Hello, everyone reading this on Fiction Press. This is my first story, and not one of my best, but I wanted to know what people thought about my writing. Just to warn you, the first chapter I wrote years ago when I was about fifteen, so it's probably not as good as it could be. Please subscribe and leave a review; I'm always looking for constructive criticism and I just love flames. Even if you can't think of criticism, it's nice to hear that someone likes my story besides my mom.
CHAPTER ONE. CHURCH EXCURSION
June, 1884, Hanger Forest, Barton
The buck perked its ears, certain it had heard a crack. This was a forest, of course, and it was most probably just a little creature scurrying this way or that way, but it was good to be cautious. Hopefully, a deer didn't know the difference between a little animal and a man. Alex took a deep breathe, freezing both his body and his bow. The arrow was aimed and ready to fly, but he wanted to wait for the deer to make a decision. This was a game; that was the fun of hunting.
The deer seemed to decide that there was no immediate danger and dropped its head to nibble at the grass dotting the forest floor. Alex was ready. Ready, aim…
The deer bolted at the shout and Alex's arrow missed it by inches.
"Damn!" He murmured under his breathe, turning to wait for the culprit to reach him.
Greg ran up behind him and stopped, leaning against a tree for support and panting. "Alex-Sir Underwood-church-Brendon-stupid-says hurry-come." Greg was anything but coherent.
Alex sighed. Out of all his friends, it had to be Greg who came to fetch him. Certainly, Greg was a loyal friend and one of the nicest people Alex knew, but his timing was rarely ideal and always annoying. Alex smiled and placed a hand on Greg's shoulder. "Calm down, I get the gist. Come on."
Luckily, Greg gave up trying to talk and waited as his friend slung his bow over his shoulder and went to retrieve his missing arrow. Alex didn't bother to look back as he started back towards the castle, leaving Greg to scurry along behind him like a duckling.
Hanger Forest was rather large and there was no proper road through it. In order to reach the castle, you had to know your way to a small path, just wide enough to ride a horse through. Naturally, the Underwood clan-including Alex and Greg-usually avoided taking actual paths. This was the forest they had grown up in. While most of the adults used the main path, the young people-again including Alex and Greg-knew the forest so well they didn't even bother. And none knew the forest better than Brendon Underwood himself.
Brendon's father was the leader of the Underwood clan, and Brendon had wandered the forest all his life. Over the years, he had developed his own mini-clan, comprised of Alex, Greg, and three others. They were all near each other in age-from nineteen to twenty-two-and they had been close friends ever since their single digit birthdays.
As Alex had been hunting not far from the castle, it took them less than ten minutes to get back it the castle. Surrounding Underwood castle was a sort of village, where most of the Underwood clan lived. Alex and Greg, however, passed through the village and headed straight into the castle. It was early in the morning on a Sunday and few people were out, but the guard at the gate nodded at them in recognition as they entered.
While Greg had not exactly been clear about what was going on, he did mention something about Brendon and his father. Alex slowed down to let Greg catch up, and asked him, "Are they in the hall?"
Greg shook his head vehemently. "No, the pack room."
The 'Pack Room' referred to a large room in the castle that was used as a hangout for Brendon and his gang. It was filled with everything, from weapons to games to various projects they had started and never finished. When they weren't in the forest, Brendon and his gang were there. It was below-and officially part of-Brendon's suite. Brendon's suite consisted of a lower floor, which housed the pack room, and the upper floor, which housed his rather messy bedroom.
Alex headed there now, and was greeted by the loud chattering of four young men. He dumped his bow and arrows in the hall outside the room and pushed open the double swinging black doors. Brendon was standing near the center of the room, surrounded by the three others. Each were holding different piece of a type of suit, complete with trousers, starched shirt, black velvet jacket, elegant black tie, and shiny black dress shoes. Oh, and a rather shiny black top hat, which was necessary for any ridiculous costume. The outfit was neat, formal, and everything that Brendon was not. It was absurd just to see the clothes near him.
"-Don't I look like a prince!" Sanders, the shortest of the six exclaimed in a sarcastic voice, wearing the top hat over his greasy dark brown hair.
Brendon had taken off his black leather vest and green jacket to put on the velvet jacket and tie over his light green buttoned shirt. The way the tie had been tied would embarrass any 'London gentleman.' He said in a high, feminine voice, "Oh, look at me, aren't I a perfect London gentleman," He took off his black bowler hat and grabbed the top hat from Sanders, putting it on his own head. "I entrance the ladies with my devilish smile and ridiculously absurd costume." At his last words, he put on a rather poor attempt at a French accent, rolling the 'r' on 'ridiculously.'
