Later they called it “the Incident” and focused on the most earthly details, like the broken items and the sense that the neighborhood was not as safe as it had been. They spoke of “intruders,” as if there had been more than one, and as if they had been drunks or burglars. The Three Tuns made a convenient scapegoat. They all agreed that it must be shuttered or the good families of the neighborhood would leave. Lord Falmouth noted that more and more fields to the north of Long Acre were being converted into new homes; perhaps Covent Garden had always been too close to the Strand and the docks. The Incident, then, was something that could be resolved with a simple real estate deal.
But that was later. The day that it happened, as everyone ran around collecting boxes and gathering carriages, there was no agreed-upon name. The Intruder. The Shively Girl. The Witch.
“Will you be safe here?” the Lady asked the Lord.
“I won’t be alone,” he answered.
“Will we be safe there?” she asked.
“Let us hope.”
Jane couldn’t stop talking. Going to fetch the carriage, having a task to do, had been good for her. I heard Mr. Percy tell Miss Annie that he wanted to be ready to go as soon as Jane came back, if only for Jane’s sake. When Jane came back she looked better, but once inside the house the color drained from her face again and she began talking again, practically babbling like a baby, about witchcraft and demons. She must have known she sounded crazy but couldn’t stop herself. I am certain that Miss Annie took her into a room and slapped her. Jane stopped blabbering but she didn’t stop shaking, and the color on one of her cheeks was notably darker than on the other.
Later, much later, the adults in the house made a coordinated effort to help Jane forget what she’d seen. “Whatever you saw,” they said to her, “was a trick of the light and nothing more. The intruder scared us all. And you saw how he attacked Lord Falmouth!” The ways they changed the details, a little at a time: “he” attacked Lord Falmouth. But it had been a she, not a he, and not even a “she,” but a specific she: Emily Shively, a neighbor who had played in the street with their son, a friend whom they had known personally.
Yes, Jane had seen the intruder attack; what they did their best to forget was that the intruder had also attacked Jane. She had actaully physically touched her/him/it. How closely had she looked into the intruder’s eyes? What had she seen?
“Emily, child…” Lord Falmouth hadn’t been speaking to a mysterious man; he was speaking to a familiar girl.
In time the intruder became a he, Jane’s struggle with him was struck from the history, and when Jane ran outside she saw a crow take off and in her mind, distracted and upset, it appeared that the intruder and the crow were the same but, obviously, that could make no sense. “When I was a child I was stung by a bee,” Miss Annie said, proudly showing the spot on the back of her hand where the alleged injury was said to occur. “Once I was stung, though, what I saw was something like a strange little dragon, a purple thing covered in yellow spikes. It was just the shock and excitement, scrambling my thoughts. Do you understand? Repeat it to me so I know you understand.”
In time, Jane accepted this version of the story and it became the only version of the story. A large man, a burglar, escaped down the street and startled a crow.
That night, though, this story didn’t exist yet, and Jane blathered on about a witch girl with dead eyes and cold skin that felt like ash, and nails that tore as hard as claws. A girl who transformed before her eyes into a crow.
We fled London right away, leaving behind all that we couldn’t carry. The adults tested their stories in bits and starts until a narrative began to form: these were times of trouble, of war and revolution, and King James was a cornered animal, desperate and dangerous. The mixed marriage of Lord and Lady Falmouth—he Anglican, she Catholic; he of ancient English stock, she with her Portuguese blood—was a threat to the Crown. Both were associates of the scoundrel Robert Edmonstone, the occultist and revolutionary. They had hosted envoys and firebrands from the Continent, van Ryswick and Schiacci the most dangerous but by no means the only. James would destroy England in order to save himself. The memory of the princes in the Tower—”England has a long memory,” they said. For safety the children were to be taken away, leaving Lord Falmouth to face the inevitable storm alone.
The details confused Jane, and she let them go. If she didn’t think about it, then it would all make sense.
But I knew better.
My story began before theirs, and so I knew more.
