The Gamekeeper's Secret
Summary: Ellie led a happy childhood tucked away in a remote corner of the Holloway Park, but she always sensed that there was a secret to her past. When the secret is revealed it may rob her of her family, her happiness, or even her life
Chapter 1 – The Wood Sprite, 1795
Richard Holloway, the Duke of Northreach, grinned at his son as the houndsman blew his horn, signaling that the dogs had caught the scent. In the distance man and boy could hear the baying of the dogs receding and the two turned their horses to gallop after the sound.
Thirteen year-old Liam Holloway, Lord Rockport, was on holiday from Eaton and this was the first day that father and son had been able to break away from the press of duties to enjoy time together. Most of the past four days had been spent in his father's office, learning the business of estate management while the rain had fallen heavily outside. Liam had been overjoyed when he descended the stairs to breakfast dressed for the office, only to be sent back upstairs immediately. The Duke, in mock disapproval, had growled, "I don't know what they teach boys in Eaton these days, but I hardly think that your present attire is fitting for a fox-hunt… do you?"
Father and son thundered down the hill towards the woods. As they drew near, they grinned a challenge to each other. Neither rider slowed as they hit the forest's edge. Trusting their mounts, they ducked and dodged tree limbs, still following the distant baying.
This school holiday was the first time that Liam had seen the new estate. His father had purchased the property using the inheritance he had gained from the passing of his wife's father. Margaret had too many difficult memories from her childhood home, so they had agreed to sell the old estate and look for a place that would represent a fresh start for the family. They found Caer Duningall, an ancient Celtic holding, and renamed it Holloway Park. The former owner had perished in the Battle of Neewinden, fighting on the side of the Austrians, and there was no other family alive to protest the name change. The estate included the modernized castle, several surrounding villages, a mill, and a small vicarage.
Most important to man and boy, at least for the moment, the estate also featured a vast tract of forest to the south that was perfect for hunting.
They heard the baying growing louder now, the sound changing to indicate that the fox had been cornered. The horses broke out of the forest neck-and-neck, thundering into an unexpected clearing. The houndsman and his assistant were on foot, huffing across the clearing, the excitement evident on their faces. Then a new voice, high and reedy, made itself heard across the open ground. "Get down! Stay away!"
The Duke and his son reined in suddenly, just short of where the hounds were jumping up the sides of a tall stump to reach their quarry. There on the tall stump stood a beautiful little girl; and in her arms was a red fox. The girl, if girl she was, looked to be no more than eight, but she stood defiant and unafraid of the howling dogs who were attempting to jump high enough to nip at her feet. She was dressed in a green homespun garment, but she held herself as regally as if she were clad in a ball gown. Her hair, a raven black, was perfectly straight and hung in one thick, long braid. But it was her flashing sapphire eyes that made both man and boy sit dumb for a long moment. "Would you please call off your dogs, Sir!"
"Here now," the panting houndsman growled, "What'cha doin' trespassin' in these woods? Set that fox down now!"
"I will not!" The girl hugged the shivering fox closer, and both father and son were amazed. Foxes almost never allowed humans close, and certainly never allowed themselves to be handled by humans.
"I said…" The houndsman pointed his musket, but the Duke snapped, "Put that down, man! Don't point a weapon at a little girl!"
The houndsman pointed the weapon lower, but he put on a stubborn face as he turned and said, "She's trespassin' My Lord. That makes 'er a criminal."
"I am not trespassing, Sir!" the girl replied defiantly. The Duke was struck with how regal she seemed at the moment. His son, who hadn't uttered a word, was still staring at her as if he expected her to simply disappear in a magical vapor at any moment.
"Quiet those hounds, Haskell," the Duke barked. When that was done, he raised an amused eyebrow, "If you are not a trespasser, then why are you here? And why are you holding my fox?"
"I am the gamekeeper's daughter," the little wood sprite announced with great dignity, "and this is not your fox. It is mine." Richard remembered meeting the gamekeeper among the other staff on the day of his arrival. Since then the man had not shown his face, though he did send a regular supply of game to the cook.
Liam allowed his horse to step forward slightly, indignant at the way that this girl had spoken to his father, "Your fox? How dare you!"
The little creature turned her sparking eyes on the older boy, "I dare because I raised Peter from a kitten. He is my pet."
"Foxes can't be pets," the boy mocked, "They are thieves and sneaks and chicken killers, not pets."
"Peter has never killed a chicken in his life! I feed him and he is well behaved," she eyes turned soft as she looked down at the fox. Now that the dogs were being held back he nuzzled her chin affectionately.
"Remarkable," the Duke said. "Well then, I guess that this particular fox gets to live to see another day, little sprite… err, what is your name by the way?" The Duke felt the dismayed gazes of both his son and the houndsmen, but he kept his eyes on the fascinating little girl.
"My name is Ellie, My Lord."
"Well then, Miss Ellie, I bid you good day. Oh, and please ask your father to come up to office… say, around ten tomorrow morning?"
For the first time the little girl showed nervousness, "I will, Sir… umm, he won't be sacked, will he?"
"Not at all. Do you need help down?" Once again he noted how high the stump was and he wondered how she had scaled it.
"I'll be fine, My Lord… after the hounds are gone."
"You never should have let her keep the beast," Agnes groused as she worried the already spotless kitchen. She was a small woman, plump and comfortable. She had dirty blond hair with touches of gray and hazel eyes. It was clear from her pleasant face that she tended to laugh more than frown, but this morning was an exception.
