We entered a paved hallway where grey and black shadows coated the walls hiding anything more than a couple of feet away. Meg walked away from us, swallowed by the void. The only light illuminating the passageway were the shafts of moonlight that crept through the open door. The heavy smoke smell that had suffocated me outside clogged the air. “What is that smell?”
Phoebe shrugged. “It always smells like that here but after you’ve been here a while you don’t notice it. It’ll go away.”
“I hope so. I can’t stand much more of this.”
Shallow puddles were forming on the slabs under our feet as it trickled down our bodies. I shivered at the sensation.
Meg wasted no time. Before we knew it, she was back wearing a cloak with a hood attached over a white shirt and long, dark skirt. Pale chubby fingers held on tight to a large, leather drawstring bag.
“Shall we go before you two catch your death?”
An urgency built inside me I had never felt before. I needed to get back down there. I needed to make sure he was ok.
What I didn’t expect was the devastation I felt when we got back by the side of the road and he had gone. “What happened?” I asked Eleanor, who was clutching a shaking Nell to her.
“A lovely couple came and agreed to take him to hospital. So, no need to worry now, I’m sure he is in safe hands.”
I made my way over to where his body had been, no evidence remained of him ever being there at all. I expected to see scarlet blood marking the ground. But there was none. Perhaps the rain had washed it all away.
Meg stood still as though rock formed her limbs. In her hand, she clutched the bag which I presumed had a first aid kit inside. Her other hand grasped the thin material of her cloak at the base of her throat.
My stomach twisted.
“At least we know he’s getting help, right Anne?”
“What? Oh yeah, that’s good.”
“Come child, there is nothing to do here now. Come back to the house where we can get you warm and dry.”
The four of us removed all of our belongings from the car. In kindness, Meg aided an unsteady Eleanor to the main house at the top of the hill. Nell trudged by my side, muttering incoherently as we went. Phoebe flitted between the two making sure they were ok.
I caught the odd word or phrase that floated back from Nell. Can’t be. Please don’t make me. Were I not already carrying two suitcases and extra bags strung around my neck, I might have been more inclined to comfort her. As it was, I was tired, hungry, drenched and pissed off. And yet images of John, the stranger who had laid his head upon my knee, occupied my mind.
Despite the aching in my bones, the heaviness of my eyelids and the rumble in my stomach, I felt no relief when the ominous turrets of Burnley Manor broke through the rain and black sky. There was something hypnotic about the way it beckoned us. I shuddered as though death’s skeletal fingers had swept down my spine.
We had entered the manor through an arched gate house at the back. It led us to a small, square courtyard, which we crossed to filter into the main house. I could smell smoke, the powerful stench permeated from the furniture and fabrics. It coated my nostrils and throat and I had to forced a cough to rid it from my lungs.
Phoebe cocked her head in my direction.
Meg guided us passed a rich, mahogany screen and into a stone lined passageway. Rooms branched off either side of the narrow hallway.
“Here we are,” she said, gesturing for us to dump the luggage on the floor as we stepped into a kitchen. A kitchen lost to time. A fireplace pulsing with flames consumed the whole of one wall, with a large pot hanging over them.
Meg had spoken little from leaving the roadside and returning to the house. Every time I looked at her, our eyes met, and she turned her head busying her hands. But the way she gazed at me, all wide-eyed and glazed. I found it unnerving. Intense.
In fact, no-one spoke much, and I couldn’t tell if it was from tiredness or the same feeling of dread that had me within its grasp. Looking around, everyone seemed to have something on their mind. They stared into the mugs of hot drinks Meg had prepared.
We sat opposite each other on a long wooden table that occupied the middle of the room. To break the silence, Phoebe explained that this was the smaller of two kitchens and pointed out what some of the strange and wonderful objects in the room were.
We sipped at the hot liquid using the ceramic pots more as hand warmers than anything else. The conversation was awkward and bitty. I ducked in and out of it whenever I remembered where I was, trying to be polite. But, I didn’t care at that moment. For reasons unknown, my thoughts were of him.
