Authors: Jon Mayhew
‘What will ye leave to your sister Anne?’
‘My silken scarf and my golden fan.’
‘What will ye leave to your sister Grace?’
‘My bloody clothes to wash and dress.’
‘What will ye leave to your brother John?’
‘The gallows tree to hang him on.’
‘The Cruel Brother’, traditional folk ballad
Josie’s night passed miserably. Her lamp sputtered and died, leaving her in total darkness, her nerves prey to every scratch at the window, every rustle. Floorboards creaked, the wind moaned across the marshes and rattled her window in its frame. Josie was used to the sounds of the city: carriages clattering on cobbled streets, costermongers crying out to attract custom. The noises here were alien to her.
Cackling magpies and crows brought the first feeble suggestions of dawn. Josie limped out of bed to the window and looked out across the flat grey landscape. It was empty but for a few scrubby trees, a dilapidated windmill and a hangman’s gibbet standing stark and black against the washed-out marshland. The house stood on raised ground and looked down on the marshes as they spilled out towards the sea. Rust-red squares dotted the distant waterline, the sails of Thames barges plying their trade along the coast. Josie remembered seeing them at the docks in the city once. But they were far from London now. A tumbledown brick wall marked a perimeter of sorts around the house and a pitted drive led to its front door.
Few plants bothered to grow in the land surrounding the house. But rooks, ravens and crows of all descriptions lined the ledges and roofs of outlying houses, huddling and bickering together in the cold dawn. Wherever a bird roosted, smears of white crusted the surfaces and dripped down the walls. Josie pulled a face and peered over to where she thought the light had been in the night. Nothing interrupted the grey line of the horizon.
She hobbled to the door and turned the handle. It was bolted from the outside. Josie cursed under her breath. Not that she had any intention of escaping; she wasn’t fit enough yet. But she needed to see Alfie, to know he was safe and well. When Arabella finally arrived with breakfast on a tray, Josie was pleased to see her and straightened up in bed, wincing with each bend of a limb or twist of the body.
But Arabella looked pale and drawn.
‘Breakfast, miss,’ she murmured, placing the tray down. Josie frowned. Where was the smiling girl from yesterday? She looked like a hunted mouse, shoulders slumped, head to one side, staring at the carpet.
‘Can I see Alfie today?’
‘Couldn’t say, miss,’ Arabella said, stepping back and giving a sidelong glance to the door. Josie’s stomach lurched.
Aunt Mag leered from the threshold, hands clasped in front of her, dark eyes twinkling with triumph. She took a step forward.
‘I trust you’re comfortable, Josie Chrimes,’ Aunt Mag hissed with a yellow-toothed grin. ‘Don’t get used to it. Lord Corvis is
in the pair of you for now, but it is the Amarant he truly wants. Come with me.’
Josie caught a glimpse of Alfie’s face behind Aunt Mag, a livid scar coursing across his white cheek. His eyes met hers and widened. Josie threw herself forward, sending the breakfast tray crashing to the floor. ‘Alfie,’ she cried, hobbling to the door and hugging him, ignoring Aunt Mag’s sneer.
‘Owww,’ Alfie groaned. ‘Steady on.’
Josie stood back, grimacing at her complaining joints and her smile dropped. ‘You look terrible,’ she said.
It was true, the gash across his cheek stood out blue and angry. He swayed and gave a feeble grin.
‘Thanks, yer no oil painting yerself,’ he said, wincing and grabbing her shoulder for support. He looked like a little old man, so frail and colourless.
‘Enough! His lordship is waiting,’ Aunt Mag snapped. She led them along dusty passageways. Even though it was morning, the house was dark and shuttered. Aunt Mag’s oil lamp cast a globe of light in the shadows.
‘It reminds me of a mausoleum,’ Alfie whispered. Every now and then a cracked oil painting of a lady in silks or a tarnished suit of armour would pass through their little illuminated bubble.
‘Everything here needs a good dusting down,’ Josie whispered back. Dull unpolished tables supported vases of brown desiccated flowers, which in turn supported a tangle of thick, dusty cobwebs. ‘Uncle may not have been too fussy about housework, but at least Bluebell Terrace was clean.’
‘Got a strange taste in ornaments, too,’ Alfie murmured. Here and there, hideous statues and carvings snarled out of the gloom: ancient gods with many arms, tusks and fearsome scowling faces, weapons raised, frozen in mid blow.
