Miranda sat amongst the rocks on the shore, watching the ship go down. Dark, forbidding cliffs of Bastendore loomed in the background, almost invisible against clouds of gray and charcoal blue. The doomed ship was far away, its sail a slash of defiant white against roiling black waters. Miranda raised an arm to hold back tangled windblown hair from her eyes, and wondered why she had come. Though clouds threatened all morning, her need for fresh air and a distraction from loneliness was more pressing. And now, as ocean spray and frosty air chilled her, Miranda still remained, watching the ship toss and turn like a toy amid the frothy waves.
As she sat, safe and wondering on the shore, men were dying. On that ship far from the comforts of home and anxious wives waiting, many would be lost to the eternal sea. Lain to rest amid tangled sea weeds and vines, gone to that place of reverie where sea-victims fall to. The never ending and violent ocean would swallow them and leave no trace.
With a troubled heart heart, Miranda turned away, following her footprints home.
"Where have you been, my Lady? 'Tis not healthy for a delicate and fragile girl such as yourself to be out in that cold." Merdith took the sodden cloak from Miranda's shoulders, steering her towards a warm and crackling hearth. Truth be told, the maid was frightened at the girl's increasing carelessness and lonely walks on an empty beach.
"Merdith, I'll be fine. Why don't you make some tea. I wish to be alone with my thoughts." Miranda turned away, staring unseeing out the narrow widow at a troubled gray sky.
"That's what worries me, my lady. Of late, you have spent more and more time alone. It's not healthy."
When Miranda didn't answer, Merdith sighed and turned away. As she was bustling through narrow stone corridors, the maid spied Lord William through the doorway of his fire-lit chamber. She hesitated for a moment, then stepped inside.
"Ah, Lady Merdith, do come in." The man looked up from his studies, fixing a questioning gaze on the maid. "What troubles you?"
"It's you daughter, sir. Lately, Miranda spends increasing time by herself. Something must be done to ease the girl's incessant loneliness."
"Yes, I know. I've decided that it's far past time to find her a husband. Most girls her age already have a child or two to fawn over. Even though she has expressed to me her desire to choose the man in her own time, her loneliness is a sufficient sign that the time is come."
"Oh, that's wonderful, my Lord! I must go and tell her right away." Merdith turned excitedly to go, but a voice stopped her.
"No. I want it to be a surprise. Just imagine her face when the handsome Duke of Darish shows up at our dinner table some night soon." Lord William smiled, pleased with himself
"The Duke of Darish? I've heard stories of his escapades with women all through Ireland. Surely you aren't considering him?"
"I feel that Miranda with her copper beauty will surely be able to tame him with a gentle hand. Have you not seen his holdings? They stretch all the way from Hirsham to the coast opposite Bastendore. If she weds him, she can visit us almost anytime she likes."
"Yes, but still . . ."
"Come now, don't fret. You know I wouldn't have considered it if it weren't in my daughter's best interests."
"All right, I won't tell Miranda. But I must get back now. She'll be wondering where the tea is."
"Yes, thank you for coming to me. Everything will be fine once we set this marriage in motion." Lord William returned to his studies, and Merdith hurried down the hall, happiness and apprehension quickening her step.
Miranda, unaware of their plans for her future, had left the hearth room to rest in her own bed, thinking longingly of that ship far out at sea. It had probably sunk already, gone forever beneath the ocean's roiling waters.
Her thoughts kept straying to the doomed men aboard that ship. Were they all going to die? Surely at least one could save himself, if he tried hard enough. Maybe grab a piece of wood and float to shore . . .?
Miranda tried to distract herself from hopeless daydreams, but she couldn't shake the notion. As the moon rose, white and swollen over a black ocean, she sighed in defeat and rose from the bed, pulling on a warm charcoal-colored overdress and deep crimson skirt. The girl silently made her way to the heavy castle doors, slipping out into the brilliant black night.
Miranda retraced her steps to shore, guided by a pale silver moon which cast eerie light to the ocean. The ship was gone, leaving no trace of ever having been there at all. She began to wonder if she had imagine it all, when a dark shape far down the beach drew her attention. It might be a pile of sea weed, she told her self, barely daring to hope. It was very far away, almost lost in the mist of sea spray. Miranda fixed the object in her vision so as not to lose sight of it, and hurried down the wet shoreline, hardly aware of the intense cold and icy sea spray that drenched her clothes and hair.
Eric could barely feel the sand beneath him, or the freezing wind. All he knew was that he was dying, and wanted a last glimpse of the world before it faded into the darkness that threatened to consume him. His eyes were crusted shut by the sea's salt, and they wouldn't obey his command to open. The cold was intense, icy wet sand beneath him, chilling ocean spray drenching him. His companions were all dead, claimed by the briny sea; the only people he knew were far far away, never to see him again. He sighed in bitter defeat, letting his spirit leak away in the howling wind that swirled around him, tearing at his hair and clothing.