“Would I be able to use the phone?” I asked planting my feet back on the earth.
Meg’s eyebrows drew together.
“There isn’t one here,” Phoebe said. “It’s a medieval manor house. It wouldn’t be in keeping, would it?”
I thought for a moment. My Aunt Lily had dragged me around many crumbling piles that had installed telephones, heating and flushing toilets to keep up with the times. I didn’t argue though, the mere thought of it appeared redundant and my energy had evaporated along with him.
“Oh,” I replied. “I wanted to let my Aunt Lily know I was all right. She made me promise I would call her whenever we got settled.”
Meg cleared her throat. “You all must be exhausted. What a strange night you have had. Nothing much happens in these parts. Phoebe could show Anne to her room and I’ll escort Eleanor and Nell to theirs. Would that be all right, Phoebe? I’m sure you know which room would be suitable for Anne.” Meg passed her a thick, black metal key. She wasn’t asking, she was telling.
“An excellent suggestion,” said Eleanor. She rose, gripping the edge of the table to push herself up, tremors affecting her frail body. “Come, Nell.” Eleanor grabbed her granddaughter’s hand and Nell looked to her with glassy eyes. “Bed.”
Nell replied with an absent nod.
I suppressed a groan when Phoebe got up too and with a jerk of her head signalled for me to follow. I didn’t want to move. The chill no longer plagued my bones, and I had just got warm and comfortable. But after saying goodnight to the others, I abandoned the half-drunk cup, grabbed my luggage and followed Phoebe.
I found my body lagging a few steps behind my friend. How she still had the energy to steam ahead with a slight bounce in her step, I would never know.
We weaved through a maze-like sequence of interlocking corridors and hallways, dragging my luggage more than carrying it. Phoebe explained what each room was as we passed. There was a familiarity and love of the place poured into every word she spoke, it dripped like honey from her lips as she described the Manor as beautiful and stunning, a loving home blackened by history’s misunderstandings. What she meant, I didn’t know, I had never heard her speak in such a way.
We entered the Long Gallery that stretched along most of the house and only stopped when we reached a solid dark wooden door. Using the key Meg had given her, Phoebe unlocked it.
“What is wrong with Nell?”
Phoebe froze. “What do you mean?”
“She seemed ill downstairs, spooked even.”
Phoebe forced a laugh. “Of course she’s spooked. The first journey of any decent length she’s driven, and she nearly knocks a man down and then he collapses in front of her, anyway. It’s enough to put anyone off driving for life. Now come on, let’s get you in your room.”
“You seem to know the Manor very well.”
She rolled her shoulders. “We are close to the family who own the house, sort of grew up with them.”
Something had changed in Phoebe that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was being here in this place she appeared to adore and yet the way she looked and smiled at me betrayed a nervousness that put me on edge.
She pushed open the door with both hands and stepped inside. Like the rest of the house, only the grace of the moonbeams shining in through the huge windows lit the room. Phoebe surged towards three candles standing on a chest of drawers and lit them. A dim but warm glow grew, creeping over the aged furniture.
I gasped at the beauty of the room as it broke through the shadows. My gaze settled on the four-poster bed where the crimson drapes edged in gold matched the elegant red on the walls. The window was so huge that cushions of the same red lined seats so that anyone could sit down and watch the outside world roll by. There was a towering bureau which I trailed my hand across to feel the smooth finish of the genuine wood. Chairs littered the room. Large coffers lined the wall opposite the window. I bet I couldn’t even get one to fit in my bedroom back in Wakefield.
I was overcome. It hit me again, the feeling that had attacked me in the car. I fell to my knees.
“Anne!” Phoebe flew to my side and with her supporting my arm, I stood up. I burned one second and then my blood ran icy cold the next. My head spun round and round as though I was on a fairground carousel. “Are you ok?”
The feeling had gone as quickly as it had come, the nausea and dizziness seeped away. “Yes, it’s gone. I just felt strange.”
