Tilby, Lincolnshire, 1811. Miss Sophia Landon is the daughter of an impoverished clergyman. Her father's health is failing fast, but who wants to marry a woman without birth, beauty or wealth? Her prospects are limited indeed - until her friendship with the town's fae denizens earns her passage to the otherworldly realm of Aylfenhame. Could her fate truly lie beyond the shores of England?
There she meets Aubranael, a young man with a warm heart and a ruined face. In Sophy he sees the answer to his loneliness, but how can a disfigured Ayliri hope to win her heart? When a mysterious witch offers him the temporary gift of beauty, he eagerly accepts: and so begins an adventure that could change his life, and Sophy's, forever.
The Regency is among my favourite periods of history. In this book, I've blended it with some of my other favourite things - folklore, magic and the fae - to produce an alternate, and magical, vision of England in times past. I've also filled it with beautiful illustrations to bring my alternate historical world to life. I love my Regency fairytale, and I hope you will too. – Charlotte E. English
"Charlotte E. English has written a story that will captivate reader's imaginations from page one."– Singing Librarian Books
"Miss Landon and Aubraneal is a charming, cleverly written mix of regency, fairy-tale, and fantasy."– Amazon Review
"This is a great book that people of all ages will fall in love with."– Hot Off the Shelves
Mornin', folks, an' how do ye do? My name's Balligumph—Mister Balligumph, if ye don't mind—an' I'm the guardian o' this here toll-bridge ye've fetched up at. Ain't she a beauty? Not altogether big enough to merit a toll, ye may be thinkin'—but don't be worryin' yer heads about it. The toll's not steep. All I'll be askin' fer is a scrappit o' information—a secret, if ye're minded to call it that. Here, whisper it in my ear—don't be shy, now! I may be a sight bigger'n you, but ye won't find a gentler troll across the whole o' Lincolnshire, that I guarantee. Or one better dressed.
There, that'll do. Thas one mighty interestin' nugget o' truth fer me, an' free passage into the pretty town o' Tilby for you. Been here before? 'Tis an ordinary enough town, most times, though once in a while somethin' special happens.
The last time was exactly a year ago today! Began around the first o' May—Beltane, as ye'll know. Many a strange thing can happen on Beltane. Perhaps ye'd like to hear the tale? 'Tis a fine morning, an' I'll not keep ye more'n an hour or so. Well… not very much more, anyhow.
Ye would! Well, then, step out o' that carriage and take a seat on this here handsome patch o' grass, an' I'll begin. It's to the Parsonage we're goin' first: that buildin' just away yonder, do y'see? There's a new family there now, but a year ago it was the home of old Reverend Landon an' his daughter, Miss Sophy.
It's Miss Sophy tha' this story is about. The sweetest, sunniest young woman in all o' Tilby, she was, an' a nimbler set o' fingers with a sewing needle I never did see…
Miss Sophia Landon—Sophy, to those who knew her well—wrapped a piece of court plaister around her bleeding finger, and sighed. She had dripped blood on Thundigle's new shirt. Turning the tiny garment around in her hands, she tried to persuade herself that the speck of rapidly browning blood wasn't visible.
'Not very visible, at least,' she muttered under her breath. It was the second shirt she had made that morning, and her fingers had almost escaped unscathed. Almost.
Laying the new shirts side-by-side, she surveyed them both. The contrast between the two amused her, and her smile broadened. The first shirt was for her father. It was large, to accommodate the generous girth he had acquired through years of good dining. It was made from the best linen they could afford; this still placed it several cuts below the fine garments worn by some of their neighbours, but still, it was respectable and she was proud of it. Her father, a clergyman with only a modest living, loved his table far more than his clothes, and he hadn't had a shirt this fine in years. Sophy had worked every stitch as carefully as she could, determined that it should be perfect. And it was.
The second shirt was only as wide as her palm. It was dwarfed beside the Reverend George Landon's. She had made it from the scraps of linen left over from the first project, so it was every bit as good as her father's—except for the speck of blood. She had sewn it with every bit as much love, because this shirt was for a friend.
