I paused, and William looked at me. He’d heard it too. And without exchanging a single word about it, we started running toward the sound. But it shifted and softened and echoed, and it was no use trying to tell where it was coming from, really, because every single time we thought we were close, the path turned away. At last, after hours, we found ourselves at a dead end, with the snip of the scissors, or the clippers, or whatever they were, very close by. We could even hear the soft whisper of the rose branches as they fell at the feet of whoever was trimming them. They were just on the other side of the hedge – the bushes trembled a little, and I could hear them humming – but the only path was behind us. There was no other way to get through the foot or two of rose hedges between us and the gardener.
Except, of course, by going through the hedge.
When you do something unfathomably silly or stupid – or rather, when you’re about to do something unfathomably silly or stupid – it’s often in your best interest to think about it for another moment to stop yourself from doing it. The important exception to this is when that silly or stupid thing you’re about to do has got to be done anyway. In that case, it’s best not to think about it at all, and rather to just step forward, thrust your hands into the hedge full of sharp, bloodthirsty thorns, and push your way through to the other side.
It only took a few difficult steps – less than ten seconds, really – though the thorns were everywhere, scraping my face and hands and dress. I stumbled into the corridor on the other side, nearly toppling into the woman who was standing there tending to the bushes. The snip of the hedge clippers fell silent, and she looked over, her eyes hidden in shadow beneath her wide-brimmed hat and her flyaway hair, and even though her lips were quirked in amusement, I could tell she wasn’t particularly surprised.
And then William tumbled through the hedge after me, and of course he did trip into the gardener, crashing into her skirts before falling backward into the dirt with a muffled ‘ow!’
‘Sorry!’ he spluttered. I had never been prouder.
Before I could step forward, the gardener bent down, to grasp William’s arm in her long, dark fingers and pull him standing. ‘Well now,’ she said once he was on his feet, still holding him steady by his arm. Her voice was laughing, even if she wasn’t. ‘What do we have here? Are you a sort of insect?’
William stared at the gardener, though if she found it rude, she didn’t show it. ‘Do we look like insects?’
The gardener let go of him at last and dusted a bit of dirt from his sleeve. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I don’t suppose you have the legs for it. Shame, really. Aphids are easily dealt with, but humans? Now there’s a real pest.’
I guess we’d found our host, though I was starting to wonder whether that was a good thing. She turned back to her rose bushes and bent down, as if to sniff the flowers – except that all the roses were already dead. ‘So, Miss Abigail and Young Mister William,’ she said as she took up her clippers once more. ‘How are you enjoying your stay in the house?’
I didn’t even begin to answer before she’d cut me off:
‘I find it rather too draughty for my tastes,’ she said. ‘Too much dust and cobwebby stuff and you can never be sure about the shades.’
‘Shades,’ echoed William. He’d started looking at the gardener as if she might be slightly dangerous, and I didn’t blame him.
‘You mean unrested spirits?’ I said. ‘You can’t be serious. Surely we would’ve noticed.’
The gardener pursed her lips. ‘How do you figure that?’
‘Well, you can’t live in a place with shades,’ I said, which was true. ‘They’d drain all the spirit out of you, and then you’d be dead yourself, with nothing left of you but your own shade.’
‘There are ghosts and shades in any place this old, Miss Abigail,’ said the gardener. She picked a withered rose from the hedge and tossed it mindlessly over her shoulder. ‘Oh, certainly, not the kind that screech and wander about as they wish and feed on living spirits all the time. But in a place like this – well… shades and ghosts tend to like dusty old houses and overgrown manors and all the forgotten corners of the world. Or didn’t Lewis teach you anything?’
At the mention of Dad’s name, my fingers went automatically to the ring on my thumb. ‘You knew our father,’ I said, trying to keep my voice even.
‘Yes, I knew him,’ said the gardener, punctuating her words with snips from her hedge clippers. ‘And look, there it is, talking about him in the past tense. Never thought I’d live to see the day… I was very sorry to hear of his – how shall we say? – unfortunate demise.’ She let the hedge clippers fall still, lowering her head and tracing a circle in the dirt with her shoe. Quiet settled over us. ‘Tell me, then: how did it happen?’
I glanced at William, who shrugged back. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘we don’t know, really, you see. We just woke up and–’
‘And he was gone,’ finished William for me.
The gardener went suddenly still, her foot poised in front of her. ‘You mean–?’
‘We weren’t able to rest him or anything,’ I said.
The gardener turned to look at us, and finally, she pulled back her hat so we could see her eyes – golden eyes, quick, sharp, and piercing as a cat’s, as if they could see through anything. Those eyes ran over me, and then over my brother, and perhaps they saw something in us under the thorn scratches and grime, because the gardener put down her tools altogether and focused on us fully for the first time. ‘So then tell me now: what do you make of that?’
What did we make of it? What sort of question was that? What were we supposed to ‘make of’ it? I looked to William, only to find that he was focused fully on the gardener.
‘The Inquisitor was asking about enemies,’ he said. ‘He seemed to think it meant Dad was murdered.’
‘Only it couldn’t have been,’ I said, before the gardener could get the wrong idea. ‘It simply couldn’t–’
‘And why not?’ asked the gardener softly. She was staring straight at me now, those golden eyes watching, and her once-quirked lips had bent into a half frown.
‘Well, Dad didn’t have enemies,’ I said, though as much as I believed that, as much as I said it, I was starting to wonder: how could I be sure of that? How could I be sure of anything when Dad had just suddenly dropped dead one night, and when he had never mentioned a single thing about Ravenscourt before, had never talked about why he’d left, or how he and Mother had ended up in a tiny town on the north tip of Caledonia? How could I be sure of anything at all?
The gardener’s face went suddenly grim. ‘Did they never tell you?’ she asked.
‘Tell us?’ I asked at the same time that William said, ‘What?’
‘What happened when your father left? How he was disowned?’
‘Disowned?’ The word felt like a punch in the chest.
‘So they didn’t tell you,’ said the gardener, half to herself. She shook her head, and when she spoke again, I got the feeling that she’d forgotten we were there. ‘To think that he wouldn’t have told them! You’d assume, considering everything… Irresponsible! Irresponsible as always – but no, it’s not my place. Best not get involved.’ And with that, she packed up her trowel, her clippers, and her gloves, picked up her basket, and began to walk away.
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