Web of Echoes
Web of Echoes Short Story Prequel (Book 2)
Time Travel/Historical Fantasy
Northern Echoes Excerpt -
Air emanated through Caitlin Benoit like life itself as she inhaled with lungs still recovering from the constriction of time travel. Rich, full, cool. She heaved another breath, the fresh rush inflating her chest. Relief electrified every nerve, her pulsed quickened. One more time, a bit slower now, the breath cleansing as she gazed through eyes still blurred from travel. The sketchy lines of a horse and its rider slowly came into focus, and as the man stopped in front of her, she noticed his gentle brown eyes laced with confusion. Dressed in a navy tailcoat over a white silk shirt and beige wool pants, he looked more Georgian than Victorian, and those clothes placed him—and now Caitlin—in the early eighteen-hundreds. And the location…
Her eyes strayed from the man to the grounds beyond the rider. Trees, sloping hills, a magnificent manor house. The far forests seemed to stretch for miles in a thick blanket of green. But they could be anywhere. It was the house itself that provided the clues, one she recognized from several period movies—a Hollywood favorite.
Chatling Hall, an aristocratic home to a Duke of England. The Peak District, she thought. Only that made little sense. She'd traveled in time to the plantation house in Georgia, lived among slaves for a week, was instructed how to utilize the stone she'd discovered at the archeological dig in 2018, those instructions followed to the letter. She should have left 1859, returned to 2018. But if this was England, then not only had she traveled further back but also hopped the large pond to land on another continent entirely.
"Madame? Can I be of some assistance?" the man asked for what Caitlin thought might be the second time. Maybe the third. Her brain was only just beginning to focus, to wrap the context around what her eyes were seeing.
"I think I'm lost," Caitlin muttered as she shook her head.
"I venture to guess so much. Pray tell, what is your name?" He slid from the horse, boots hitting the dirt in a rise of dust. The man removed his hat, hung it casually from his fingertips; manners that screamed early century Europe.
"Caitlin Benoit." She held out a hand. A handshake wouldn't fit to the customs, she shouldn't have expected the gesture. Still, surprise tickled her when the man took hold of her hand and kissed her fingers.
"It is my pleasure to meet you, Miss Caitlin." After a bow of his head, the man replaced the top hat as he straightened. "William, Duke of Lancaster."
The Duke himself. The stone couldn't give me a little break and place me at the feet of a peasant or a groomsman. "Is this your home?"
"Indeed, it is," William said with a smile. "Madame, if you are indeed lost, I welcome you as a guest of Chatling Hall until your traveling companions return."
"Thank you. I appreciate that."
He tilted his head, studied her once more. Her modern English against his very proper British accent likely sounded as strange to him as his did to her. And her clothes were as far removed from anything a proper English woman would wear. They wouldn't even be invented for nearly a hundred and fifty years.
"Are you familiar with riding on the back of a horse?"
The question cut through the noise in her head. Caitlin raised a brow. Horseback riding was one of her favorite past times, but the way she rode would make nineteenth century women blush in shades to match their pretty, fancy dresses while men would question their value as a proper woman. Notions that were both archaic and sexist—and they made her skin crawl—but she needed time. Time to figure out how she left a Georgian Plantation in 1859 at the courtesy of a mysterious rock, endured the plastic wrap of time travel once more, but didn't return to twenty-first century America. At this point, it seemed time meant nothing, and yet she needed to buy some now. "No, not well, I'm afraid."
"Then I shall walk with you."
She nodded, fought to ignore the twinge in an ankle badly sprained days earlier, if she tried to define it in the conventional, linear sense. Seemed those conventions were out the window now, but her mind would take a little time to catch up.
Caitlin focused on the hills of the Peak District. She followed all the rules the slave woman shared with her in Georgia—inside the circle, in the direct sunlight—yet she landed in England. Only… what year was it exactly?
"Forgive me, but I do not recall having the pleasure of your acquaintance in the past. I like to think I'm familiar with everyone in the nearby villages," her companion said. "Are you here on holiday?"
Of course, he knew most everyone nearby. He owned the land, and the villagers were his tenants. Caitlin cleared her throat, prepared for the book of lies she would have to tell until she could leave the past where it belonged. "Yes, it's been a long trip."