My story began in Portsmouth. Father, returning from the Continent, immediately dismissed my governess, as was his wont. “I am here now,” he said, holding both my hands. “I won’t leave you again for a long time.” He planned a ball to celebrate the summer, as Mother used to do, and we discussed taking a holiday together. And then one morning, barely a week later, I awoke to find my valises out and open and my new dresses from Spain and Italy neatly folded in. “We must go to the capital,” he explained. “But we will go together.”
“Can I bring my music?” It was all I could think to ask.
A warm grin spread across his face. “Of course, my darling.” I could almost see thoughts racing across his face, but I could never understood what they were. “We will meet the best people in the City. I would love for you to perform for them, if you aren’t afraid.” I’m never afraid, I told myself. Wrongly, as it turned out.
The plot against the King was not his concern then. He didn’t know about the royal baby yet when we left Portsmouth. And it was the royal baby, the Catholic heir, that set the revolution in motion. That was what had England in a tizzy, that the unspoken understanding of the Stuart restoration had broken down.
He didn’t know any of that yet, but still something had compelled him to leave Ryne Hall quite suddenly. Our first stop was not to visit the “best people” of the City; we stopped at an inn in Surrey. It wasn’t a place for children or women or even nobles and Father had to negotiate with the owner before I was allowed in. He put me in a room upstairs and told me to stay quiet and then barricaded the door. He was downstairs for a long time, and I kept myself awake until I heard his voice outside. He was arguing, politely but firmly, with a man.
“We cannot protect you here,” the man said.
“I cannot leave just yet. I need more time,” Father replied.
“Time is not in our favor,” the man responded.
“Let me speak with Hector first. Van Ryswick and Sciacchi are in London, I’ll meet with them there.”
The man looked up nervously, looking up at the window I was in but not seeing me. “You are not alone.”
Father nodded. “My daughter. She is young, innocent.” He stressed the last word.
The man nodded. “He is coming, Robert. There is no more time.”
We didn’t even stay through the night. Father came upstairs and unbolted the door and we went back to carriage. The stars arrayed themselves above us in the dark sky, and even though it was summer it was cold. Father threw his coat over and told me to sleep, and I curled up on the seat and we drove off.
At Westminster he asked for van Ryswick only to learn that he and Schiacci hadn’t arrived yet; we ended up lunching with an elderly Lady Swenson who told us all about the Catholic heir. “We need you, Robert.”
“I’m not even Christian, milady,” he said.
“But you are English, and so is your daughter. We need you.”
He thought hard. “I have pressing business on the Continent.”
“Promise me at least you will speak with Lady Chester.”
I remember how hard he resisted. And later, to Lord Falmouth, “If I could I would go to the Continent today.” But there were other concerns. “There are already spies on the ground, so to speak,” he’d said. “With Tantibus I dare not take risks.”
So to speak: they were in the air, not on the ground.
When we left London Lady Falmouth suggested a stopover in Cambridge but Lord Falmouth insisted. “Straight to the Manor,” he said. “I want you all off the road as quickly as possible.”
I clutched my sword through the night. Its weight, the heavy wood carved into a blade, comforted me. I couldn’t kill with it, probably, but I could defend myself. The dragon I’d carved into the blade glowered, ready for a fight. I held the handle so hard my knuckles turned white.
Our destination was a town in Suffolk called Bungay. It took us four days to reach it, despite what Lord Falmouth had said about going directly. We stopped to rest, to eat, and to clear Jane’s memory. The adults kept a close eye on Julian and me. Not that they needed to: the wide-open space of the English countryside intimidated me, and I think Julian felt the same. I was used to cities, to streets lined with buildings that provided landmarks and helped me gauge distance, a network of brick and stone that enclosed and canalized my world. It was vast and infinitely varied, but at the same time small and comforting.
The hills that spread out in all directions gave no such comforts. Sometimes crossroads that appeared minutes away would take hours to reach; the dark spots on the hilltops could be horses or houses from this distance. The were no towers and maypoles and steeples reaching up to the heaven; instead the sky seemed to bear down on the land, and keep everything as close to the earth as it could. Every cloud cast a shadow, and each bird made my spine shiver.
