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Thirsty for Thursday – Shadows at Stonewylde

 

Fans of our Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page will know that every Thursday we bring you #ThirstyForThursday in which we tell you all about a book or series we think you’ll be Thirsty for. This week, we are up to book four in Kit Berry‘s brilliant Stonewylde series with SHADOWS AT  STONEWYLDE. The shadows are thickening and threatening to tear Sylvie’s relationship with Yul apart.

Check out the video of author Kit Berry telling you all about the inspirations behind SHADOWS AT STONEWYLDE below, and don’t forget to come by the Gollancz Dark Fantasy Facebook page later today for a great giveaway!


Slowly, silently, the moon rose over Stonewylde, flooding the land with ethereal light. Velvet shadows deepened as the hills and valleys welcomed the Bright Lady’s quicksilver kiss. Moonlight tiptoed down ancient paths, danced in fields and on hilltops, shimmered over rivers and pools. She was everywhere, bestowing her cold caress on the waiting landscape.

She sent a path of rippling silver across the sea and onto the white disc of stone at Mooncliffe. The eerie cliff-top was deserted; no moongazy maiden stood on the circle feeding her magic to the hungry snakes. At Quarrycleave, the Lady glanced over the carved pillar and peered into the canyons of stone. Her beams rustled through the ivy but her magic failed to banish the greedy shadows that lay below.

On silver feet she swept across the curves of the land and brushed the entrance to the Dolmen. The ancient gateway stood as it always had, a portal to the world of myths and dreams. A small fire smouldered at the entrance and a lone figure sat sentinel, entranced by the moon’s magic.

The Stone Circle embraced her, gathering her into the arena where the great stones stood guard around the heart of Stonewylde. She pirouetted on the soft earth floor and stroked the Altar Stone with silver fingertips, tingling as she encountered the Green Magic that eddied here.

The great megalith on top of the hill stood in lonely glory. Hares, their tawny coats bleached to dull pewter and their eyes gleaming in the moonlight, danced the sacred spirals around the single stone. Bats flickered against the starry skies and a silver-feathered barn owl glided from the woods to perch on the stone that marked the spiral’s vortex. These creatures knew the ancient power here; they instinctively under­stood the magical patterns of the land and this mysterious monthly alchemy. For millennia the moon-dance of Stonewylde had been hon­oured at this special place on the hill. Here the Bright Lady kissed her sister the Earth Goddess, enchanting her with quicksilver magic.

One

The girl slipped down the path, her cloak flaring behind her as she hurried on light feet. She clutched the wicker basket containing the precious fruits she’d gathered. Her eyes still shone with the moonlight and she wished she’d had longer in the woods under the Hunter’s Moon. She loved the Moon Fullness, the magic that thrilled all around in the crisp October night. It was so bright that even in the depths of the woods she’d had no need of her lantern. Carefully she opened the cottage back door; it was late and she should’ve been home long ago. A faint light glowed through the curtains but hopefully her mother would be asleep by now.

Golden candlelight from the lamp on the dresser dazzled her as she tiptoed into the kitchen. In the sitting room, Maizie looked up from her papers and removed her reading glasses to glare through the kitchen doorway at her daughter, still oblivious of her presence. The girl blinked in the golden brightness and quietly shut the heavy wooden back door behind her. She placed her basket on the scrubbed kitchen dresser, and shrugged off her cloak, hanging it on the peg. So far, so good.

‘Leveret! Come in here this minute!’

The sharp voice made her jump and her heart sank.

‘Where have you been, my girl? ‘Tis almost midnight! What’ve you been doing?’

Maizie’s face was pinched with anger as she glared at her daughter. This girl, her seventh child, was more trouble than the other six put together. Even in his wildest days Yul had been more obedient than she was. Although, Maizie thought ruefully, Alwyn’s reign of terror had probably been responsible for that. This girl was different – unruly, wilful and a law unto herself, and she had no father to keep her in check.