Picking up the tiny shirt, she left the parlour and made her way to the dusty room upstairs that had belonged to her mother. The chamber remained in much the same state it had been in when she had died: it was comfortably furnished and prettily decorated, albeit in the style of ten or fifteen years before In spite of its furnishings, it possessed an air of emptiness, for her mother's possessions had long since been lovingly adopted by Sophy herself. Neither she nor her father had found the heart to make use of the room, however.
One corner of this faded chamber was different. A set of miniature furniture stood fastidiously arranged: a little oak table with two matching chairs, a tiny closet and a rocking chair. Sophy herself had sewn the tiny rag rug that covered the floor, and the cushions that covered the rocking chair's hard seat and back.
Sophy sat down on the floor nearby, heedless of the folds of her dress, and laid the shirt carefully across the little table. She placed a tiny bowl of honey beside it, and a second full of clear water.
'Thundigle!' she called. 'I have a gift for you.'
A puff of light erupted in the air before her, and the Landon household brownie appeared. He was a diminutive creature with dark brown skin, wild curly brown hair and eyes the colour of autumn leaves.
'Miss Landon,' Thundigle said with a graceful bow. 'You are generous, as always.'
Sophy smiled. 'You haven't seen what it is, yet.'
Thundigle smiled back, his expression still faintly shy despite his several years' residence in her family. 'Dear Miss Sophy, what need have I to see it when I can smell it? It is lavender flower again, isn't it? The most fragrant honey…' He turned to the table, his black eyes alight with anticipation, but when his gaze fell on the shirt he stopped. 'But what is this beautiful thing?' Picking it up in his gnarled hands, he turned it about, holding it as though it were very fragile. Sophy discreetly eyed his twelve-inch tall frame, and smiled in satisfaction. The shirt was correctly proportioned and should fit him, and the fine fabric would, she hoped, last a good while.
Thundigle looked up at her with quivering lip, a gleam of moisture shining in his dark eyes. 'Miss Landon, this is far too much.' His hands were shaking as he held the shirt. 'Such fabric as this—I can feel the fineness of the weave—each individual thread…' He tailed off, overcome with emotion.
Sophy suppressed an urge to giggle: Thundigle didn't like to be laughed at. He was a remarkably well-dressed brownie; most of his kind wore rough garments and were offended by offerings of clothes, but Sophy had won her brownie helper's heart years ago when she had discerned his eye for sartorial elegance. She had made him a number of outfits, cobbled together out of scraps from her father's worn-out clothes: long trousers of beige cloth, shirts with full sleeves and snowy cravats, a waistcoat of dark wool and even a deep red cutaway coat.
In spite of this regular bounty, Thundigle was overwhelmed whenever she presented him with a new piece for his wardrobe. It was quite endearing.
'Better yet,' she told him, 'your hat is almost ready. I am collecting it today.'
Thundigle stared at her, eyes shining, his new shirt temporarily forgotten. 'Hat,' he breathed, as if the word contained some kind of special magic. 'Hat! Is it—is it like—?'
She nodded, knowing what he meant to ask. He had forever admired the tall, glossy hats worn by the gentry of the county, but such a project lay beyond Sophy's abilities. Instead she had bartered her skills as a seamstress with a hatmaker's family in order to acquire one for him.
Thundigle drifted towards her and leaned against her leg, as though exhausted by the demands of receiving gifts. He was muttering something. Leaning down, she caught the words: 'Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou…'
This was too much for her self-control. She laughed, ruffling his curly dark-brown hair to show she meant no harm by it. 'You need not thank me. I can't think what we would do without your help, for there is far too much work about for Mary to manage alone.' She sighed, her smile fading. 'I do wish I could be of more use, but you know what a liability I am! Why, I have burned Papa's tarts yet again this morning. I can never manage the oven right: it is either too hot, or not hot enough. But Mary hadn't time to make them, and now how disappointed Papa will be without a fresh supply!'
Thundigle eyed her seriously. 'Since the topic has come up, Miss Sophy, would it be impertinent of me to request that you leave the dusting of the drawing-room to me? I noticed… that is, I could not help observing that another accident has occurred.'