"What are you doing in those ridiculous clothes?" Alex asked as he and Greg joined the group.
Brendon took of the hat and threw it into Alex's hands (luckily, he was quick thinking-and used to Brendon acting on impulse-, and caught it just in time). "Father has decided that it is time to save the Underwoods' souls."
Alex must have looked puzzled, because Billy explained to him, "Sir Adrian has been informed by one of our spies that Elizabeth Highmount has started to attend church. She seems to be held in high opinion by the local priest, and that does not sit too well with Sir Adrian. So he has decided that, if the Highmounts attend church, then we must too."
"And what better church to attend then the one across the street from the one the Highmounts attend?" Max pointed out.
Sanders finished by adding, "And both churches have a service getting out at the same time. Sir Adrian has said Brendon has to go. But luckily for us, the rest of us do not have to."
"Traitors!" Brendon whispered under his breathe.
"And the clothes?" Alex asked.
"Church clothes, according to Billy," Brendon answered. "But, in my opinion, it looks more like peacock feathers."
"So you are not going to wear it, I suppose?" Max asked, putting on his best disappointed face.
Brendon looked at him with a 'of course not' face, confirming his question. In fact, Brendon opted to wear what he wore every day, and stored the new outfit at the very bottom of his wardrobe. Perhaps it was better, as the outfit certainly didn't fit him. And, according to Max, God would forgive him. God did things like that, apparently.
As the Underwoods only owned one carriage-which they never used and which sat collecting dust in the carriage house-, the servants brought the horses out. Sir Underwood-in a pretty suit-, Brendon, and several older members of the Underwood clan climbed on the horses and set out for town.
The town of Barton was a moderately large town that lay just west of Hanger Forest. It may not have been a city, but it did have two churches, a town hall, over a hundred houses, and a population of three hundred and twenty-four. The center of the town was marked by the main square, a circular road which was surrounded by five central buildings. These included the city hall, a Church of England, a city bank, a Catholic Church, and a small library.
The two churches were just across the square from each other. St. Joseph the Carpenter Catholic Church was a small church with only one hundred and thirteen members. It was led by Father Michael Gent, who lived in a small cottage behind the church. The church had only been established recently-in 1860-and Father Gent had taken over three years later. Barton Anglican Church, just across the square, had one hundred and forty parishioners. It was guided by Pastor Frank Pratcher, who lived in a house behind the church with his wife and daughter. This church was built in 1604, and Pastor Pratcher had been pastor there for twenty years. The two churches looked very similar, for being totally different faiths.
Sir Adrian Underwood was not a religious man. In fact, he was quite the opposite. He had not been raised going to church. Though his mother had been brought up Catholic, she died when he was quite young and his father cared little for faith. He had not been to church for over fifty years. This meant that Brendon had never been to church and he did not know nor care about anything having to do with religion. He only knew that there was this powerful god that controlled the world. And even that fact was negotiable.
It took around an hour to travel from the Underwood castle to the town of Barton, and it took another half an hour to get to Barton from the Highmount castle. As the service at St. Joseph's church began at eight-thirty and the Anglican Church began at nine, the Highmounts were already in church by the time that the Underwoods arrived in front of the opposite church. Despite beginning at the different times, both churches got out at ten. This was the time that the two clans were bound to run into each other.
I will not bore you with details concerning what happened in either of the churches, as it is not of great importance to the plot of this story. There certainly was a bit of talk concerning the presence of two of the richest families-perhaps the richest-, but nothing to warrant any particular attention. The only person that seemed to not appreciate the arrangement was Brendon, who found the church service boring and wished every second to have it be over with. He certainly hoped his father wouldn't get it into his head to do this every Sunday. He found the preacher excessively boring in his endless speech. Certainly, he didn't like the Highmounts any more than his father, but he didn't appreciate having to leave his safe zone-the forest-and coming into a zone where the two clans were on even ground.
When the services had finally finished and the two groups exited, only the Underwoods knew what waited for them outside. Sir Adrian spotted his adversary just as he was about the exit the doors. He was prevented, however, from making a decision of how to confront her when the pastor addressed him from behind.
"Sir Adrian-" Everyone in the town knew who Sir Adrian Underwood was, "-how lovely it is to see you in church today. I hope this attendance shall not be a onetime occurrence?"