"Relax, Agnes. I've met the man. He is honest and fair; a far cry better than the last master. He told Elli that I weren't to be sacked, and he's not the sort of man to go back on his word." Jess Cutter was the opposite of his wife in physical appearance. He was long-limbed and thin, but his open shirt sleeves revealed whipcord muscles. He was mostly bald, having lost the majority of his hair in his early twenties, but his head was well-formed. His thick eyebrows shielded chocolate-brown eyes that showed laugh lines in the corners. Like his wife, he was inclined to laughter, but there was always a trace of worry just under the surface.
"Then I don't see why he should send for you," Agnes said softly. Any further discussion on the issue was set aside as Ellie skipped in with a basket full of eggs.
"The hens did good today," she pronounced happily, her basket held up in pride. "I collected Twelve eggs!"
Agnes' face softened as she lifted a hand to caress her daughter's shining black hair. The slightest frown touched the corner of her mouth as her eyes met those of her husband. "The hens did well, Ellie, not good." Before Agnes married Jess, she had served as the governess at Caer Duningall. She had married Jess out of love, though he was beneath her in society. Still, she was determined to give her daughter the best possible education.
Agnes had already been near her middle years when she conceived. She had almost died in childbirth, and her life had hung in the balance for weeks afterward. It was only the love of her husband and the presence of the tiny child at her breast that gave her the strength to fight. She just couldn't understand how her beautiful little girl could look so different from either of her parents. Every once in a while she worried that Jess might suspect her of being with another man; but if he did, he never showed it. Jess was the best of men, and he loved his wife and his daughter without reservation.
"We'll only use four eggs today, Elizabeth," she said smiling, "I think that we should send the rest to the castle, with your father."
"The Gamekeeper is here to see you, My Lord," the staid butler intoned solemnly. The Duke bit back a smile of amusement at the man's serious demeanor. The butler and most of the staff were a legacy of from the previous owner, a very stiff and arrogant Welsh lord who placed great emphasis on class distinction. Richard and Margaret had been trying to introduce a more congenial atmosphere, but most of the older staff was still resistant.
"Please send him in, Mr. Laerty."
The butler opened the door to admit the tall, balding gamekeeper before stepping out himself. Richard smiled up at the man, "Please come in, Mr. Cutter. Would you care for a drink of something? I have tea, but I prefer coffee myself."
"I'd thank you for coffee, Yer Grace," Jess replied nervously. He was surprised and slightly alarmed when the Duke poured the coffee himself. Leaning over to take the proffered cup, he nervously said, "Thank you, My Lord."
"Relax, Cutter. I didn't call you here to 'sack' you, as your daughter feared. It is simply this: I realized that I haven't had the opportunity get to know you. For example, I was not aware that you had a family… and a remarkable young daughter."
Jess set the cup down carefully, his eyes never leaving those of the Duke, "Yes, Sir. I have a wife, Agnes, and my daughter Ellie, who you have met."
Richard examined the man minutely, trying to reconcile the features of that fairy-like little sprite to this tall, rugged man. Perhaps his wife is the beauty? "She has a way about her; your little one. I would have sworn that I was in the presence of the Queen herself."
There was a question in the statement, a question that the gangly woodsman had prepared himself to answer. "My wife was the governess to the children here at the castle, Sire. She has been teaching my daughter in the hopes of preparing her for a post someday. Ellie, she is… special."
Liam Holloway, Lord Rockport, guided his mount tentatively through the thick copse of trees, bow ready. His eyes scanned the bushy undergrowth, watching for the deer whose tracks he had been following for the last half hour. He heard a rustle to his right and turned quickly, but too late as he heard the distinctive squeal of a wild boar as it hurled forward. Liam's fingers fumbled the arrow, which fell from the bow even as his horse reared in the air in alarm.
Although Liam was an experienced horseman, he had been riding with his hands on his bow, using only his knees to guide the animal. Knees were not enough now as his body was slammed against a tree and the horse, in a panic, surged forward and away, the boar close on his heels. Liams body fell hard against an exposed root, his ribs striking one root with a sickening snap while his head slammed against a jagged rock. With an animal scream of pain, Liam's world went black.
…He woke with a groan of pain so intense he could barely catch a breath, but when he tried to rise, a soft, tiny hand gently held him down, "Don't try to move, Sir. I'll get help." He looked up into sapphire eyes and a pixie face framed in a black shroud of hair. His world faded again and the last image he saw was those sapphire eyes.
…Liam screamed as he felt himself being lifted. His side and his head felt as if they were on fire. A gruff but gentle voice said, "Easy lad. I'll be as careful as I can…"
"… two ribs on his right side. We'll wrap his chest and allow that to heal on its own. The head wound is deep, but it's on top of the skull. It will scar, but it won't kill him. He will have a headache for a while. I can prescribe laudanum, My Lord, but I'd advise circumspection in its use. 'Tis much better to suffer the head pain now than to fight of the laudanum later. You and I have both seen the effects of that."
"Yes, all too often of late. Will he heal, Thomas, or do we need to get him to London?" Liam heard his father's deep voice. It sounded tired and worried, but he felt too tired himself to attempt to gain his father's attention.
The darkness was settling in again as he heard the doctor reply, "Keep him here for now. If he doesn't improve, you can send for a specialist. The fresh country air will heal him more quickly anyway… and what of his little rescuer? He mentions her often enough in his sleep."
"She is a wonder. Ran two miles to get here for help. Can't imagine why she was so far from home in the first place. It's a pity she is low-born. She has a fire inside her, that one…" more was said, but Liam's mind was too numb to absorb it. When the blackness came again, he welcomed it.