The Mistress of Moonacre

Prologue

The little girl stood alone on balcony. It was late at night and the moon hung low in the sky with a thin mist blurring its edges, a thousand stars twinkled above her like tiny candles. After gazing up open-mouthed at the heavens for a moment, she clambered up barefoot onto the balcony rail and leant out as far as she could, squinting her eyes so as to try and see through the darkness towards the forest which grew right up to the high stone wall at the bottom of the garden. Would she see him again tonight?

A cool wind blew past her, making her white nightgown billow and her black curls quiver.

"Catherine Merryweather!" a voice behind her gasped. She turned to find her nurse-maid standing in the doorway with her hands on her hips and a disapproving glare.

"Get down at once young lady before you fall and break your neck!" the old woman ordered. Catherine rolled her eyes but hopped down anyway.

"You're barefoot!" the nurse tutted, "What will your mother say if you catch a cold?"

As the nurse ushered her into the house, Catherine glanced back at the garden with a regretful look then flounced back inside.

"Now, to bed with you, young lady!" the nurse said, pointing to the large four-poster bed with its gold silk sheets.

"But Benjamin and George get to stay up late." the little girl grumbled.

"Benjamin and George are not ten years old." the old woman replied firmly, "What were you doing out there so late anyway?"

"I…I can't tell you." Catherine mumbled.

"It's a secret is it?" the old woman raised an eyebrow, "Well, how about I tell you a bedtime story and maybe afterwards you may feel like telling me?" Catherine nodded enthusiastically. The old woman went and settled herself in an armchair by the fire.

"Come sit in front of me, Catkin. I will comb your hair." she said, picking up a silver comb from the table next to her. Catherine settled herself on a footstool in front of the old woman. Slowly and gently, the nurse began combing her hair, she pulled the dark corkscrew curls taut then released them, watching them spring back up into their original shape.

"Once upon a perfect time," the old nurse began, "Many hundreds of years ago, when the old magic clung to Moonacre Valley, there was a young woman whose skin gleamed as pale as a star and whose heart was as pure as moonlight. Such was her bravery and goodness, she was beloved by Nature as if she were its own daughter. One fateful night, the moon blessed her with an extraordinary gift that would change the magic of the Valley forever-the Moon Pearls. From that day forth, she was known as the Moon Princess. Two ancient families lived in harmony at the edge of the Valley, sharing nature's bounty. Daughter of the De Noir clan, the Moon Princess fell deeply in love and was to be married to Sir Wrolf Merryweather."

"Merryweather? Like me?" Catherine asked, turning around. The old woman merely gave her a vague smile and continued with the story.

"Her father, Sir William De Noir, blessed the union by presenting the couple with a rare, black lion. In turn, Sir Wrolf gave his bride a unicorn, lured from the wild, white horses of the sea. Her heart overflowing with happiness, the Moon Princess revealed the magical pearls to both families. Legend told of their unique power, so strong the pearls would grant every wish, both good and evil. The Moon Princess truly believed in the goodness of all, but the men soon revealed the greed that was in their hearts, each desperate to claim the power of the pearls for himself. Betrayed by those she loved the most, the Moon Princess unleashed the power bestowed upon her, and cast a terrifying curse over them all. The Moon Pearls vanished that day, and where to find them remains a secret to this very day."

The old woman finished her tale and returned the comb to its place on the table. By now, Catherine was leaning back dozily against the nurse's knees, her eyelids were heavy and half-closed.

"What happened to the pearls?" she asked sleepily.

"Some say that the De Noirs stole them and others say that it was the Merryweathers, but no one knows for certain, my dear." the old woman replied, "Goodness! Look at the time! If your mother found out you were up so late she'd dismiss me!" The nurse gathered the drowsy girl into her arms.

"Do you think maybe I could grow up to become a Moon Princess?" Catherine mumbled as the nurse carried her across the room and tucked her into bed.

"I think you already are one." the nurse said fondly, kissing her on the forehead, "Now perhaps you will tell me what your secret is?"

"Oh, I was waiting for the boy." Catherine murmured drowsily.

"Who is this boy?" the old woman asked.

"I don't know his name but some nights he sits on the garden wall and waves to me. And sometimes he leaves me presents. He told me he lives in the forest, can you imagine that? To live in the forest!"

"The forest?" the nurse repeated sharply, "And you've spoken with this boy?"

Catherine nodded as she yawned.

"How many times?"

"Just once, down by the gate. Then he started coming at night to sit on the garden wall."

"I've told you to stay away from that gate! Where do you put the presents he leaves you?"

"In my jewellery box." Catherine said as she gestured vaguely towards her dressing table. The last thing Catherine saw before she drifted off to sleep was her old maid's face above hers, the woman looked troubled.

The next day her jewellery box was gone. When Catherine asked her nurse-maid what had became of it, the old woman told her that Catherine's mother had taken it and had ordered that from now on she was forbidden to associate with the boy from the forest. Soon the jewellery box was returned; devoid of the gifts the boy had given her. Catherine cried. She cried for the pretty ribbons and the carved wooden animal figures, for the shells and the scratchy drawings of girls standing on balconies, she cried for the little leather purse and for the pearl ring he had given her. But most of all she cried because she knew that she would never again see the wild boy of the forest.

Catherine's mother quickly tired of her daughter's incessant weeping and, one week later, Catherine was sent to a boarding school in London. She would soon forget all about her night-time visitor and of the treasures he had left; just as he would soon forget all about her.