Maizie took a deep breath and gathered the papers into a tidy pile, not wanting to think of the man she’d been forced to wed all those years ago. He’d ruled his family’s lives with brutality and she wouldn’t wish that on anyone, not even this wayward daughter of hers. Alwyn had collapsed in this very room, choking and spluttering on a piece of cake whilst the petrified children gaped at their father foaming at the mouth. She remembered the terrible silence so clearly and could still picture their shocked faces, eyes round with terror – Rosie, Geoffrey, Gregory, Gefrin, Sweyn, even Yul – all frozen at the awful spectacle. Only Leveret had watched without fear and then broken the spell with her gurgle of laughter. Little Leveret – Maizie’s lastborn, Maizie’s moment of madness. And now, at fourteen, she was a nightmare.

‘Answer me, Leveret! Where have you been?’

The girl sighed and shook her dark curls further over her eyes, frowning at her mother from beneath them. Should she tell the truth? Would her mother understand or would it be better to lie?

‘It’s the Moon Fullness tonight, Mother, the Hunter’s Moon.’

‘Yes I know, Leveret. That’s all the more reason for you to be safely indoors by the hearth and not out cavorting. I know exactly what goes on at Moon Fullness and a girl shouldn’t be out and about with all that moon lust flying around. You’re far too young for such things.’

Maizie of all people knew the trouble a girl could get into on the night of the full moon, when the body was ripe and aching with want, and the boys bursting with passion and energy. She understood only too well the forbidden joy of casting aside everything sensible and everyday for that brief crescendo of bliss. But that was not for Leveret to hear of, not yet.

‘Where have you been? You still haven’t answered me.’

Leveret scowled, knowing that whatever she said would be the wrong thing.

‘I was in the woods. I had to—’

The woods?’ screeched Maizie. ‘You stupid girl! That’s the worst place to be at the Moon Fullness, especially at the Hunter’s Moon. You should know that! Who were you with?’

‘Only Magpie.’

Magpie? Oh for goddess’ sake, Leveret, when will you learn? When will you start behaving responsibly? I’ve told you time and time again to stop spending time with Magpie, especially not at night, especially not in the woods, and especially not at the Moon Fullness. You’re in such trouble, my girl! And if I have the slightest reason to think you and Magpie have been up to no good …’

She stopped for breath, quivering with anger at her daughter’s foolishness. Sixteen-year-old Magpie was most definitely not an appropriate companion. Maizie had plans for her youngest child, important plans, and they didn’t include the mute, half-witted boy. Magpie was a constant irritant and, hard as she’d tried, Maizie couldn’t stop her daughter’s friendship with him. It had always been like this from their early childhood; in the Village Nursery the clumsy, strange boy with vacant eyes had latched onto tiny, quick-witted Leveret, and the pair had been inseparable ever since. Over the years in her role as Village Welfare Councillor Maizie had endured regular dealings with Magpie and his nasty mother. The little boy had been neglected and the unpleasant task of reminding his awful family of their duty had fallen to Maizie. She’d had little success and received much hostility and abuse from the lot of them, but luckily Magpie had survived his deprived upbringing and was now an adult. Although Maizie felt pity for the poor boy, she didn’t want her daughter anywhere near him. Yet, try as she might to keep the pair apart, they remained bound together with an inexplicable closeness.

‘Can I go to bed now?’ asked Leveret wearily, keeping her eyes down.

‘No you can not! I told you to stay in tonight and I trusted you to do as I said. That was a mistake, wasn’t it? You’re only fourteen, but the minute my back’s turned you’re out cavorting with boys, and—’

‘No Mother, I had to pick some special mushrooms tonight! It was important to pick them at the Moon Fullness, but that’s all I was doing, honest.’

‘Why? Why was it so important you had to disobey me? How do you know these things, Leveret? I know you’re not learning that at school, about mushrooms and when you should pick them, so who’s been teaching you? Where’s all this coming from?’

