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Sydony watched dark clouds skitter across the sky with a wary eye, aware that the approaching storm made for an ominous arrival at their new home. The heavens seemed bigger out here, the elements of nature more powerful, or perhaps it was just the strangeness of the countryside that gripped her as she gazed out the carriage window. Her brother Kit would say she read too many Gothic novels, yet there was no denying that their destination was a far cry from the neat brick house they had called home for so long.
The sad truth was that she and Kit were orphans not the wretched sort forced into the workhouses, but orphans none the less. Their mother had passed away when they were still young children, and she was remembered fondly, if not well. But their father had died less than a year ago, and the wound was still fresh.
An especially deep rut in the road flung Sydony against her brother, and she was grateful for Kit's solid presence. They had come to lean on each other more since the accident, by both choice and necessity. Their father had been a scholara man of books, not businessand, since his death, they had been forced to tighten their purses.
Although only two years Sydony's senior, at nineteen Kit had kept a clear head. He had never succumbed to the lure of gambling or drinking to excess that made so many of his peers fools and paupers or worse. He might sometimes tease Sydony that she was their only real asset, a beauty who would fare well on the marriage mart, but they had neither the heart nor the funds for a Season in London.
So they had remained together, continuing to lease the house where they had lived with their father. But not long after his death, the owner pressed them for more money. Apparently, he was leery of two young people running a household, and, truth to tell, their various stipends and resources were stretched thin. But where were they to go?
It was then, when things looked rather dismal, that their sagging fortunes finally took a turn for the better. The news that they had inherited property from a distant relative seemed like a windfall. They sold off their furniture, packed up their belongings, and set out immediately for their new home. But now, as Sydony watched leaves chasing across the bleak landscape, denuded oaks stark against the sky, she wondered whether their circumstances had sunk even lower.
She caught sight of a sprawling stone structure rising in the distance just as the heavens burst. The storm was upon them, and so, now, was their future. Sydony drew a deep breath as she clung to her seat. The rough road that had seemed nearly impassable before was not improved by the downpour.
'That must be Oakfield! Do you see it?' Kit said, leaning forward and pointing eagerly.
'Yes,' Sydony murmured, squinting into the sheets of rain. 'Though this hardly seems a promising welcome.'
Ever the optimist, Kit ignored her dismay. 'Well, at least we've found the place before the road washes away.'
'Now, that's a lovely thought,' Sydony said. Their lifelong neighbour Lady Elizabeth Hawthorne had warned them that the site sounded remote, but Sydony had not thought it beyond the reach of modern highways.
Kit laughed, and Sydony set aside her misgivings as the coach halted in a thunder of splashing hooves. Without waiting for the coachman, Kit pushed at the door, but the wind and rain were so fierce that he had to use some force to thrust it open. Heedless of the elements, he leapt down and turned towards her, his hand extended. But when Sydony stuck her head out, she faltered, blinking against the wetness and gaping at the scene before her.
The world outside was thick with the unnatural twilight of the storm, blinding rain making it hard to see beyond the feeble glow of the carriage lantern. But there was no mistaking the hulking darkness of a building that rose behind the figure of her brother, eerily forbidding, and yet somehow familiar, as if Sydony had seen it in dreams
'Syd!' Kit yelled, and she turned her attention back to her brother. By the time her slippers touched the gravelled drive, her cloak was whipping around her and the hood had been thrown back from her face. Ducking, she held on to Kit's hand as they dashed towards an arched entrance.
'Look! It's medieval,' Kit shouted, pointing upwards, and Sydony lifted her face to see a vague outline of battlements. She paused, once again, to stare at the forbidding fa ade of old stone laced with even blacker shadows. Either it was crumbling to pieces or it was covered in some sort of growth that made for an altogether unpleasant aspect.
'Hurry, before we're both soaked,' Kit urged, dragging Sydony inside.
It was too late for that. Sydony's gown was already plastered to her legs, the cold and wet seeping into her bones. For once, she found it difficult to share her brother's enthusiasm. Being male and of an age that sought excitement and new experiences, he viewed the move as a big adventure, while Sydony longed for the familiar and a routine that might have chafed before, but now would be welcomed.
