Chapter 1 - The House
Could this really be it? She was certain she had the address right but now she seriously had her doubts. She double checked her phone and couldn’t see any mistakes but there was no way this was right. How could it be?
Part of her wanted to turn around, find a coffee shop or somewhere and figure it out from there, but she knew that was the cowardly part of her. The running part, the part that she’d let rule for most of her life and where had it got her? Nowhere but misery that’s where. But not anymore. Not now. Everything was different now. She was different. And she was damned if she was going to go back to being the same old Alice. She was a new Alice now, a better Alice. She had choices now, good choices, and she was finally going to live.
She brushed her hair out of her face and as she did she saw the sign, partly obscured by overgrown weeds. Hollingshurst Hall. The taxi had brought her to the right place.
Walking up past the wrought iron gates she stopped again, this time looking across what once would have been immaculately cut grass across to a decrepit looking ornamental garden and lake that had clearly seen better days.
She took a deep breath and shook her head at the absurdity of her situation. Two months ago she was trapped in a boarding school she had loathed, surrounded by bullies who had loved nothing more than to torment her about her dead family. And what made it even worse was her only living relative, a distant uncle she’d never even met, was the one who had stuck her there in the first place and had shown no inclination to do anything other than pretend she didn’t exist.
But now she was free. Free of the school and free of the bullies. And truth be told free of her uncle too. Another family member dead. So now there really was just her.
Her and this house. She shook her head again before picking up her bag which weighed a ton. It was time to see what exactly this house actually was she thought.
As she walked up the drive, the trees theatrically revealed the contours of the architecture bit by bit until finally, the whole place was in front of her like a giant mirage giving her goosebumps.
The place was huge, gothic, and almost something otherworldly. Both the side wings were completed with large towers and the imposing set of stairs up to the entrance made you feel like the whole place was staring down at you.
“Hollingshurst.” She said aloud for the first time as though she was trying to see what the words sounded like.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
Alice jumped and almost twisted her ankle as she spun round at the voice behind her.
“Hi. I’m Alice.” She said looking at the man but saw no recognition in his face at her name. “Alice Gifford.”
“No Gifford has been here in over twenty years.” He replied almost crossly at her and he puffed himself up somewhat.
“Oh well, I…”
“Oh Hello.” A woman called walking up behind her at speed. “You must be Miss Gifford…”
Alice spun round again, feeling almost outnumbered by the pair of them.
“Er, yes, yes I’m Alice.” She replied with a smile.
“Welcome to Hollingshurst. I’m Bates, the housekeeper.” The woman said. “And this is Sebastian our groundskeeper.” She pointed to the man who still looked cross and appeared to be muttering. “Let me show you the house.” She said quickly steering Alice towards it and away from Sebastian.
“How was your journey? Did it take long?” She asked politely as they walked up the stone steps.
“It was fine thanks.” Alice replied still feeling odd by the whole exchange.
“Don’t worry about Seb. He’s a bit forgetful these days. Give him a bit of time and he’ll think you’ve lived here your whole life.”
“He said no Gifford has been here for twenty years. Did my Uncle not live here?” Alice asked curiously.
“No, he used to be here all the time but preferred to stay away after his wife disappeared.”
“You don’t know?” Bates gave her a quizzical look.
“No, I wasn’t really that close with the family.” Alice replied simply.
“Oh I see. Well, there’s not much to it really. And we shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
“No.” Alice said back because she couldn’t think of anything else appropriate to say.
“So this is the main entrance. There’s a side entrance behind the East Wing that leads directly to the kitchens, but I’ll show you that in a bit.”
Alice looked around as she held her breath in amazement. The entrance hall had a double height ceiling with ornate panelling over the ceiling culminating in a giant crystal chandelier that cast rainbow shadows across the sweeping staircase below. Doors to both the left and right showed glimpses of painted faces staring down onto any visitors below.
“It’s a fine example of neogothic architecture.” Bates said next to her.
“It’s beautiful.” Alice breathed feeling even more shocked than she did when she’d first seen the outside.
“Let me take you to your rooms first. Then we can give you a grand tour.”
