Authors: Jon Mayhew
‘Ghuls?’ Scrabsnitch paled beneath his fuzz of beard.
‘You’ve heard of them?’ Josie asked.
‘In my line of work you get to hear of – and see – all manner of strangeness,’ Scrabsnitch said, scratching his beard. ‘The word “ghul” means demon. They appear in most traditions. Ghuls are usually associated with the dead and they devour the newly deceased. You’re in trouble if they’re involved.’
‘We’re in trouble if they get the Amarant, from what I’ve heard,’ Gimlet said, shaking his head.
‘They’ll kill us all,’ Alfie muttered.
‘Worse, they could trap you between life and death, neither fully alive nor resting,’ Scrabsnitch added. ‘They could create whole armies of the dead to ravage the world of the living.’
‘Whatever they have in mind, it ain’t good,’ Alfie groaned.
‘It would be hell on earth,’ Evenyule Scrabsnitch said.
‘Does that sound so bad?’ came a grating voice.
The blood drained from Josie’s face, as she and her companions turned round. The Aunts stood by the door, their throats ruffled in black silk and lace, heads cocked. Thin smiles split their hatchet faces.
‘We could make our own little hell in here, right now,’ Aunt Jay said. Then she spread her arms wide.
O Mother, Mother, make my bed,
O make it soft and narrow,
Since my love died for me today,
I’ll die for him tomorrow.
‘Barbara Allen’, traditional folk ballad
Bodies twisted and feathers burst forth. Josie had seen the Aunts transform before, but it didn’t make the moment any less shocking now. Aunt Veronica and Aunt Jay shook out their glossy feathers and snapped their sharp beaks. They flanked their sister, Aunt Mag, who kept her human form.
Josie glanced around for a weapon and found her hand resting on a pile of pewter plates. She snatched the first one and sent it whirling across the room at Aunt Mag. It would have been a direct hit, but Aunt Jay darted her head forward and her long beak snatched the plate out of the air, inches from Aunt Mag’s head.
‘You’ll have to do better than that, young lady,’ Aunt Mag said. She gestured to Aunt Veronica, who launched herself into the air, sending clouds of dust billowing across the room.
Josie grabbed a plate in each hand and sent both spinning at once, followed by two more. Aunt Veronica twisted and spiralled, dodging one plate. Josie feinted with another, then sent it hurtling in a different direction. The plate spun in a perfect arc and hit Aunt Mag on the temple with a metallic clang. Aunt Mag wobbled, then fell to the floor, dragging half the contents of a display case on top of her.
But Aunt Veronica was closing in. Josie cartwheeled out of the ghul’s way while Gimlet grabbed a pikestaff that leaned against a suit of armour. He jabbed it at the snapping ghul, forcing it to beat its massive wings in a hasty retreat. The air filled with dust and fluttering papers, as ornaments and artefacts smashed to the floor.
‘We’ve got to get out! Is there a back door?’ he yelled at Scrabsnitch, but the old man stood transfixed by the sight of the creatures.
‘Here,’ Alfie called, pushing open a door. ‘Mr Scrabsnitch, come on!’
But Evenyule remained frozen to the spot as Aunt Jay hurtled across the shop towards him. Suddenly, he turned and looked straight into Josie’s eyes.
‘I wish you luck, Josie,’ the old man said. Then he threw himself under a display cabinet. Aunt Jay landed in a shower of glass and dust on top of the case. Scrabsnitch crawled under the next cabinet, moving with surprising speed.
Josie threw another plate at Aunt Jay as Gimlet backed towards the door, parrying Aunt Veronica’s razor beak with his pikestaff. Aunt Jay wheeled about and fixed Josie with her beady eye. Beyond her, Josie spotted Scrabsnitch’s head bob up as he scurried through a door on the other side of the room.
