Heart of Stone Ch. 05bypsyche_b_mused©
5. Conversation & Guests
A week later Mary sat in the library with Mr. And Mrs. March. Tea had been poured and a few pleasantries had been exchanged, but no one was comfortable. The silence between them grew bigger and more ponderous until Mrs. March spoke.
"Miss Beeson, we know that you don't want us to go. We don't want to leave either, but Colin's health has to come first. Surely you understand that." She said.
"I do, and if I thought that Mr. March was ill I wouldn't even consider standing in your way-"
"You're calling me a liar, Miss?" She was offended and Mary didn't blame her, this wasn't going at all how she pictured it.
"No, that's not what I'm saying." Mary sighed.
"Well then maybe you'd better spell it out for us." Mr. March grasped his wife's hand. "I did imagine seeing you and a monster."
"But that's just it, you didn't imagine it." She closed her eyes so they wouldn't have to see the disbelieving looks on their faces. "I can PROVE that it wasn't a dream, or imagination or a hallucination."
"Miss, I think that you've been rattling around this old place by yourself for too long." Mrs. March began, the look of concern back in her face.
"Please, just wait here." Mary got up and closed the library doors behind herself. Aiden never ate with her and he rarely drank anything she offered, but she found that he did like tea. She went into the kitchen and got a large, deep soup bowl with a handle down from the shelf. It was too big to use for soup, but the size and the way it was made meant that it looked like a perfectly ordinary-sized cup in his hands. She saw Aiden waiting on the landing and she motioned to him.
"They think I'm crazy." She whispered.
"All of their doubts will be laid to rest sweet one." He leaned down and kissed her forehead. Mary rested against his chest for a moment and then led Aiden into the room. Both Mr. And Mrs. March jumped up and Mrs. March stifled a scream. Aiden remained behind Mary and she knew from experience that he was doing his best to look as benign as a horned and taloned creature could look.
"This is Aiden." She was trying to sound casual, but Mary wondered if everyone else in the room could hear her heartbeat. She turned to him.
"Aiden, this is Colin and Maureen March, my gardener and housekeeper, respectively." She stepped aside and filled the large cup with the rest of the tea in the pot.
"It is my pleasure to finally meet you. Mary has told me a great deal about both of you." He brought his chair over and sat, he accepted the cup when Mary handed it to him. The Marches had stopped cowering, but their eyes were still wide.
"Would you like more? I can make another pot." She asked softly.
"Not just now, child. Thank you." Mary sat next to him and Mr. March sat again, looking more confused than frightened. Mrs. March still looked completely terrified.
"He's a demon." She breathed.
"No!" Mary said, unable to keep the offense out of her voice. He laid his hand lightly on her arm.
"Remember that you were also frightened at first." Mary knew she was letting her nerves get the better of her. She fell silent and let him continue explaining. He turned to the stunned couple. "I am a gargoyle. Your demons were made to look like my kind, to further engender fear and disgust."
"You're the statue. The one the old gentleman said was alive." Mr. March said.
"That's not possible." Mrs. March said firmly. "This whole thing is not possible. We're dreaming or crazy or something." Mr. March grasped his wife's hand and she clung to him as if he were her last link to sanity.
"It's a lot to take in." Mary felt sorry for the older couple and her tone was calmer. "I thought I was dreaming too at first, or that I had gotten so lonely I was imagining things."
"If he's the statue, then if we go upstairs it won't be on the balcony." Mrs. March said, still trying to make sense of it all.
"True enough. I will remain here if you wish to reassure yourself." Aiden offered. The older couple disappeared upstairs. Those few minutes seemed to be the longest of Mary's life. To a casual observer, Aiden seemed unconcerned, but the way he kept repositioning his wings and the persistent twitch in the end of his tail told Mary that he was nervous too. Finally they returned and sat down in silence.
"This isn't a trick, is it Miss?" Mrs. March asked, her hands trembled a little as she sipped her tea.
"No." Mary said. "But Aiden and I didn't mean any harm either. He tells me that his kind have always been protectors of their human families, and then we turned on them."
Aiden began to tell the story of his kind and even though it was the second time Mary had heard it she was just as enthralled as she had been the first time. Mary picked up the story when he reached to the part about the search for others and how she eventually located the new one in the garden.