Although he was displeased from being distracted from his objective, Sir Adrian had a talent of putting on a perfect demeanor if he wanted to. And now, he did. Smiling, he turned to Pastor Pratcher and answered him, "I do hope I will be able to, though the journey here is long and strenuous. But it is worthless to complain about a few discomforts in order to hear God's message."
Brendon smiled and rolled his eyes at his father's false faith, but Pastor Pratcher seemed genuinely impressed. "Oh, Sir Adrian, I had no idea that you appreciated the greatness of God. It is nice to see a man in such a high position as yourself seeing the importance of faith."
Brendon turned away from the conversation, watching the people across the street. As there were so many people leaving both churches, it was hard to distinguish the faces of the Highmounts. Naturally, Brendon had never met Elizabeth Highmount, but he had seen her several times. Luckily, she was rather tall and wore bright colors, making her easy to pick out in the crowd. She wore a bright lime green stiff Victorian dress, complete with ridiculous ruffles and puffy hair. She was far from pretty-he would go as far to say she was rather ugly-, but he contributed it partially to how old she was. After all, she was at least a decade or two older than his father, making her around seventy.
"And does your son share you beliefs?" Brendon was pulled out of his observations by the pastor's voice, referring to him.
Sir Adrian glanced at his son, who returned his gaze with a blank expression, and then dismissed him with a wave of his hand. "Brendon is a good boy, but he's a bit unruly. He spends too much time running in the forest with his little friends. But he does appreciate God," He added, remembering he was supposed to pretend to be a religious man who would never say anything bad about someone. It was obvious, nevertheless, that Sir Adrian wished to turn the conversation away from his son, but the pastor was oblivious to this fact.
"He must be quite a grown man now. He must be nearly twenty." The pastor was saying.
"He turned twenty several months ago."
"Indeed, it is nice to see a nice young man attending church with his father. Many young men do seem to fritter away their time on society frivolities. Young ladies, as well. They spend their days trying to follow ladies of fashion miles away in London. You will never see my daughter wearing such impractical clothing. Speaking of my daughter, may I introduce her to you and your son? Tabitha, come here."
Both Underwoods glanced at the young lady who came to stand next to her father. Tabitha Pratcher was a young lady who appeared to be in her late teens. Though not particularly pretty, she had a delicate figure with dark raven hair and small dark eyes. The dress she wore was in a rather simple style of a blue grey color with slightly puffy long sleeves. The main thing Brendon noticed about her was how short she was-he was of no immense height himself, and she was a head shorter than him. Immediately he dismissed her as not worth his notice, and turned back to watch Elizabeth Highmount, who was talking to Father Gent across the street.
Tabitha curtsied to both Underwoods when she was introduced, but she watched the son, as her father and Sir Adrian continued talking. Although she had lived in Barton all her life, she had only seen Brendon Underwood a handful of times, and had never been introduced to him. Now was her opportunity to study him. He was a couple years older than she was; hardly as old as many of the eligible gentlemen in town that her father planned to get her married to. He certainly wasn't dressed for church (his attire included muddy boots, leather pants, several layers of jackets and a green shirt, a large belt with several pockets, several brown scarves, and messy curly hair under his umber bowel hat), but at least he had taken his hat off during church. That proved he had some respect for the Lord.
She liked him, she decided after a moment of studying him. He was the type of young man that most girls were interested in; he was different. He didn't try to fit in with what society said a young gentleman should be. He may not try to stand out, but he did anyway. Of course, it didn't hurt that he would inherit an immense amount of land and money. Unfortunately, he didn't seem interested in her. Instead, he stared out at the street. She tried to guess what he was looking at; a lady, perhaps. She hoped not.
Walking over to where he stood, she addressed him, "My father and I are honored by your presence at church today."
He glanced at her, looking rather bored. "I certainly did not have much of a choice in the matter. If I had my way, I would have stayed home. And if you want to compliment someone, why do you not go talk to my father?"
"If you change your mind, I can promise you that the doors are always open for you at our church."
Brendon rolled his eyes. "Do your preaching to someone who intends to listen." Completely dismissing her, he turned away and strutted down the church steps to join the rest of the Underwoods, who had gotten out of the way of the exiting crowd to wait for Sir Adrian.
