When Fitzwilliam Darcy was seventeen years old, he died.
It did not, however, last very long.
He did not know he was dead at the time, but he could never forget the moment he realized he was still alive, for he vomited up half the water in Pemberley’s lake, feeling wet and cold and very much as if George Wickham had beaten him senseless with an icicle instead of—
What had happened?
He shook the wet hair from his eyes— a bad mistake— and found he was laying in the snow. People were shouting. Someone was pounding on his back.
Ah, Lady Catherine.
Darcy tried to push himself upright because his aunt was inclined to lecture when a gentleman failed to stand up when a lady entered a room, but it was so very difficult. His clothes felt so impossibly heavy, and his eyelids felt as if they had weights pulling them down. Every part of him ached.
“Easy, Master Fitzwilliam,” said Sir Stephen, the London physician brought in at great expense to tend to Lady Anne. Oh Lord, his mother. Lady Anne would be so distressed— “The ice was very thin on the lake! You fell in and nearly drowned trying to pull yourself out.”
Wickham said, “We were just skating, we had no idea—”
“You lie, sirrah!”
Darcy forced his eyes open through strength of will alone. There was an enormous crowd gathered about, all from a fancy dress party. Odd, he couldn’t recall his parents sending out invitations for a ball, but an array of costumes this impressive could not have come from the dress-up box in the nursery, and Lady Catherine had always struck him as exactly the sort of person to throw an impromptu masked ball at someone else’s house.
The highwayman at Lady Catherine’s left crossed his arms and snorted. “The blaggard speaks in naught but falsehoods.”
Darcy turned to look at Wickham, who had every appearance of distress, and said fuzzily, “Sir, you ought not to level such accusations—”
“Who are you talking to, young master?” asked Sir Stephen.
The highwayman nearly jumped out of his high leather boots, bumping into the monk and the very burnt-looking, old fashioned shepherdess behind him. “Egad! The lad—”
“Ah ha!” cried a lady who looked just like Lady Rosalind Darcy, who had been a lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon. Darcy stared in fascinated admiration at the costume. It looked just like the portrait of Lady Rosalind in the gallery, except for the knife handle by the ribs. Darcy thought it must be a grim homage to family legend, which held that Lady Rosalind had been murdered by her brother before she could return to London and testify on Catherine of Aragon’s behalf during Henry VIII’s divorce proceedings. “Odd’s fish, did I not give warning the steward’s son would be the undoing of this house? The heir of Pemberley died .”
“And yet he breathes.” A lady Viking with an axe in her head turned skeptically to the burnt-looking lady. “Witch! How did you work this wonder?”
“I am not a witch!” cried the burnt-looking lady.
“You were burnt as one,” said the Viking lady, causing the burnt-looking lady to burst into tears.
The monk hurried over to the burnt-looking lady and patted her shoulder. “Peace, Martha! We know the fire and the accusations of witchcraft bore as much relation to each other as a bird does a fish! They are separate tragedies that befell you”
“Her fellows set fire to her hovel upon witnessing how she didst bewitch the witchfinder,” sniffed Lady Rosalind. “Speakest thou of separation in such a case, Brother Jerome?”
Lady Catherine made an imperious shushing gesture and swept forward in a billow of furs. “Darcy, the only living souls—” and she emphasized it oddly “—are myself, the doctor, the steward’s son, and myself. There are footmen coming, but they are dawdling in a way I would never countenance at Rosings Park, I assure you.”
The footmen arrived just as she said it, and bundled Darcy into rugs and furs. Darcy ordinarily would have protested, but he felt very shaken to have been having such vivid visions. And they must be visions. The highwayman baffled him, but Lady Rosalind he knew from the gallery, and his great-uncle had tried to spook Darcy as a child by saying that the original tower and monastery constructed by the Norman knight Sir Guillaume d’Arcy, had been destroyed by Vikings, and that if you listened closely, you could still hear murdered monks singing services in the chapel. So that was the monk and the Viking sorted. As to the witch— why, there was probably some village rhyme about it that Georgiana had recited. She was always singing some nonsense song or other.
Darcy was still musing on where the highwayman had come from when he spotted his father walking along the upstairs landing. Darcy struggled upright. It went against everything in him to cause his father a moment’s distress, especially with mother the way she was and—
Thoughts of reassuring his father flew out of his head.
Right behind his father, there was a knight in chainmail, helmet, and tabard.
Or a tunic? Darcy frowned. He had never been very interested in medieval history and could not recall what the difference was.
“Ne!” said the knight techily, before bursting into a flood of something that sounded rather like French, only not really.
Darcy couldn’t help but gasp as the knight punched straight through Darcy’s father’s left arm. His father flinched and turned left— and cried, "My God, Ftizwilliam!" after spotting Darcy over the railing.
That couldn’t be right.