"Why isn't that one alive?" Mrs. March asked.
"Because she's still cursed. I still don't know how I broke Aiden's spell, I think it has something to do with the fact I cried on him but that's only a guess." Mary sipped some of her tea.
"And you two became friends?" Mr. March asked.
"At first." Mary blushed and he put his hand on her arm lightly. She gripped his hand softly. "And then it became more. We got closer over the months and in December Aiden took me as his mate."
"So when I saw the two of you, you weren't in trouble?" Mr. March asked, leaning forward. Even Mrs. March seemed more relaxed. Mary started to relax herself.
"No. I wasn't even afraid, well, not after the first time." She laughed softly and even Mrs. March managed a smile.
"It's you that's taking the deer then." Mr. March said.
"Yes." Aiden answered. "I asked Mary's permission first, but like any other natural creature I must eat to remain healthy and survive. Have I inconvenienced you in some way?"
"Oh no Mr. Aiden. The way I see it the deer belong to Miss Mary, I only ask because Freddy Aiken found one of the carcasses the other day and he's been talking in the village pub."
"He's a drunk." Mrs. March scoffed. "Everyone in the village knows better than to listen to him."
"What is he doing on your property?" Aiden asked Mary.
"The estate is so big, I think it was Ambrose that split part of it up. Freddy Aiken rents a small piece of land."
"And he parks a filthy little caravanette on it." Mrs. March said. "I used to tell Mr. Ambrose that no good would come of putting up with him."
"Mr. Ambrose didn't like to think of him wandering through the village and creating a nuisance. He keeps to himself." Her husband answered.
"He likes to keep the rent to himself too, or at least that's what Mr. Ambrose always said." She responded.
"What does this have to do with the deer?" Mary asked.
"Sorry, Miss. There's a path behind The Black Dog that takes him through the wood to his little patch. A couple of weeks ago he went into the pub talking about how there was a monster in the wood because he saw it drop a torn up deer carcass." He sipped his now cold tea and set the cup aside with a little grimace.
"Let me make a fresh pot." Mrs. March collected the cups but paused before reaching out for Aiden's. He held it out to her with a benign smile and she accepted it carefully. "Will you want more as well?" She asked him.
"No, thank you." His tail wrapped around Mary's ankle and she smiled over at him.
"So what did people say when Freddy told him about his monster?" Mary asked.
"Well nothing much really, Freddy being a drunk and all. People just laughed. I did too, only now I'm not sure it's so funny anymore."
"It would seem that things have changed a great deal. In the past, the estate was closed to all but invited guests. Do others often walk in the forest?"
"On the side of the wood nearest the village there are several places that people like to take picnic lunches. Freddy is about the only one who goes through the wood in the dark though, at least as far as I know." Mrs. March returned and passed out cups of hot tea. "I only bring it up though because if someone who isn't a drunk should happen to see what Freddy saw, well, there's a chance that it wouldn't be laughed off."
"Can you show me the places that these others frequent?" Aiden asked, his tail squeezed Mary's ankle lightly, rhythmically.
"I'll take you there in the morning." Mr. March took a long swallow of his tea.
"That will not be possible. Perhaps I neglected to mention that it is my nature to revert to stone during the day."
"You did mention it, I think I was a little distracted." Aiden smiled a little and so did Mr. March. "I don't know that I could find my way over there in the dark though."
"What about the north side?" Mary asked. "I thought Mr. Scott told me that was still kept as private land."
"That's true Miss." He said. "I couldn't dictate to Mr. Aiden where he can and can't go though. It just seems like you've been trying to keep this to yourselves, maybe Mr. Aiden could get what he needs in the north section."
"Speaking of secrets," Mrs. March said. "Are you planning on talking with Maggie about all this?"
"Well, that wasn't my plan." Mary said slowly, unsure of where her housekeeper was heading. "Mostly I wanted you to know that Mr. March wasn't ill, and I was hoping that when you knew that you would stay."
"We'll have to talk about it-" She began.
"We'll stay." Mr. March said firmly. "The only reason I could be convinced to leave at all was the fact that I thought I was losing my grip." Mrs. March smiled over at him.