The land felt flat but curves in the road showed that there were rises that could almost be hills and depressions that might be valleys, however shallow. From one such rise we saw the town spread out before us. It appeared as a clump of buildings, not much larger than a single block in London but less shaped. A castle rose behind the city, a gray keep protected by a square wall with four grayer round towers, a dilapidated miniature of the Tower of London. From the center of town rose a small gray spire attached to what must have been the parish church. The town itself was surrounded by waves of grass that felt like a sea; in places the sun glinted off patches of nearly-hidden water.
“The Broads,” Lady Falmouth explained. I looked at her with one eye while I looked at the landscape. “There are many rivers between here and the sea. That one—can you see it?—is the Waveney. Bungay is a port, of sorts. They have a little dock here; it has a funny name and I can’t remember it, but you can see it a little, behind St. Mary’s.” I had to trust her because I couldn’t see anything. “It isn’t as small as it looks. The little port makes it a part of the bigger world.”
“Have you been here before?” I asked.
“Did you like it?”
She sighed. “I like my London. I wasn’t meant to live in the country. Neither was Lord Falmouth. Not even a town with a little dock.”
The air here was flat and clean, not the dusty smell of London or the stinging salt of Portsmouth, but an open smell of flowers and fruit, animals and dung. From the carriage window I saw cows and sheep, tended now and then by elderly farmers or very young shepherds, but mostly by the large fluffy dogs that chased around them all, barking excitedly. One joined us for a spell, trotting alongside and barking at the carriage, a happy fellow with a great big pink tongue lolling about in the air. He had one yellow eye and one blue eye.
We descended a final rise and entered into the town. The buildings looked odd and sloppy up close. Not stone, like in London or Portsmouth, but wood, and crooked, with some leaning out into the street and some leaning away. It was mid-morning but not a soul was out.
“Does anybody live here?” Julian asked.
“Sunday,” Lady Falmouth answered. “All in there.” She pointed at the church. It was a handsome building, cared for unlike the rest of town.
“Which one is ours?” Julian asked, looking at the houses. The street widened to something like a square before tapering back to a street. And just like that the town was behind us and we were back out in the meadows.
“Over there.” She pointed to a squat house on a rise up ahead. “Winston House, your father’s ancestral manor.” She said the last with exagerrated formality that hinted at distaste. The grass hid the river until we passed a bend and suddenly a broad and sleepy expanse of water spread out on one side of us, if only for a moment. The river then turned away, hooking around the manor house and roughly forming the boundary of the property.
Winston House wasn’t a copy of Ryne Hall but I recognized the style. It was squat and heavy-looking, surrounded by a series of low stone walls that had served as fortifications during the Saxon invasions but had since been weathered to pretty but useless nubs of stone and moss.
The carriage pulled up to the front of the manor and we stopped. We exited and Lady Falmouth spent a moment fixing Julian’s hair and clothes while I straightened my own. We knocked on the front door and waited a surprising amount of time for it to be opened.
Inside was one of the oldest old men I had ever seen, one who had once been powerfully built but was now withered like a gnarled tree. His head was nearly bald and I could see the veins under his skin; his teeth, with patches of yellow and black, stuck out in all directions, and his large owl eyes seemed almost separate from his face, floating in front of it and over his giant hawk-like nose.
“Milady,” he said slowly, in a voice strained by age. “A pleasure to see you again after all these years.” Though I wondered if he could see her at all. It didn’t look like he could focus his eyes very well.
“Chauncey,” Lady Falmouth replied and held out her hand, “the pleasure is all mine.”
“And blessed with two lovely children you are,” Chauncey said. “The very image of their mother, they are. Twins, are they?” Lady Falmouth hesitated, then smiled. She could correct him later. “Where are my manners? Please do come in.”
The door shut behind us and we were in the hall. In essence the house was the same as Ryne Hall. During the Saxon invasions Englishmen built strong houses with heavy walls to keep their families safe. The houses consisted of one enormous room wherein the family would eat, sleep, study, and live, with a kitchen attached to the rear. The walls were made of the thickest available stone and windows were kept small and high to keep arrows out. The hall was thus the oldest section of the house. As England became safer, rooms were added to the house as needed, first a room for the lord and lady, then perhaps a library and a study, servants quarters, guest rooms, and so on. Each room was added on according to needs and whims so each house now reflected a different course of history, but here in the hall they were all the same. I was comforted; Julian, who had only ever known his little house in London, was amazed by the space.
