In the dream, the man smelled of horses and wood varnish as he gathered the little girl close in his arms. Wind whipped off the lake, but in her father’s arms, she was warm and safe. She held her stick sword firmly in one plump hand as he lowered her to the ground.
“You see these stones, Rhosyn?” he asked with a thick Welsh accent, placing a hand on the smooth black rock that rose out of the ground. “Do you know what they are?”
“Aye, Roger said they are faerie stones,” the girl answered, prodding one with her stick.
“Oh, did he now? And when did you have time to talk to the stableman?” her father questioned, heavy brows drawing together.
“When I went to see Mr. Eli’s horses,” she answered truthfully, knowing that her father wasn’t really angry with her. “Are they doorways to the Other Lands?”
“There are, God’s truth, little one.” Her father crouched down to be level with her. “Some nights, when magic is thick in the air and the time between times opens the worlds, the Seelie come through to dance at the lake. It is on those nights, my Rhosyn, that you must lock your window and your door, and pray that they don’t try to steal you away.”
“How can I tell if it’s a faerie?”
“They are so beautiful and terrible to look upon that there is no mistaking them for anything else. If you ever see such a one, dancing or hunting through the forest, you must find Mr. Eli as soon as you can.” Her father’s voice lost the storyteller’s warmth and became serious, “Promise me, Rosa. Promise me you will find him.”
“I promise, Da,” she swore, wondering what Mr. Eli could do that her father could not, should the faeries come.
“Good lass.” He kissed her head and got to his feet. They were almost back at their little cottage when the wolves came.
Then there was only blood, screaming and monsters, and her father was gone forever.
Chapter One- The Bad Omen
Rosa’s ears were ringing as she stepped out of the fire escape door and into the cold night air. She needed to get away from the noise of the crowded kitchen and the endless thrum of the party upstairs. She had been plagued with nightmares for the last three nights, and the bass of bad dance music was making her head pound.
I don’t know why you let Lucy talk you into these things, Rosa thought as she walked down the damp service alley behind the mansion and passed the expensive cars that had been parked wherever there was space.
She had agreed to do the catering gig for the high society party in The Boltens, but with the control freak hostess, it was shaping up to be more trouble than what they were paying. She pulled her coat tighter around her as she breathed in the autumn night air and tried not to wish for the cigarettes that she had sworn off three years prior.
The wind was rising, scattering the golden leaves off the ornamental trees and over the finely clipped yard. This kind of wind always reminded her of her childhood in the north, the sharp crispness holding the scent of wood smoke and lightning. With the wind came the nightmares every year without fail.
“A bad wind, that is,” a voice said, making Rosa jump. A homeless gypsy woman was an odd sight in an area as flash as The Boltens, but she leaned against a Porsche as if she owned it.
“I don’t know about a bad wind, but it’s bloody freezing,” replied Rosa.
The woman smiled. “Tell your fortune for a pound? You’ve destiny hanging over your head like a storm cloud.”
“I’m good, thanks. I don’t believe in fortune telling or destiny, but if you wait here, I can nick you something to eat from this party. Posh bastards ignore most of it at a gathering like this one.”
Rosa hurried back to the kitchen and placed rosemary lamb shanks into a large Styrofoam container. The catering staff were only going to throw out the leftovers, so Rosa filled another with pastries and cheesecake.
Outside, the gypsy was smoking a hand rolled, clove cigarette. She muttered under her breath as she glared at the security guards near the front entrance of the house.
“Don’t worry about those guys. They won’t bother you,” Rosa said as she offered the containers.
“Thank you, lady,” the gypsy said and gripped them in her bony hands. “You won’t accept a reading, but accept a warning…they’re watching you, girl.”
“Who is?” Rosa asked, looking about and trying not to laugh.
The gypsy checked over her shoulders before hissing softly, “The dead.”
“Everything alright down there, miss?” A tall security guard shined his torch at them from the end of the alley.