Leveret shrugged. It was her very special secret and she’d never divulge it to her mother. She’d face any punishment and let her mother imagine the very worst, which she was always so quick to do, rather than tell her of the secret. The only one who knew was Magpie and he wasn’t capable of speaking to anyone but her. So she merely glared at her mother from behind her curls and remained silent.

Maizie was at a loss as to how to punish her daughter; nothing seemed to make much difference to Leveret. It didn’t help that she was so busy herself with constant meetings to attend and work to do, with Leveret left to her own devices for long periods of time. That had been the problem all along. Since that fated Winter Solstice when the community had risen up to overthrow their magus, Maizie had played a leading role. She and Miranda had been the ones who guided their pair of star-blessed children through those difficult years, helping to run Stonewylde. Together with Clip, the two women had set up the Council of Elders; Maizie had worked incredibly hard ever since and her children had been forced to fend for themselves.

There’d been so much to do in the early days. The loss of Magus had been deeply felt by everyone and the future of Stone­wylde had seemed very shaky. Sheer determination on the part of Clip, Maizie and Miranda, along with others appointed to the Council, had eventually averted the crisis. Together they’d re­organised the great estate in a way that Magus would’ve hated.

The longer she did the job, the more grudging respect Maizie felt for him; Magus had single-handedly done what it now took a whole group of people to do. And in her heart she sometimes wondered if the people of Stonewylde were any happier today, with their education and freedom, than they’d been under his rule. Not that she’d ever voice such thoughts, and especially not to her son, who was in his own way as hard and single-minded as his father had been. Such treachery from his own mother would infuriate him.

‘Sit down, Leveret,’ said Maizie tersely, struggling to remain calm and in control. The girl groaned loudly and flung herself down onto one of the wooden chairs. She slumped across the table and gazed moodily at her mother. She knew exactly what was coming now: the lecture about her place in the society of Stonewylde, how as the magus’ sister she must set a good example to other young people, how she let Maizie down with her behav­iour, how different she was from her perfect sister Rosie, and finally how, if she didn’t change her ways, Yul would be informed and there’d be a severe punishment.

She rolled her green eyes in boredom as the familiar tirade began, and started to make a mental list of the fungi still to be harvested before the Dark Moon at the end of the month. The fact that the Dark Moon fell on the night of Samhain itself was very exciting indeed. She was planning to try a spell that night, for if ever a spell were to work it’d be at the moment when the Dark Moon coincided with Samhain. She shivered with antici­pation and a small smile spread across her mouth.

‘. . . and Rosie would never have— Leveret, you’re not even listening!

To their mutual astonishment her mother jerked forward and slapped her sharply round the face. Leveret gasped and stared at her in shock, placing a hand on the stinging imprint on her cheek. Maizie gaped in horror too and sank back into her seat, covering her mouth with her hand. She’d broken one of the most fundamental laws of Stonewylde; the first one passed by Yul and the one he cared most passionately about.

Nobody shall ever strike a child.

‘That was your fault!’ whispered Maizie shakily. ‘I’m sorry I did it, but you are the rudest child I’ve ever met and I’ve had enough of it.’

‘You hit me!’ squeaked Leveret in disbelief, tears springing to her eyes. ‘I can’t believe you hit me.’

‘Oh for goddess’ sake, girl, I hardly touched you. ‘Twas just a little slap.’

‘No it wasn’t – it hurt and I bet there’s a mark on my face.’

‘Not really. And besides, that just shows how you’ve pushed me to the end o’ my rope! Six children I’ve raised before you, five of ’em unruly lads, and I’ve never lifted a hand to any of them. But you . . .’

‘You hit me, Mother.’

Maizie tried to laugh.

‘Rubbish! You’ve no idea what being hit means. Believe me, Leveret, that were nothing. If you could’ve seen what went on in this very cottage in the old days to your poor brother . . . the beatings that boy took right here in this room. Don’t make a fuss about a silly little thing like that. You know I didn’t mean it.’