Despite the fact that he had been rather rude to her, Tabitha had quite the opposite reaction then he had been expecting her to have. She was so used to being treated exactly the same way by every gentleman she met. It was nice to have a change; she didn't even care if it was a negative one. She made a note to call upon the Underwood castle with her father. Then she could see this intriguing Brendon Underwood again.
Finally, Sir Adrian was able to escape from the rather boring Pastor Pratcher. Just as he reached the Underwood group and looked up to find the Highmounts, his eyes met those of Elizabeth Highmount's. If looks could kill, one-or both-would surely be dead. The two leaders had hardly any contact with each other, and didn't want any more. In fact, they had not seen each other above ten times in the last twenty years.
"Should we talk to them?" Brendon asked his father.
"I would rather have a wolf bite off my leg. The Highmounts are an evil family and I do not want to have anything to do with them," his father answered with a matter-a-fact tone.
"Then why come to church in the first place?"
Sir Adrian sent an annoyed look to his son. "Why should they be favored anywhere where we cannot exceed them? Did you see that priest was practically groveling at her feet? Well, now we have one too. That is why we have to join the church when they do."
"Does that not just lower us to their level?" Brendon pointed out.
Sir Adrian was beginning to look very annoyed. "Sometimes I think you are more of a fool than the Highmounts. Enough of your babble, we might as well go back home as they have already seen us."
Several of the Underwood servants went to bring the horses around to the front, while Sir Adrian and his son stayed just outside the church. They watched the Highmounts, and the Highmounts watched them. Elizabeth Highmount starred daggers at her adversary, and he mimicked her. She turned away to whisper something to one of her servants, who then proceeded across the street to address Sir Adrian.
"Sir Adrian Underwood," The servant addressed them. "I bring a demand from Lady Elizabeth Highmount. You must leave this square at once and must never attend church here again."
"I was not aware that Miss Highmount bore a title of 'Lady,' whatever the meaning." The servant gave him a cold look, but he continued, "You may inform Miss Highmount that we have every intention of attending the church for some time, and ask her to kindly keep her nose out of Underwood business."
Brendon Underwood smirked as the little Highmount man scurried across the square to give his mistress the Underwood message. "Good one, father."
Sir Adrian merely smiled, watching across the street. He waited for the surprised look on Elizabeth Highmount's face when the messenger told her his message. She did give a look of surprise, but it only lasted a moment before an expression of anger alighted on her face. She fiercely whispered to the messenger, who reluctantly listened to the message and then headed back over to the Underwoods.
He addressed Sir Adrian again. "Sir, she says that if she-whose family is quite prestigious in the country of England-is deemed unfit to be called a lady, then you could hardly have the title of 'Sir.' She continues to say that your family is not good enough to be called pigs."
Sir Adrian's eyes. "For your information," He said angrily, "I was knighted by the queen herself. Come, Brendon, we are leaving."
By now the horses had reached in front of the Underwoods and the carriage had arrived for Elizabeth Highmount. Both parties climbed in or on their rides and headed for the only road out of the square. Unfortunately, they arrived at it at the same time, and they both could not possibly fit together.
Leaning out of her carriage, Elizabeth Highmount called out to Sir Adrian. "Let us pass." She gestured to her coachman to continue on, expecting Sir Adrian to let her pass first.
But such was not in Sir Adrian's nature. He spurred his mount forward, followed by the rest of the Underwoods, and blocked her carriage completely. Both sides seemed less than pleased with the present predicament, yelling unmentionables at each other. Someone must have realized something had to be done and had gone for help. It wasn't a moment too soon, as both Elizabeth Highmount and Sir Adrian had exited their rides and were heading for a confrontation.
"Get out of my way!" Miss Highmount shouted, seeming to lose all of her ladylike qualities.
"Never!" Sir Adrian retorted testily. "I would rather die than obey a command-or even a request-from a Highmount!" The word Highmount was dripped with hatred.
"It wasn't a request or a command; it was a fact. If you do not move, I will have you moved forcibly. Or perhaps I might just run you down with my carriage."
As a crowd started to draw around them, the sound of galloping horses echoed in the outside streets behind the Underwood horses. Brendon heard it first and twisted around in his seat to see a group of elaborately dressed men on huge stallions pounding towards them. As they rode closer, they caught the attention of many others, including the Underwoods and the Highmounts.
Lord Samuel Young was not particularly liked by either the Underwoods or the Highmounts, but he was beloved by the townspeople. He had been mayor of the town of Barton for twenty-three years, and had proved that he could handle even the feud. He rode directly between Adrian Underwood and Elizabeth Highmount. He remained in his seat, unlike the other two.