“Come on,” insisted Phoebe. “Why don’t you sleep it off? You’ll feel better in the morning. I’ll ask Meg to check on you.”
I nodded. Phoebe made her way over to the door.
She turned, hand poised on the doorframe.
“What is it about this place?”
The edge of her mouth raised forming a weak smile. “This is home, Anne. I want you to remember that. Home.”
Despite the torrential rain and looming mist, it turned out to be a hot night. The paper-thin sheets cooled my clammy skin, washing relaxing waves over me until the uneasiness of being in a different place faded away and I drifted into sleep.
I did not sleep well however, but in fits. Early in the night, I found myself woken by strange noises. Bangs, the creaking of doors and whispers snuck out from the darkened corners. But glancing around the room in the half-moonlight, I dismissed them as normal sounds expected in such an old building. I shut them from my mind. I had never scared easily; Lorna discovered that the first Halloween Aunt Lily allowed her to babysit for me.
I turned on my side facing the window and put my arm underneath the flat pillow. I drew it closer, snuggling up to it, seeking comfort. For a few moments, my eyes rested upon the outside world protected by the night sky. Shades of moonlit rays sprinkled through the swirling mist that still circled the house. Like a spectre, it haunted the land, thus casting half the room in shadow and allowed the other half to bask in glittering silver light. The rain had stopped, for now at least.
In time, I again fell into sleep and no distressing creaks or bangs disturbed me. Instead, a battlefield both violent and tormenting grew beneath my feet and soldiers surrounded me.
My golden hair hung loose in voluptuous curls to my waist when in reality it skimmed my shoulders. Around me, men drenched in dark red stains clashed together, hacking at whatever they could. The tips of their swords matched their discoloured armour after plunging into soft flesh.
They were oblivious to me. Shocked and sickened by the unfolding carnage, I glided between them. My heart lodged in my throat and my stomach churned. At one end of the field, a banner, obscured by the mist, fluttered high and proud. As I neared, I could make out three suns on a background of blue and murrey.
A deafening cry rang out in my left ear and I turned to see a man fall to the ground with a full-length blade piercing his heart. He hit the ground with a thud, the metal of his armour echoing across the field. But he wasn’t the only one and so his death like many others went unnoticed. I had an overwhelming desire to kneel by the struggling man as he had the sword yanked from his body. Another heart-wrenching scream escaped his bloody mouth. Then nothing.
The sight made me sick to my stomach. It was as if someone had reached inside my chest with their bare hands and yanked my heart out and shown the still beating bloody mass to the world.
The wind grew stronger pulling long strands of hair across my face making it difficult for me to see. I continued to take in the chaos encircling me. The sun made its way up through the sky casting increasingly light down on the fighting soldiers. I noticed some were dressed in blood red tunics bearing the emblem of the bear and ragged staff. Others, were in blue with a sunburst covering their chests.
Two knights held my attention. Damp, blonde hair flew loose as the one in red lost his helmet. Then, their feet shifted, and bodies twisted until he faced me. I strained my eyes trying to catch a better look of his face.
Suddenly, his strong arm swung backwards and with a mighty force he plunged his sharp weapon into the stomach of the other man. His muscles tensed and he pushed it deeper to ensure maximum damage. I did not look away but noticed the sadness and remorse that wept from his eyes as he stared at the limp corpse lying at his feet in a pool of blood.
He dragged the back of his hand across his brow. In this moment of pure isolation, the world revolved around him and he scanned the field for another worthy opponent. Those eyes now so familiar.
Then he looked up. His gaze locked with mine and I felt my heart skip a beat, a mixture of unadulterated happiness and shock spread across his face. I racked my brain wondering where I’d seen him before, but barriers blocked access to the rest of my mind. All I knew was that he was looking at me; he could see me when no one else could.
He approached me one step at a time, drinking in the details of my face as though mesmerised. When he was close enough for me to hear him, he whispered, letting the word linger on his lips.