Sophy blushed. 'Papa's pipe! Oh dear, yes. I cannot think how it came to end up on the floor; only I was so busy I didn't notice it upon the mantel, and by the time I did, it was too late. It can be mended, of course, but the ash upon the carpet? Is it so very bad?'
'I believe I can remove the stain,' said Thundigle gravely. 'With a little effort.'
Sophy smiled down at him, her cheeks still pink with mortification. 'You are too good. If only I were not such a hopeless housekeeper! One would think that at my age—mistress of my father's house these ten years and more—' she broke off. 'Well, but it cannot be helped, for I cannot change. I shall do as you ask, only I do so hate leaving everything to you and Mary.'
'Not quite everything. There isn't a better clothed household in the county, I wouldn't think; possibly in the whole kingdom. Why, I haven't suffered so much as a loose button in years!'
'Well, if that is to be my sole contribution to our collective comfort, it will have to do.'
'It is my pleasure to assist with the rest, Miss Sophy.'
'You are a treasure. I know Mary thinks so as well.'
Thundigle beamed. He had changed his attire somehow without her noticing: the old, threadbare shirt lay discarded on the floor, and he had left off his coat in order to show her the fit of his shirt. The crisp white linen shone against his nut-brown skin, and in spite of the incongruity of the attire, it suited him.
'You look marvellous,' Sophy told him. 'Now, I don't know if you have time to help Mary a little, but I know she would appreciate it very much. Father has requested another goose for dinner, and I have just managed to contrive the purchase of a small one. There is the plucking to be done yet, and soon, if it's to be ready in time.'
Thundigle swept her another bow. 'At once, Miss Sophy,' he said, still beaming, and vanished.
Sophy stood up slowly, her legs tingling from sitting too long on the floor. She didn't know how he contrived to work in the house without dirtying his clothes, but so he always did. But that was the peculiar thing about brownies: they seemed to enjoy the work, considering it even as a kind of privilege. Most families in Tilby had at least one brownie in residence; some, like the Adairs and the Winbolts, had scores of them.
Quickly brushing down her gown, Sophy descended the stairs just in time to hear the commotion of someone arriving. The front door flew open and closed with a bang, and quick female steps sounded in the passage. 'Sophy!'
The charming young face of Miss Anne Daverill appeared below. The girl clutched at her light straw bonnet as she stared up at Sophy. 'There you are! The morning is almost gone; do tell me you are disposed to walk, for I am going this instant and I simply must have a companion.'
Sophy laughed. Anne was a whirlwind of activity, always flying about in pursuit of some errand or other. As usual her bonnet was slightly askew, her ribbons flapping untied and her red hair escaping from beneath.
'I shall be happy to walk with you, only I must go to Mr. Peck's; shall you mind that?' Reaching the bottom of the stairs, Sophy quickly set her friend's bonnet and ribbons in order.
'Of course I shan't mind,' Anne replied, submitting to these ministrations without complaint. 'Is your father to have a new hat at last? Miss Gladwin will be pleased, for she has been shaking her head over that shabby old thing these two years at least.'
Thinking of the worn hat her father always wore, Sophy smiled ruefully and shook her head. 'I tried to persuade him on that score, but without success. He is fond of his faithful old hat, and refuses to part with it. He instructed me to get a few more birds for dinner, if I was so intent on spending money.'
'Which I hope you will not, for one can hardly help noticing that—Oh, Mr. Landon! Good morning, sir.'
Sophy grinned as her friend made a hasty curtsey, her face flushing. She needn't have worried: Reverend Landon was turning somewhat deaf, though he would never admit it.
'Sophy, my dear, you are not going out?' His eye travelled over Anne's bonnet and spencer and settled on the light pelisse that Sophy had just collected.
'Yes, father, for a walk. We will not be long.' She hastily tied the ribbons of her bonnet and made for the door.
'Are you sure that is wise, Sophy, Anne? For there is a strong wind today, you know; perhaps you have not noticed, but I can see the branches waving from my study window. And I am not at all sure it will not rain…?'