Leveret stood up angrily, the tears forgotten and her nostrils flaring as she blazed her fury at her mother.

‘Nothing I say or do or feel ever matters one bit, does it, Mother? Because it’s nothing compared to what happened to Yul or Rosie or any of the boys. Whatever it is, however big or small, it’s never anything compared to what they did!’

‘Now Leveret, I’m—’

‘No! Let me finish for once! Nobody ever listens to me! I’m sick to death of hearing about Yul all the time. I hate my brother being the magus and I wish he’d never become magus. I wish we had the old magus back because he can’t have been as bad as you all say, and even if he was it’d be better than having my perfect brother held up as some kind of god all the time! I hate you and Yul and Rosie – all of you – and as soon as I’m old enough I’ll leave this stupid Village and go and live by myself somewhere! And if you ever touch me again I’ll tell Yul! We’ll see if he’ll banish his own perfect mother or if he’d bend the rules for you!’

Her tirade finished on a crescendo and she stopped for breath, chest heaving. Maizie had stood up too and faced her daughter across the table.

‘Keep your voice down!’ she hissed. ‘The whole Village’ll hear you!’

‘I don’t care!’ shouted Leveret. ‘I don’t care if they hear me!’

‘Well I do!’

‘Oh yes, you do because we can’t have the ordinary Villagers seeing that Yul’s mother isn’t the perfect woman she makes herself out to be! Oh no, she hits her daughter! What would they say to that?’

Leveret laughed triumphantly, green eyes still blazing, delighted to gain the upper hand for once. But Maizie was having none of it.

‘Get to your bed, Leveret! I was wrong to slap you, but you’ve shown me no respect at all. Don’t you dare speak to me like that!’

‘Or what? What’ll you do?’

‘You’ll see,’ muttered Maizie darkly, feeling quite willing to inflict a deserved punishment on her. ‘Go upstairs. We’ll talk tomorrow when you’ve remembered how to behave towards your mother.’

Knowing the row had gone as far as it could, Leveret marched into the kitchen and snatched her wicker basket off the dresser. If it hadn’t been so late she’d never have risked bringing it here tonight. Chin in the air, she stomped back into the sitting room and headed for the stairs.

‘Leave that basket!’ commanded Maizie.

‘No!’ yelled Leveret and raced up to her room, sliding the wooden bar across the door with a loud and final thump.

Sylvie sat in the window seat, forehead pressed against the cold, latticed glass. As the bright moon rose higher behind the trees, her fingertips tingled and her heart beat faster . . . but only a little. She smiled wistfully at the memory of her frantic desperation as a young girl. As dear old Professor Siskin had warned, moongaziness wasn’t necessarily a blessing. Even though she’d been released from the bonds of the Stonewylde moon-dance that had claimed her every month, she still felt the pull on her soul. Part of her longed to be with the wild hares up on the hill, dancing like a moon angel in the starry night, singing her ethereal song and marking the magic spirals into the earth with her bare feet.

Curled into the cushions and bathed in silver light, Sylvie gazed up at the brilliant moon riding the shredded clouds. The Hunter’s Moon held dark memories that she found impossible to lay to rest. Even now, thirteen years later, she felt the past close behind her. It was as if the dust had never settled properly but still swirled and danced in the air with a life of its own. The pool of moonlight around her failed to penetrate the shadows of the cavernous sitting-room, and Sylvie peered alone into the darkness.

She’d put up so much resistance when, after their hand-fasting, Yul had wanted to move into these apartments. This was where her final ordeal had taken place, the prison Magus had kept her in for the last weeks of his life. Today, the leather sofa where she’d slept in silk and diamonds was gone, as was the black marble bathroom and all the priceless fittings of his great bedroom. The only way she’d been persuaded to use these chambers was by altering them beyond recognition; by wiping out all traces of the man who’d been so obsessed by her moongaziness but had treated her so cruelly.