Alice nodded not daring to think about how her rooms may look. This whole house was hers. This whole ridiculously furnished and over the top house was hers. She’d never had anything in her entire life and now suddenly she felt like she’d hit the jackpot.
“This wing is traditionally for the Lady of the House. I’ve done it up as best I could but if you feel anything is amiss or you want to change anything do please let me know.” Bates said as she pushed open the heavy carved walnut doors.
Inside lay a lavishly furnished room with two large antique sofa’s across from each other in the centre of the room. A large fireplace took dominance over the main wall and across from it large lead lined windows gave an uninterrupted view of the lawn and forest beyond.
“I’ll bring you up some refreshments and then when you’re ready if you pull this handle…” She motioned to what looked like a curtain tie hanging from the ceiling. “I will come back to show you round the rest of the house.”
“Thank you.” Alice said smiling and somehow still keeping it all together but as soon as Bates closed the door behind her she couldn’t hold the squeal in anymore.
This was hers. All of this. She ran round the room looking at little bits that caught her interest. The golden clock on the mantelpiece. The silk wallpaper that looked as though it was hand painted. She ran her hand over the ridiculously plush rug that covered most of the marble floor and made it feel like she was floating rather than standing.
And then she looked out the window. The sun was still high up in the sky but from it’s trajectory it would set behind the forest and give the room a beautiful display every evening. She stared down at the lawn and the forest, wondering how much of this land was hers. Not that it mattered how much because finally she had something, after so many years of having nothing, of being nothing, of feeling like she barely even existed, now she finally felt like she belonged.
She walked through the double doors at the end of the room and came into another smaller suite surrounded by bookcases like her own private library and from this she found her new bedroom. Paler silk wallpaper covered these walls, with intricate pink cherry blossom painted on the wall behind the large bed.
“I trust everything is to your liking?” Bates asked as she poured the tea through the strainer.
“It’s perfect thank you.” Alice said.
“I’m happy to hear that. Perhaps once you’re done with the tea I can give you that tour and bring your belongings up…”
Alice woke with the duvet wrapped so tightly round her she felt she was suffocating, fighting, to get it off her until finally she was free. Laying back, her heart still racing, she tried to get her head together.
She was here. She was safe.
But every time she closed her eyes she was back again. Back at the school. And they were all there.
She gulped feeling the familiar lump in her throat and refusing to give into it. After all she wasn’t the same Alice anymore. She was New Alice. Better Alice. She might still be an orphan, she might still have no family but finally she had some control over her life.
And then on her birthday, when she’d finally turned 18 and could leave the school, everything changed. Her Uncle was dead. The Uncle she’d never even met. Her only blood relative was dead and she was given a mysterious letter that had brought her to here, to Hollingshurst.
So now she had everything and nothing. She had a house, a place she could actually make her home. She had a name. But she had nothing else, no family, no history. Nothing but the luxurious walls around her.
“I wasn’t sure if you wanted breakfast here or in the Dining Hall...” Bates said as she laid the tray down onto a little table.
“The Dining Hall feels a little too grand.” Alice said thinking out loud. “What about in the kitchens? Have you eaten? We could eat together?”
“Oh I couldn’t possibly eat with you.” Bates said “And you’re the Lady of the House, you should feel at home in very room here.”
“I guess. But it seems a lot of fuss for just me.” Alice bit her lip as she thought it over, sinking into one of the armchairs. “I’ll eat in the kitchens and then I can explore some of the gardens.”
“As you wish.” Bates said with a little nod of her head.
Downing the rest of her tea she quickly got dressed, pulling on her favourite old jeans and a jumper before heading down to the kitchens.
Walking in through the servants entrance she watched Bates busy cooking away and cleaning at the same time and wondered how long she’d be stuck sorting this house. She needed a payrise. Heck, she didn’t even know how much she got paid! Alice made a mental note to look into it.
“I’ve done scrambled eggs and toast.” Bates said “Assuming you’re not vegan.”
“Nope not at all. Scrambled eggs are great.”
Bates nodded in response and started serving up.
“Here, let me make some more tea.” Alice said feeling really uncomfortable about how much Bates was waiting on her. It felt like she was more her slave than a housekeeper.