‘Horrible,’ Josie said.
Aunt Mag pushed on the large double doors into the dining room and there at the end of a long polished table sat Lord Corvis. Aunt Mag swept past them and stood at Corvis’s shoulder, her black eyes locked on to Josie, cold and steely. Josie slipped her hand around Alfie’s and gave a squeeze. His skin felt cold and clammy. He squeezed back.
‘Welcome,’ Corvis said. Josie had never seen such a neat, well-groomed man. He sat very tall in his chair, regarding them with imperious, ice-cold eyes. His pointed features were tanned brown, a clear indication that he’d been away from the grimy winter streets of London for many years. His coal-black hair shone. The creases of his suit were pressed razor sharp, from the lapels of his tailcoat to the hem of his dark trousers. A single diamond sparkled on the end of the pin in his black silk tie. Corvis smoothed his pencil moustache. ‘You’ve led me a merry dance. Sit down.’
Josie and Alfie edged into the room, both of them eyeing Aunt Mag nervously. They sat at the end of the table, on either side of Corvis’s seat. Corvis turned to them, leaning his elbows on the table.
‘I’m not going to burden you with questions just yet, children,’ Corvis began, reaching for a china teapot. ‘You’ve been through quite an ordeal and need time to recover.’ He stopped pouring his tea and peered at Alfie. ‘Though not that much time, it would appear. If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were healing before my very eyes. Remarkable.’
‘What do you want with us?’ Josie said, glaring at Corvis.
‘We’ll discuss all that once you’re feeling better, my dear,’ Corvis said, stirring the tea slowly. ‘For now you are our guests. Isn’t that right, Mag?’
Aunt Mag said nothing, but Josie noticed her bony knuckles whiten as they gripped the back of Corvis’s chair.
‘Feel free to move around the house,’ he said and took a sip from the china cup. ‘But please don’t try to leave. I have forbidden the ladies from harming you, but you’ve seen what they can do. I wonder how much restraint they would exercise should they have to . . .
you.’ Corvis gave a tight smile and put down his cup. The audience was over, Josie could tell. ‘Mag, take them back to their rooms.’
Arabella stood waiting in Josie’s room with some bread and cheese on a tray to replace the ruined breakfast. ‘You’ve met him, then. What d’you think?’ she said, putting the tray down.
‘Gave me the bloomin’ creeps,’ Alfie grumbled, cutting a corner off the cheese.
‘His eyes reminded me of the ghuls,’ Josie said. ‘To think he was Uncle’s friend once. I wonder what changed him . . .’
‘I can’t imagine his lordship bein’ anyone’s friend,’ Arabella said in a low voice.
Josie knew from her manner that she held no love for her master or the ladies.
But does that make her an ally?
Josie wondered. The girl was clearly frightened of the Aunts. Did she know what they really were?
‘Thanks, Arabella,’ Alfie said, smiling at her and waving a crust.
‘That’s all right.’ Arabella blushed. She shook herself. ‘Anyway, I can’t stand round here gossipin’ to you two. Make sure you rest and if you want anything ring the bell. I’ll hear it.’ She bustled out of the room and Josie eased herself on to the end of her bed.
‘How do you feel now?’ she asked.
‘Like death,’ Alfie replied. ‘Gettin’ better by the minute, though, I can feel it. I can’t remember much after the ghul slashed me. Gimlet – is he . . . ?’
‘He must be. I saw him covered in blood.’ Josie nodded and stifled her tears.
‘Why didn’t they see
off?’ Alfie said, looking down at his hands.
‘Corvis still thinks we know where the Amarant is,’ Josie whispered, fiddling with her bandage.
‘I wish we did. We could work out how to destroy it and that’d be an end to it.’
‘Whatever they want, we’ll play along,’ Josie replied, winking at Alfie. ‘Until we’re feeling better and we’ve worked out how to escape – and then we’ll burn this place to its foundations and get back to London!’
‘Don’t think I can sleep with those things under the same roof as me,’ Alfie said.
‘I know what you mean, but we’re safe for now,’ Josie said, not quite believing herself.
They talked and dozed through the afternoon, skirting around any further mention of Gimlet or the horrors of that night. Neither felt strong enough to move beyond the confines of the room. Arabella breezed in and out with hot soup.
‘At least the bloomin’ Aunts or Lord Corvis ’aven’t stuck their ugly mugs through the door,’ said Alfie. Daylight succumbed to darkness and, once more, the weird glimmer of light appeared across the marshes.
