despite all he had lived and enduring for so many more years. His mind was a wreck and judging by Ellie's attitude, she probably thought he was a total lunatic! He took another deep breath to try to compose himself again.

    "Anyway. You're right. A tailor it is. I'd appreciate that, thank you." he stated as matter-of-fact as possible.
    He looked at Eileonor with a strange glimmer in his blue eyes, was that amusement?
    "Any other tip Milady?" he asked.
     
  9. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

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    9:19 AM
    In some horrid, selfish part of her, she couldn't help but to echo his sentiments. I wish it was Will standing there, too, her broken heart whispered. But it wasn't. And it never would be. And there was no point in dwelling on things that could and would never be, on what-ifs and fervent longings. Thomas was obviously grieving, hurt. Ellie wanted to give him the space to work through that hurt. But she also had seen the spiral one went down when they mired in their grief and sorrow too long. Mary had been far too young to die and yet her sadness and inability to move on after the loss of her sons had taken her to an early grave. Thomas was all that was left of the MacLean legacy and it was time for everyone to recognize that.

    "You laugh now, Thomas," she began, smoothing a hand absently over her wind-tossed hair in an attempt to tame it. "But death and sorrow have lingered far too long here. And this manor needs some good news, something happy and fortunate to cling to. Right now, you're all we've got." She stopped. There was a note of sadness in her voice. Then she shook her head, as if shaking away the dismal thoughts. "What I mean to say is, your arrival is a happy event for your people, your staff, and even your father, even if he doesn't quite know how to show it. He's too entrenched in his grief right now to realize it, but it's true. So we need to show the staff that you're back, and you're ready to confidently step into the role of heir apparent. Or," she amended, tilting her head coquettishly to the side, "at least fake it long enough to fool them into some sort of happiness."

    She lurched forward and grasped his wrist, yanking his hand from his pocket and dragging him rather forcefully behind her. "Clothes are only the beginning. You've got to look the part if you're going to fool people into complacency and acceptance. After we've had a 'coming out' to the staff, the next step will be to hold a ball here and reveal your return to the rest of the nobility. It will give men the opportunity to take your measure and see what kind of lord you'll be and a chance for the women to see if you're any sort of match for their daughters. After all, the MacLean name is long and revered; power hungry mothers will be eager to attach their daughters to such a legacy." Her words were churning faster and faster, an almost hectic pace to them. Her Scottish lilt began to return to her voice. In finishing school, they had tried to school the accent out of the women. It was better, proper to sound English, not Scottish. But when she was angry or lost in her thoughts, it always somehow managed to slip out.

    Ellie marched them through the garden at a brisk clip. She held onto his wrist until she was certain he would follow behind her without any sort of prompting. "It's going to take some time, but I think we can pull it off. Like it or not, we seem to be in this together." She cast him a brief, backwards glance. "I believe I owe it to your mother, anyways, to see her favorite son established and accepted among his people." Her eyes flicked away again and they made the rest of the trek to the manor in silence. A chamber maid happened to be entering the main hall just as the pair arrived and Ellie waved her down. "Hattie, I need you send an urgent message into town. Send for the elder Holbrook in the shop. If he can't come, have him send one of his shop assistants. Lisa, Robbie, or Niall will do. Discretion will be mandatory upon their arrival. We're in need of some fittings for some new clothes for Lord MacLean." Hattie's eyes slid sideways, landing on Thomas behind Ellie for what was apparently the first time. Her eyes went wide in surprise and wonder and she quickly nodded her agreement. "Aye, right away, m'lady," she replied quickly, bobbing in a curtsy and scampering away to do as she was bid.

    It wasn't until she was already gone that Ellie cursed. "Damn, I should have had her fetch Donald. You'll be in need of a proper trim to the beard and hair. Your father's valet is the only person who makes sense to do so right now, until we can find you your own valet, of course." She turned to face him. "I'll work with your father. I'll get the idea of a ball to announce your return in his head. It will be just the thing to shake the gloom from these walls in a few weeks' time and perhaps we can save Henry from the same fate as Mary, consumed by her grief."
     