Bates smiled and got the tea leaf out and the pot. Once she’d made the tea Alice insisted Bates sit down and drink it with her.
“So how long have you been working here?” Alice asked as she tucked into her breakfast.
“Since I was 16.”
“Wow. That’s a long time.”
“Yes. I’ve been here 46 years this summer.”
“Was it always like this? So empty?”
“Oh no. When I first started there were more servants than you could believe. But that was when it was the family’s main house. There were parties every weekend then. It was a lot of work but a lot of fun.”
“I can imagine. What were they like? The Giffords?”
“You don’t know?”
“No, my parents died when I was young so I never really met any of my family.”
“Oh. I didn’t realise! Well your Uncle was a charmer. An absolute charmer to be honest and a bit of a naughty one with the maids given half a chance.”
“And my Aunt?”
“She was beautiful. Beautiful, and graceful and everything you’d imagine the lady of a great house to be. She walked into a room and it was like everything stopped. Everyone stopped. You couldn’t help but look at Rebecca.”
Alice smiled at the image thinking she definitely didn’t take after her Aunt because when she walked into a room everyone only looked at her because she’d caused some kind of accident or embarrassment.
“You knew my mother?”
“Yes for a time. She was more flightly than your aunt. Sorry to say. She was always on some flight of fancy. Then she met your father and most of the family didn’t approve.”
“They got into a big fight about it, your father and your uncle. Then your parents left, eloped and nobody heard from them until the accident.”
Alice nodded. She’d heard a similar story about her parents from her own research but wasn’t sure whether to believe it.
“Is that why they left me at that school?” Alice asked, not keeping the resentment from her voice.
“What school? Oh no, not long after your parents died your Aunt disappeared and then everything changed.”
“For my uncle you mean?”
“Yes. He was never the same after. She vanished and there were some pretty nasty rumours circulating that he was behind it. Of course it’s nonsense.” She added seeing the look on Alice’s face. “He couldn’t have hurt a fly and besides he loved your aunt and had no reason to hurt her. No he was devastated when she went. Devastated and he never really got over it. Shut up most of the house. Let the servants go. Just kept me and Sebastian on and I think really that was mostly out of guilt. He would’ve sold the house if he could but it was all tied in trust to you.”
Alice sat absorbing all the information she could. It was the first time she’d heard from someone who knew her family, had met them, and could tell her what they were like. Half of her didn’t want Bates to stop talking, even if she just rabbited on about inconsequential things. She wanted to know everything she could.
“And so, what do you have planned for today?” Bates asked pouring another tea into the mugs.
“I was thinking of wandering round the grounds. It’s a nice day so I thought I’d make the most of it.”
“That sounds like a lovely idea. I can grab you an old map if it helps.”
“That would be brilliant! There’s so much to explore I’m a little worried I might get lost.”
“Oh you won’t get lost. But there’s acres and acres of land around the estate. Just follow the lake around, there’s a little stream off there and it makes a lovely walk through the lower meadows. Do you have any wellies?”
“It’s all a bit marshy down the bottom, the drainage needs sorting really. I’ll grab you a pair from the boot room that you can have. Save your feet getting wet.”
“Thanks that’s great. Is there any bits I should avoid?”
Alice nodded making a mental note. Wear wellies. Avoid the woods. This was turning into far more of an adventure than she realised.
“And you’re all set.” Bates said smiling as she appraised her.
“Thanks these are great!” Alice said standing up and stomping in her newly acquired wellies. She’d never needed a pair of wellies before but suddenly they made her feel like she belonged. That this house truly was hers. That this life was actually hers. She pulled on her backpack filled with treats that Bates had insisted she take with her and made for the door.
She bent down and picked off a dark red rose from the bush in front of her. It smelt incredible as she brought it to her nose and she breathed it in. Almost grounding herself to it and her surroundings.
“I SAW THAT.” Sebastian’s voice rung out behind her making her jump and drop the rose.
“Sebastian. Hi.” Alice said trying to not show how much he had scared her.
“WITCH.” He yelled coming nearer to her and holding his gardening fork like a spear ready to launch. “YOU’LL PAY FOR THAT.”