“Course, mate, everything is fine, just seeing my kitchen staff off for the night,” Rosa waved at them before calling out to the retreating gypsy. “Thanks for your help tonight, Susie!”
The security guard didn’t look convinced as he switched off his torch and continued on his rounds.
“What a weird old lady,” Rosa said as the gypsy disappeared around the next street corner. She was about to head back inside when a black Mercedes pulled up in front of her, and a suited man stepped out.
“Good evening, are you Miss Rosamund Wylt?” he asked formally.
“Depends on who’s asking.”
The man reached into the breast pocket of his jacket and took out a letter. Rosa took it between trembling fingers, her stomach dropping to her ankles as she spotted the heavy black seal and the ‘V’ insignia that haunted her nightmares.
“Have a pleasant evening, Miss Wylt,” the gentleman said before climbing back into the car and continuing down the lane.
Rosa looked at the letter for a long moment before swearing viciously and stuffing it into her jacket pocket.
Rosa was paralyzed. Fear shot through her body, robbing her of thought and breath. The shadows of the room crept over her like exploring fingers, threatening to choke her if she moved or cried out for help. Her body convulsed, pushing her out of the dream with a hard jolt and back into the land of the living. Dawn was making its way through the cracks in the curtains and her thrumming heart slowly stilled in her chest.
Rosa wiped the sweat off her face and looked accusingly at the letter sitting on her mirror table, its elaborate black seal broken in two. It had been a week since she had received her summons to go home to the north, the last place on earth she wanted to go back to.
Your mother is unwell, she needs her daughter at home, the letter had said, compounding her guilt. Rosa’s nights had been restless with dreams of never-ending corridors, dark forests and the feeling of drowning in long buried memories of her father’s bloody face. It was like living in a bad Poe poem every night and waking up feeling afraid and angry.
That word meant the tiny flat near the culinary school she had attended for the last three years. It wasn’t the dreary estate in northern England that didn’t even have decent Wi-Fi.
Who sends a letter these days anyway? She thought before her inner voice prompted critically. Maybe they knew you wouldn’t answer your phone.
Rosa had hoped she would be left alone after she graduated from Oxford four years ago. She had studied literature and could speak Old and Middle English, but what she hadn’t been able to do was get a job in that field. The student wage in her account didn’t disappear, so she decided to follow her secondary passion for cooking and attend culinary school instead.
After years of education, she wanted to travel the world, work in the finest restaurants in each city to learn their delicacies, before moving on to another location. Graduation had gone as unnoticed by her mother as her university degree had, and Rosa had picked up catering jobs as she gathered her savings to leave London. Once the money from the last job had cleared, she would have left England behind her.
Now Rosa knew she had no choice but to go back to Gwaed Lyn. Her benefactors would send people to fetch her no matter where she ran. She had tried to escape to France as a teenager, and even though she was careful to cover her tracks, they still found her. Rosa had stepped off the train in Paris, and there had been a man in a black suit waiting to take her back to London.
In the last few days, Rosa had been forced to lie to her few friends, all who were going to Ibiza to celebrate their graduation. They hugged and teased her, calling her Nigella as they often had, and hadn’t questioned her further. What could she have said? They would never believe that she had no choice but to do what the letter asked.
Getting out of bed, Rosa washed her face in her small bathroom and pinned up her dark curls. Pulling on a green sweater, jeans, and high-heeled boots, she studied herself critically. She would turn thirty next month, and the plump softness of her youth had never quite left her. Her hair was her most redeeming feature; naturally, a rich curling auburn that framed her round face and dimpled chin. In her opinion, her hair made up for the size fourteen dress tag.
“Well, Rosa, that will have to do,” she told her reflection after drawing some eyeliner around her hazel eyes.
Pulling on her leather jacket to ward against the wind, she picked up her overnight bag with a sigh of resignation. The rest of her things had been placed in three large suitcases and had been picked up two days beforehand. She wondered if her mother would rummage through them before she arrived to try to discover what her daughter had been up to in the three years they had been apart. Rosa grinned at the thought of prim Cecily’s face finding her collection of vintage style lingerie. She may have had to wear drab uniforms in her job, but underneath was another matter entirely.
