Our first three days at the Manor, the rain did not stop. Wind and sleet and water battered against the windows while the sky churned with storm, and every night, the echo of ghastly wails sounded from somewhere above, just weak and eerie enough for me to wonder if they had come from the wind or my imagination, or if they were the same as the scream that we’d heard the first night. There was no escape from the cobweb-curtained corridors of the house, and we had nothing to do but lose ourselves in the library, or when that grew tiresome, to attempt explorations of the other wings, though that was almost impossible without provoking the Housekeeper (‘that old toad,’ as William started calling her). And with every exploration, I couldn’t help but hear Uncle Edward’s story echoing in the back of my mind, as if he’d meant it as a sort of warning.
Still, we never ran into him – or Mother, for that matter. Whatever the adults did all day, we saw them only during the shifty silences of lunch and dinner. And so, when the rain finally did let up and the sun decided to cast a few damp rays of light into the Dining Hall, it was all I could do to stop myself from jumping up right then and there and running outside with William in tow. No, we had to wait until the adults had laid down their silverware and then politely ask to be excused. Only when we’d done that, and the adults gave us their permission, could we jump up and run.
In any case, our explorations had not been in vain. We’d found several doors leading outside, though most of them opened into courtyards and walled gardens, and there was one just downstairs from our room that let you out near the servants’ quarters, with nothing but the stables in front of you. But there was one door at the end of the hall lined all with windows – a stained glass door that had been locked and bolted tight, and that was the door I wanted to open, as I was sure it led down to the back lawn and the woods beyond.
When we got there, light was shining through the stained glass. I had brought an extra hair pin in case William needed to pick the lock – but I needn’t have bothered. A note had been tucked behind the door handle, a square of cream-coloured card with a message in green ink:
I couldn’t even begin to read the signature at the bottom, except for an overlarge B and a looping L with far too many lines and curves. William squinted at the note himself for a minute before shrugging and trying the door handle.
It was, in fact, unlocked. We pulled open the door and stepped into a place bathed in daylight, the air fresh and warm – too warm for late November. William looked up, blinking, and I looked up too, at the cage of glass and rusting metal arcing above us, and then down at the iron stair twisting away below, leading into a teeming jungle of plants. Trapped birds chattered among the leaves and vines and the air was full of the thick, damp smell of growing things. The door, it turned out, didn’t lead outside at all, but rather to a greenhouse – the largest greenhouse I’d ever seen: big enough to hold the tiny patch of yard behind our old house (which Dad always insisted on calling the garden) several times over. Perhaps it was even big enough to fit the old house itself.
‘Oh lovely,’ said William flatly. ‘Plants.’
‘Don’t be that way,’ I said, pulling him down the stairs and into the jungle. There were drooping clusters of kingsfoil and blooming mandrakes, and dark, rusty bloodmoss, all of which I pointed out to William, while he pointedly ignored me. But there was no sign of roses, or of the stranger who had invited us there. It wasn’t long before William started complaining about the stuffy air and the stuffy light and the stuffy plants, and so, at last, we found the door that led outside, and with it, another note:
I stuck the note into my sock, and together, William and I ventured out into the manor. The outdoor gardens lay withered and dull under the tattered clouds. In the distance, the dark tree line of the Blackwood marked the edge of a grey sky. Our path cut through a forest of bushes sculpted in the shape of giant chessmen, before ending at the trellised arch that marked the entrance to the Rose Garden. Naturally, our mysterious host had left a third card perched among the thorny branches.
William raised his eyebrows at that one. Whoever our host was, I was starting to doubt that they were particularly sane – which was, perhaps, all the more reason to find out exactly who they were. I took William’s hand, and we stepped into the rose garden. The path twisted and turned and it took only a few minutes before we were completely lost within the maze, the thorny hedges rising, unbroken, on all sides, and the dead leaves rattling in the wind, and our feet squelching over brown, fallen petals, as we looked in all directions for an escape – but there was no escape, just more hedges, and more thorns, and more dead leaves, and somewhere, very close by, the snip, snip, snip of scissors clipping trimmings from the hedge.
To be continued…
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