"Then you must be tired."
Worn with the indentations left behind by carriage wheels, the path curved around a bend where the trees gave way to a full, unobstructed view of Chatling Hall. In front of the manor house, a fountain as long as a football field shot water high into the clear afternoon sky. Set behind the fountain, Chatling Hall appeared to float on the surface of that water. The illusion was a good one, and almost took Caitlin's breath away.
The stone manor house itself was even more impressive than it had appeared in the twentieth- and twenty-first century movies. Classical architecture climbed three stories towards the sky. Gilded urns lined the roof, while three rows of windows—their frames also gilded—stretched right and left. As she and William neared the home, a staircase came into view. It curved upwards to a proud, rectangular landing which looked out across the fountain.
Chatling Hall dwarfed Shady Oak Plantation in every possible way; even Biltmore paled in comparison. The aristocratic wealth was what Americans could only mimic but never quite attain. North America was too young, the British aristocracy too carefully built and maintained. The house defined the difference in spades.
"Are you travelling with family?"
Caitlin pulled back her gaze to face the Duke. "No, no, I'm not. I'm sorry, I know this is going to sound a little funny, but… what year is it?"
The Duke's brows furrowed, and he stopped, stared at her. "1831. Did you hit your head? Are you quite all right?"
A hardness filled her stomach. She must tread carefully or she'd be on the receiving end of questions she couldn't answer.
With a mind that reeled in every direction, Caitlin didn't pay attention to the ground. Too late for her to notice, she stepped on a large pebble and stumbled, causing an already weakened ankle to turn. She dropped to a knee, the fresh pain bursting through her foot. Caitlin shook her head. "No, I don't think so."
"Very unusual for a woman to be travelling alone." William reached for her hand and helped her to feet. A grimace crossed her lips as she put weight on the foot. "You cannot walk like that. Allow me, please." He wrapped his hands around her waist and lifted her easily onto the stallion's saddle, one hand brushing against her backpack. William cocked his head. "What matter of object is that?"
Her clothes, the backpack. Mitilda and her family didn't ask near as many questions, despite knowing she didn't fit in. Staying with them had been easy. But now, Caitlin's mind searched for explanations for everything. It would have been far easier to land on a mountain top somewhere.
"It's a bag to carry things in. I don't have much."
"Yes, I see that." William took a step back, a fresh wave of concern pressed Caitlin's senses. "I'll lead Major," he continued, "we shall walk slowly so as you do not fall." He dropped his gaze to her legs, followed them to the ankle so carefully tended to by Mitilda a couple hours earlier, and twenty-five years into the future.
Caitlin's head began to hurt as it fought to wrap around the idea.
"May I?" he asked, motioning to the foot. She nodded as he carefully examined the wrappings. "These treatments are in poor shape. You must have had your injury tended to in a village somewhere?"
A village? A crude, simplified way of describing the slave quarters. A group of homes, prisons to the sixty-four slaves living at Shady Oak, all policed by a monstrous overseer and that sad tree where she couldn't venture to guess how many had been lynched and killed. They lived, cried, told stories, tried to find joy between the bone-melting work in the fields day after day. A village? No. But how else could she describe the conditions to him without raising suspicions? Caitlin forced Mitilda's face from her mind as she answered with a slow nod.
"It is a poor job at best. The Lady's Maid shall assist you in better bandages, and perhaps a change of clothes that would be quite adequate."
She raised her brows, rolled her eyes. "As what I am wearing now isn't appropriate, I'm sure."
"It is most unusual, yes. I have not seen anything like it in all my travels. But do not concern yourself with the matter. I am certain we have an appropriate dress to fit you."
Appropriate or inappropriate never meant a thing to her. But she had to blend in, make things a little easier in this time. So, she managed her best smile and nodded. "I appreciate that."
A fresh pounding filled her ears, forced her equilibrium to falter. Caitlin blinked hard, her stomach turned, head pounded. The first trip in time didn't leave her sick, just confused. But this was something different, and Caitlin swallowed hard. "Thank you."
"My pleasure. Once you are dressed and rested, I invite you to have dinner with me tonight, then you can tell me of your travels, and I can help in making arrangements for you to reach your destination."