“Sebastian. Please it’s just a rose.” Alice stammered now alarmed but he didn’t stop. Suddenly she realised he wasn’t going to stop. He was charging at her.
In an instant she turned and ran as fast as she could. Ran back through the gardens, back along the lawn, hearing his stomping feet behind her the whole time. Without thinking she ran blindly, further away, away from the house, away from Sebastian.
When she stopped she was in woodland. Deep in it. She held her breath listening to see if he was still chasing her but she heard nothing. Not even the sounds of animals. Just silence.
Breathing deeply she sat down on a tree trunk that had long fallen over. Her heart was still pounding and she still couldn’t process what had just happened.
A twig snapped behind her. Not close but not far either. Within seconds she was up and running again. She wasn’t taking any chances that it wasn’t him. The brambles were thick and she kept catching her wellies in them tripping her up and only the proximity of nearby tree saved her from fully faceplanting into a boggy patch. She kept going, aiming to circle back through and round to the house.
Ahead two men dressed in shirts and weird, old fashioned looking trousers and boots looked like they were prowling. They spotted her almost instantly and as she turned to run away another appeared behind her. He gave her a toothless grin as he nudged her down towards the other two.
“Who the hell are you?” Alice asked now thoroughly sick of being pushed around and chased by men.
“More like who are you? This is the Kings Land. You’ve no right to be here.” The fatter of the three said marking himself as the leader.
“The Kings Land?” Alice scoffed. “This is my land. It’s part of the Gifford Estate.”
“The what?” The lankier one said screwing up his face.
“The Gifford Estate. You know the house up over the hill.” She rolled her eyes. Like they could have missed a house as big as Hollingshurst, she thought.
“Ain’t no house for miles around. This is hunting land. Why would anyone put a house on it?”
“Look, I don’t care who you are, or what kind of weird cosplay thing you’re all into but I’ve had enough for one day. I’ve already been chased by my gardener and I’m not bloody well being pushed around by you.” Alice said puffing up her chest and hoping she sounded as no nonsense as she felt.
“Cosplay? Cosplay? What’s a Cosplay?” Their leader said mulling over the word like he’d never heard it before.
“You know what. I said enough and I mean it.” Alice said throwing her hands in the air. “I’m going back to the house. You need to leave and if I find you here again I’ll call the police.” She threatened before turning on her heel.
“Oh no you don’t missy. Think we’ll let you just wander off by yourself. You’ve got to answer to the King’s men. You’re trespassing you are.” Their leader said before nodding for the other two to grab her.
“Ow. Get off me. What the hell are you doing?” Alice cried as they grabbed her arms and held her. The panic was now starting to rise in her as she struggled against their grip.
“Careful Sabri she might be a Witch.” The lanky one muttered to the other man holding her.
“You think everyone’s a Witch. Look at her. She’s not a Witch.”
“She might be.” He insisted sniffing at her as if he could smell one. “Look at her hair. You ever seen hair that colour before?”
“Just tie her up.” The leader replied.
“Blindfold her too…” The Lanky one said.
“You’re crazy. You’re all crazy.” Alice yelled at them wondering who the hell they were and why they even wanted her in the first place. “Let me go.”
“Alright blindfold her if it makes you happy but get a move on will you. I want to get back before nightfall.”
“You have got to be kidding me.” Alice spat fighting as hard as she could but she could feel they had her tightly held.
“If she’s a Witch we don’t want her casting any spells.” The lanky one reasoned.
“Fine. Let’s just get on with it.” The leader agreed grabbing some fabric from his pocket and ramming it into her mouth. She tried to but his hand to stop him and he yelped pulling his fingers back but it did no good, he slapped her over the head and then rammed the cloth back in as she flinched back slightly dazed.
Alice struggled as they tied her hands together and kicked out as they put the sack over her head. She could see little bits of light through it but nothing beyond. The fabric in her mouth threatened to choke her and she tried desperately to fight the panic now consuming her because it wasn’t like it would help her right now. She tried to scream, tried to get free, but there was only a muffled sound from her mouth and the rope gave no relief as it cut into her wrists.
Whoever the hell they were they meant business…