Belladonna sneaked a look over her shoulder to the back of the classroom where Steve and his friends usually clustered. He was far away, gazing out of the window and down at the football field below. The cloud-cloaked sun was low in the sky, throwing the trees at the end of the field into stark relief and making the frost on the grass sparkle.
“Am I talking to myself?” Madame Huggins suddenly had that dangerous sarcasm in her voice, the tone that generally went before a detention, or worse—a trip to Miss Parker’s office. Not that Steve was a stranger to either penalty.
Silence settled on the classroom like a heavy blanket, but still Steve was oblivious.
Jimmy Wright shoved a bony elbow into his ribs and Steve jumped back to life, first shooting an angry stare at Jimmy, then gradually becoming aware of the silence in the classroom. He slowly turned his head to look at Madame Huggins. She had drawn herself to her full height, a difficult feat for someone so resoundingly round.
“Good morning,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Titters from the rest of the class.
“Did you have a good rest?”
Steve just stared at her, sullen indifference writ large on his face.
“Now, give me an example of a genitive charge.”
Steve stared and then cocked his head to one side and shifted in his seat.
“In Latin?” he said finally.
“No, in Greek. Of course in Latin! This is a Latin class, you stupid boy!”
Madame Huggins’s face had turned entirely red, except for the very tip of her nose, which was as white as snow. Belladonna began to suspect that she might explode, but instead she took a deep breath.
“Look,” she said, her voice strangely calm, “you don’t know how lucky you are. Most schools dropped Latin from the curriculum years ago. But it’s a great foundation, it really is.”
Belladonna bit her lip: Dr. Ashe had said the same thing the first time they’d seen him on the Other Side and that hadn’t ended well at all, what with the Hound, poisonous Night Ravens, and the imprisonment of all the ghosts. She glanced back at Steve again to see if he registered the same memory, but he was busy staring at Madame Huggins, his face a mask of obstinance.
“Alright,” said Madame Huggins finally, “let’s see if you have even managed to grasp the basics. A genitive charge—in English.”
“He nearly died of boredom.”
Madame Huggins opened her mouth to pour scorn and then stopped. A barely suppressed giggle ran around the classroom.
“Um … yes,” she said, clearly amazed. “Yes, that’s right. But if you know that, then why didn’t—”
But she was destined never to know what made Steve Evans so impossible in class when he was clearly one of the brightest students in it. The bell rang for the end of the lesson and the end of the day. Steve scooped up his backpack and was out of the door in a flash and on his way down to football practice with the rest of his cronies.
Belladonna packed up her Latin grammar, her exercise book, and her pencils. She glanced at Madame Huggins as she stuffed them into her pink backpack. The old lady had slumped into her chair behind the desk, exhausted by the sheer effort involved in trying to get a bunch of twelve-year-olds to take any interest in Latin. Belladonna smiled as she passed by, but Madame Huggins didn’t notice; she just stared toward the back wall of the class.
Belladonna walked through the empty corridors of Dullworth’s, her steps echoing on the old wooden floors and the crisp tile of the entrance hall. It was amazing how quickly several hundred students could vacate a building when they were really motivated. Of course, not everyone had gone—there were always the after-hours classes. Tonight it was orchestra practice, and the sound of chairs being dragged across the parquet floor of the assembly room was soon followed by the whining, huffing cacophony of twenty erstwhile musicians attempting to tune up. Belladonna winced as she hurriedly retrieved her coat from the cloakroom, stepped out into the late afternoon gloom, and headed home.
She hadn’t gone very far before it was completely dark. She kicked at a stone lying in her path and pondered the misery that was February. It may be the shortest month of the year, but it always felt like the longest. By February she always felt as if winter would never end, days would always be short, and the sun would never shine again. It didn’t get light until close to nine in the morning and by three it started to fade, all without the actual sun putting in a single appearance, just the endless lowering, lead-gray sky.