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  10. Zulma

    Zulma Wild Member Member

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    He watched her as she spoke, her thoughts slowly taking form in a crescendo ballet of sentences which soon left him speechless. She had grabbed his wrist to his surprise and realized that his first thought had been to pull away but she wasn't trying to be all kind and soft on him, no, she was only dragging him forward.
    While it seemed that the McLean's estate was stuck in the past, Eileonor had chosen the future. Hope. Life. Maybe not for herself but for those she cared about. Thomas had a tiny grin, he had to give her credit for her determination.
    "I'm right behind you." he said when she seemed to be checking on him and make sure he wasn't going to run away from his responsibilities.

    Heir apparent. The concept gave him the creeps. He wasn't leader material, let alone in charge of such a strong and flourishing estate. The more, the young woman spoke, the bitter the taste in the back of his throat. He didn't hid his disgust when she spoke of the ball and all the mothers here to flaunt their daughters at him. As if anybody in their right mind would want him as a life partner. The thought was so ridiculous that a dark chuckle passed his lips. He quieted down quickly upon Ellie's side glance, obviously she wasn't done with her lecturing.

    He stopped on the doorstep and leaned against the wall, his arms crossed when she ordered Hattie around. He was positively grinning when she turned around, and although his expression faltered when she mentioned his mother dying of grief, he could help his reply.
    "You seem quite at ease here, ordering the servants around as if they were your own." he seemed amused rather than displeased. I'm sure a consequence of the hours, you have spent here taking care of my mother." his voice was softer.

    Thomas pushed himself off the wall, rubbing his wrist with his hand. "You have quite a grip for a lady." Once again, he was using that ironic tone which she disliked when they were children. He spoke as if he didn't care or didn't take her seriously. His attitude was back to square one when only minutes ago, he seemed truly hurt and willing to make a change. He raised an eyebrow, a small dimple perking in his cheek. He stared at her a moment.

    "I am grateful for your willingness to help me...or rather us out. I am sure my father would be proud of having a daughter such as yours." he pressed his lips together, then smack them.
    "You can dress me up like a doll all you want. But no ball. I hate ball." Once again that fury in his eyes when he spoke the last words.
    "How about a tournament?" he could tell that she was probably thinking him mad. "Yes, a tournament. We could have a horse race, some archery, maybe even a swim race in the pond!" he snorted. "Now, that would show the mothers...and daughters...what I am really made off. We could rally all the bachelors from the county. Mothers and daughters would have a blast I can assure you. Strong, sweaty males battling for the favor of the damsels! Oh, we could even have duels!!" he nodded several times. "I quite like that actually." he leaned suddenly strangely close to her. "Don't you think that's a great idea?!"
     
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  11. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

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    At first, Ellie thought he might admonish her. He had always loved putting in her place when they were younger, after all. She instinctively tensed and bristled, waiting for him to berate her for being too forward and overstepping her bounds in ordering about what was technically his staff. And while, surprisingly, he didn't get angry with her for that, the indolent grin was back on his face when she turned around and he had affected the insouciant, drawling tone he'd often taken with her when they were younger as he commented on her firm grip. She hated that tone. It was a tone that said he thought her so far beneath him, that her very presence was insignificant when in the same orbit as his. A waspish remark sprung immediately to her lips. She would not be made to feel small and diminished, not by him, not by anyone.

    But she held her tongue when she saw a dark flash cloud his blue eyes and a sliver of something cold shot up her spine. He launched into a tirade, speaking quickly, feverishly. His movements were jerky, wild, unhinged. He truly looked like a madman ranting and raving about the drawing room. It recalled too closely the scene in the kitchen when he'd first arrived the night before. Then, she'd been afraid of him tossing knives. Now, she instinctively glanced around the room for anything sharp he might use against her... or himself. When he bent towards her, there was a manic gleam in his eye that frightened her and she took a half step backwards before she steeled herself and straightened her spine.

    If she needed proof that Thomas had not returned the same man, this was it.