As they stood under the archway, Kit banged upon the door, but there was no answer to their summons. When their coachman Henry deposited a trunk upon the doorstep, Kit waved him away. 'See if you can find a stable around the back,' he shouted over the storm.
Henry nodded and hurried back to the coach, obviously eager to locate a dry berth, while the Marchants were left standing before the massive doors, rattling the knocker.
'Maybe they can't hear us,' Kit said.
The thought was no comfort to Sydony, who shivered under the onslaught of rain and glanced around her dismal surroundings. 'It looks deserted,' she said.
Indeed, it did, for no lights glowed warmly at the mullioned windows. The walkway was overgrown, as was the grass and shrubbery. The solicitor had written a warning that the house had not been kept up over the past few years and that additional staff would be needed. Now, as Sydony stood in the pouring rain, she pondered the exact meaning of 'additional'.
Finally, Kit tried the door, which swung open after a brief struggle. Inside, all was dark and quiet, with little light filtering in from outside.
'Hello?' Kit called out. His voice echoed in the old-fashioned hall with its stone flags. Although open, the space smelled musty, and Sydony was struck by a vision of their cosy cottage with its wood floors, brightly painted walls and cheerful, airy windows. Despite her father's dusty piles of books, it had always been filled with the scents of beeswax and flowers, fresh or dried.
'Well, even if there's no one to greet us, here we are at our own place, Syd. What do you think of our good fortune?' Kit said, spreading his arms to encompass the dreary area.
'Astounding,' she said, tongue firmly in cheek.
As she had anticipated, Kit chuckled at her tone before hurrying to drag in the trunks.
Unfastening her cloak, Sydony went in search of the kitchen, but she found no comfort there. Although no servants were about, the place looked as if they had but recently left in the midst of their labours. Several bowls and utensils cluttered the work table, yet when Sydony reached out to touch them, her gloved finger became marked with dust.
It was almost as though the inhabitants had exited suddenly, but when? Sydony shook her head. If so, they had left no food about to spoil or draw vermin, Sydony noted with a quick glance into the shadowy corners. Even the kitchen was gloomy, and as she glanced about Sydony saw that a window high in one wall had been boarded over. No wonder it was dim.
Thankfully, a window in the other wall remained intact. Stepping towards it, Sydony wiped it with a gloved hand and leaned forwards to peek out. At first she could see only blackness, but then a face swam behind the pane. She let out an involuntary shriek before she recognised their own coachman.
Her heart pounding, Sydony drew a deep breath and straightened as she moved to open the nearby door. Although hardly missish, it seemed she was not immune to the odd mood set by the deserted residence.
'Sorry, miss,' Henry said, stepping inside. He slipped off his hat and shook the rain from his shoulders. 'Didn't mean to give you a fright.'
'Certainly not,' Sydony said, knowing how Kit would roar with laughter. She had thought a childhood of boy's pranks had inured her to everything, but the new surroundings were enough to unnerve anyone.
As if on cue, Kit appeared in the doorway, a sturdy implement in hand that he must have snatched up from a fireplace. 'Are you all right?' he asked. 'I thought I heard something.'
'I'm afraid I gave Miss Marchant a turn,' Henry said.
'It was nothing,' Sydony muttered, and, for once, Kit did not pursue it. They had more important things to do.
'I didn't see any of the crates we shipped ahead,' Kit said. 'Did you see anything in the stables?'
Henry shook his head. 'My boy Clarence is settling in the horses, but I didn't see hide nor hair of anyone. The place looks like it hasn't been used in many a year.'
'Well, we shall just have to set up our own stables,' Kit said.
'I hope you'll be able to find some decent groomsmen way out here,' Henry said, looking down at the hat in his hand.
'You're welcome to stay on, of course. You and Clarence both,' Kit said, though Sydony knew they had discussed this before.
'Thank you, sir, but it just isn't my home here. I'll miss the team and all, though.'