Sophy gave him a peck on the cheek. 'It is a beautiful, glorious day and we shall be quite safe. Come along, Anne!'
She stepped briskly out of the house, satisfied to hear Anne's quick step following along behind.
'Rain! Why, there is not a cloud in the sky,' Anne said as she caught up with Sophy.
'Try not to blame poor Papa,' Sophy replied. 'Ever since Mama, you know, he has had a horror of chills.'
'Oh, yes; I quite forgot. Still, on such a wonderful day as this! It is strange, Sophy, you will not mind my saying so.'
Sophy could only own that this was a perfectly fair observation. Her father's ideas were a little strange at times, and his overzealous care for her health could be maddening. But she never truly minded, for it was all born out of love and care, and how could she mind that?
Anne talked on as they walked, chattering comfortably about the doings of her own family, and those of their mutual neighbours. At nineteen, she was almost ten years younger than Sophy, and her conversation tended to reflect that; for she talked a great deal more about the doings of unmarried young gentlemen than Sophy cared to hear. It was of no interest to her how much money Mr. Snelling had, or whether Mr. Adair was likely to choose a wife soon; neither was likely to affect her prospects, nor those of her friends. But she let Anne talk uninterrupted until they arrived at Mr. Peck's shop.
'I shall not come in with you,' Anne said promptly, 'for Miss Sargent has just got a new bonnet in and I am wild to try it.'
The milliner's shop being just opposite, this suggestion could only please Sophy, and she readily agreed. It was the work of a mere few minutes to complete her business with Mr. Peck, the more speedily accomplished for not having an audience, and she soon stepped out into the street once more with two hatboxes in hand: one unusually large, and one remarkably small.
She noticed at once that Anne had not gone into Miss Sargent's shop at all, for she had noticed Mr. Ash in the street and had, with well-meaning enthusiasm, pressed him into conversation. Mr. Ash was a tall, rather serious young man, well known for the dedication he applied to learning his father's business. It was widely agreed across Tilby that Mr. Ash spent far too much of his time attending to his work, and Miss Gladwin and Miss Lacey were particularly forthright in their belief that he would wear himself away to nothing. With many a charming smile and much good-humoured laughter, Anne was doing her best to avert this terrible prospect.
Mr. Ash bore her conversation with patience, but Sophy could see that he was anxious to resume his errand, whatever it had been. Stepping quickly across the street, she walked straight up to the couple and immediately said:
'Forgive my interruption, Mr. Ash, but you have accosted my companion and I am much desirous of having her back. Shall it inconvenience you very much if I reclaim her at once?'
Mr. Ash shot her a look of mild relief, mumbled something vaguely affirmative and rapidly made his escape. Sophy noticed that he cast a quick, shy look at Anne on his way past.
'I am not sure whether to be vexed with you or not, Sophy,' said Anne once Mr. Ash was out of hearing. 'He almost smiled! Would have, I am sure, had I had another moment's conversation with him.'
'And is it your mission to induce smiles in every young man?'
'No; only the stubborn ones, like Mr. Ash. Most of them need no encouragement.'
Sophy smiled herself, but made no reply to this sally. Instead she said: 'Now, Anne, I am going to the bridge. I do not ask you to come with me if you would rather not.'
Anne eyed the enormous hat box in her friend's hands and made a face. 'You are not visiting with the bridge-keeper again, are you? I know he is a great friend of yours, but… a troll? I do not know quite where trolls fit into society, but a bridge-keeper cannot rank very high.'
'All of that is quite immaterial! Balli is a dear creature, gentleman or not, and I am going to give him this gift right away.' She turned and set off, leaving Anne to catch up if she would.
'But—but—Sophy,' Anne panted as she struggled to keep up with the taller woman's pace, 'it is not his profession so much as his unusual approach to it! Always wanting news and information and secrets. I do believe that many would infinitely prefer to give him money, like all the other tolls.'