"It seems we're staying then." She smiled, first at her husband and then at Mary and Aiden. "Now about Maggie, it's not for me to tell tales but the only reason she doesn't steal the silver is because I would notice."
The conversation became easier after that and they talked until close to ten at night. By the time everyone was ready to say goodnight the older couple had become Colin and Maureen to Mary and Aiden and they both felt comfortable enough to allow Aiden to walk them to the cottage. While he was gone Mary washed the dishes and went upstairs and took a quick shower. She emerged from bathroom in her robe with her damp hair around her shoulders. She found him in the small sitting room. Aiden reached for her and Mary curled up in his lap. When his arms were safely around her Mary shrugged out of the robe and was rewarded with a soft purring growl. For a while, he held her in silence.
"Did that progress as you imagined it would?" He asked softly.
"I think it went better, but that was because of you." She kissed the side of his throat softly. He sighed and his arms tightened around her.
"Thank you, child." His talons traced lightly over had back. Mary arched and shivered pleasantly. "Something is still weighing on your mind though."
"What if we're wrong?" She said after several silent minutes. "What if I wake up to reporters and photographers all over? What if someone says you're a threat to national security and they come and take you away?" Her arms tightened around his body. She could hear him suppress a small chuckle.
"Those two will tell no one and speaking with Colin has given me a better idea of how to remain hidden in plain sight in this age, and if anyone attempts to take me from you they will face quite a fight." He kissed her lightly. "You surprised me tonight."
"How?" Mary's body was molded to his.
"I did not think that you would reveal that you were my mate." One large hand drifted over her hip and thigh. Mary winced when one talon accidentally scraped over one of one the few scabs that hadn't healed yet.
"Did it bother you?" In truth Mary had surprised herself. She wasn't certain that they would see Aiden as anything but an animal. In that moment though, it seemed so important that they understand he was much more than that to her. The words were out of her mouth before she could consider how Aiden might feel about it. He lifted her chin.
"No child, it made me certain that I chose wisely." His lips found hers and Mary arched against him, her fingers stroked his chest lightly. She moaned softly, her tongue caressed his lightly. His hands drifted down, and caught one of her scabs painfully again. Mary whimpered softly and felt the warm trickle of blood over her hip. She reluctantly let him break the kiss, he lifted her. "Let me treat that, before I make it worse."
"Miss, there's a Mr. Darren Rathbun here to see you." Mary put her needlepoint down. It was a new hobby, but one that she found enjoyable.
"What does he want?" She asked.
"I don't know. He says that it has something to do with your new statue." Maureen stepped into the room and closed the door behind herself. She lowered her voice. "If you ask me, he seems a rather strange sort."
Mary glanced outside and noticed it was nearly dark. Over the past six months, the Marches had guarded the secret of Aiden's existence as fiercely as Mary herself did. They had also gotten very comfortable with Aiden and he seemed to like feeling as though he had both of them to take care of as well.
"Please show him in, but Aiden should be waking soon. Go up and let him know I have a guest here in the library and that he's a stranger."
"Of course, Miss." Maureen slipped out of the room quietly. The library was on the ground floor, Aiden's height meant that he would easily be able to see in. Mary told herself that she was doing it only so that he would have no misgivings about her meeting with this stranger, but the fact was, she was nervous. At least with Aiden nearby she hoped she would be able to hold onto the appearance of composure.
"Mr.-" Maureen started.
"Darren Rathbun." Her guest finished. He was a tall, gaunt man with oily-looking hair and an equally oily smile. Immediately Mary knew that she didn't like this man. "Such a pleasure to meet the beautiful great-granddaughter of my dearest friend, Ambrose." He swept into the room with a flourish. Mary caught the surprised look Maureen gave him. Mary stepped back when he reached out to take her hands.
"I'm pleased to meet you Mr. Rathbun, but I don't shake hands. It's a peculiarity of mine." She thought she saw a cloud drift across his unnaturally animated face, but he recovered quickly. "Would you like some tea? Or perhaps coffee?" She indicated a wing-chair near the fire and sat in the other one. Her guest had little choice but to sit.
"Tea would be lovely." His smile that twisted his thin lips stopped well before it reached his gray eyes.
"Maureen, if you would please." Mary didn't like the prospect of being alone with this man, but there was not good reason for the housekeeper to remain. Besides, this would give a chance to alert Aiden. The older woman left silently.