Darcy closed his eyes and tried to shake his head to clear it, but that only made it ache more. “Mr. Johnson, my head— I am seeing, I am hearing—”
“I’ve no doubt you hit it on the ice when you were trying to get out of the hole,” said Sir Stephen. This did make sense— Darcy’s own memories of falling through the ice were strange and thin— and he saw no reason to doubt it until Lady Catherine came to supervise the maids bringing up a dinner tray.
Darcy was vaguely offended on behalf of the staff, whom he’d known more-or-less since childhood, but grew distracted by the sight of the Viking lady sticking her head through the door with interest, before two pairs of ghostly hands pulled her back.
He closed his eyes. So the strange phantasms haunted him still. It had only been a couple of hours— and hours filled with the greatest strain and unhappiness, for his mother had gotten up from her sickbed, very distressed, and his father had gone white with fear, and Georgiana had burst into tears. He had caused pain to all his family, which multiplied his sufferings a thousandfold. It was only logical that he could not recover his wits in such conditions.
“Stop dwaddling here and go about your business,” ordered Lady Catherine.
“Thank you Hannah, and thank you Abigail, for bringing up dinner,” said Darcy, a little pointedly, but Lady Catherine quite often missed the point. She did so this time as well. In fact, she sat by Darcy’s bedside and discussed how the maids of Rosings would have behaved until Darcy had gotten down as much broth and bread as he could manage.
Lady Catherine then cleared her throat and sat up even taller, if such a thing were possible. “Now, Darcy— I must have a word with you about this afternoon.”
“I ought not to have gone out with mother ill,” said Darcy. He had been castigating himself for it almost since waking up again. “The fault was mine, however, aunt— not Wickham’s. He only took me out to cheer me, for he thought it would do no one good if I fell ill as well, for lack of exercise. He acted only out of friendship; I out of selfishness. I ought to have—”
“You ought to have as little to do with young Master Wickham as possible,” said Lady Catherine acidly. “He knew very well the ice was thin. I have reports that he thought it would be funny for your foot to fall in, or something of the kind, since you skate a great deal better than he does. His partisans—” with a glare at the door “—insist he had no idea of the consequences of such a prank, nor had he the wisdom or foresight to realize if the ice was thin, more than your foot would fall in, but the damage has still been done, and it was of his instigation. The truth is, Darcy, you were dead for several seconds before Sir Stephen got you breathing again.”
Darcy frowned. Lady Catherine’s normal mode of communication was exaggeration, but this seemed extreme, even for her. “Aunt, with all due respect—”
“You died,” said she, with a glare. “You must accept that, if you are to understand anything that is to come after.”
“I was christened Fitzwilliam, not Lazarus,” said Darcy, under his voice, but at her look said, “Yes, aunt.”
He had said it to humor her, which Lady Catherine did not seem to realize. She inclined her chin with magnificent grandeur. “Good. You died and were brought back before it became a permanent state. I myself experienced something very similar. When your mother and I were girls upon our father’s estate, we engaged in a contest that resulted in my, ah—” Lady Catherine pursed her lips. “I ceased to breathe for a minute, until our governess managed to rid me of the blockage. When I awoke, there were more than merely my governess and my sister in the room. Now, Darcy— how many people do you see in this room?”
“Only you, Lady Catherine,” said Darcy. He did not know where she was going with this. It surprised him considerably, not to be able to guess the general run of Lady Catherine’s hourly sermons, which ran the gamut of: Advice, Important People Who Relied Upon My Advice, Advice I Would Have Given Important People Who Sadly Do Not Rely Upon My Advice, Failings of the Lower Classes, and Look at How Important We Are.
Lady Catherine rapped smartly on the table by Darcy’s bed.
The strange visions from before stepped through the walls and doors facing the hall, and a couple of new ones drifted through the fireplace.
“How many people do you see now?” asked Lady Catherine.
“Only you,” said Darcy, though he sniffed his tea suspiciously. His mother’s lady’s maid, Mademoiselle Caron, had taken to adding a drop or two of laudanum to his mother’s, so that she could sleep without pain. It was possible she’d tried the same trick on him, or given him the wrong cup earlier, and that was why he was seeing eight people who weren’t there.
“You do not, perhaps,” said Lady Cathering, gesturing to the group assembled to her left, “see a lady in Tudor dress, a highwayman, and a monk?”
The cup dropped with a clatter from Darcy’s hands to the tray. “What—”
“Because,” said Lady Catherine, “I see them as well.”
This could not be comprehended.
“Lady Catherine,” Darcy croaked out, “what is the— I cannot understand why, or what— how is it we could have the same visions?”
“These,” said Lady Catherine grandly, “are not visions. They are the shades of Pemberley.”
Darcy looked slowly around at all the… what had Lady Catherine called them? Shades? God in heaven, what was going on? There were eight people in fancy dress around the room. Or… eight… ghosts? How could this be possible? “Lady Catherine, are you saying that because I nearly died, I can see spirits now?”