'Why should that be? Everyone is always wild for news, and gossip is traded with considerably more enthusiasm than mere money. Mr. Balligumph is merely more honest about it than the rest of us!'
Anne's only response to this was an inarticulate noise of incredulity; but she kept up with Sophy all the way through the village and out to the bridge. The weather was indeed fine, and as the sun beat down upon them both, Sophy began to regret her choice of a long pelisse, instead of a short spencer jacket like Anne's. It was only that her gown, an old favourite in yellow muslin, was looking so shabby now, and she had just enough pride to want to cover it up. Her spencer was fraying at the cuffs, and until she had found a way to mend it neatly, her pelisse would have to do.
As the old stone bridge came into view, Sophy was glad to see that it was empty; no carriages waited to cross the worn stone structure, and there were no other walkers in sight. Stepping lightly into the middle of the bridge, she paused and called, 'Mr. Balligumph?'
Almost before she had finished speaking, she heard a familiar low chuckle. 'Well, Miss Sophy,' said a rumbling voice from somewhere beneath the bridge. 'I was beginnin' to think you was avoidin' me.'
An enormous, vividly blue face emerged to peer at her from beneath the bridge. She smiled as the rest of the self-appointed bridge guardian stepped out into the sun. He was much taller than she was; much bigger in every respect, for his eyes were as big as the palms of her hands, and the two tusks that showed around his congenial smile were as long as her forearms. She had no idea how he contrived to fit himself under the Tilby Bridge, which was by no means large enough to accommodate him.
'Good morning!' Sophy called. 'I have not been avoiding you; the very notion is absurd, as you well know. Here I am in the flesh, and with another visitor for you!'
Balligumph turned his enormous golden eyes on Anne, and smiled toothily. 'Always a pleasure, Miss Daverill.'
Anne mumbled something that sounded like 'pleasure', and inched a little closer to Sophy.
'Aww, now, I'll not be after hurtin' ye! I only smitherise them as have ticked me off, an' no friend o' Miss Sophy's has ever been known to do that.'
'Smitherise?' Anne said faintly.
'Pulverise,' Balli elaborated, his smile widening. 'Bash to smithereens, that is. An' I may as well add, anybody who's clunch enough to tick off my Sophy is likely to get smitherised likewise, an' I'll be happy as can be t'extend tha' offer to her friends as well.'
Anne stared at him.
'That is most kind of you, Mr. Balligumph,' Sophy said. 'Fortunately there will be no need to smitherise anybody today.' The look of strangled horror on Anne's face and the beaming congeniality on Balli's made her desperately want to laugh, and she had to cough a time or two to cover it up.
Balli eyed her. 'Well now, I can't help noticin' that ye ain't exactly empty-handed, Miss Sophy. Is tha' fer me?'
Sophy held out the enormous hat box with a sunny smile. 'It isn't very likely to do for anyone else, is it?'
'Tha's what I was thinkin',' the troll said smugly, his eyes lighting up at the gift. He took the box from her, taking great care not to crush her small hands with his gigantic ones. He ripped off the lid, threw it casually over his shoulder, and shook out a hat.
It was a tall hat, a little like Thundigle's but quite distinct. Where the brownie's aped the tall, polished, slightly conical hats that the gentry wore, Balligumph's was shorter, wider and blockier. Moreover, it was earth-brown instead of black. It also had a wider brim, the better to shade his eyes from the sun.
Sophy had chosen the style with care. I'm no gent, me, Balli had often said. Just a workin' troll. A hat like Thundigle's would never have suited or pleased him, but this one matched perfectly with the slightly shabby, city-attorney-crossed-with-a-farmer attire that he chose to affect.
Balli began to chuckle, his huge chest heaving with laughter as he plonked the hat onto his head. 'Ain't you a rare one! I can think o' nothin' more perfect.' He posed for admiration, his messy pale hair sticking out crazily from beneath the brim, his smile larger than ever.
Sophy applauded, relieved to see that the hat fitted him. 'You're a vision,' she told him, grinning.
Balli bowed low. 'Only watch them ladies try t' resist me now! Won't be possible, mark my words.'