‘Can you see that?’ Josie pointed to it.
‘Lights.’ Alfie shrugged. ‘Maybe it’s a house or somethin’.’
‘No, I asked Arabella about it and she wouldn’t say.’
‘Hmm, too far out on the marshes to be a house.’ Alfie nodded. He fell silent for a moment and then said, ‘There’s somethin’ about the light, too. Like it’s callin’ yer to go out into the dark and find it. But that’d be stupid and dangerous . . .’
‘Like a moth to a candle,’ Josie whispered, pressing her nose to the cold glass.
‘And whose blood is this,’ he says,
‘That lies in my hall?’
‘It is your young son’s heart’s blood,
’Tis the clearest of all.’
‘Lamkin’, traditional folk song
Josie was woken the following morning by fluttering and scratching at her window. Pulling on a dressing gown, she clambered across the bed and drew back the curtains, gritting her teeth at the stabbing pains in her joints.
A square, bulky man pushed a large sack in a wheelbarrow up the front path towards the house. Crows and ravens swooped and veered around him, making him wobble and tip the barrow as he waved his shovel hands to shoo them away. They seemed very excited. Josie hurried to the door, wincing with each step but eager to find out what was going on. She slipped out into the shadows of the house. The sound of the Aunts, every bit as excited as the crows on the roof, drifted up from the hall.
Josie crept past the cobwebs and withered plants towards the stairs. A flurry of activity below made her duck behind the thick banister rails. She peered down through the spindles at the scrum in the hall.
The Aunts must have got to the door before the delivery man even had a chance to ring the bell, and now they crowded round him. The sack was now on his broad shoulder and quivered with his every move. The Aunts reached out and stroked the heavy bag. The man tried to keep his eyes on them all, glancing nervously from woman to woman as they scuttled about him.
‘You’re early, Mr Carr,’ crowed Aunt Veronica, hopping from foot to foot. Aunt Jay inhaled deeply, as if scenting the bag.
Josie made out a nasty, over-ripe, meaty aroma. What could be in that bag? She had never seen the Aunts so animated.
‘Bring it through, young man,’ croaked Aunt Mag, clapping her hands together. ‘And put it on the table.’
‘We’ll deal with it from there!’ cackled Aunt Veronica.
The sound of screeching and chuckling faded, following the group as they shuffled out of the hall and disappeared from Josie’s view into a side room. She crept down the stairs a step at a time, until she stood in the hall.
Oak panelling darkened the place. There were more dusty aspidistra plants, an umbrella stand and a dinner gong by the door. A huge tiger-skin rug snarled silently at her from the black-and-white floor tiles. The delivery man’s empty wheelbarrow propped the front door open, letting the cold air of the grey morning seep into the house. Josie thought about making a run for it now, taking her chance, going for help in the village. She couldn’t leave Alfie, though. What would the Aunts do to him once they found out she had escaped? Josie shuddered.
The delivery man reappeared from the side room, a disdainful look on his face. He glanced sidelong at Josie as he stalked past her and touched the peak of his cap. Then he stopped, staring back at her with piercing blue eyes.
‘You visiting, miss?’ His voice sounded so soft after the harsh cawing of the Aunts. ‘Look a bit out of place ’ere, if I may say.’
‘Y-yes,’ Josie said, stepping forward.
Can I trust him?
she thought. He might call Corvis if she asked for help. ‘I don’t want to be here . . .’
‘I don’t blame you.’ The man rubbed his beard and regarded Josie closely.
‘I want to leave . . . but my brother isn’t well enough yet . . .’ Josie tried to choose her words carefully. Maybe he thought she was some strange young relative of Corvis’s, playing a game.
‘This is a rum old place and no mistake.’ The man smiled, glanced back at the side room and stooped close to Josie. ‘Listen, I come ’ere every other day, more or less. If you and your brother need any assistance, then let me know . . .’
Josie’s heart lifted. A way out, a chance to escape! ‘Thank you, Mr . . . ?’
‘Carr – Jacob Carr, miss.’ Josie’s hand became lost in his huge grasp.
‘Josie,’ she said, returning the shake.
‘Pleased to meet yer, Miss Josie,’ he replied. Josie heard him call back as he picked up the barrow, ‘Now, I’m not hangin’ round here a minute longer, but remember what I said . . .’