Yet still he haunted her as if he’d never truly gone. So red-blooded and commanding when alive, echoes of Magus rever­berated all around Stonewylde, particularly in the Hall and especially in these rooms. At moments like this, when the full moon blazed through the whorled glass, Sylvie felt Magus close by. She sensed the gleam of his silver hair and the flash of his black eyes just beyond the corner of her vision. She could almost – but not quite – hear his deep voice whispering her name, feel the brush of his fingers on her bare skin. It never happened when she was busy or surrounded by other people; it was always when she was alone. She’d mentioned it to others of course, but she knew from their reactions that they thought her ridiculous, or maybe even displaying something more alarming – a return to her illness. So Sylvie had learnt to keep quiet about her fears, hoping that as the years passed Magus’ spectre would fade until eventually, one day, she’d be free of his presence altogether.

She rose and switched on a table lamp. The room sprang into existence, still luxurious but very different to Magus’ rooms. This was her home and not a shrine. She shouldn’t sit in the darkness like that. It was silly to give memories the chance to smother her, silly to let ghosts from the past find the opportunity to visit. She must be firm with herself and keep her wandering thoughts under control.

Sylvie went through the connecting door into the playroom, formerly Magus’ dressing room, then into the bathroom. This was now decorated with pearly fittings and pale wood rather than dark marble and onyx. She moved on into the bedroom, an airy room with diaphanous drapes and soft turquoise walls, and a far cry from Magus’ lair of scarlet damask and dark mahogany. The next room was a smaller bathroom and then there was the children’s bedroom, tucked away in a room originally put aside for Sylvie and her clothes. Here, Cherry had hidden food for her under the bed and Magus had laced her tightly into a Tudor gown. The room was now bright and colourful, full of the pretty paraphernalia of young girls.

She stepped softly across the floor to stand between the beds and gaze down at her two daughters, Celandine and Bluebell. Two white-blond curly heads lay in tousled sleep, little bodies curled up against the October chill. If her girls were moongazy they didn’t show it for both slept soundly, Bluebell with her thumb in her mouth. Sylvie felt the familiar heart-wrench of love as she watched them in the bright moonlight. They liked to sleep with the curtains open to the moon and the stars, and made up stories about a family of owls who had unlikely adventures, and a tribe of woodland elves who lived in a giant toadstool.

They were beautiful little girls and Sylvie knew Yul loved his daughters dearly, but she found it difficult not to feel a sense of failure in denying him the little boy he’d longed for. It wasn’t so bad when Celandine was born, but with Bluebell’s birth his hopes had been smashed. If Stonewylde were to survive the population explosion that Magus had encouraged, urging people to have enormous families, then there had to be a limit to reproduction now. The quota for every couple was a maximum of two children and neither of theirs was a son. Yul always went to great lengths to show how little it mattered, but Sylvie knew better.

She returned to the sitting-room and contemplated lighting the fire as it had turned very chilly this evening. It seemed a waste of good logs to heat this vast room just for her, so instead she found her woollen shawl and curled up on the sofa, picking up her book. There was a tap on the door and Miranda peered in.

‘All alone? Can I come in for a minute?’

Sylvie was glad of the company and welcomed her mother. Miranda, now in her forties, was an attractive woman. Apart from a few silver threads, her hair still gleamed like newly-shelled conkers and her face showed serenity and purpose. She sat in an armchair and surveyed her daughter, bundled up in the thick shawl.

‘It’s freezing in here! Why don’t you light the fire? Where’s Yul?’

‘In his office I suppose. You know how hard he works.’

‘Yes, but it’s late – he should be with you. I’ll go as soon he comes up I promise.’

Sylvie nodded; she couldn’t tell her mother that some nights he didn’t come to bed at all.

‘Are you alright, darling? You look tired.’

‘I’m fine, thanks. Bluebell’s been a bit disturbed lately at night­time – she wakes up with bad dreams. You know how it is.’

‘You were just like that! Up and down all night when you were little. I’ve been very lucky with Rufus – he sleeps like a log.’

