Authors: Victoria Laurie
For my grandfather
My first and greatest hero
an Wigby sat on his cot, staring at the raging storm just beyond his window. It seemed that Lady Lightning and Master Thunder were having another argument, or so the headmistress Madam Dimbleby liked to say
“That old married couple,” she would tell the children, “Lady Lightning and Master Thunder, sometimes have arguments, as married couples often do. Lady Lightning likes to keep her husband, Master Thunder, in line, you see, so she zaps him a good sting every now and again. But the master won’t have it, and he roars back at her. Give them a few hours to tire themselves out and they’ll soon settle down and let their daughter Mistress Rain have the sky all to herself again.”
Madam Dimbleby told the story of Lady Lightning and Master Thunder to all the orphans who came to live at Delphi Keep, to help them adjust to the turbulent weather that often visited their little patch of England. And it worked, if the seven sleeping boys behind Ian were any indication. But Ian wasn’t fearful of the tempest outside. In fact, he’d
never been afraid of any storm. Instead, he was fascinated by the brilliant light and the clapping thunder, and he loved storms at night best of all. Yet this squall brought a foreboding to him that he couldn’t quite shake, and for some time he’d been less interested in what was happening in the night sky and more absorbed in watching the ground below.
Deep in his five-year-old bones he knew that his life was about to change. Intently, he watched the road leading to the keep, a thin strip of black that he was just able to make out every time Lady Lightning sent a snap to her husband. There had been nothing on the road to call his attention, and yet he couldn’t take his eyes off it.
The clock at the foot of the stairs chimed. He counted as the old timepiece gonged eleven times.
Ian sighed. His eyelids were growing heavy and the storm was dying down. Perhaps he should give up his vigil and crawl under the covers. But just as he was about to turn and pull back the bedclothes, Lady Lightning sent a terrific zap across the sky and something on the road materialized out of the darkness. Ian squinted and rested his forehead on the windowpane. The form that had caught his attention appeared to be large.
Ian cupped his hands around his eyes, straining to peer into the darkness. There! Something moved! In fact, it was racing along the road toward the keep! As he watched, he began to put features to the form. It looked like a man on a horse, riding hard through the rain. Ian’s mouth fell open. He’d been right! Something exciting
about to happen.
He jumped out of bed and trotted on tiptoe to the other end of the long room, past the double rows of sleeping boys.
He paused at the door and placed his ear at the crack. Soon he was rewarded with the banging of a fist on the heavy oak door of the keep.
For a moment the interior of the old fortress remained quiet, but just as he was about to open his door to get Madam Dimbleby, he heard her shuffling down the hallway with her cousin and companion headmistress, Madam Scargill.
“Who could that be at this hour?” he heard Madam Dimbleby ask.
“Whoever it is should be taught some manners!” Madam Scargill complained as more pounding echoed from down-stairs.
Ian opened his door a crack and peered into the hallway, catching a glimpse of the back of Madam Scargill’s head as she descended the staircase. He waited a beat, then stepped into the hallway and crept to the railing. There was an old table butted up against the wooden slats with a small hole in the back that would give him both cover and a convenient spy hole. He scooted under the table just in time to see the headmistresses open the door and reveal a stranger.
A bony-looking man, soaked to the skin, stood in the doorway. His hair was long and stuck to his unshaven face. He wore a tattered coat and large black boots, and in the dim light he appeared quite frightful. “Please,” he said in a deep voice. “I come on a mission of mercy!”
The headmistresses had stepped back as they’d opened the door to the man, and Ian could see their doubtful expressions when they turned to each other in silent contemplation. As they hesitated, the man stepped forward and pulled
something out from the folds of his coat. Both women gasped when they saw that it was a small child. “I found ’er not four hours ago,” he explained. “She was toddlin’ about in this muck, if you can believe it. I took ’er ’ome for a time to wait the rain out, but I don’t ’ave any food fit for ’er and up until a bit ago she was frettin’ as bad as this storm.”
“Oh, my!” said Madam Dimbleby as she hurried to take the child. After hugging the toddler to her chest and pulling the folds of her shawl about the babe, she asked, “Where on earth did you find her?”
“’er mum rents the cottage on the edge of me property,” the man said. “I found this little one wandering about in the field next to the ’ouse, so I went looking for ’er mum but she’s cleared out.”
“Cleared out?” Madam Scargill asked in her usual clipped speech. “What do you mean, ‘cleared out’?”
“All ’er belongings is gone. ’er clothes, ’er trunk, all ’er personal things. There was this note, though,” he said, and once more he dug around in the folds of his coat, from which he fished a crumpled, damp letter that he held out to the women.
Madam Scargill took the paper, placing her half-glasses onto her nose before she read, “‘I cannot stay any longer. The child would be in danger if she were found with me. Please get her safely to the orphanage at the keep near Castle Dover.’”
“Horrible!” Madam Dimbleby exclaimed as she rocked the small child. “To abandon a helpless child and in the middle of a terrible night like this!”
“And how dreadful of her to leave the job of getting the girl to us up to any passing stranger,” sniffed Madam Scargill.
“Did she leave word of the child’s name?” Madam Dimbleby asked.
“No,” answered the man. “She just left the babe’s blanket and …” The man seemed about to say something else but caught himself.