At which point in her reverie, the skies opened and a freezing rain began to descend.
“Oh, great,” muttered Belladonna, pulling her hood up, “that’s just great.”
By the time she got home, her fingers and nose were almost blue with the cold, her feet were soaked, and her black hair was hanging in dripping strings down the sides of her face.
“I’m home,” she said, hanging her coat up on its hook in the hall.
“Oh, my heavens!” said her mother, materializing near the sitting-room door. “You’re soaked to the skin! Get those wet shoes off and get in front of the fire. Dinner will be in five minutes.”
Belladonna pulled her shoes off and left them at the bottom of the stairs before wandering into the sitting room, where her father was sitting, or more accurately hovering, an inch or so above his easy chair, watching the television. He took one look at her and let go with a single guffaw.
“Ha!” he said. “You look like a drowned rat!”
Belladonna glared at him and sat on the floor in front of the gas fire. The news was on, of course, but it wasn’t very interesting. She looked up at her father, who was watching attentively, and wondered why he was so fascinated. It wasn’t as if any of it affected him—he’d been dead for nearly two years.
After dinner, she went up to her room to do her homework, but her heart wasn’t in it. She just couldn’t bring herself to care about the establishment of the monasteries. Her thoughts kept going back, instead, to Dr. Ashe and his efforts to open a doorway to the Dark Spaces. Sometimes, at night, when everything was at its most silent, she would still wake up, her heart racing with the awful sensation of the thrumming, pounding power that had changed the Dream Door to a door of nightmares. She remembered the smooth, cold surface of the second Nomial, the honey-colored Silex Aequoreus, as she had raised it above her head. And most of all, she remembered the way the Words had made her feel as she defeated the dark emissary of the Empress of the Dark Spaces and reclaimed the Dream Door for the ghosts and for the living. It had seemed like such a great victory, but the uneasy feeling she’d had since then just wouldn’t seem to go away.
She shook her head and tried to make herself concentrate. She carefully traced the outlines of a typical medieval monastery and started labeling the various buildings. Then she stopped and glanced out of the window. The rain was beating against the glass like impatient fingers and she could just make out the trees on the road, bending and lashing about in the wind.
She watched it for a while and the reason for her mood slowly dawned on her.
It was because everything was back the way it was. She walked to and from school alone and was still the “weird girl,” the one no one really wanted to talk to. Sophie Warren and her friends still lay in wait and poured scorn on her every chance they got. She was still only an average student and she wasn’t showing any signs of “blossoming,” as her mother had promised. And to cap it all off, Steve, the only person who knew her as anything other than the girl whose parents had died, had apparently stopped speaking to her.
Which, of course, was the way things had been before they’d found the door to the Other Side.
She chewed on the end of her pen and looked at the diagram of the abbey. Things must have been so simple then. You just became a monk or a nun and spent the rest of your life reading books and copying them out. And praying. There was a lot of praying, and an unreasonable amount of it seemed to take place in the early hours of the morning. That wouldn’t be so great. But still … they didn’t have to worry about exams, and some of them got to work on the farm. Although perhaps that wouldn’t be so great either, seeing as there wasn’t any farm machinery.
Belladonna sighed. She still didn’t know what the Spellbinder really was, even though she was it. There had been others before her, she knew that much. Had they been left in the dark as well? Or had they known exactly what to do and when? It seemed that all she had done was react to something that had happened, and that really didn’t strike her as the best way to go about things. It was like her dad with their old car—every time something went wrong, he would get it fixed, but he never did any maintenance (unlike Peter Davis’s Dad, who spent so much time under their family car that Belladonna suspected Peter didn’t even know what his own father looked like). The result was that the Johnson family car slowly fell apart. More slowly than if he’d done nothing at all, of course, but it fell apart all the same.