"That'd be nice, thank you."
William nodded, continued to the side of the house and another set of steps that were every bit as elegant as the ones before, and stopped the horse. With a gentle pat on the animal's neck, he stepped closer to Caitlin's side. "Allow me." He wrapped his hands around her waist, eased her to the ground.
Caitlin tenderly placed her foot on the dirt, eased the weight on the opposite side. The Duke's gentleness was a surprise. But hiding among slaves was one thing, blending in with aristocracy quite another. Especially given her heredity. Jaw set, she stared at the ground, careful to disguise the thoughts from the Duke.
"Are you able to walk?"
Caitlin nodded. "I think so. It'll be slow going, but I can manage." The first step betrayed her, and Caitlin stumbled once more, grumbled under her breath.
"It appears you are still in need of some assistance."
"I should be able to do this alone."
"An injury such as this requires rest, and perhaps does not present the best conditions for a holiday. I know it is most inappropriate, but I fear you are unable to make it to the chair of your own volition. I pray you don't find me too forward." He wrapped an arm around her waist and eased the burden of her weight as they walked up the steps into a short corridor.
Thick, red curtains pulled open to the outdoor light, simple paintings hung from the walls, and an eclectic, thin collection of simple busts lined the walkway. The public areas of these old manor houses were dressed to impressed—it was their sole function. But this entryway was far simpler. Even the chaise lounge and armchairs set between some of the busts, though comfortable, were not near as elegant as those the Duke surely set on display in the parlor. This hallway was meant to be a private entry, for family only. Seemed odd William would choose to bring her this route, she thought. But then, he didn't seem to be as high and mighty as she would expect from British aristocracy.
A short walk through a doorway, and the room opened wide in amazing splendor. Caitlin stepped onto the black and white checkered marble floor, stopped. Her eyes followed the massive hall to a ceiling painted in a brilliant mural. White marble busts lined the walls, leading to a sloping staircase dressed in gold plated railings.
"It's breathtaking," she whispered. "I've visited many historic houses, but I've never seen anything like this."
"Have you been on holiday in many parts of Britain?" he asked when they reached the top of the stairs.
She smiled and nodded. "I think I can take it from here." Dutifully, William placed her tenderly on her feet, took her arm as she struggled to stand on the bad ankle. Frustration filled her gut.
"Are you quite all right?"
"I will be."
They moved down a hallway draped with family portraits, tapestries, and chairs. "Forgive me, madame, but you never said. Have you traveled to many parts of Britain?"
Caitlin's thoughts rushed in like tsunami. So many answers, so many ways she could answer, and yet what answer would best work. Finally, she answered, "No. Mostly, I've traveled elsewhere. Still, Chatling Hall is breathtaking."
"You are most kind. Chatling has been in my family for three hundred years.
Caitlin smiled. Funny, he wasn't at all what she pictured for an aristocrat. Not stuffy or pompous. Weren't nobles supposed to be cruel? She somehow doubted William of Lancaster had a cruel bone in his body.
History made so many errors in the books and in the memories of men.
"Very well then. We shall stop here." He turned into a room coated in red from ceiling to floor. The four-poster bed stood against the far wall with red draperies closing in around an equally red bedspread and bed skirt. Catholic pictures of the Virgin Mary and an impression of Christ surrounded by children hung from the wall, and a marble fireplace slumbered in the corner. A writing desk waited in front of the bed, and a small table held a wash pan nearby.
William watched as she struggled to sit in a nearby chair. "Were you injured in a fall from a horse, perhaps?"
"No, I just twisted it on uneven ground."
"Yes, that is easy to do."
William took a couple steps backward toward the hallway. "I hope you find the room to your liking."
"It's beautiful." Caitlin squirmed in her seat, pulled the backpack from behind her, and reached to rest it on the bed, watching as William's eyes followed her movements. But instead of answering the unspoken questions between them, she simply nodded. "Thank you."
"I'll leave you alone, then, to rest. My Lady's Maid will attend to your needs during the length of your stay. Whatever you may require, rest assured she will see to it. In the meantime, dinner will be served at seven. I do hope you will join me."
She nodded. "I will, thank you."
