Henry stayed with me until Meg returned. She didn’t take long and neither of them mentioned anything more about the St George.
Rather than returning me to my bed, Henry had helped me curl up on the window seat. He’s found a thick, woollen blanket in one of the chests and made sure I wrapped it around myself. The great hulking things seemed to be everywhere.
Then without another word, Henry left me only to return moments later. Meg continued to fuss.
“I’m honestly fine now,” I insisted.
“Here, I thought you may benefit from a distraction.” Henry handed me a thick book. It had no title or if it had, it had long since worn away. The cover was deep brown, nearly black with lighter patches. Turning it, I saw the words Sir Tristram inked beautifully in black.
“Thank you.” I looked up at him. “I think I’ve read my Aunt Lily’s copy over a hundred times.”
“Aunt Lily?” Henry questioned.
I looked up at him, pushing my hair from my eyes. “I live with her. She isn’t really my aunt, I think she is a relative of one of my parents, but it is what I have always called her.”
My Aunt Lily loved to collect old books and stories. She even had a collection of four-hundred-year-old manuscripts. They were kept safe in her craft room where no one else was allowed to go. It was a room that coveted the whole of the loft space at the top of the house and was only accessible by a ladder. The room itself was a tribute to pastel, muted shades. A Singer sewing machine stood on a makeshift table, next to it, yards of folded flowery material were stacked up on the floor. Lace was strung up and draped on abandoned furniture like ghostly cobwebs. All around the edges standing side by side like soldiers were mismatched bookcases that contained Aunt Lily’s precious books. I would sneak up whenever she went out and take one book at a time. I’d always replaced it before she even realised they were missing.
“This is one of my favourite stories.”
“I know, I remember.”
I looked up at him brushing my long fringe out of my eyes. Meg, who had been pottering around the room, straightening the bedcovers and tidying somewhat, snapped her head up, her hands hovered, frozen in position. Her whole body seemed to tense.
“I remember Eleanor telling me, that is,” his words seemed rushed and his cheeks darkened.
“I don’t remember saying anything to her about it,” I said, trying to think back on all of my encounters with her. “Maybe Phoebe said something to her.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “That must be it.”
Meg relaxed a little, her shoulders falling back to their natural position. “My lord, forgive my intrusion but I do believe it is time for us to take our leave. Mistress Anne has had quite an exciting morning.”
Henry stood up straight. “Yes, of course,” he seemed a little flustered. “I do have matters that require my urgent attention. Goodbye Anne.”
“Goodbye,” I said. “And thank you for the book.”
He nodded at me before striding from the room.
Meg came up for one final check that I found the blanket warm enough and tucked it tight around me.
“Try to eat something, it may help you feel better,” she said and then she was gone.
She would have been cross to see that immediately after she left, I broke free from my blanket prison to see what time it was. Just after midday. I wondered why Phoebe had not yet been to see me though I supposed Meg or Henry could have told her not to.
My head still throbbed from where I hit the ground the day before. I hadn’t looked in the mirror, but I suspected a dark red graze overlaying a blossoming purple bruise. No matter how much I tried to think back, I just could not recall what I had happened.
I pressed my head against the coolness of the glass panes on the window letting it soothe me. Through the veil of mist, I could just about make out a few trees dotted on the green landscape as it sloped away from the house. It was only the middle of the afternoon, but the lack of light making it through the mist made it seem much later.
Light knuckles rapped on the door. It swung open revealing Meg in the frame.
“You have a visitor. I told him you were not well enough to be seen, but he insisted, nonetheless.” Her lips narrowed into a thin line.
She stepped aside revealing Rich standing behind her dressed in the same clothes as yesterday.
“You look a little better,” he said. “You have more pink in your cheeks. May I?” He gestured towards one of the chairs.
I nodded and in one swift moment, he had whipped it from its position against the wall and sat in front of me.
“You do not have to stay,” he said to Meg.