“I think it is also due to our bloodline,” said Lady Catherine, “that you can see the shades of those who have died in this house and have yet to move on. You and I are, I believe, two of the only people in England who can communicate with the dead.”
The monk coughed into his fist.
“Oh what is it, Brother Jerome?”
“I do not speak against the most illustrious line of Sir Guillaume of Arcy,” he said, inclining his tonsured head to the knight in chainmail and a tunic frowning at the papers on Darcy’s desk, “or your own, madam, of the equally illustrious Earl of Matlock, but God has called me to the study of the afterlife, so it seems— and it appears to me, oh gracious lady— that it is not so much the bloodline that enables you and young Master Fitzwilliam to see us, but the fact that you were both, for a moment, dead. Young Master Fitzwilliam stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating before our good doctor turned him over and hit the water out of his lungs, and you, madam, were revived after your governess jammed her elbow into your stomach and caused you to spit out the sweetmeat upon which you were choking and which nearly caused your death. It is the cessation of function in heart and lungs, for however brief a period, that enables one to see ghosts such as ourselves—”
Lady Rosalind sniffed. “ Shades , Brother Jerome. Darest thou speak of us as if we were but common spectres, who rattle chains in attics to frighten the credulous? Not at all! We guide the Darcy family.”
Sir Guillaume of Arcy inclined his head and said something Darcy could not follow. It did sound like French and had some words he recognized, but for the most part—
“Our illustrious forbear speaks only Norman French,” said Brother Jerome, apologetically. “He understands English, but refuses to speak in this tongue. Sir Guillaume considers it to be an impure corruption of his own language with the vile Anglo-Saxon dialect. But just now he asked me to convey to you that we shades have not past on, but remain tied to this house and the grounds, because our business here is not yet finished. It is the belief of... some... of our number that we do not pass on into everlasting glory because we have been tasked with guiding and protecting our descendants."
“Are you a Darcy as well then?” Darcy asked, flabbergasted to meet so many of his relations. He had always thought the Darcy family tree to be more of a twig. Aside from his great-uncle the judge, and the judge's daughters and their children, he had no other immediate relations on his paternal side.
“I did answer to that name, before taking holy orders,” said Brother Jerome, smiling. “Julius and Hob, whom you see over there, do not claim the honor of our bloodline.” He pointed at a dark skinned man in the armor of a Roman footsoldier, who was playing chess against a Celtic man wearing only blue paint, a golden torque, and an arrow in the chest. Darcy felt a little annoyed that they had found the chessboard in the corner of his room of more interest than him, or the fact that he could see or speak to them. “We are very indebted to Frigga for introducing chess to them; it has kept them from trying to continue on the battle that killed them. Oh, and Frigga is not related. She was just killed here by a great-nephew of mine.”
The Viking lady nodded. "Your line is much stronger than most of the pitiful Saxons of his country."
Sir Guillaume of Arcy eyed the burnt-looking lady, Martha, and said something that did not seem at all approving.
“He isn’t sure of Martha,” whispered Brother Jerome. “One of the… lesser branches of the family may have included her, but since it all took place outside of Pemberley’s borders, at the time, none of us can really prove it. Martha’s village only became part of the estate when the witchfinder came around. It is currently the deer park.”
Martha sulked in a corner.
“And I, good, sir,” said the highwayman, sweeping off his befeathered hat with a theatrical flourish, “present myself as your many greats uncle, Nicholas “Swifts Nicks” Darcy, a gentleman forced upon the road by that scurrilous dog Cromwell!”
“The emptiness of thy purse forced thee upon the road, not thy devotion to thy politics,” muttered Lady Rosalind.
Julius muttered, in Latin, “almost have it,” and carefully pushed a pawn forward with one finger.
“This one, then,” said Hob likewise in Latin, pointing to a black pawn. Julius got up and carefully pushed one of Hob’s pawns forward.
“Julius can make things move when he concentrates,” said Brother Jerome, following the line of Darcy’s gaze. “We all have our gifts. The Lord God has seen fit to make my voice heard when I am in the family chapel, so that it may always sound with the proper services, and on full moons Lady Rosalind can be seen walking down the long gallery, reenacting her murder.”
“Though none appreciate my efforts at bringing the details of so vile a murder to light,” said Lady Rosalind with a sniff.
“Martha can make fires of all kinds flicker and go out.”
“I do not care for smoke,” said Martha, sulkily.
“Sir Guillaume can give people a cold chill if he walks through them.”
Sir Guillaume, recognizing his name, put his hand to the hilt of his sword, and bowed.
"They have helped me," said Lady Catherine. "Swift Nicks—" and it was clear she did not like having to refer to a highwayman by name "—alerted me only this morning that you had fallen into the ice. Without his doing so, you probably would have drowned. Pemberley is unusually crowded. There are only three ghosts at Rosings, including the hermitage, and there were never more than six ghosts at a time at my father's estate."
“My great-uncle always said Pemberley was haunted,” said Darcy, at a loss of what else to say. “I see I ought to have believed him.”