Suddenly a tender hand was lifting his head, pulling it into a warm lap. He felt cold fingers smoothing back his hair, wiping his eyes with the edge of a skirt. His eyes were free to open, and when they did he discovered that a pale face was leaning over him, dark copper hair falling all around like a curtain from the wind. Without thinking, his hand reached up and caressed the ivory cheek, his savior, a mermaid from the sea's dark depths here to rescue his soul and guide him into the ocean.
Her soft hands gently covered his, and she pulled his hand away, bringing it to rest along his sea-ravaged face. He kissed her hand, and she gracefully untangled her hand from his. A soft voice whispered in his ear, speaking in a lilting croon that he couldn't understand.
He looked up at her and shook his head, speaking a few words in his language to tell this maiden that he couldn't speak her ocean tongue. She nodded and stood up, gesturing for him to follow. Eric struggled to his feet, pushing away the pain to follow this mystical beauty down the shore to her enchanted castle.
Miranda slipped once more through the castle doors and made her way to the kitchen. Even though this man was stranger and her father would want to meet him and make sure he wasn't dangerous, she didn't want anyone to see him just yet. She didn't know quite why.
The strange mumbled a few words in his own language, and she could tell they were in gratitude. She went to the stove and added more wood, setting a pot of water on to boil. Once it was hot enough, she dipped out a mug and dropped in a packet of Merdith's relaxing willow bark and chamomile tea.
Once the man was sipping it happily and seemed warm enough by the fire, she laid a hand on her chest and spoke, "Miranda," then gestured at him and raised a delicate eyebrow.
He pointed to himself and said, "Eric," then at her and repeated, "Miranda." His voice was rough from the sea, but the accent was smooth and lilting.
She smiled and gestured at the cup he held and said, "Mug," then began pointing out things all over the room and saying their names, him repeating them eagerly.
By the time the rising sun was peeking out of dark leftover storm clouds, Eric was well on the way to learning her language. Then Merdith walked in.
"By all the Gods of water and sky, what is this stranger doing in our kitchen?! Who is he?"
Miranda smilingly told her of the sinking ship and her discovery of Eric. Then she gestured at the maid and said, "Merdith."
Eric turned his charming gray eyes on her and grinned, saying, "Hello, Merdith." Miranda explained that he couldn't speak their language fluidly, but was learning very quickly.
"But what will your father say to this? He already has—" She cut herself off, appalled at her slip that almost gave away Lord William's newest suitor.
But Miranda didn't catch it, and was going on, "Oh, I'm sure father will let him stay here until he's well enough to travel. Where is father this morning? He usually rises early."
"In his study. He had work to do." Merdith was already moving towards the door. "I'll go tell him right now."
"Wait! Merdith, please, don't tell father until I have a chance to talk to him. Let him meet Eric in the proper way. Have you any men's clothes he could borrow? The ones he wears now are wet and ripped, hardly worth a meeting with father."
"All right, but be careful. If he finds out he'll be very angry with you for not telling him first thing. I think there are some extra clothes in the attic."
"Thank you Merdith. This means a lot to me." Miranda hugged her maid, then turned back to Eric. "My father, Lord of Bastendore, doesn't know you are here. I asked my maid not to tell him, to let you meet him in our own time. That means we have to get you some proper clothes to wear. Come."
Eric didn't understand much of what she had said, but stood and followed her out the door and up the steep, winding stairs to the castle attic. The door was small and narrow, and he had to bend over to get inside, but once there he could smell the musty odor of dust and old cloth. There was a small window to the east that let in sufficient sunlight, and large chests, heavy armor, and all sorts of weapons and trinkets filled the room. He sat down next to the biggest chest and pried it open, coughing as a cloud of filmy dust rose into the air.
Inside there were many outfits, all crumpled with age. Deep red wine-hued cloaks and gowns, royal blue capes with ermine trim, bright yellow summer dresses for maidens, dark hunter green jackets and a large assortment of almost every kind of clothing you could want, formal and light, loose and tight-fitted, bright and drab, filled the trunk.
Miranda gasped as a dark blue gown was unfolded, made of the finest thin cotton, with lacey ruffles and a crimson underdress. "Oh, Miranda," Eric tried to tell her that it would look perfect on her, struggling with the new language. His eyes were bright.
"Yes, but we are here for you, to find something to wear to meet my father." She laid the dress aside, and delved into the chest once more.
"Aha!" Eric exclaimed, pulling out a deep green overcoat and doeskin trousers. "This will do very nicely indeed," he murmured in his own rough language.
Miranda smiled at him, seeing that he liked it and nodding assent. "Put it on, over there," she said, gesturing at a heavy screen that walled off a corner of the attic.
Eric rose and disappeared behind it, and a few minutes later came back, dressed in the new finery. It fitted him as if tailored, making him look royal and dark, and oh so handsome with his dark mahogany hair falling over his eyes. She smiled wickedly, thinking my my my, looks as if the drowned rat turned into a fairy prince, after all.
He grinned, watching her satisfied perusal of the new attire. "C'est bon?"
She held up a pair of black leather boots that rose knee-high, saying, "Put these on, and you'll look like the part."
He understood, and gestured hopefully to the dark cotton dress.