“But this is most improper. Mistress Anne needs a chaperone.”
He laughed, and I joined in with him. “Nonsense. This is the seventies. The nineteen seventies.”
Meg looked to me with pleading eyes.
“It’s alright Meg. You can leave us.”
“As you wish. Call if you need anything.”
“She’s protective, isn’t she?” said Rich as soon as the latch clicked shut.
I shrugged. “More like from another time. Things were different when she was young. I bet she was never left alone in a room with a boy.”
He laughed. “It had been a while since someone called me a boy. How are you feeling? That is quite a bump on your head.”
He made me conscious of the ugly, bruised swelling at my temple. “Much better than yesterday. Still a little hazy but it is going, thank god. And thank you for what you did. Especially since I ran out on you like that.”
Thick eyebrows arched into arrowhead points. “Why did you run away? I spent most of the day reliving what happened, trying to work out what I’d done.”
I sat forward in a quick, sharp jerk. “You hadn’t done anything!” Then I became stuck. What on earth could I say to him that didn’t make me sound like a lunatic? “I get severe migraines and when I do, I can’t think clearly and have to be on my own.” It sounded stupid, but it was the best I could come up with at short notice.
He didn’t believe me. “Yes, really.”
“Then I feel for you. Do they happen a lot?”
“They seem to be more regular at the moment,” at least that wasn’t a lie.
He considered me for a while then ran his tongue across his bottom lip, his gaze falling to my lap. “What book are you reading?”
“I haven’t started it yet, Henry just gave me it. It is the story of Sir Tristram.”
“Ah and his lady love Isolde.”
“The very same. It is one of my favourites.”
“It’s popular at the library too. We have several copies and they always seem to be out.” Then his face coloured.
“Are you one of those people?”
He held his hands up. “Guilty!” he laughed. “I’m weak when it comes to medieval romances, I’ll admit.”
“There’s no shame in it,” but I giggled too. “Looks like we have similar tastes in literature.”
“So it seems. Anne, I’d like to show you around the area, when you’re feeling better of course.”
The constant pounding of my head didn’t make me feel like doing much. But Rich had shown me nothing but kindness.
“I’d like that. Thank you.”
“Good,” he looked down at his watch. “I’d better be going. Meg will string me up if I keep you from recovery any longer. Would it be alright if I visit again?”
“Yes, it has been lovely. And thank you again for what you did.”
“You are welcome. Till next time Anne.”
And he left me alone once more. The more I thought about it, the more I liked the idea of Rich showing me around Barnet. I liked the idea of Rich altogether.
Looking down, I realised I still had the book in my hand open at the title page. I turned to the beginning and began to read. Several pages in, my legs ached from the position I had been sat in for so long and so I lifted the book up and shifted my body. Just then, something fell from its pages and floated to the floor.
Reaching down, I discovered two white roses entwined in a velvet ribbon. They had been pressed together between the pages of the book until they were crisp and as flat as the pages themselves. I hesitated to pick them up because they looked so delicate, I worried they would crumble at the slightest touch.
Another vision triggered as soon as my fingertip touched the aged flowers. This time, the flashes just showed him. How had I forgotten all about him? He who made my temperature soar, had the power to make my entire body tremble and my heart attempt to break from my chest like a caged bird. I had been running away from John. Not because he had frightened me but of the intense feelings that stirred within me whenever I was in his company. The images flickered so brightly through my mind that the glare was dazzling. He rode towards me on a horse in one, lifted the visor up on a metal helmet in another and smiled at me from across a large table.
The contexts of the images were foreign, not that I saw much of the background because they were all focused on him. I focused all on John, but they were from another time. One long, long ago.
After a few minutes, they eased, slowing down until each image stayed for a few seconds longer. Then they stopped altogether. I sat on the edge of my window seat, white knuckles clenched on the cushion’s trim as I faced inwards towards my room. My head bowed, eyes locked on the flattened roses between my feet.