Miranda smiled and Sylvie recognised that same echo of

mother-love that burned so strongly in her own heart. ‘I was watching him at lunch time,’ she said. ‘He’s grown so much recently – he’s going to be tall.’

‘Like his father, no doubt,’ said Miranda, without any bit­terness. ‘It’s becoming more obvious now he’s reaching puberty. I can’t believe he’ll be thirteen at Imbolc and not my little boy any longer. But he only takes after Magus in looks – he’s such a sweet child and I’ve been really blessed with him.’

Sylvie nodded; despite the awful way Magus had treated Miranda and the fact that he’d been born posthumously, Rufus had grown up as a sunny and loving boy, if a little shy.

‘That’s actually what I wanted to ask, Sylvie. I know Yul’s busy, but do you think he’d spend a little time with Rufus this winter? He could really do with a bit of male bonding now he’s growing up. They’re kind of double brothers, aren’t they? The same father and being linked through us as well. Rufus really looks up to Yul, you know. There’s a bit of hero-worship there I think.’

Sylvie grimaced; they’d all like to spend a little time with Yul, his daughters included.

‘I’m sure he’d be happy to, Mum – I’ll mention it. But he’s so busy working and we hardly get to see him ourselves. Celandine was only asking this evening why he doesn’t read their bed­time story any more, and I never seem to have him to myself nowadays.’

Miranda eyed her daughter carefully. Sylvie had always been pale and slim but her face looked drawn and there was a sadness about her eyes – very different to the sparkling girl who’d spent such happy teenage years growing into a woman with her hand­some young man by her side. Even though Sylvie and Yul had been separated when they went off to different universities, their joy in each other on every return to Stonewylde was very evident. When had this sadness crept in?

‘You’re not feeling ill again, are you?’ she asked, anxious as ever not to pry, but unable to completely let go. ‘Hazel’s keeping an eye on you?’

‘Yes, Mum, I’m fine. You know that was just a hormonal thing after Bluebell was born and it won’t come back again, especially not with the implant. No, I just feel . . . a bit at a loose end, I suppose.’

She swallowed, annoyed at the catch in her throat. Her mother was not going to see her cry.

‘I guess you have more time on your hands now that Bluebell’s in the Nursery every day,’ said Miranda gently. ‘But there must be so much for you to do in the running of the estate, surely?’

Sylvie shook her head. This was the problem. She’d been the one to study estate management and agriculture, whilst Yul had been persuaded to broaden his world by studying the Arts. Yet as soon as she’d fallen pregnant with Celandine, not long after graduation and marriage, Yul had begun what she now saw as a careful process of protecting her from the exhausting demands of Stonewylde. And her dreadful illness after Bluebell’s birth had sealed her fate – Yul was in charge and her role was simply to be wife and mother.

‘Yul has it all under control, he says. It’s hard to find something that I can organise without treading on anyone’s toes.’

Miranda smiled and patted Sylvie’s arm.

‘You can always help in the schools,’ she said. ‘Either up here with the seniors or even down in the Village with Dawn. It’s not so bad in the primary school, mind you, since Yul insisted on cutting back on the birth-rate – that’s helped tremendously. But up here we’re bursting with teenagers. You know I’ve had to employ two more teachers recently, and we could still do with an extra pair of hands if you wanted to help.’

‘I’d be useless at teaching,’ said Sylvie, ‘and I find all those teenagers a bit terrifying, to be honest. You’re better off with properly trained teachers. What are the new ones like?’

‘They’re lovely and so in sympathy with the Stonewylde ethos. Do you remember some of the disasters we had in the early days, trying to find suitable teachers?’ Miranda chuckled, warming to her favourite subject. ‘But recruiting from the Druid communities was such a good idea. They seem to be totally in tune with Stonewylde and how we live and there’s no conflict of philosophy at all. I like both our new recruits, especially David the art teacher. Merewen’s far too busy with the Pottery to teach full time and she’s delighted to hand over her teaching to him. He seems really good.’