"Very well then. Until this evening."
He stepped into the hallway and closed the door, leaving Caitlin alone in the State Room. With a deep breath, she slowly made her way to the bed and sat against a mattress softer than she expected.
"I don't get it." She shifted, pulled the rock from the backpack, and stared down at the symbols. "You were supposed to take me home, not further into the past. A circle, the sunlight. All the rules were followed. How in the world did I land into 1831, in the Peak District of England no less?" she whispered.
Laying the stone next to her, she stared down at the rock, disgust soaking her bones. Time travel according to Mitilda dictated only one way to travel. But there was no sense in running a hand across the rock now. Circles and sunlight were scarce in a State Room hidden behind the heavy curtains.
She rubbed her eyes, massaged both temples. The headache and an upset stomach were passing, and she'd be able to think again. Caitlin shook her head. With no ideas and no one nearby who might be familiar with the stone, this puzzle was one she'd have to solve alone.
Caitlin tucked the rock back in the bag, and slid it under the bed, adjusted the bed skirt until the package was concealed. Another heavy sigh. "What, I'm five years old again hiding things under the bed from my mommy?" With a roll of her eyes, she pulled her bandaged foot onto the mattress. There was no way to know if the bag was safe behind the bed skirt, or if a maid or even William himself might poke around out of curiosity. The thought felt like a hard punch in the gut. Losing the rock would certainly leave her locked in the past.
If, she thought, she wasn't already.
"But there's got to be a way back home. There must be." Caitlin carefully unwrapped the bandages Mitilda had so diligently tended to that morning: thirty years in the future, and more than a hundred years in the past. She rubbed her forehead—just thinking about the time string thrummed at her head, the space behind her eyes throbbed with the effort.
Caitlin laid back on the bed and closed her eyes, fought to clear her mind. Slowly, the headache abated, just in time for a gentle knock on the door.
A woman dressed in a simple black dress and white apron opened the heavy barrier and walked in with short, silent steps, clothes draped over an arm, eyes focused ahead, lips pursed tight. She quietly made her way to one chair, draped the dresses across the back of the chair, then hurried back out of the room.
Caitlin raised up and considered for a minute, then stood and walked to the clothes, ran a hand over the cotton.
The door opened against and she turned around to see the maid once more. Based on the gray in the maid's hairline, the wrinkles around her eyes, the loosening skin on her neck, the maid was easily in her late forties, maybe even in her fifties. She wore an immaculate uniform, her face void of emotion. She was carefully trained, prudently disciplined to carry out her duties. Caitlin knew the woman made approximately two thousand a year in her role, decent pay for servants. It would not be a status the woman would risk losing.
"Master William ordered that I bring you an appropriate attire and anything more you may require." She glanced over Caitlin's clothes and quickly turned her eyes away. "I can help you dress properly."
Caitlin picked up the top garment, held it out in front of her. The pink formal gown was highlighted by white lace trim down the front, and white puffy lace sleeves, gold and pearl jewelry fixed to the material. It looked restrictive and uncomfortable. And so unlike her. "Thank you. I don't think I'll be able to manage on my own."
"Of course not. No one can." The woman stopped and glanced over Caitlin's clothes once more, this time less discreet. "I'm afraid I am not familiar with this type of dress.
"No, I'm sure you're not." Caitlin returned the dress to the chair and pulled in a heavy breath. The shorts and t-shirt would cause ripples of reactions in 1831, and regardless of how comfortable she was, it was time focus on fitting in. A matter of survival. "People don't need help getting dressed where I come from," she said quietly, more to herself than to the maid who continued to listen on.
"I don't suppose so. There's nothing there. How can you go out like that and allow a man to see so much of your body?"
Caitlin smiled. The lady's maid, though quiet and reserved just minutes before, was not afraid to speak her mind. Uncharacteristic for a servant, and maybe slightly less disciplined that Caitlin first thought. But, if the woman was willing to talk, it could be useful. "Where I come from, it's perfectly normal."
"I can't imagine where that might be." The maid turned her back as Caitlin unzipped the jeans. "I brought undergarments as well. They are all freshly laundered and might be more appropriate than what you might wear under that… that…"
Caitlin smiled. No sense in naming the clothes anything, not when they wouldn't be invented for another century and a half. Just William and the lady's maid seeing the shorts and t-shirt could have a lasting impact.