Alfie’s hand clamped on to Josie’s arm and she felt herself being dragged into the back room. Gimlet gave a final vicious jab at Aunt Veronica before leaping back, and Alfie slammed the door against the scrabbling, screeching ghul.
The clutter in the back room was even worse than the front. Chairs were piled on top of each other, leaning at crazy angles. Alfie shoved chairs and boxes to one side and managed to drag another door open. It squealed on rusted hinges but opened just wide enough for them to squeeze out.
They pushed their way into a dingy yard, stacked with crates and old planks. Beyond the yard was a narrow alley, with walls that ran with black putrid slime. Josie wrinkled her nose and pulled a face at the smell.
‘If we can get to the street at the front of the shop, we’ll be safer,’ Gimlet said. ‘The crowds there might put the ghuls off.’
Slipping and cursing, they sprinted up the muddy alley back into Jesmond Street and the chaos of the traffic jam. Gimlet elbowed his way through the crowds, as more people spilled out from stranded carriages and coaches.
Josie glanced back and saw Aunt Mag, a livid bruise on her brow, pushing her way towards them. Just as they passed the front of the Emporium, its filthy windows exploded out into the street. Glass rained down on the packed crowds. Horses whinnied and women screamed as two giant crows burst out of the windows, swooping down on the three fugitives. The frozen winter sky blackened as thousands of crows, rooks and jackdaws swept on to the crush of people, pecking ears and eyes and pulling at hair.
The crowds pushed forward, the surge of bodies squeezing the breath out of Josie. She felt their heat and closeness, the rough fabric of their clothes, their elbows and knees digging into her. She forced her body forward, trying to ignore the curses and yells around her. People began to stumble and fall, and were trampled upon as others fled. Josie grabbed Alfie and Gimlet and ducked into the middle of the street, under the huge wheels of a coach. They picked their way between the wedged carts and carriages, keeping their heads down as Aunt Jay and Aunt Veronica hovered above the seething crowds, snapping and pecking, unable to get near their quarry.
The world became a mass of stamping hoofs, screeching birds and screams of fear. Josie wove down the street, her heavy skirts snagging on the close-pressed wheels. The crowds pushed, overturning a trap and pinning the horse, which kicked out in terror.
Finally, she dragged herself out of the tangled mass. Gimlet grabbed her hand and, followed by Alfie, they sprinted up the street towards their trap. Josie cursed the stiff dress that swished against her legs. They turned into the narrow alley and clambered aboard.
‘Josie, look!’ Alfie yelled, his voice shrill.
‘Going somewhere?’ croaked Aunt Mag, now in her crow form.
The three ghuls had landed in the alleyway, blocking their exit. Gimlet snapped the reins, making the pony set off at a gallop towards them. Aunt Jay and Aunt Veronica threw themselves aside, but Aunt Mag flew into the air above them. She hovered, beating the air with her huge black wings, claws outstretched. She was waiting for the trap to bring them to her.
‘Don’t look back,’ Gimlet called as they raced towards the ghul’s talons. Giving a final snap on the reins, he leapt up and caught Aunt Mag’s scaly legs, dragging her down to the cobbles as he fell.
‘Gimlet, no!’ Josie screamed. But the trap was already leaving him behind as the pony bolted. Josie stared back at the rapidly receding figures struggling in the alley behind them. She saw Gimlet grab hold of Aunt Mag’s beak and force her head back. His clothes hung in blood-soaked rags where the ghul had slashed at him with her claws.
‘We have to help him!’ Josie cried. She clambered to the front of the trap and groped for the reins to stop the pony, but they were being dragged along the street, far out of reach. She watched helplessly as Aunt Jay launched herself after them with terrifying speed, leaping on to the back of the trap and making it tip and lurch.
Snatching up the whip, Josie lashed out at her. She struggled to keep her balance as the pony continued to bolt through the crowds. Aunt Jay swung her talons at them. But it all seemed to happen so slowly, like a dance. Josie threw herself to one side. Alfie crouched in the seat, desperately trying to fend off the ghul, but it still managed to slice his face. He pivoted and slumped down into the trap, a long red gash running down his cheek.