“The house is in excellent shape,” Chauncey said, “considering. I’ll put word in during the evening service that we are looking for staff, milady.”
“Thank you, Chauncey, but don’t trouble yourself. We have all we need here.” She stopped suddenly and looked at Chauncey as though she had just realized something. “Evening service—Chauncey, are we keeping you from your duties in the Church?”
He held up his hands and lowered his eyes, as if forgiving her. “Never you mind, Lady Falmouth, I spoke to the vicar and the Lord understands.”
“No, you must go. You may take the carriage.”
“I couldn’t take the carriage.” He wheezed a laugh. “But if I hurry I can be there in time for the sermon.” The thoughts in his mind turned slowly.
“Go, Chauncey,” Lady Falmouth said gently. “We can settle ourselves.”
“Will you be joining me then?” he asked.
“Not today,” she answered gently. “The Lord will understand.”
Chauncey gave his thanks and blessings and left. For such an old man he moved with unexpected speed.
“There’s no staff here, milady?” Jane asked.
“We never expected to return, you understand,” Lady Falmouth answered. We all looked around the vast and dusty space. Julian coughed a little. “We let Chauncey stay because he has no place else to go and is attached to these old walls, but if it were up to Hector this building would have tumbled to the ground long ago.”
A long tapestry covered the right-hand side wall. The old stones can keep fire and arrows and swords away, but the cold blasts of wind pass right through. Wall hangings provide a crucial barrier to the cold. At Ryne Hall Father had replaced the tapestries with carpets from the East long ago, and looking at this room I thanked him for it. Our hall glittered with beauty and light, the opposite of this room here. The tapestry was faded with dust and eaten in places by moths. The needlework was crude, and the overall impression was a bit grotesque. I didn’t like it at all.
Lady Falmouth showed us our new home. A door on one side led to a corridor with large windows that allowed a clear view of the town. There were three small rooms for Miss Annie and Jane. Mr. Percy declined the third room, as the ladies deserved their privacy. Stairs near the entrance to the corridor led to a second floor. This was a smaller hall, perhaps used for smaller gatherings, or maybe as a chapel. It was empty except for dust and spiders.
Back on the ground floor, a door in the hall led directly to the library. Most of the shelves had been stripped of books when Lord Falmouth abandoned the home. All that was left was junk, mostly. There was a second story here, too, leading to guest rooms in such a state of disrepair that Mr. Percy declined to move into them, either.
At the far back of the hall were two adjacent doors separated by the main fireplace. One door led to the kitchens, and the other to three bedrooms of descending size, connected by a windowless corridor. Lady Falmouth and I would take the first two, and Julian would sleep in the smallest one at the farthest end of the corridor.
After some exploring, Mr. Percy reported happily that the cottage where Chauncey lived had an unused room with a separate entrance, and he would be satisfied there.
“It will be cold, Mr. Percy,” Lady Falmouth protested, but he insisted.
“It will remind me of my days in His Majesty’s service.” I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me that in his youth Mr. Percy had been a soldier—he must have come of age in the days of the Civil War, though I dared not guess which side he fought on—but I found I couldn’t picture him in anything other than his elegant clothing, and I certainly couldn’t see him hacking his way through fields of men, blood staining his face. Had he been injured, seen horrors? His gravity and seriousness must have come from somewhere.
For a moment I remembered that England was once again on the brink of war, and that before long I would be able to tell my own stories of streets and fields soaked in blood, and friends and family who went away and never came back. For a bare second I felt as though a shroud had been pulled from me, a shroud I had worn for so long that I’d forgotten it, one that kept the air of the world away from my skin so I could move about on this earth and still be apart from it somehow. For one moment that shroud was removed and the cold air of this world attacked me, stinging my eyes and digging hard into my skin and filling my lungs, and it was painful and ugly and real.
But only for a second. I blinked hard and the shroud fell back and I was safe again. War would come, but it would be brief and bloodless because James had no allies and so nobody would fight for him, and whether I was in Bungay or London or Portsmouth, when it came I would be home and safe.