It all gave her the feeling that something was missing, that there really ought to be someone who could explain what she should do. Or perhaps it really would just come to her—maybe she’d sort of ripen, like an apple in a brown paper bag. Though, if that was the plan, it was a very haphazard one. She sighed again. Everything seemed so complicated and yet dull at the same time. She filled in the names of the kitchen, the dormitory, and the chapter house. But perhaps it was always like that, no matter what time you were born in. The past always seemed simple, the present was always slightly disappointing, and the future was always just a little bit scary.
* * *
The next day it was still raining, so she pulled on her boots, at her mother’s insistence, shoved her shoes into her grubby pink backpack, and trudged off to school for another dismal day. She hung up her coat and was just taking off her boots when Lucy Fisher suddenly appeared at her elbow. Lucy was probably the only girl in school who was even more shy than Belladonna. She was tiny for her age, and pale as a charnel sprite, with a tangled mop of blond hair surrounding an ethereal face.
“Hey,” she said, “did you hear?”
“Mr. Watson’s taking us on a field trip to some old monastery next Tuesday. It’s an all-day thing, so you know what that means!”
Belladonna looked at her blankly. Lucy glanced around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned in.
“No Latin,” she whispered, grinning lopsidedly. “Isn’t that great?”
Before Belladonna could answer, Lucy was gone, off to spread the good news in her endless, futile efforts to be accepted. Belladonna sighed and hoped against hope that she didn’t give the same impression.
Sure enough, when History rolled around, Mr. Watson handed out permission letters to be signed by parents and informed everyone that they had to be at the school by seven in the morning the following Tuesday and to bring sandwiches for lunch because they would be gone all day.
Belladonna shoved the note into her bag.
As soon as school was over, she walked to her grandmother’s house on Yarrow Street. Approvals, permissions, and sick notes all had to be signed, and seeing as her parents were currently residing (so far as anyone else was concerned) in a shared grave in the churchyard, their signatures didn’t carry much weight. Everything of that sort had to be handled by Grandma Johnson, who took her responsibilities very seriously.
Belladonna rang the front doorbell and saw the familiar twitch of the curtains in the séance room, shortly followed by the sound of the latch and the sight of Grandma Johnson flinging the door wide.
“Well, Belladonna!” she said, beaming. “What a surprise! Come in, dear, come in. Get your wet things off and go into the back room. I’ve got a client. Won’t be a mo.”
Belladonna nodded, relieved that it was just an ordinary séance. Ever since she’d discovered that her grandmother was a senior member of the Eidolon Council, she was never quite sure how many people she’d find in the house. The Council were supposed to work with their opposite number in the Land of the Dead, the Conclave of Shadows, on things that affected both worlds, but Belladonna was still not entirely convinced that they really achieved anything much at all.
She took off her coat, hung it on the end of the banister, and squeezed past all the assorted junk in the hallway to the back sitting room. Grandma Johnson smoothed Belladonna’s dark hair with her hand as she passed, then winked and returned to her séance room, resuming a session that involved rather more than the usual amounts of hooting, table thumping, and moans, while Belladonna tried to find something to watch on the television.
Grandma Johnson was the only person Belladonna knew who still had an indoor aerial. Her parents had been dead for two years, but at least they had satellite. She pushed the wires of the rabbit-ear antennae from side to side, up and across, until she managed a configuration that brought in a grainy picture that she thought might be a cooking show. Or something about cars. No … interior design.
She sat in a hard wingback chair and squinted at the screen as the rain stopped outside and silence settled over the house. Except for the moaning next door, of course. Belladonna smiled—whoever the client was, they were getting the full four-star treatment, though she knew that the witch bottles hidden under the front and back steps meant that there wasn’t a ghost anywhere in the building.
After about fifteen minutes, she heard the front door click shut, and her grandmother bustled into the sitting room.
“Right!” she said, rubbing her hands together. “What about some cake?”
“Yes, please,” said Belladonna. “I’m starved!”