Josie cowered, hiding her head in her hands, as Aunt Jay reared up to deliver another blow. Instead, the sound of tinkling glass and a metallic clang made Josie look out from between her fingers. Aunt Jay was gone, entangled in a tall gaslight, her legs dangling.
But the trap was gaining speed. The pony, foaming at the mouth, raced across the cobbles. Josie’s heart hammered, keeping time with the pounding of the horse’s hoofs. Crowds flashed by, diving aside to avoid being crushed. Yells of anger and fear were snatched away by the wind as the trap rocked and pitched along the street. Alfie started to roll over the side and Josie just managed to catch him and pin him in the seat, leaning her weight against him. The cut on his ashen face was turning a livid blue.
The pony grew more frantic as a chestnut seller’s brazier crashed over. Josie glanced down at the reins, which were flicking and bucking off the cobbles. The body of the trap swayed and bounced. She made a stretch for the reins, leaning dangerously far out as the clatter of the steel-rimmed wheel reverberated through her head. The trap lurched again and Josie dragged herself back up as Alfie slid to the floor, pinning her now. She pushed him upright, nearly spilling out of the trap again as the pony careered around some brave onlookers who were trying to slow it down. She gritted her teeth and leaned down a second time.
‘Come on,’ Josie muttered. The cobbles rushed by, hard and grey, sparks crackling from the horse’s hoofs. She wedged her leg beneath the seat and reached out perilously far for the dancing reins.
A distant ringing filled Josie’s ears. She looked up. Thundering straight towards her was a fire cart with a team of horses. Even from this unlikely angle, Josie could see the look of horror on the driver’s face. She glanced down as the reins flicked along the sparking cobbles, and snatched them up. Thighs, stomach and back all seemed about to snap. Bile rose to fill her throat as she righted herself and yanked on the reins.
The trap veered left, scraping along the length of the fire cart. Josie ducked as buckets and ropes bounced and rattled overhead, torn free in the collision. An axe sliced through the air above Josie’s head, clanging on to the street on the other side of the trap.
The ringing of the bell disappeared as the pony thundered on. Josie had lost all sense of direction but the stench of sewers told her the river wasn’t far away. More faces sped past in a blur. Josie jerked on the reins, pulling from side to side, anything to get the horse to come back to its senses. Something clattered against the left wheel of the trap and the whole thing began to pitch even more wildly and unevenly.
A stabbing pain exploded in Josie’s head. She was knocked back into the trap and lifted her fingers to her forehead. It felt warm and wet. When she pulled her hand away it was slick with blood. She glanced back at a swinging shop sign.
Josie’s vision blurred; shadows filled her eyes. Her stomach lurched and she suddenly felt weightless. The trap had come to a stop and Josie’s body was flying through the air. She could hear the trap smashing into the side of the street. Rough cobbles smacked against her elbows and shoulder.
Then everything was still.
Josie could hear a wheel clicking as it whirled on its axle. Alfie groaned, somewhere off to her left. She tried to stand but her legs buckled and she fell to the ground, looking up at the dark sky, blood pulsing in her head.
A cold breeze blew against her face. The black silhouettes of ragged birds flitted across the moonlit clouds and Aunt Mag’s triumphant, grinning face filled the night above her.
Gimlet was dead, of that she was sure.
And now I’ll join him
, she thought. It was all over.
Part the Sec
The cock does crow, the day does dawn,
The worrying worm does chide;
And if we’re missed from where we came
Sore pain we must abide.