"What is this disturbance?" Mayor Young asked.
Neither the Underwoods nor the Highmounts seemed incredibly keen to be interrupted, but in town the mayor was in charge. Sir Adrian responded first, "That is hardly any of your business, Young. Get going before you annoy me." He waved his hand is dismissal.
Lord Young narrowed his eyes. "I shall only say this once, Sir Underwood, Lady Highmount: your feud may have nothing to do with me, but right now you are disturbing the peace in my town and that makes it my business. Frankly, I am sick of your stupid feud and if I could throw the lot of you both out of my town, by God, I would. Right now, the least I can do is order you to leave this square in peace. Will you go willingly, or do I have to throw you in jail?" He almost looked like he was hoping they would refuse, so he would have an excuse to throw them in the local prison.
"I would certainly go on my own merry way, if this fool would let me pass," Elizabeth Highmount offered, pointing an accusing finger at Sir Adrian.
"I don't care!" Lord Young addressed her, then turned to Sir Adrian. "Take your entourage and be on your way."
Reluctantly, the leaders did as they were told, casting a few last contemptuous looks at each other before departing the square. When they were gone, Lord Young turned to his assistant, "Sometimes I think of retiring just to get away from this stupid feud between the Highmounts and Underwoods."
"Why have you not, then, sir?" asked the assistant.
Young almost smiled. "Because I want to see the day when they realize how stupid their feud is. All I need to do is find someone who can knock some sense into them. And that is a feat in itself!"
Around two hours later…
Elizabeth Highmount hated the Underwoods. That was obvious to any fool. But there was one Underwood she hated above all the others: Sir Adrian. Just seeing his picture disgusted her. And to see him in person…intolerable. It vexed her greatly that he should be there at the church. She was certain he did it just to annoy her.
Jack Gibbs, her assistant and secretary, met her as her carriage stopped in the courtyard. He appeared out of breath, holding a letter in one of his hands. He pulled the carriage door open and helped her out. "An urgent message has just arrived from London, my lady."
Elizabeth didn't look impressed. The only people she knew that lived in London were her deceased nephew's wife and two daughters. As she had never met them, she doubted they would write to her. "Very well, who is it from?"
"Well, it's just, well-"
"Spit it out, Gibbs!"
"It's from Mark."
Elizabeth paused for a moment, surprised. "Mark Highmount? What is he doing in London?"
"He, well, he explains in the letter."
"Well, don't just sit there; read it to me."
Jack Gibbs, looking a bit ruffled, followed Elizabeth into the hall, reading the letter out loud as he went:
"Greetings Aunt Elizabeth,
"I am glad that you are still alive and moderately happy, despite being older then Queen Victoria and having a rather cranky disposition. I am not a fan of formalities, however, so I will get right to my point. I think you have controlled Highmount for far too many years. As I have set up a rather good business educating the unfortunate children in Africa, I have decided to leave Highmount to my brother's daughters, effective immediately. They will be arriving within two weeks of this letter, along with their lovely mother and my lawyer, who will ensure that they obtain ownership legally. And you will not be able to do anything about it.
Elizabeth Highmount didn't say anything for a moment, which was not like her. Jack Gibbs looked up at his mistress. "Is it possible?"
She looked darkly up at him. "I wouldn't put it past him, the devil of a boy!" She went to sit down in the parlor, rather calmly, considering.
Gibbs followed her, stopped just inside the door. "What are we to do, my lady?"
"Your nephew's letter, of course."
"Oh." She shrugged. "I wouldn't worry about that."
She rose calmly. "I do not plan to be intimidated about this threat. Until I am satisfied that everything is legal, I will not overact." She started to leave, but then stopped. "Prepare guest rooms and tell everyone that they are merely visiting. I do not want any of the filthy Underwoods to find out about this. Understand?"
"Good." She walked slowly over to the window. "Actually, I am rather curious why he would try leaving my house to two children. I do wonder what they are like?"
Again, Please, please, please review!
Just a note: Two different things inspired me to write this: William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet (tops to The Duchess of Buckingham for noticing that) and the movie The Secret of Moonacre (2008), based on The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge. In fact, when I came up with this idea four years ago or so, I was planning to write it and put it on fan fiction. But when I write a story, usually I deviate so far from the original plot, it's almost unrecognizable. So the beginning may seem a bit like one or both of these plots but, trust me, the main plot later on has no similarity.