Stealing a glance at Anne, Sophy noticed that she looked utterly appalled. 'He is quite safe,' she whispered while Balli busied himself with inspecting his new hat. 'Have you ever heard of Balli harming anyone?'
'No…' Anne admitted. 'But he is so big.'
'Well, he can hardly help that,' said Sophy reasonably. 'You are a great deal larger than a sparrow; does that mean that you intend to inflict harm upon any that you see? Of course not.'
Anne did not seem convinced; but just then Balli looked up again. 'Top notch, this,' he informed Sophy. 'Mr. Peck's work?'
'Ain't cheap, then,' he said bluntly. 'Ye'll forgive me fer askin', for there never was a sunnier nature this side o' Aylfenhame. How's a threadbare miss such as yerself come up wi' a shiny piece such as this?'
Sophy shook her head. 'That is an impertinent question which I shall not answer!'
Balli twinkled at her. 'Impertinent I may be, but that's me: the manners of a goat, an' at least twice the hair. But it would be impolite not t'answer me, now, would it not? An' you bein' a proper gentry-miss wouldn't care to be rude.' He winked roguishly and Sophy couldn't help smiling back.
'I bartered for it,' she said with dignity. 'The use of my sewing fingers in exchange for some of Mr. Peck's time.' And it had taken her many hours of work to earn Balli's hat, for Mr. Peck—while not unkind—was canny, with an eye to the profit. But she would not tell Balli that.
Balligumph nodded thoughtfully. 'It's that nice o' ye, I'm minded to make a gift in return,' he said.
'That is not necessary at all, I assure you,' Sophy demurred.
'No argument out o' ye,' Balli said, waving a fat-fingered hand. 'I'll do as I please, and no shrimpin' scrappit such as the likes o' ye is goin' t' stop me, understand?'
Sophy suppressed a grin, and curtseyed. 'Quite understood.'
'Good.' He eyed her seriously, from the top of her blonde-curled head to the tips of her booted feet, and said abruptly: 'How's that old man o' yours?'
Sophy blinked. 'Papa is well enough, thank you.'
'Yes? His health is good?'
'I—well enough,' Sophy said again, with less certainty. In fact, a lack of exercise in his daily routine combined with an overabundance of rich food had caused a steady deterioration in the Reverend Landon's health, but she had no wish to own as much.
She feared that Balli knew that already, however, for he nodded knowingly and tapped one sausage-like finger against his cheek in thought. 'An' what o' ye? Any nice young men comin' callin'?'
Sophy flushed, and managed a laugh. 'No, of course not. Why should there be?' She had no need to elaborate: at her age, without either money, or connections, or even particularly striking looks to recommend her, her prospects were not bright. When one took into account her lack of musical ability or other accomplishments along with her hopelessness as a housekeeper, well… she had never really expected to wed.
To her mingled relief and pain, Balli chose not to challenge her on this point. Instead he looked at Anne. 'Well? Is she tellin' the truth?'
Anne looked uncertainly at Sophy and hesitated. 'I… know of no gentlemen, sir,' she said.
Balli nodded. All of his hearty good cheer had vanished; he began to look ready to… well, to smitherise someone. 'Come back in two days,' he said abruptly. 'Just Miss Sophy, if ye don't mind, Miss Daverill. First o' May. Don't be too late, now.'
Bemused and rather mortified, Sophy quickly agreed. Unsure of how to recover from the awkwardness of Balli's enquiries, she bid him goodbye and hurried away, Anne following close behind.
Now, will ye look at that? As fine a woman as any could wish fer, Miss Sophy—a prize fer any chap as has sense. But there ain't a scrap o' sense to be found in these parts, for all the young men to pass her over just 'cause she ain't rich, an' her features is perhaps not so well arranged as the imagination might fancy! Crowd o' great loobies, the lot of 'em. I had to do somethin'. All the town knew tha' the silly old Reverend was eatin' himself to an early grave, an eatin' her inheritance with it; and what would become o' my Sophy then? I 'atched a plan, that's what I did. Listen some more, an' I'll tell ye all about it…