The train to Penrith would take four hours. Four hours of worrying what she was going to do, how sick her mother was, and how long she would be forced to stay at the estate.
“The Wylts have always served the Vanes, it is our honor and our duty,” her father had told her the month he had died. It was one of the only memories she had of him from her childhood, and the Vanes had to own that too. A family’s life lived in the shadow of another was no life at all.
What kind of an archaic concept were generational servants and masters anyway? If a Wylt didn’t serve them, it wasn’t like they couldn’t find someone else. The estate of Gwaed Lyn was hours away from anywhere. She would be resigning herself to a life alone with no friends and no chances of meeting anyone.
When Rosa reached Penrith, there would be a driver waiting for her, as the letter had instructed. She took it out of her pocket, running her fingers over the thick stationary and the carved V in the broken seal.
She could barely remember the estate, an ancient stone mansion that seemed ridiculously opulent for the times, but she remembered seeing that V stamped into gates and stone work. There was no question of who owned the place and everyone in it.
The only member of the family she could recall was the patriarch, Eli Vane. He had found her hiding in the stables one day, and she would never forget her fear as his sharp eyes had looked down his nose at her. He was imposing and wore the kind of authority that could never be fabricated. He had sent the letter, and the tone with which it was written had left no room for argument.
Rosa put her feet up on the train chair opposite her and pouted in annoyance at the bleak scenery flashing passed her. She would go to Gwaed Lyn for her mother, but after that, she was leaving, even if she had to take on Eli Vane himself.
“Seat taken?” A voice asked, jolting Rosa out of her snooze.
“Argh, no sorry,” she mumbled, quickly brushing the seat down in case she had left any dirty boot marks.
When Rose woke up enough to study her companion she wondered why she bothered. The woman was filthy. Her long dress and coat were splattered with mud, smelling of dogs and camp smoke. She was holding an empty takeaway coffee cup filled with coins. If living in London had taught Rosa anything, it was to ignore beggars, but in an empty carriage, she found it impossible.
“Hey, I know you,” Rosa said with a smile. “You were the woman the other night who was trying to read my fortune.”
“Of course I am. Where are you traveling to?” the gypsy asked.
“Home, I suppose. My mother is unwell,” Rosa answered awkwardly.
“You only suppose it’s home?”
“It’s not my home exactly. My mother is the housekeeper for a rich family.”
“Which family?” the gypsy persisted rudely.
“You wouldn’t know them, they are the old money types,” Rosa said. “She works for the Vanes.”
“Gwaed Lyn.” The gypsy spat a ball of yellow phlegm on the train carriage floor.
“You know it then.”
“It’s a cursed place. You’re better off getting your mother out of there, girl. No wonder the dead are following you.” The carriage door slid open, and an inspector stepped through. He frowned at the gypsy.
“Tickets please,” he said firmly.
“Here’s mine,” Rosa said brightly and then pretended to fumble about in her pockets. “Just give one moment, and I’ll find my aunt’s ticket. I know I’ve got it here somewhere.”
“Your auntie, you say?”
“Of course, she is my Auntie,” Rosa laughed. “My forgetful auntie who loses her ticket all the time.”
The gypsy pulled out a Snickers wrapper and slapped it into the inspector’s hand. “Here’s my ticket,” she smiled up at him with dirty teeth.
The inspector turned the wrapper over and handed it back. “Everything seems to be in order. Have a pleasant trip, ladies.”
“How’d you do that?” Rosa asked once he had left the carriage.
“He’s an idiot and doesn’t see what’s right in front of him,” she replied with a huff. “You’ve got a kind heart, girl. Maybe that will be enough to shield you from that evil place.”
“Gwaed Lyn isn’t evil; it’s just full of self-indulgent rich people.”