Instead, she thanked the confused woman. Everything about her clothes, the backpack, the way she talked, was inappropriate and odd in this time and she had to wonder if being at Chatling was causing damage. A butterfly effect overplayed in movies—was there a fragment of truth in it?
"Everything you brought is appreciated."
Caitlin looked around for something to conceal her now naked body. Shyness had never been an issue for her, and yet, now, standing in front of a strange woman left her feeling exposed. She shifted her weight, turned back to the Lady's Maid. With nothing nearby, Caitlin reached out a hand. "If you can hand the undergarments, I can take care of that myself."
The woman handed her a white cotton pair of shorts with an opening between the legs. Caitlin examined them with a raised brow. Something between oversized granny panties and crotchless delicacies. Each were torturous by themselves. Now she had to wear them as a combo? Nice. Great. Some kind of 19th century man's idea of underwear designed to make every woman cringe. Jaw set, she stepped into them. After pulling them to her waist, she tightened the drawstring, the end of the peculiar garment gathered around each knee like Bermuda shorts with elastic in the legs. Unbelievably uncomfortable, she buttoned the front row of tiny white buttons and wondered how any woman managed to spend a lifetime in such horrific underwear.
"Do they fit, milady?"
Caitlin raised her eyes. How could she tell? They were baggy in places, tight in others, odd and a little drafty. "I guess so. What's next?"
"Your stockings and chemise." Caitlin followed the Lady's Maid instruction nodded. "Pull the stay on, and I will tie it in the back."
She held what the maid called a stay in her hands. For Caitlin, she recognized it as a corset. The herringbone feel was stiff between her fingers. The boning, she remembered, more likely than not, was whalebone. "It feels awful. It has to be terribly uncomfortable."
"Have you never worn a stay?"
"No, I haven't, and never intended to try." Caitlin bit the inside of her cheek. Be more careful. She had to be more careful on what and how much she said. Though a maid wasn't likely to say anything to anyone important. Their job description demanded silence.
The Lady's Maid didn't seem to abide by those rules, at least not with her. "Are you from the East? Forgive me, but you look as though you are from the East."
"I'm from very far away." Saying any more could be dangerous, and she still needed to find her footing to try and explain anything to anyone.
Drawing a deep breath to suck her flat stomach into a concave shell, Caitlin struggled into the corset. For now, she'd have to live with the garment, but only for now. "Do I have it on right?"
The woman circled around Caitlin, and a few seconds later Caitlin felt the strong tug around her middle as the ribbons were pulled tight.
"It's every bit as uncomfortable as I've heard," Caitlin said. "I think that's more than enough."
The woman helped Caitlin into the petticoat, then the formal dress, and finally a pair of white gloves.
Caitlin rested a hand on her stomach. "So many layers."
"It is proper dress."
"Yes, I suppose it is. What's your name?"
"My name, milady?
"Yes. Your name?" Caitlin saw a flash of worry and unease dart across the woman's face, and remembered at the time she was in, the maid was expected to be nearly invisible, her name unimportant. "It's fine, I was just wondering.
Caitlin nodded and smiled, hoped to reassure the woman who'd probably lived in the dark corridors of Chatling House for most of her life. The only power Mary would ever hold in her life existed over the lower ranking servants who scurried somewhere deeper within the house, hidden from view. A lonely existence, Caitlin imagined, riddled by high expectations from the master and impossibly low potential of ever finding something more. Though they did have it slightly better than Mitilda and her family—the servants could leave, find employment in another house, and were paid something, however meager—their lifestyle remained grossly separated from those who lived upstairs. "That's a pretty name. It's nice to meet you, Mary."
The woman's face lit with a broad smile. "Thank you, milady. Shall I be of any further assistance?"
With a hand resting on her stomach, Caitlin shook her head. "Can you please… do you have material I can wrap around my ankle?"
"Oh milady. A thousand apologies. I will assist you immediately."
"You don't have to apologize. I can wrap it myself if you can just bring me something to take care of it."