The day passed uneventfully. Julian and I were instructed to stay out of the way while Mr. Percy unpacked our things and Jane attempted to bring the kitchen to life. Lady Falmouth and Miss Annie carved a spot out in the library for Lady Falmouth to continue her work, and Julian and I explored the grounds closest to the house. A door in the library led outside, and from there three earthen paths fanned out. One headed to the stable, the other to the cottage, and a third headed due east towards the water meadows. The rest of the grounds were covered in grass, or at least were meant to be. The manor grounds were dotted with dead and dying trees, and at irregular intervals bushes and brambles broke up the ground. Many of those had been occupied by birds and rodents, and whenever we poked at them with our swords some creature or another would jump out and run to the next bush. It would only be a matter of time before we found something nasty, like an angry badger or overly defensive fox, so we stopped.
Behind the manor, away from the road, were two little buildings: Chauncey’s cottage, which he would now be sharing with Mr. Percy, and a squat little stable that held our horse and the carriage. Beyond them was a small open field, and then an entire orchard of dead trees arranged in neat rows, as grey as any cemetery.
Chauncey returned in the evening. I expected him to be glowing with joy, the way Father Mallory looked after a church service, but instead he looked even more dour and tired than before. Jane had managed a stew and some bread with the ingredients in the kitchen, and Lady Falmouth went to great lengths to convince Chauncey to join us.
Normally at dinner the family would eat in the dining hall and the domestics—Mr. Percy, Miss Annie, Jane, and now Chauncey—would eat together in the kitchen. Father told me it was as much for their comfort as for ours, as they deserved a time when they could stop being professional and perhaps even speak rudely of their employers. At Ryne Hall they had plenty to complain about—Father kept an invisible wall between us and them, and his policy of short contracts didn’t endear many to us. Truth be told, most of our staff were ready to quit once they learned that we weren’t Christian. They must have feared that our damnation would rub off on them somehow. At Winston House, though, the servants’ dining hall was in a state of ruin; Chauncey ate alone in his cottage, and that was no place for the ladies. Also, tradition and architecture suggested we all dine together in the hall, so we did. Chauncey, reluctantly, joined. When the meal was served a strange silence hung over the table until Chauncey cleared his throat.
“Shall I say grace?”
Mother and Miss Annie looked embarrassed. Mr. Percy assumed control and said yes to Chauncey.
“Lord our Father, maker of the Heavens and the Earth—” I could tell he was capitalizing all the nouns. “Keeper of all that is Good and Just…” This went on for some time. Julian kicked my foot under the table and I stifled a laugh. I could see his mother’s hand grab his leg and still it, and Miss Annie and Mr. Percy both bore down on me with their eyes. I had to look down to quit from laughing. Chauncey droned on. When he was done everyone quietly mumbled something that may or mot not have been “Amen” and proceeded to eat the rather sad little meal.
“That’s a most interesting tapestry,” Jane ventured during a long pause in conversation. Chauncey raised his head slowly, like a turtle.
“That’s Black Shuck, that is. The demon dog of Bungay.” At the center of the tapestry was a large black dog, hideously misshapen although it wasn’t clear if that was by design or incompetence. The rest of the tapestry depicted a number of scenes, and the black dog was in all of them, not always so crudely drawn or frightening.
“What does he do?” Julian asked.
Chauncey put his fork down and leaned over so we could see him. I think he was trying to make himself look frightening. I wanted to tell him that his face was frightening enough as it was.
“He haunts the Broads, he does. It was a hundred years ago that the old church of St. Mary was struck by lightning, and a great column of fire rose to the sky—” he followed it with his unfocused eyes—”and from there came Black Shuck, a demon in the shape of a dog, and he tore hell through Bungay and Blythburg, killing all he saw.”
“Then what happened?” Julian was curious. I focused on my stew. Jane had apologized for the flavor, and rightly so, but Lady Falmouth had shot us a glance that told us that we were to not complain. Tomorrow was a market day, and Jane planned to properly stock our pantry then.
“He went into the heaths, he did, and that’s where he stays. People see him all the time. Big black dog, with eyes that burn like fire. He comes out at night on the roads between the towns.”