The gypsy took off one of her dirty silver necklaces and pushed it into Rosa’s hand.
“You did me a good turn the other night, so now I repay the debt. Wear it, it’ll protect you,” she got to her feet. “Remember, girl, it’s not called The Blood Lake for nothing.”
Then she was gone, moving about the carriage shaking her cup, leaving Rosa holding the sticky pendant.
Hours later, Rosa got up to stretch her legs, the uneasy feeling in her chest growing the further north they traveled. In the tiny bathroom, she scrubbed the necklace with industrial pink hand wash. As she scrubbed, the ridges in the silver disc became the shape of a face surrounded by six wings. It was an odd trinket, but something in the gypsy’s eyes had unnerved her. Despite all the voices in her head telling her she was being a superstitious ninny, Rosa clipped the chain around her neck, tucking it into her sweater to sit cooly against her skin.
It was late afternoon by the time Rosa stepped off the warm train and into the freezing winds at Penrith. The working day had finished, and the station was packed with people and students staring at their phones. Standing soldier straight in the crowd was a tall man in a black suit and hat. He looked more like a bodyguard than a driver.
“Miss Wylt,” he rumbled, taking her carry bag. “I’m Caruthers, this way please.”
In the car park, he opened the back door of a black Mercedes. “You’ll find refreshments in the cooler bag should you require them.”
“Thank you,” Rosa said as he shut the door behind her. She settled into the deep seat as he moved silently through the streets and headed west on the A66 highway.
Rosa sensed her mother’s handiwork as she opened the cooler bag and found a flask of tea, sandwiches, and freshly baked ginger cookies. Rosa sipped on the herbal tea, relieved to wash the taste of watery train coffee from her mouth, and watched the sun go down. The radio was playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and she felt a fresh wave of exhaustion.
“We are here, Miss Wylt,” Caruthers announced jolting Rosa awake. A sense of dread settled on Rosa’s shoulders as the electric iron gates opened in front of them and they wound their way through a neatly manicured park lit by elegant lampposts.
Gwaed Lyn’s lights were glowing as it rose up in a stone fortress in front of them. The story was that a Vane ancestor had built it after their return from fighting in the Crusades. It was a monstrous, sprawling mansion of gray stone with four square towers. It had been renovated during the centuries in various stylistic whims of the Vane descendants, and now it looked like a neo-gothic castle, with a flare of art nouveau when it came to the more recent addition of the greenhouse. It was exactly how she remembered it, as if time had stopped completely.
Rosa could make out the hedges that hid the Wylt cottage, and further down the white road were the large stable yards. Caruthers drove around the back of the mansion, stopping at the kitchen service entrance and she climbed out into the cold twilight.
The forest had grown taller in her years away, and for a moment, Rosa’s nightmares came rushing back. Her mother called out as she waved excitedly from the top of the steps. She had aged, and Rosa felt another wave of guilt for not visiting sooner.
“Rosamund!” Cecily said warmly and wrapped her arms around her tightly, still smelling of lavender soap and Chanel perfume. “You look absolutely bone tired, but don’t worry, because I have food inside ready for you.”
“Hey Mama,” Rosa managed. She turned to thank Caruthers, but he was already back in the car, her bag beside her on the steps. “What a strange guy.” She shook her head.
“A man of few words is our Caruthers,” her mother chuckled. “Come on then, and I’ll show you around.”
Rosa turned to pick up her bags as a huge black horse broke through the trees, white gravel scattering as it hit the driveway. Its rider sat tall and broad in the saddle, moving easily with the galloping beast.
“Oh, don’t let him frighten you. That’s Mr. Balthasar coming back from his afternoon ride,” Cecily said, ducking her head politely as the rider slowed his horse to a walk. Rosa tried to remember a Vane called Balthasar, but her memory was stubbornly blank.
As he moved passed them, he touched the brim of his hat in an old-fashioned acknowledgment, and with a flash of a smile, he disappeared towards the stables leaving Rosa staring after him.
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