She followed her grandmother into the ridiculously small kitchen at the back of the house, and watched as she took a box out of the fridge and unpacked a small sponge sandwich cake. Grandma Johnson never cooked. If you couldn’t get it pre-made at the local supermarket, then she wouldn’t have it. Belladonna had a feeling that her Dad had never had a home-cooked meal until he married her Mum.
Grandma Johnson cut two huge slices, made them each a cup of tea, and herded Belladonna back into the warm sitting room.
“Now,” she said, once they had each had a few bites of cake, “what brings you here? Does something need signing?”
“Yes,” said Belladonna a little sheepishly, aware that she hadn’t been seeing her grandmother as often as she should. “There’s a trip to Fenchurch Abbey next Tuesday.”
“Ah,” said her grandmother. “Establishment of the monasteries, eh? Or is it dissolution? I can’t remember where you’re up to.”
“Establishment,” said Belladonna, pulling the permission slip out of her bag.
Her grandmother took it and then spent about ten minutes looking around for her glasses, which turned out to be inside a particularly ugly pottery vase in the shape of a yellow-eyed cat.
“Let’s see … hmm … sandwiches, eh?”
“It’s an all-day trip,” explained Belladonna.
“I can see that,” said her grandmother, peering at her over the top of her glasses. “Well, it all sounds alright. Though I can’t imagine why they have to have these trips in the middle of winter. You’re going to absolutely freeze up there. Make sure you wear two extra pairs of socks.”
Belladonna shuddered at the thought of anyone seeing her bundled up like a four-year-old. She’d be suggesting mittens on a string next.
“And mittens,” said her grandmother, right on cue. “They’re so much warmer than gloves.”
Belladonna smiled and took another bite of cake.
“Now,” said her grandmother, leaning forward, “how are things going at school?”
“It’s boring,” said Belladonna.
“Boring? How can it be boring?”
“It just is,” said Belladonna.
“Nonsense,” said her grandmother, handing her the signed permission slip. “These are the best years of your life. You’ll see. It’ll get better.”
Belladonna finished her cake and wondered if her grandmother had ever been to school and if it had been different then. Maybe things really were interesting in the olden days. Maybe everyone had been nice and played hockey and had midnight feasts and ripping adventures, but Belladonna doubted it. Something told her that once people left school, a sort of selective memory kicked in and all the bad stuff, all the teasing and humiliation, all the tedious classes and endless mounds of homework, were forgotten in favor of half-recalled sunny summer afternoons filled with laughter, tennis, and surprise picnics.
“I’d better get going,” she said.
“Goodness, is that the time?” said her grandmother, leaping to her feet and nearly knocking over a nearby occasional table crowded with china figurines. “I’ve got a new client coming at five! Off you go. Say hello to your Mum and Dad.”
She hustled Belladonna out of the sitting room, helped her into her coat, and practically shoved her out the front door. Belladonna sighed and zipped up her coat. The rain might have stopped, but the wind was still icy cold and cut to the bone. She hoisted her backpack onto her shoulder and walked down the front steps just as the new client arrived.
It was a woman. Belladonna could tell that from the shoes, but almost nothing else was visible behind the capacious black coat with its high collar and the wide plaid scarf that encircled her neck and the lower part of her face. The woman swept past Belladonna, and for a moment, as the fabric of the coat brushed against her hand, she shuddered, her feeling of February gloom somehow magnified. She glanced back and saw the woman reach up and ring the doorbell with a long leather-gloved hand. Grandma Johnson opened the door and ushered her in, all smiles and happy conversation, but Belladonna noticed that as she did so, something fell from beneath the woman’s coat and landed on the top step.
She waited until the door had clicked shut and the orange “séance light” had come on in the front room, then she quickly scrambled up the steps to see what the mysterious new client had lost.
It was still there, gleaming slightly in the sickly glow from the old streetlamps. Belladonna hesitated for a moment, then reached down and picked it up, a knot forming in her stomach.
It was a large black feather.
Copyright © 2011 by Helen Stringer