Slowly, raising my head, my heart jolted, and adrenaline pumped through my body as I took in the child standing before me. I hadn’t even heard anyone come in the room, and glancing at the door, I found it still closed.
The girl had the cold artic blue eyes of the Farthings and long, golden hair that reached her waist. Her small mouth was set in a straight line, if I was to guess, I would have thought her to be no more than six years old. A plain off-white shift ended just before her bare feet. There was a light, fragrance invading the air. Very much like flowers, very much like roses.
“Who are you?” I asked.
There was no answer as the girl just stared at me, then she smiled before turning. The door creaked open for her with no one touching it. She walked through it with only a slight pause to see if I was following.
As I reached the door, she was already quite a way down the bedroom gallery. Every so often, she would turn to make sure I was still there.
“Wait!” I called out to her, but she wouldn’t stop nor would she slow down. Still unfamiliar with the house, I tried my best to keep an eye on where she went. We scurried down hallways, my footing faltered as doubts crept into my mind. What the hell was I doing?
I continued nonetheless and followed her down a dark wooden panelled corridor. With doors leading off both sides, the only light came from a large window right at the end. A patch of pale white light to drive away the shadows. The further we ventured towards the light, the colder it grew. Shivers travelled down my spine and I was compelled every few seconds to look behind me.
Tension caused an aching wave to roll from one shoulder across my back to the other. The temperature plummeted further. My breathing materialised as a cloud in front of my face.
Then, the girl stopped and turned to face me. She smiled at me again before opening the only door left on this stretch. She closed it behind her. I wasn’t sure what she wanted me to do but compelled, I followed. I crept up to it, the door handle inches away from my fingertips. There was a click. My hand recoiled. With the greatest effort, the door opened.
A gentle draft breathed from the gap in the door teasing stray strands of hair around my face. Despite the cold, hot blood pulsed through my veins, my hands turned clammy and beads of sweat were forming on my forehead.
Were I watching someone in the same position as me, I would have screamed for them to run. But no. Instead, I peeled my fingers around the door and pulled it open. Brown wood turned to grey stone and a stairway in the same material descended into darkness. Like a fool, I followed.
My hand trailed down the rough surface of the stone walls to support me as I descended further and further down. At the bottom, lay another few feet of narrow, darkened corridor with an orange glow at the end. I made my way towards it; the heat hit me before I even entered the room. The corridor led to a large room separated only by stone archways. The wall and each pillar held torches firmly bracketed to the blocks with flames burning bright.
“Hello?” I called out. “Little girl? Little girl, are you down here?” The walls caused my words to echo. I couldn’t see her anywhere.
In what was one of the biggest disappointments, the room was pretty much empty. I weaved in and out of the arches examining each wall face and floor space. I was sure she had come down here but could see nothing. That was, until I stood in the furthest corner away from the doorway in which I had first entered. A white sheet with a thick layer of fluffy, grey dust dipped and peaked with no uniform to it. Without explanation, it drew me to it. I fought to stop my hand from shaking as I grabbed a section of the flimsy material and pulled it away to reveal the secrets beneath.
My heart hammered in a furious rhythm. Several portraits of the same girl who had led me down here rested against the wall. Each one showed her at different ages. A child in a few, a teen in others but the same set expression and pale face angled to the left. I stepped back, my body slick with sweat. They were old. So old, that the oily canvas had cracked in places. Long-sleeved arms crossed in front of her in an elegant pose as a barely visible veil floated around her head and down her back. She clutched a single white rose in her clasped hands.
There was just one more thing. The face reflecting back at me was mine.
The girl was me.
She had the exact colour and shape of my eyes; same shade of hair and even the small mole under my left eye was clear on the painting. She had the full roundness of my face and the uneven shape of my top lip. The only problem was, some of the portraits were inscribed with the name Lady Kathryn Farthing.
I backed up so much that I fell into the wall. Struggling to catch my breath, I knew I had to find Phoebe. I knew I needed answers.