‘The Wife of Usher’s Well’, traditional folk ballad
The Lights on the Marsh
Warm blankets swaddled Josie, hugging her. She twisted and stretched, screwing her eyes tight. For a moment she thought she was on Gimlet’s sofa, but the stabbing ache in her temple brought her back to reality. Josie’s body pulsed with a dull pain that reminded her of the previous night’s horrors. Gimlet’s bleeding face, his screaming at her to flee, the rattling, bone-shaking ride. After that, she had vague memories of being lifted higher and higher, of vomiting into the freezing black air as sharp talons dug into her shoulders and whisked her into the night sky.
She opened her eyes. Josie lay in a huge four-poster bed, old and carved with vines and birds. It dominated the room, leaving a small area to her left for a dressing table, a chair and a mirror. These matched the bed – heavy, dark and crusted with carving. To Josie’s right, the narrowest of gaps separated the bed from a bay window that let the grey light of a winter’s afternoon stream into the dusty room. Outside, Josie could see flat, washed-out marshland. In front of her, two chairs and a small table stood before a crackling fire that leapt in the small hearth. Josie touched her head gingerly – it was swathed in a large bandage.
A girl a few years older than Josie sat in one of the chairs. Dressed in plain black with a white apron, her red hair tied back in a tight bun, she looked like a maid or servant. Her thin, angular face was pale and freckled, but her blue eyes were soft and her mouth held the faintest trace of a smile as she returned Josie’s stare.
‘Where am I?’ Josie said, sitting up and shivering as the blankets fell away. The chill of the room caressed her neck and shoulders. She looked down at the thick nightgown she was wearing. ‘What day is it? Where are my clothes? Where’s Alfie?’
‘Settle down,’ the smiling girl said, coming over to the bedside. ‘My name’s Arabella. You’ve had a nasty accident. It was lucky we found you out on the marsh road there or you’d be dead with the cold for sure . . .’
Panic washed over Josie. ‘I need to see Alfie,’ she said, throwing back the blankets and swinging her legs out of the bed. Immediately her head began to spin. She fell back on the pillows, groaning.
‘There, there, don’t worry. You’re safe now,’ said Arabella, easing the covers over her. ‘You’re at Rookery Heights. Alfie must be the boy what was with you. He’s down the corridor. You can see him soon enough but you must take it steady. Your head’s badly cut and you’re covered in bruises. I’ll get you some soup.’
Arabella left the room. Josie tried to sit up but slumped back again. Alfie was safe. But Gimlet? She covered her face with trembling hands. Tears trickled through her fingers. Gimlet was her one connection with Cardamom. Apart from Alfie, he was all she’d had left. Losing him was more than she could bear.
When she looked up again, Arabella was stood by the bed with a steaming bowl of soup and chunks of bread on a tray.
‘Come on. Get some of this down you and get your strength up.’ She gave a sad smile and placed the tray on Josie’s lap as she sat up and wiped the tears away.
‘How did I get here?’ Josie asked, blowing on the surface of the soup to cool it. The smell of chicken and vegetables made her mouth water. How long had it been since she had eaten? She felt guilty for feeling so hungry. Gimlet was beyond hunger now.
‘The ladies of the house found you as they returned from London,’ Arabella said, glancing out of the darkening window. ‘Your trap had gone off into a ditch. Thought you was dead at first. You’ve been out cold all day – it’s nearly night-time again.’
Josie sipped at the soup. She could guess who the ladies of the house were. Part of her screamed to escape but she had to stay calm. She had to find out as much as possible if she were to stand any chance of escaping. Arabella was right: she’d need all her strength.
‘Who owns Rookery Heights?’ she asked between mouthfuls of soup.
‘Lord Corvis.’ Arabella lowered her voice. ‘The new lord, the son. He’s not long taken over . . .’
‘And you work for him?’ Josie said.
‘My family have worked on this estate for years and years but . . .’ Arabella stopped and glanced at the door.
‘But?’ Josie leaned forward, wincing a little as she moved.