"So you knew Ambrose?" Mary asked, shattering the silence and her strange guest's stare.
"Oh yes, we were constant companions. He was a great deal older than myself of course, but that hardly mattered. I am sure we will be good friends as well, I believe that we have many things in common." There was a predatory glint in his eye, but the rest of his face seemed friendly and open. It was a disparity that unsettled Mary.
"You've only just met me Mr. Rathbun." There was a soft knock at the door and Maureen entered. She set the tea tray on a low table between them and left silently. Mary poured a cup for her guest. "Cream, sugar or lemon?"
"Lemon." His grin grew hungrier as he reached for the cup and saucer. Mary's skin crawled at the idea of those long fingers touching her, even casually. She set the cup in front of him and was rewarded with a fleeting disappointed look. Mary pretended not to notice and prepared a cup for herself with sugar.
"Maureen told me that you wanted to talk about my statue." She sipped the tea.
"You Americans are all business." He laughed softly and took a sip of his tea. "You recently purchased a rather large statue at auction, didn't you?"
"A number of months ago, yes." Mary smiled and fought the urge to produce some plausible explanation as to why she wanted it. Her guest was doing enough lying for the both of them.
"I was bidding against you." He smiled his oily smile and Mary began to notice other things about him too, like the fact that the suit he wore was obviously new, but it was so out of fashion she didn't even want to venture a guess as to what century the style came from. "I already own a similar statue you see, and I wanted another to go along with it. Is that why you bought it?" His eyes sharpened. Mary wished there was some way to have Aiden in the room with her. She sipped her tea, taking great care to keep her body still.
"No." The lie was a calculated risk. She was certain this man hadn't known Ambrose from Maureen's reaction, but it was possible that he knew about Aiden. "But you can see the Hall is covered in gargoyles. I thought I would continue the theme through to the garden."
"There were several available, did you buy others?" Mary refilled his cup. "One statue hardly makes a theme in a garden."
"That one happened to be the only one I liked." His manner had shifted, and the change put Mary on edge.
"Oh now Mary," he chuckled and the sound reminded Mary of the sounds dry leaves made when they scuttled on pavement. "It's a statue. An object. Now, if I were to reimburse you the purchase price, and the cost of having it brought all the way out here, you could easily buy several others. Begin a proper collection, as it were."
"That's a very generous offer, Mr. Rathbun, but I'm not interested." Mary was certain that she saw a flash of anger in his eyes. His hand closed into a tight fist before he forced himself to relax.
"Please, call me Darren." He said, attempting to keep his tone even. "Of course, you want something for your time and trouble. I can arrange that."
"Thank you, but I won't be changing my mind. You know how girls are, we get attached to silly objects." She smiled slightly and she could sense him appraising her. The tea was completely forgotten. Mary didn't even let herself think about where he was going to get the money to pay her off. If he had ready assets he wouldn't have lost the auction in the first place. Her guest seemed to be considering his position.
"I can see that you are a very astute young woman, so I will be honest with you. Do you know anything about your great-grandfather?" He asked.
"Not much." It was the truth, but it left him open to interpret it as he wished. His eyes lit up and he sipped the cold tea. She could almost see him thinking about what he would say.
"He was a very powerful magician." His eyes were intense and Mary returned his gaze with perfect innocence.
"You mean he pulled rabbits out of hats?" She said, knowing perfectly will that isn't what he meant. He sighed.
"I suppose that is what most people think about the practice today. I don't mean the illusions practiced for the amusement of children, I mean the manipulation of and control of the physical environment by purely metaphysical means." Now Mary knew why she had been so adamant that this man not touch her. If he had contact with her skin, even for a moment, he would know the level of her skill.
"It seems there are a great many things I didn't know about Ambrose. Are there others who have these same abilities?" Mary knew she was treading on thin ice.
"Powerful knowledge is rarely lost completely." He waved his hand and flames grew on the candles scattered around the room. It was impressive, but it was a simple enchantment. The gesture was a flourish made entirely for her benefit. She played her part and looked suitably awestruck. He smiled benignly. "Your family has quite a long history of magical skill, I'm certain Ambrose would be pleased if you were to allow me to train you." The predatory glint was back in his eye.