    Both of their breaths were ragged, his from fevered, manic excitement, hers from fear. His grin seemed predatory, primal, feral... mad. It took every ounce of control she possessed to school her face into calm and speak quietly and soothingly to him, as if he were an angry, violent child. "That's a wonderful idea, Thomas," her voice was pitched low and she spoke slowly, "but it's not quite the season for a tournament. Perhaps we might revisit the idea when the weather begins to warm, aye?" A little bit of light began to return to his flat blue eyes then, one of sanity and reason she hoped.

    She turned away from him then, if only to get away from that unnerving gaze that frightened her in its otherworldliness. Ellie cleared her throat and moved towards the fireplace to bank some of the embers and cool the room for the fittings that would take place there later that day. "In the meantime, let me assure you, I have no intentions of securing your betrothal so soon after your arrival and certainly not at this party. I cannot do the impossible, Thomas." She smiled inwardly at the subtle dig. "This is merely an opportunity to reintroduce you to society and make MacLean manor a place of joy again, instead of a mausoleum of sorrow." She flung open the draperies and allowed the weak, early spring sunlight to bathe the room.

    Ellie turned back to him. "If you'll excuse me, I have duties to see to." It wasn't an outright lie, but she was eager to flee the room and kept her explanation as vague as possible. "I'll send Hamish down right away to trim your hair and beard to an appropriate, gentlemanly length. Do make yourself comfortable, Thomas. He shan't be long, I'm sure." It took everything in her not to run like a frightened rabbit from the room. Instead, she sauntered out, the picture of womanly poise and grace. Only when she was a safe distance away from the drawing room did she allow her shoulders to crumple and acknowledge her racing heart, sweating palms, and shaking legs. Something was not right with Thomas, and she was determined to get to the bottom of of what it was. In the meantime... well, it appeared she had a party to plan.
     
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  12. Zulma

    Zulma Wild Member Member

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    He sighed, then nodded slightly. The nights were still cold. The last thing he needed was to be the cause of pneumonia for any eligible bachelor in the region. He was cursed already, another death would have consequences not just for him but for his father and the estate as well, even if he were innocent of any crime. But was he truly innocent?
    Brother. The whisper had him close his eyes a moment and it was Eileonor's insinuations which brought him back to the present times. He even chuckled at her sly. She had grown for sure and despite the darkness which loomed in this house, her spirit was as vivid as ever. He watched her leave the room without making any attempt to stop her.

    Alone, he settled into one of the heavy upholstered armchair, waiting for Hamish to come groom him. He had no intention to cut his hair short or shave completely. Because the last thing he wanted was to stare at the face of his brother when looking into the mirror. At least his long hair and beard proved that he was who he was: Thomas. He leaned suddenly forward, burying his face in his wide hand. He had made that dream so many times: to come home, to see his father and mother again, to see William and Ellie happily married. But always he woke up, always it was a lie or an illusion. He had thought becoming mad so many times. And now he was back and things weren't as he hoped. But it was home, wasn't it? It wasn't one of their horrible games to twist his mind and heart once again. Was he truly there? Or was his body sleeping in the depth of a forest while his mind roamed this figment of his imagination.

    The door opened. "Sir?"
    "I'm here." he grunted. "You may trim the ends and tidy my face, but I am keeping the length and the beard!" he added immediately as Hamish approached with a tray with hot water, a towel and the tools needed for his haircut.
    Hamish smiled and bowed slightly. "Of course Master." he replied.
    Thomas settled back on the chair, letting the domestic do his task.

    After a moment, he asked while the man was combing his hair.
    "How have things been around here?" His question was met by a long silence.
    "There has been some difficult times Sir. We are lucky the young Miss has been here for the Master and the Mistress." Hamish replied.
    "I see." Thomas was in no doubt of Ellie's kindness towards her parents. He guessed that many thought her a gold digger for her behavior.
    "How's the estate?" it had been flourishing when he disappeared.
    "Recovering." replied the servant.
    "What do you mean?"
    "There was a drought about five years ago. The crops were good for about two years and then the bluetongue hit. We didn't know what it was at first, but a third of the sheep were affected and about half of them died. It was quite a blow!"
    Thomas felt his heart sink. A drought AND an epidemic and he hadn't been here to help. He remembered in his youth, when insects had brought the bluetongue disease to the fields, several sick sheep were doing morbid dances, some even walking on their knees, as their feet and legs were attacked by the disease. But at the time only one or two sheep had died.