‘Things have changed lately.’ Arabella’s voice had fallen to a whisper. ‘Since the ladies came and Lord Thurlough took over. I mean, things were never perfect. The Corvis family have always been cold fish – but they were fair. Now the rents have gone up, our houses don’t get repaired and the crows –’
‘Everywhere.’ Arabella pulled a disgusted face. ‘Hundreds of ’em. Peckin’ at crops, stealing our eels. Mrs Sullivan in the village even had to shoo one off her baby’s cradle last week. Lord knows what would’ve happened if she hadn’t heard the crying.’
‘Where do they come from?’ Josie asked, though she could guess. She’d seen how the Aunts attracted crows, using them for their evil ends.
‘Crows ’ave always lived in and around Rookery Heights. That’s how it got its name, so they say.’ Arabella sniffed. ‘But never so many and Lord Corvis made it worse, that’s for sure, when he dismissed the gamekeeper after he killed a score of them. And there’s other things, too . . .’
‘What do you mean?’ Josie said. Her soup bowl was abandoned as she listened to the girl. A movement distracted her and Josie glanced over to the window. An enormous raven perched on the sill outside. Its feathers glistened with blues and greens, like oil on water, and from between the feathers speared the longest and cruellest of beaks.
Arabella had also seen it. ‘Oh, look at me, scarin’ you with my chatter,’ she chirped, her voice overly bright. ‘Don’t you pay me any heed, miss. I just get carried away with myself. Drink yer soup up and get some more rest . . .’
‘But I want to see my brother. I want to see Alfie.’ Josie pulled herself up, groaning with the effort. Her whole body ached and her head felt as though it might burst out of the tight bandage. She glared at the raven as it ruffled its feathers and grazed the tip of its enormous beak across the glass of the window. It had unnerved Arabella. Josie wished she had something to throw.
‘All in good time, miss. Look, you’re spillin’ what’s left of yer soup there.’ Arabella frowned and snatched the bowl away. She eased a hand against Josie’s shoulder, pushing her back into the pillow. After all she’d been through, Josie felt too weak to resist. ‘It’ll be dark soon and your brother needs his rest, too. Nasty gash he had across his face. You can’t go disturbin’ him now.’
Arabella bustled off with the soup bowl. The rattle of a bolt as Arabella left told Josie she was locked in. Exhaustion weighed down her eyelids but jabs of pain snapped her to attention again. She rolled to her side, struggling to find a comfortable position. Her thoughts gave her no peace either. Cardamom had told her to find the Amarant. Had he hidden it? She racked her brain, trying to think of places they had visited. How secretive he had been! He’d told her virtually nothing about his past. Their lives had moved between the theatre and Bluebell Terrace. And what about Mortlock? Was he out there now, searching? Hunting for the Amarant just as the hideous ghuls were? If he had vanished years ago, why did she feel his presence lurking in every shadow? Why did his name crop up time and again?
Time dragged on. Evening shadows crept up the bedroom wall, darkening the room. Josie was staring out of the window, still lost in thought, as Arabella returned with a lit paraffin lamp. Something glowed feebly in the distance, a light punctuating the flat line of the horizon. Josie had to squint to be sure it wasn’t a reflection of the lamp.
‘Is that another house?’ Josie said, catching Arabella’s elbow. The girl glanced over and gave a gasp.
‘Oh, that,’ she said, forcing a laugh. ‘No, probably just the gamekeeper after some poachers . . .’
‘You said Corvis dismissed the gamekeeper,’ Josie said, narrowing her eyes.
‘Did I?’ Arabella gave another foolish giggle and almost ran for the window. ‘Maybe a barge out to sea, then. Could be anything really. You get some sleep. I’ll draw them curtains; it’s cold out there.’
And with that she had gone. Josie sat up in bed for a while with the lamp turned down, wondering about the dim glow out across the darkness. If it wasn’t another house, what could it be? And why had Arabella reacted so nervously when Josie asked about it? If only she could talk to Alfie. She shivered and huddled under the covers. She had no idea what the night might hold.