She looked down at her own rumpled attire. "Yeah, I know it is filthy. All right, but tell me how I look." She got up and went to the screen, carefully laying the dress over the top. Eric watched as little by little more clothing appeared on the top, then the new dress was pulled down. After a few minutes of rustling and struggling, Miranda asked, "Eric, could you help me with these buttons? There's thousands of them and I can't reach them all."
She stepped out from behind the screen, holding the top of the gown to her bosom. Eric went behind her and quickly buttoned the dress, marveling at her silky soft and ivory white skin. When he was done, she laughingly took his arm and pretended he was escorting her to the ball room, instead of down the attic stairs.
"What shall we say to my father? By the way, what is your title? Where do you come from?" Miranda wondered aloud.
"My father lives in France, and I was coming here to Ireland to meet a friend and cousin," He answered her in his own language, then remembered and struggled to express it in this troubling new tongue. "The ship I traveled, the Rosanbury, was headed to Ireland for meeting the Duke of Darish. He is my cousin."
Miranda frowned at his garbled speaking, but thought she understood him."The Duke of Darish is your cousin? I've heard of his prowess with women all the way down here in Bastendore," She laughed. "Do you retain any of his legendary talents?" She asked coyly.
"Yes, the duke is my cousin. And as for my talents in that area, well, you'll just have to find out, won't you?"
She didn't get a chance to answer because Merdith appeared from the kitchen, urging them towards the dining room for lunch. Miranda hesitated, asking, "Is father going to join us?"
"No, my dear. He went to town earlier this morn'. When he asked for you, I told him you were bathing and wished not to be disturbed."
"Thank you Merdith. You're a treasure." Miranda and Eric followed the maid down to the kitchen, sitting down at the short table there.
"He said he'd be back for dinner, though. So I hope you are ready then."
Miranda glanced at Eric, who was frowning. "Why do you not want me meeting your father?" He asked, in almost perfect Irish.
"My, you learn fast. I just wanted you to speak properly before going meeting him." Miranda answered. "We will tell him your ship crashed and that you swam ashore. By the way, how did you get ashore?"
At that, a look of sadness passed over Eric's face like a cloud's shadow, and he answered in an unsteady voice. "We hit big waves and keeled over, too much water on deck, crashed into the cliffs and went down. Tried to save others, but could only get myself out. Hung onto part of a trunk, and waves washed me ashore."
Miranda frowned sympathetically. "Well, you are here now, and safe. At least until my father returns." She stared down at her food, barely feeling hungry enough to take a bite. Eric on the other hand, was wolfing down sandwiches as fast as he could get them into his mouth.
"You must excuse my lack of manners, Lady Miranda, but I haven't eaten in days." Eric said between mouthfuls, gazing at her apologetically.
"Oh, that perfectly all right, for one who's been shipwrecked. What do you remember about the shipwreck, how you managed to survive?" Miranda asked.
"Oh, it was weird . . ." Eric ran a hand through his dark hair, gray eyes troubled. "One moment I was desperately reaching for something, anything to hold onto, almost drowned. The next thing I knew it seemed I was being helped, like a force had risen my head above the water, and then right in front of me was a big slab of wood. I just grabbed it and held on for dear life."
"Do you think anyone else could have possibly survived? You were the only one I saw there on the beach, but the mist was thick that day, and anything could have been washed up on the shores farther out."
"No." Eric's answer was firm and definite, without hesitation. "Those waves . . . I'm not sure how or why I survived, but all I know is if that strange force hadn't helped me, I wouldn't be living today."
Miranda was staring intently into his eyes, and it seemed she could see the roiling ocean waters in their turbulent depths. It was almost hypnotizing. And Eric was gazing into her eyes, so green, like the misty Scottish moors, veiled in mystery and . . .
" . . . Miranda?" Eric murmured.
"Yes?" She answered.
"You must promise me to never tell anyone about the shipwreck, the force that held me up. Understand?"
"Yes. I do understand. What people would think . . ."
Suddenly Merdith burst through the door from the kitchen, a platter of sandwiches balanced precariously on one hand. Eric rose to help her, setting the tray down on the table.
"I didn't know if you were hungry still, so I made more." She confessed, chuckling. "But it looks like I was right. You have finished off all the entire first batch!"
"Well, yes, for someone who's not eaten in days, I think a second portion would be helpful. And they were quite delicious . . ." Eric smiled.
"Well, thank you, young man. That's the first compliment I've had on my cooking in a long while. People have seemed to take me for granted, of late." She glanced meaningfully at Miranda.
Miranda smiled happily, marveling at Eric's charm. She was sure her father would like him, if only they were given a change to meet. And yes, she had to admit she had been taking Merdith for granted. Miranda vowed to be more kind in the future.
"Eric was right, these sandwiches are great. Thank you Merdith."
The lady smiled, knowing the compliment was only said on a guilty conscience. But she was thankful nonetheless. "You're quite welcome. But I must be off now, much to do and only a few hours until your father returns. You two have free run of the castle, but remember your duties . . ." Merdith winked at them meaningfully, and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Eric chuckled, turning back to his meal.