    Thomas was about to question Hamish further but the domestic was now with a razor in hand and ready to shave on his throat, to he only raised his chin and remain quiet.
    Long minutes later, the domestic was bringing a mirror for Thomas to look at himself. The young Master seemed to hesitate a moment, then he looked at himself. Hamish had done a great job. His unruly beard was now handsomely trimmed without being too short and his long red waves were passed his shoulders without looking tattered. Thomas took his jaw between his thumb and pointing finger, moving his own face left to right, right to left.
    "Good. Would you tie my hair in a low ponytail please. Thank you Hamish." said Thomas with an appreciative nod.

    Minutes later, he was doing what his father had asked him to do earlier in the day: he was visiting the estate. As he passed by the sheepfold, a square man with short dark hair and a wide smile called after him.
    "Master Thomas! Is that really ya?" It took a second for Thomas to recognize the familiar face and thick accent. Ben, the son of old Jack who was in charge of the flocks of sheep for the entire estate. Ben and Thomas were about the same age and many time Thomas was trying to escape his obligation in the mansion, he could be found helping out Ben with his tasks with the animals.
    "Ben!"
    To the surprised eyes of several workers going around, Thomas gave Ben a pat on the back as if greeting an equal. The tall man was genuinely smiling. "How are you?"
    Ben snorted. "I'm do'in fine Master. I heard you be back, but I didn't believe, ya know."
    Thomas looked around as several of the faces seemed familiar while others were new.
    "How's your father?" asked Thomas.
    Ben shook his head. "Passed away two years ago. I do his job now."
    "I'm sorry to heard. My condolences."
    "No one lives forever but he always said you'd come back. I guess the old man was right like always." Ben laughed. Thomas smiled.
    "Show me around. It's been too long."
    Ben nodded and started a tour of the stables and introduced him to everyone, those he knew but had aged, just like him, those who had joined the estate since he left.

    "Is it true that you stayed all night holding up a tarp above the freshly cut grains to protect it from the rain?" the question came from a little blond head, cranking its neck up to look at Thomas with wide eyes. Thomas burst laughing as the mother of the child quickly hushed it back.
    "That's alright." Thomas crouched to be at eye lever with the child. "What's your name?"
    "Connor Sir Master."
    "Well Connor, you shouldn't believe all the rumors you hear. Even if in this case, it's true. But keep it a secret okay? I wouldn't want to get in trouble." Thomas teased the child.
    Connor's eyes widened. "YOU can get in trouble?!"
    Thomas laughed even louder. A laughter which was interrupted by a clearing of voice. Lord McLean was standing by the door. The temperature seemed to drop several degrees as all the workers greeted the master and looked down, feeling guilty for being caught not working.
    "Thank you everyone for your hard word. Keep at it!" encouraged Thomas and the crowd quickly dispersed, as the red hair man left the stable, quickly followed by his father.

    As they were yards away from the barns, Henry growled.
    "You stick!"
    Thomas chuckled, a disdainful smirk already curling his lips.
    "I applaud your restrain Father, there was a time you would have caned me in front of everyone for going in the barn." Thomas's icy gaze met his father's. "You told me to go see the estate. I did. Contrarily to you and William, I never refused to get my hands dirty."
    Henry raised his hand but the anger he saw in his son's gaze was too much of a mirror of his own for him to strike Thomas.
    "Clean up for dinner. We have company!" was all he said to his son before leaving him outside of the front door of the mansion.
     