“Does he still kill?” Julian asked so many questions he often forgot to eat, which wasn’t such a bad thing tonight.
“He does, my lad, he does. Every child who comes of age in this country knows to stay off the roads at night, and that if he hears a sound in the heaths, be it a bird or the wind or just the sound of your own heart, then you best shut your eyes until he passes.”
Miss Annie cleared he throat. “Perhaps you are frightening the children, Chauncey.”
His eyes focused again and he looked down at his plate, suddenly looking very small and frail and old. “Of course, Miss. I got carried away. I apologize.”
“I’m not scared,” Julian piped up. “And Isabelle’s heard lots worse. She tells me stories that are much scarier.” Which was true, but I felt uneasy being brought into this discussion. In this old empty house, far from my father and the worlds I knew, I was not comfortable at all.
“Did you ever seen Black Shuck?” Julian asked. I wished he would stop. Chauncey leaned forward again, and his eyes drifted back into the fogs of myth and memory as before.
“I did, and I can still feel it like it were yesterday. There, near where they put that staithe. I heard his howl and I stood stock still and closed my eyes. You can’t hear his footsteps, never. But I closed my eyes and I felt his hot breath on my neck and I could feel him measuring me and deciding whether to eat me or not.”
“And what did he do?” Julian asked.
The question brought Chauncey out of of his memory. He looked at Julian with big, clear eyes. “Well, he walked on, didn’t he? Or else I’d be gone.”
Julian, who had been leaning forward in his chair to soak up every detail, deflated with a soft “Oh.”
“It has been a long day,” Lady Falmouth concluded. “Children, you should scrub and go to bed. Tomorrow you may wish to go with Jane to the market.” We did as we were told and left the table. From where I was sitting there was no way to get out without passing the largest picture of Black Shuck. The thing that bothered me most, I realized, was his eyes. There were human eyes, not dog’s eyes. Vacant and unfocused human eyes, seeing the room all at once but not grasping any of it, wild and uncontrolled but human.
Rooms in old houses are small. Mine had barely enough room for a small hard bed, and my trunk, which Mr. Percy had delivered shortly before bedtime, took up most of the remaining space. “We’ll empty it in the morning and put it in one of the other rooms,” Lady Falmouth promised. I stepped onto it to get into bed and pulled the covers up to my chin. It irritated me to think that I was scared. I didn’t get scared. I had heard about vampires and demons and real-life men who ate human flesh. And I had seen other things, too.
Maybe “scared” wasn’t the right word. I was unhappy.
Disquieted. I liked that word.
What disquieted me was the house itself, and the location far out in the wilds of England, far from the nearest town of note. The complete lack of life in the house, how nobody lived here and hadn’t in years, except for an old man who didn’t actually live in the house either but instead lived in a cottage behind it. And because of the bend in the road, the cottage, even though it was behind the house, was closer to the road than the house.
I didn’t like that if I got out onto the main road I could only walk to a village that only contained two streets, and that along the way I was likely to be stopped by a devil dog.
Or stalked by crows that could turn into people, or some greater demon whose very presence was enough to drive my father away from me and get me sent away to this distant corner of the world.
I had no sensation of falling asleep but I must have because when I opened my eyes the house was completely still. At the foot of my bed stood a man swathed in shadow. Tall and broad-shouldered, he stood motionless, staring down at me on the bed. He could tell he’d been seen. I shut my eyes as tightly as I could, and when I opened them I was alone again.
I let my eyes scan around the room before swinging my legs out of the bed and putting my bare feet on the cold ground. I padded quickly to my door and opened it slowly, expecting it to creak and happy that it didn’t. I turned away towards the darker end of the hall, reaching blindly for a knob I knew I would find. I opened the door and let myself in.
Julian’s room was not bigger than mine. I took two steps to his bed, pulled back the covers, and slipped in. He was on his side with one hand tucked under himself and the other flat on the bed. I squeezed as best as I could between him and the edge of the bed. He didn’t wake up or acknowledge me in any way but his free hand moved and found mine and held it, and I closed my eyes. My disquiet left me like a ghost and before I knew it I was asleep.