‘Do I detect a bit of a love interest there, Mum?’ laughed Sylvie. ‘I saw him the other day and he looks nice.’

‘Not from me, I can assure you!’ said Miranda. ‘Once bitten, twice shy. I’m perfectly happy, thank you, with more than enough on my plate running our education system here. I love it, Sylvie, really love it, and there’s Rufus to care for, and you, and my little grand-daughters. Oh no, the last thing I’d want is some man to mess it all up again. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Dawn taking an interest. They were having a good old chat yesterday and she seemed very animated.’

‘Really? That’s brilliant! It’s about time she found herself a man and settled down. She must be thirty now, or maybe thirty-one? I’m sure she wants children of her own.’

‘Yes but I don’t want to lose her from the primary school. She’s a great head-teacher. I’ll have to warn her off David if I think she’ll abandon us.’

‘She’d never do that, Mum – she’s as passionate a teacher as you are. I think it’d be wonderful. She’s a lovely woman and she deserves to find her soul-mate.’

‘Not everyone’s as lucky as you, Sylvie,’ said Miranda. ‘What you and Yul have is quite extraordinary. Most people never find that complete harmony.’

‘I know, but remember – Yul has a mistress too.’

Miranda’s mouth dropped open.

‘No, Mum, don’t be silly! I meant Stonewylde – I must share my husband with her! Stonewylde is his life, just as much as I or the girls are. I can’t compete with her and she’s far more demand­ing than all of us put together. I get what’s left of Yul when she’s had her fill of his time and energy.’

‘Well maybe you should be more demanding, Sylvie. Where is he? I’ll go now as I’m sure he’ll be up any minute, won’t he? Try and get him to ease off a bit and spend more time with his family.

And Rufus too please, if possible. He’s never had a father and he thinks the world of Yul.’ She stood up and bent to kiss her daughter. ‘You tell him, Sylvie. Not just for Rufus but for you and the girls too. He’s neglecting you and it’s just not necessary – there are plenty of others around to help run the community and he doesn’t have to take it on single-handed. I don’t like to see you all alone up here in the evening.’

When Miranda had gone, Sylvie left the lamp on just in case Yul did come up, and made her way to bed. It was chilly, and as she slid between the fine linen sheets she shivered with longing. She imagined him yawning, stretching his long limbs, running his hands through his dark curls and giving her that special smile that made her melt inside. He’d hold her in his arms, warming her with his vitality and passion, kissing her hard, brushing her hair from her face, murmuring his love for her . . . Sylvie sighed. It wasn’t going to happen. He’d have made the bed up in the office, as he often did when he worked late. She wouldn’t see him until he joined them for breakfast, with the girls jumping all over him and the day’s demands already jostling for his attention.

She turned the bedside light off and lay there alone, gazing out at the moon. It was just visible through the latticed panes, at its zenith now, a small shiny disc. Sylvie suddenly felt unutter­ably sad. She shut her eyes against the silver reminder of youthful passion and the hot tears that had welled up behind her lids.

In the study downstairs Yul looked up from the papers spread about him on the old leather-topped desk and rubbed the back of his aching neck. He hadn’t experienced Sylvie’s qualms about using his father’s things at all; in fact he took delight in doing so. He tapped some figures into the computer and printed out a couple more sheets. The illiterate Village boy had gone forever, all traces of him obliterated in this confident, articulate man of the world. At almost twenty-nine, Yul was in his prime and had exceeded his earlier promise. He was as tall and well-muscled as his father had been, fit and powerful. His chiselled face had lost all boyishness and was a study of fine, classical bones and strong planes. Yet the slanted, deep grey eyes still smouldered beneath a tousle of wild black curls.