“And what?” Madam Scargill asked. Ian knew well she could ferret out the truth from anyone.
“Noffing,” the man said with a shuffle of his feet, but Ian, who was watching the man intently, noticed that he discreetly squeezed something in his outer coat pocket.
“Well, I’d best get the girl upstairs,” said Madam Dimbleby, turning toward the staircase. “Gertrude, offer the man a cup of tea and a blanket to warm him until this rain lets up.”
Ian held perfectly still as Madam Dimbleby walked up to the second floor. He knew she couldn’t see him, but the headmistress seemed to have eyes in the back of her head, and often knew when children were in places they shouldn’t be. He breathed a sigh of relief as she passed his hiding place on the way down the hall toward the nursery. When she was a safe distance away, he focused again on the man below.
The stranger was now wrapped in a warm afghan and still stood in the entryway, hovering in front of the small coal stove there. Madam Scargill had gone off to make him some tea. The stranger peered down the hallway in the direction of the kitchen, then, seeming satisfied that he was alone, he dug into the coat pocket that Ian had caught him
giving a squeeze to earlier, and retrieved something small and delicate.
From where he sat, Ian could just make out that it was a gold necklace with a thin, shiny crystal. The man held the pendant up to the light and let the chain dangle freely. The crystal sparkled and sent small rainbows of color onto the wall behind him. “What do you have there?” Madam Scargill asked, and both Ian and the man started.
“It’s noffing!” said the man, quickly closing his fist around the necklace.
“Oh, I think that it is more than nothing,” replied Madam Scargill testily. “And I think that it belongs to the child.” Her hands found her bony hips, and a cross expression settled onto her face.
“I shall take it as me payment for delivering the babe,” said the man, puffing out his chest at her.
Ian smirked. The stranger clearly underestimated Madam Scargill. But Ian knew she would have none of
attitude. “You shall take a cup of tea and a warm blanket for your troubles,” she said in the level tone that instilled fear in even the most stubborn of children. “Then you shall go to the vicar in the morning and ask forgiveness for your greediness. Now hand it over!” She reached out her hand and appeared to expect no further argument from the stranger in her entryway.
The horseman considered her for a long moment before scowling and dropping the trinket into her palm. From the kitchen the teakettle’s whistle beckoned. Madam Scargill gave the stranger a tight smile. “Stay here a moment and I shall get your tea. And try not to relieve us of any further
for your delivery services,” she said as she looked pointedly around at the sparse furnishings of the foyer.
When she turned her back and walked away to the kitchen, the man made a face at her retreating figure, then shuffled out of the afghan and tossed it onto a nearby chair. He eased the door of the keep open, paused ever so slightly as the rain poured down, and slipped out quietly into the night.
A few moments later Madam Scargill came back carrying a tray with two cups and a pot of steaming tea. She hesitated when she realized the horseman’s absence, and Ian watched as she looked around the corner into the dining hall. She then set down the tray, opened the door, and peered out into the rain.
The wind had picked up a bit and it howled fiercely. In the distance Ian could hear the horse’s hooves pounding away from the keep. And as Madam Scargill began to close the door again, something else sounded in the gloom of the night—something that made the hairs on Ian’s neck stand on end.
The noise was unlike anything he’d ever heard before. It was as if a growl and a howl had combined into one long, horrible sound. Madam Scargill must have heard it too, because she yanked the door open and stepped out onto the front stair. She stood there for a long moment with her hand over her heart, and her head swiveling to and fro.
The sound did not come again, but as Madam Scargill turned to walk back inside, Ian saw that her face was rather pale. She shut the door tightly before throwing the bolt at the top—which was almost never used—and then tested
the door to ensure that it was locked. Satisfied that all was secure, she turned to pick up the tray and head up the stairs.
Ian held very still again as she drew close, and squeezed himself into a tiny ball when she topped the landing and passed right by his hiding place. He waited until she had turned into the nursery to come out from under the table and take a step toward his room, but his curiosity about the newest member of Delphi Keep compelled him farther down the hallway.
As he approached the nursery, he could hear the head-mistresses talking in low tones, and he inched toward the open door, ready to dart into the linen closet to the left of the room if he heard the swish of skirts headed his way.
“I tell you, Maggie, I heard what I heard!” Madam Scargill was saying. “It was the beast. I know it.”
“Gertrude, you know there is no such thing,” Madam Dimbleby replied with a small chuckle. “That is a tale told to children to make sure they are home and in bed before dark.”
Madam Scargill gasped. “Children’s tale? You remember what happened on our family holiday to Brighton?”
Madam Dimbleby sighed. “I remember,” she said wearily. “You’ve hardly let me forget it all these long years.”
“I know what I saw.” Madam Scargill sniffed. “It was
, Maggie. It was.”
“You were six years old, Gertrude. How can you be sure your imagination wasn’t playing tricks on you?”
“We shall need to be extra-vigilant with the children,” Madam Scargill continued, ignoring her cousin’s skepticism.
“We mustn’t let the older ones out beyond the walls after dark. I’ll tell Landis to keep a watch.”
Madam Dimbleby chuckled. “All right, Gertie, if it will make you feel better, we’ll keep an eye out for your beast. Now, here, hold the babe while I have a sip of that tea, will you?”