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  13. Malibu

    Malibu Unicorn Princess Member

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    Ellie returned to the safety of her chambers. She burst into her sitting room in a rush, startling Jenny, whose hands were piled high with clean linens. "Oh, m'lady!" She squeaked in surprise, nearly dropping her load and looked at Ellie with concern. Ellie seemed to remember then the state she must be in. She'd had no time to change from her riding habit or smooth her hair back into order after her wild morning ride before she had come across Thomas and they'd had their confrontation. She was still splattered with mud and her hair was a disheveled golden halo around her face.

    Jenny made to move to her side but Ellie waved her away. "I'm fine, Kenny, thank you. I'll be in the room momentarily to clean up. But I... I need to sit for a moment." Jenny looked wary, as if she knew something was on her mistress' mind, but she nodded her head obediently. "Alright, miss. I'll take care of the bed linens and be back to help you clean up. Should I call for some afternoon refreshments?" Ellie nodded with gratitude and fell into the nearest chair in her exhaustion.

    Thomas' outburst had frightened her, perhaps more than she cared to admit. It wasn't simply the fact that he'd blown up in some sort of manic episode that had frightened her. It had been the look in his eyes. They had gone flat and bright and oddly vacant. It was like Thomas had been somewhere else entirely, his body inhabited by something foreign. It had looked like every bit of of humanity had left his face. Ellie had no doubt that years of captivity and slavery could break a man. But what had happened with Thomas was different somehow, she just knew it.

    Jenny placed a tray of tea and light sandwiches and fruit on the small table beside Ellie's elbow, and Ellie smiled her thanks. "I've called for some hot water to wash, m'lady. I'll get your dress laid out for the evening."

    "Thank you, jenny." Her maid slipped silently into the bedroom, leaving her mistress in peace.

    The more Ellie tried to puzzle out what concerned her about Thomas, the more her head started to hurt. Something was afoot here, she was certain. She only hoped she could figure out what before it was too late.

    Ellie drank a cup of the tea and polished off a small sandwich or two to settle her rumbling stomach. When she made her way into the bedroom, Jenny had the large copper tub filled with steaming water, scented with chamomile and orange blossoms. Jenny helped her undress and Ellie apologized for the poor, sorry state of her clothing. She didn't like making extra work for Jenny or the rest of the household staff if she could help it. But the maid waved away her lady's concern and helped lower her into the tub. Jenny combed her hair free of snarls and then left her lady with the privacy to wash.

    She allowed the hot water to soak the tension from her body for several long minutes before she even reached for the bar of soap. She scrubbed the dirt from her hair and skin with soap that smelled like orange blossoms. The water was just beginning to turn cold when Jenny returned with towels to wrap her hair in and dry her off. "I've selected the green gown for tonight, m'lady. The one with the alternating panels of navy blue and black lace," Jenny mused as she wrapped Ellie in a dressing gown.

    She slid her amber gaze to the side, a strange look on her face. "It's a lovely gown, Jenny, but isn't that a little bit... ornate for a simple dinner?"

    Jenny looked flustered. "It's the first dinner after the young master's return. It's cause enough to dress up and celebrate, miss."

    Ellie was certain Jenny wasn't telling her the whole truth, but she was too exhausted to argue with her maid. She combed her damp blonde hair locks and then returned to her sitting room where some papers from her late parents' estate had been left for her to review. Though Henry had taken guardianship of Ellie and her manor and lands after her parents' untimely death, he had ultimately been trying to train Ellie to take over someday. There were reports of the early plantings beginning in her fields and another about two new calves that had just been successfully delivered to the herds.

    She worked for several hours, reading reports, writing missives, recording numbers in her log book. The late winter sun was just beginning to slip below the horizon when Jenny came back to dress and ready her mistress for dinner. Ellie glanced up upon Jenny's entrance and stood to stow her papers in a set of drawers across the room, bustling into the bedroom where Jenny arranged her curls in an artful fall over her right shoulder and laced her into the dark emerald satin gown. As she left for the dining hall, Ellie assured Jenny that she could undo her own dress tonight and that she could retire early tonight. She swept down the stairs, a sense of unease in her belly. She wasn't sure quite what to expect from a dinner with Thomas after all these years.
     
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