Mary shook her head. "Oh no, milady. His Grace wouldn't have you to do such a thing, and the stay won't allow you to move so easily, in any case."
Caitlin smiled as she tried to bend over. Mary was right, bending over to wrap an ankle left the ribbings of the stay choking the air from her chest. "I guess not."
"Yes, milady. Please, sit comfortably. It won't take long."
True to her word, Mary removed the bandages, then placed clean cotton strips tightly on the ankle. She stood. "I venture to say shoes will not fit properly over the wrappings."
Caitlin glanced at the woman's handiwork, rather impressed with what she'd done. Clean, white strips of cotton wrapped the ankle in a lattice pattern reminiscent of the boxed bandages back home. A twenty-first century doctor couldn't have done better. "No, I have to think you're right about that, too."
Mary crossed the room to the wardrobe, pulled out the bottom drawer, retrieved a single black slipper, and returned to stoop in front of Caitlin. "I believe this might fit." She slipped it over the good foot, nodded with satisfaction. "It fits as it should. I fear the other won't slide over the bandages, but the dress will likely conceal it."
"I think you might be right."
"Very well. There is some time before His Grace requests your presence for dinner. If you should wish to rest, I shall call on you once His Grace is ready to serve."
"Thank you, Mary. I think I might do just that."
Without another word, Mary stepped out of the room, closing the door softly behind her.
Caitlin ambled to the writing desk, ran a hand over the mahogany wood. The workmanship was exquisite. Strong and sturdy, it must have taken a skilled worker hours to complete the craftsmanship to such perfection. And if the handiwork alone wasn't inspiring enough for the aristocratic eyes, gold inlays interlaced through the center of the desk and along the sides to provide a light contrast to the rich wood.
She turned her head, stared a painting of a woman playing a lute among a group of cherubs before making her way to the fireplace. Caitlin's fingers ran gently over the marble as she lifted her eyes to the Italian artwork, turned her head to study a painting, then lifted her eyes to the Italian mural stretched across the length and width of the ceiling.
Caitlin stepped back and raised a brow. The painting must be original, and in 1831 it likely already dated more than three hundred years old. Framed by a rope-like plastered trim, the meticulously detailed scene depicted gray and black storm clouds inhabited by men whose muscular frames were only vaguely dressed beneath flowing red robes. Cherubs floated among gray-white billows, full of smiles and gestures.
Caitlin pulled in a shallow breath; her rib cage tight beneath the corset. She swallowed the awe clasping at her throat, then dropped her gaze to move along the silk and tapestry covered walls, along enormous mirrors, and past delicate china. Every piece, every nook, was a living treasure.
"Standing in a living, breathing museum." With one last glance around the room, Caitlin shook her head. "Admiring one man's wealth isn't going to solve the mystery. I need to figure out how in the world I got here."
She trudged back to the bed and lowered onto the mattress, wondered if the same furniture stood in this room in the twenty-first century. Caitlin rubbed her forehead. Maybe a select few pieces did, those that survived the years. And it didn't matter. There was no time to worry about that.
Focus. She eased to the floor, struggled not only with the ankle but twisted to combat the restrictions of movement presented by the clothes. On her knees, she pulled and pushed at the gown, grunted with frustration. She shifted one shoulder, then the other. With another tired grunt, she reached under the bed and retrieved the backpack, pushed the dress out of the way once again so she could gather to her feet and sit on the bed.
With the rock in hand, Caitlin studied the etchings. A larger circle was connected to three smaller ones by three thin lines. A central figure comprised of simple half-squares faced in opposite directions, met on the center lines. Though the shapes were simple, the lines were perfect. Weathered, yes, but even aged, not a single error lie in the carvings.
Mitilda's words echoed in her mind: You needs be in the sunlight, inside a circle.
She narrowed her eyes, one finger running across the carving. She'd followed Mitilda's instructions, and time travelled. Only instead of going home, she was pushed further back. That could only mean something was missing.
She shook her head. "Not a clue what that might be."
A knock on the door sent Caitlin scrambling to hide the artifact in the backpack's nylon folds, then pulled the blanket over the bag. Mary opened the door and walked into the room.
"My Lord requests your presence in the dining room. If you are ready, please follow me."
Caitlin nodded and stood.