Jacob vanished into the frozen morning. Josie’s smile faded as she glanced across the hall. She wasn’t free yet. The side-room door stood ajar. A sickening smell of offal, rotten eggs and something putrefied made Josie gag. She should have crept away but she couldn’t stop herself from peering in. The Aunts were hunched over a table. Josie had to crane her neck to see. She held her breath, conscious that they might turn round at any moment.
The sack lay split open and its contents slithered in all directions. At first Josie thought she saw a bright red-and-purple blancmange. But the stench told her something different. Liver, lungs and intestines – all manner of offal slipped out of the sack in a shivering, bloody pile. Josie hardly recognised the Aunts. They were bent over the table, tearing chunks from the heap with their teeth, swallowing and gulping them down. Blood smeared their hands, their clothes, their faces. It dripped from their lips and down their pointed chins. Their black eyes burned fiercely as they gobbled up the stinking mass. They glugged and gargled as each gory gobbet was jerked down their throats.
Josie wanted to scream, to close her eyes and wake up somewhere else. Her stomach lurched as she staggered away from the door, stumbling over the tiger-skin rug, and ran back up the stairs. Her feet thudded on each step, but she didn’t care about stealth now. She imagined the Aunts, smeared in blood, clattering after her as she sprinted along the landing towards Alfie’s room.
Alfie was sat up in bed, his breakfast on a tray, when Josie burst in on him. Arabella, busy laying out his clothes on the end of the bed, looked up, startled.
‘Wass goin’ on?’ Alfie mumbled through a mouthful of egg.
Josie couldn’t speak. She leaned on her knees, gasping for breath. She felt sick and dizzy.
Arabella hurried to her, steadying her. ‘Josie, what is it? What’s upset you so?’
‘The delivery,’ she panted, dropping heavily on to a chair. ‘Horrible . . .’
‘Delivery? What you on about, Josie?’ Alfie frowned.
‘There’s a delivery here almost every other day,’ Arabella said, looking grimly at Josie. ‘A barge comes up from London, ties up at the quay down by the village and a man brings the sack up. Smells somethin’ awful. Never went near it meself – the ladies always deal with it . . .’
‘They deal with it all right,’ Josie said. In between gasps for breath she told them what she had seen. At the mention of Jacob Carr, Arabella turned and went back to smoothing Alfie’s clothes.
‘That man’s trouble,’ she sniffed. ‘Comes down from London with his wayward ideas, turnin’ country folks’ heads. Leadin’ them astray . . .’
‘At least he’s trying to help us,’ Josie said, glaring at Arabella’s back. ‘We’re in trouble here. You know your “ladies” aren’t all they seem.’
‘None of my business,’ Arabella said, shaking Alfie’s shirt a little too vigorously. Alfie sat mute, a forkful of egg frozen between plate and mouth.
‘Be honest, I bet you’ve seen all kinds of things that you couldn’t explain,’ Josie said, stamping over to her.
‘I don’t ’ave to explain,’ Arabella spat. ‘I just do me job and keep me head down. I’m just a servant here and I’d like to keep me position if it’s all the same to you.’ She barged past Josie and hurried out of the room.
‘What was all that about?’ Alfie said, clattering his fork to the plate.
‘She knows things aren’t right here – why does she just ignore them? She could be trying to help us, too,’ Josie said.
‘Well, you’ve a funny way of gettin’ her on our side,’ Alfie murmured. ‘D’you hear what she said about the barge? It comes from London. That’s our ticket out, I reckon.’
‘From what Jacob said there’ll be another delivery the day after tomorrow.’
‘Then we’ll need Arabella to get a message to this Mr Carr.’ Alfie raised his eyebrows. Guilt flushed Josie’s cheeks and neck. Alfie was right: she shouldn’t have snapped at Arabella like that. She had nothing to do with the search for the Amarant or Josie’s feud with the ghuls; she was just a servant girl trying to keep her living in the crumbling mansion.
‘Let’s get dressed and go and find her,’ Josie said, shutting out the thought of the ghuls devouring their rancid feast. ‘I’ll apologise.’
Josie peered out of her bedroom door into the dark corridor. Excitement and curiosity had driven her down to the hall last time. But seeing the Aunts feasting together brought their true nature back into clear focus. Did Corvis have total control over them? Josie doubted it, somehow.
‘You ready, then?’ Alfie appeared at her side. She jumped back, banging her head on the door frame.