'Of course, we shall take care of them, personally, until we can hire some trustworthy,' Kit assured him. 'And you must let us know how you get on at the Fieldings'.'
'I will, sir.'
Before things turned really maudlin, Sydony cleared her throat. 'Well, since there seem to be no servants about, I'll see what I can muster up for our dinner. You and Clarence come on back to the kitchen once the horses are bedded down.'
'Shall we look for a room for you?' Kit asked.
'No, sir. We'll be just fine out in the stables. There's a separate area with cots.'
'Very well. Thank you, Henry,' Kit said. He looked like he wanted to say more, but it had all been said. Sadly, their groomsmen, their cook and their maids had elected not to move to parts unknown. And right now, Sydony could not blame them. Lest she be tempted to take the mail coach back with Henry and Clarence, she set to work. Throwing her cloak over a chair, she stripped off her gloves and went searching for edibles, while Kit started a fire in the open hearth.
Before long there was a nice blaze going, which put forth both warmth and cheer, though the room itself was not exactly homely. Sydony told herself that a good scrubbing and some bright paint would help, though there was no altering the fact that the house was old, with its own style and quirks. A more pessimistic sort might deem it a medieval horror right out of the most popular novels, but Sydony refused to acknowledge the possibility.
For Kit's sake, if not her own, she needed to keep such thoughts at bay. Besides, everything would look better in the morning, she told herself as she shook out a cloth and laid it upon a corner of the work table. They would eat here, for, despite her good intentions, she hadn't the heart to tackle any other room at the moment.
Kit found some lanterns that added more light, which improved the atmosphere, and Sydony was grateful. Not knowing what lay ahead today, she had asked for a packed basket when they stopped for luncheon, so there was cold chicken, salted ham, wedges of cheese, a fat loaf of bread and apples for their supper. Thankfully, at some point water had been piped into the house, and Kit produced a bottle of wine that was most welcome.
But when all four of them were seated, it was a sad little group, everyone well aware of their parting on the morrow. Henry made obvious his disapproval of the whole situation, muttering about a godforsaken place without a soul to even greet them properly.
'Now, Henry, you are talking about my country estate,' Kit said, while slicing himself more cheese. 'Don't you think I'm suited to be a gentleman farmer?'
'More suited to be that than a gentleman scholar,' Sydony said, and they all laughed. But even Sydony's wit and Kit's good humour could not entirely relieve the sense of a gallows bird's last meal that hung over the company.
That mood only grew stronger after the coachman and his boy left for the stables and Kit and Sydony went in search of some beds. It was full dark outside, though the storm had abated, as they made their way back to the hall, its musty smell more pronounced after the relatively odour-free kitchen.
'Look at this wonderful staircase,' Kit said, as they approached the steps that led from the ground floor up to the first. It squared off, leading up to an open landing, before turning upwards again, its dark wood carved into intricate patterns that seemed a bit busy to Sydony. However, she was loathe to discourage her brother. Someone had to see the bright side of this experience, and Kit was obviously bursting with some sort of male pride of ownership that failed to move his sister.
When they reached the landing, Sydony lifted her lantern towards the looming darkness. 'What is this?' she asked. The glow illuminated heavy wooden planks that appeared to be been nailed across the wall.
'Maybe they're covering a broken window,' Kit said.
'In a place like this, there might have been a stained glass one that would cost a lot to replace.'
'But a window in the kitchen is boarded up, as well.'
'Could be more than one has broken over the years,' Kit said.
Sydony lifted a finger to touch the raw wood, so out of place among the trappings of a medieval manor house. It seemed that someone had gone to an awful lot of trouble to cover up every inch of what lay beneath, but perhaps that was to keep any air from entering. The house was draughty enough without a gaping hole in the wall.
Upstairs, as they wandered from room to room, Sydony noticed more unusual window coverings, this time heavy wooden interior shutters. 'The place is closed up tighter than a drum,' she muttered.
'Maybe Great-aunt Elspeth had an aversion to light,' Kit joked.
'Or perhaps a cyclone came through, blowing out one entire side of the house,' Sydony said drily.