Yul nodded as he scanned the sheets of paper; Harold had come up with yet another idea for the company and Yul was sure he was onto something promising. Stonewylde toiletries – rosemary soap, lilac bath oil, watercress face wash – a range of pure and organic products attractively presented in tiny hand­woven wicker baskets. It wasn’t an original idea, but, as ever, Harold had done his research and found there was a huge market for luxury, home-grown toiletries. Harold had such a talent for sniffing out opportunities and Yul had learned that going with his ideas invariably paid off.

Harold had even located an under-used barn near the Village which could be easily converted into a cottage-style factory to produce the soaps and oils. All Yul needed to do was give him the go-ahead and Harold would set the wheels in motion, organising prototypes and preparing finely-adjusted costings. Best of all, it was women’s work – not taking any labour away from food production or maintenance and building work, which at trad­itional Stonewylde still tended to be done by the burlier men. Even the children and old ones could help make the little baskets as everyone was expected to make some contribution to the community’s economy. This was just the right sort of money­making scheme to add to the ever-growing portfolio, and Yul was delighted.

Yawning, he switched off the computer and stood up, stret­ching hugely and feeling his spine realign with a crack. His body ached from sitting still too long. He’d have liked to ride Skydancer now, galloping along Dragon’s Back in the moonlight with the cold air on his face. But if he went to the stables now he’d wake people and then they’d wait for him to come back. He’d have to make do with a long, hard early morning ride instead.

Yul strode across to the French windows and flung them wide, welcoming the crisp October night air. He stepped out onto the terrace overlooking the sunken garden where Sylvie had sat and talked with Professor Siskin all those years before. He breathed deeply, drawing in lungfuls of air. The brilliant moon was visible as it hung on high, just clearing the edge of the vast building and all its turrets, roofs and chimney stacks.

Yul stood absolutely still then, his breath clouding around him as he looked up at the moon. He felt a stirring deep inside, a primeval need that Stonewylde had bred into him. Tonight the women were ripe, and as the dominant male it was his duty to ensure the survival of the tribe. He smiled slightly in acknow­ledgement of the instinctive urge and quelled it with an intel­lectual denial. He had two children and the community couldn’t survive any more population increase or in-breeding. He wouldn’t be out and about indulging his moon lust as generations before him had done, but would instead do the civilised thing and quietly go to bed.

Yul turned his back on the moon and the night and stepped into his study, leaving the French windows slightly ajar for the fresh air. He used the adjoining small bathroom and then quickly made up his bed on a sofa. He stretched out his long limbs and closed his eyes, thinking longingly of his beautiful wife upstairs alone in their bed. He was sure Sylvie would’ve gone to sleep ages ago and he didn’t want to disturb her. He found it impossible to sleep in the same bed and not make love to her, but it wasn’t fair to wake her up so late. By staying down in the study he’d contain himself and let her sleep in peace.

Yul was careful not to impose himself on Sylvie, not to be selfish or demanding. She’d retained that air of fragility and delicacy that had clung to her as a girl; as a woman she still seemed to command a gentle touch. Yul knew how important it was to keep his wildness and constant desire for her curbed and under tight control. He wanted her no less now than he had as a young lad, when such a thing had been an impossibility. Yet now, he thought wryly, when he could have her company whenever he chose, he seemed to have less time with her than ever before. Real life got in the way of their relationship to an extent he’d never envisaged. But it couldn’t be helped and there was no point dwelling on what couldn’t be. Stonewylde must come first; they both understood that.

All around him, the Hall sank into slumber. The huge building, a many-storeyed labyrinth of wings, rooms, corridors and stair­cases, settled down for the night like a great beast. So many people, so much stone, glass and wood, all under his control and his guardianship. As Yul drifted off to sleep the moon moved round further, to begin its descent in the night sky. It shone on his closed eyelids and he dreamed of hares and an owl and a great standing stone on the hill. He dreamed of a magical dancing girl with long silver hair and the moon in her eyes, a girl who’d set him on fire with longing and who’d turned his life on its head. In his sleep, with moonbeams patterning his face, Yul was pierced suddenly with a sharp sense of loss.