‘D’you have to sneak up on me like that?’ she snapped. He looked so much better – in such a short time. Lord Corvis was right: he was remarkable.
Maybe I am, too
, she thought, twisting her neck and stretching her arms out. She’d disposed of the head bandage and felt stronger than she had just yesterday.
They wandered in silence through the house. The air hung thick and heavy. Windows needed throwing open, carpets beating, spiders and beetles chasing out of dark corners.
‘This place is bloomin’ massive,’ Alfie muttered, glancing round.
‘Yes,’ Josie whispered back. ‘If we head downstairs, the kitchen and laundry should be there somewhere . . .’
‘Let’s just hope Arabella is, too.’ Alfie hugged his arms round himself. ‘This gloomy old dump’s givin’ me the shivers.’
They crept across the hall, eyeing the Aunts’ side room cautiously. Alfie tripped over the tiger-skin rug, cursing, his shoes clattering on the tiles, but nothing stirred in the room.
Carpets replaced the cold stone floors as they edged deeper into the house. Thick tapestries covered the wood panelling.
‘Think we missed the servants’ quarters,’ Josie snorted. But Alfie didn’t reply. Josie glanced round just in time to see him vanish through a door. She dashed after him and found herself standing in a room lined with bookshelves. A large desk covered in papers squatted in the centre.
‘Must be his lordship’s study,’ Alfie said, pulling a book down and squinting at the cover. ‘
by Professor Envry Janus. Sounds lovely.’
A book lay open on the desk. Josie stepped over and flicked through the pages. ‘This one’s written by hand,’ she said, running her finger along the date at the top. She gave a gasp. ‘I think it’s his journal . . . Look – yesterday’s date.’
Alfie craned his neck over her shoulder. ‘
I admire their spirit
,’ he read. ‘
It is still a mystery to me how they recover so quickly
. . .
the boy should be dead after the wound inflicted by the ghul
. . .’
Josie flicked back through weeks and months and read aloud: ‘
All those years of wandering the world, chasing any thrill and excitement, engaging in any vice that would blot out the memory of that hideously beautiful flower
. . .
I punished myself for wanting to betray my friends and take the flower. When I finally succumbed to the temptation to return to Abyssinia, I found the Amarant had gone. It was
who had been betrayed
. . .’
‘He sounds proper bitter,’ Alfie muttered, following the words with his finger.
‘Just making excuses for himself,’ Josie spat. She continued reading. ‘Look, here, four weeks ago:
Sent message to Chrimes at his theatre
. . .
demanded a meeting
. . .
. . .
told me to stay away from him
. . . See, Uncle was a good man – he wanted nothing to do with Corvis or the Amarant.’
‘I know, Josie, I know,’ Alfie said, soothing her. ‘Hey, d’you think that’s why he gave Mortlock’s papers to Scrabsnitch – cos he thought Corvis might get hold of ’em?’
‘He must have known that Corvis would come looking for him.’ Josie lowered the book for a moment. Had Cardamom known that Corvis would be so ruthless? No wonder he had seemed preoccupied in those last few weeks.
‘If he’d known about the Aunts,’ Alfie whispered, placing a hand on Josie’s shoulder, ‘he’d have got you to safety, Josie, I’m sure he would.’
Josie gave a smile and stifled her tears. She coughed and focused on flicking further back through the book. ‘Listen to this,’ she said, her voice faint and horrified. ‘
Found three specimens yesterday: a magpie, a raven and a jay. Dead but fresh, shot full of pellets and hanging on a wire fence
. . .
The powers gifted me by the Amarant have brought them to new, if imperfect, life
. . .’
‘Is he talkin’ about the Aunts?’ Alfie said, staring in horror at the page.
The door creaked open, making Josie start and drop the book on to the desk. Alfie gave a startled yell. Aunt Veronica stood at the threshold, her eyes twinkling, the lace-work of her black dress caked brown with dried blood. Josie felt her throat tighten at the sight.
‘Lord Corvis found us stiff and cold, swinging bloody in the icy breeze,’ she hissed, with an evil grin. She paced towards them. ‘He brought us to new life. To what we are now . . .’ She leaned over the desk, her face close to Josie’s.
‘L-Lord Corvis has commanded you not to h-harm us,’ Josie stammered. Her knees felt weak and her head throbbed as Aunt Veronica eased closer, glaring at them.