Freda Warrington - fantasy author
Extract from A Taste of Blood Wine, Book One of the Blood Wine Sequence
- Horslips, “Ghosts”
Chapter One: Outside the Rain
Fear was an irrational predator.
Charlotte Neville stood on the edge of the crowd, blinking at the glitter of beads on evening dresses, lights blurring in a haze of smoke. The gramophone’s cheerful rasp pierced the babble of voices. The whole room seemed to shimmer in time with her heartbeat.
This fear had stalked Charlotte all her life, but the more she tried to reason it away, the deeper it dug its claws. Shyness, others called it, but that soft word did not begin to encompass the dread that lay clotted inside her, ready to flame up in any social situation.
This is only Fleur’s house, not some grand affair, she told herself firmly. But logic couldn’t break her phobia. She sidled to an empty armchair in a corner and sank into it, trying not be noticed. It’s not that I don’t want to be friendly. Why do I always feel out of place and tongue-tied? Even my own sisters think I’m a fool.
It had been her Aunt Elizabeth’s idea to launch her into society, an attempt to kill or cure. And, like trying to learn to swim by leaping into the depths of the Arctic Ocean, it was killing her. The whole London Season had been a nightmare. If only Anne were here, I’d have an ally... Her friend Anne, though, had more sense than to waste time in what she scorned as “the marriage market”. I wish Anne’s good sense would rub off on me, she thought, then none of this would matter.
Charlotte couldn’t account for her fear of socialising, but it was very real and filled her with shame. It was ridiculous, especially compared with the genuine terrors that her brother David and his friend Edward had faced in the Great War. For their sake, she must put on a brave face.
She watched her slender, copper-haired sisters circulating among the guests: Fleur, tall and fashionable in her long pearls, always smiling a little as if she knew the latest gossip. And Madeleine, pretty and animated. With a cigarette in a long holder, she looked far more sophisticated than her almost-eighteen years. And I’m nearly two years older, Charlotte thought. I so wish their poise hadn’t passed me by.
She closed her eyes, imagining she was at home in Cambridge. The closed, quiet world of her father’s laboratory... the bulky curve of his back as he leaned over a piece of equipment, while she sat with her notebook making sense of his commentary. The cellar walls were dank and bare, yet safe and familiar. There was little sound, beyond the dull hum of a generator and the gurgle of water pipes. No one there but herself, Father and their assistant Henry, a large, untidy young man with a brilliant mind too focused on physics to care about his grooming or social skills. Henry she could tolerate, because she was used to him. He demanded nothing of her, unlike these society people who expected her to sparkle and parade like a circus horse, who disdained her when she failed.
Her chair sagged under the weight of someone sitting on the arm. She opened her eyes and found Madeleine beside her, the beads on her oyster silk dress straining the frail fabric as she leaned down in a waft of smoke and perfume.
“Charli, when’s Father giving his lecture to the Royal Society?”
“Oh – next Friday evening.” Charlotte was startled. Madeleine had never shown interest in their father’s lectures before.
“What’s it about?”
“The Electrical Structure of Matter.”
“The electric – what? Never mind. I’ll tell him it’s terribly interesting.”
“Tell who?” Charlotte asked.
Madeleine swung one foot, all nervous energy. “I’ve met the most delicious young man. He’s from Vienna, his name’s Karl von Wultendorf, and he’s fascinated by science. That’s why he’s in England, to study. When I told him our father is Dr George Neville, Karl had heard of him!” She mimicked an Austrian accent, badly. “‘Ah, the famous physicist. I should so love to meet him.’ So I’ve been telling Karl that he simply must come to Cambridge, that’s where all the exciting discoveries are taking place. Isn’t that true? You know better than me.”
“Well, yes, but—”
“But what? He’s the most wonderful man I’ve ever met. If he comes to the lecture, I can introduce him to Father, who will invite him to Cambridge...”
Charlotte’s stomach tightened. She hated strangers visiting the house. She was clinging to thoughts of home to get her through each wretched party, so the thought of her refuge being invaded was unbearable.
She said, “When did you ever attend one of Father’s lectures?”
“I’ll make an exception for Karl von Wultendorf.” Madeleine’s eyes elongated like a cat’s. “I’d make an exception to anything for him.”
“Where is he?”
Madeleine leaned closer and whispered, “Over there by the window, talking to Clive. Don’t stare.”
Discreetly Charlotte glanced at the stranger, who was with a small group framed against the red velvet curtains. Fleur’s husband Clive was beside him, blocking her view, so she saw only that he was slightly over six feet tall and slim, his hair dark with a reddish glow. It was enough, though, to reveal him as an attractive, imposing man. A threat. She looked away quickly.
Charlotte usually suppressed her feelings until they choked her, but this time her misgivings won.
“No,” she said sharply.
Madeleine’s face fell. “What d’you mean, no?”
“You can’t invite complete strangers to Father’s lectures, let alone to our house.”
“I can do what I like.” Madeleine’s mouth became a sulky rosebud.
“You’d better not.”
“What’s the matter with you, Charli? You’re being ridiculous— No, I’m not going to argue, it would be too undignified.” Madeleine slipped gracefully to her feet and walked away to rejoin her friends, her face radiant again as if nothing had happened.
Charlotte was trembling. Much as she loved Madeleine, her love was too often spiked with envy of her younger sister’s easy confidence. Unworthy, but she couldn’t help it.
Charlotte hadn’t gone to school with her sisters. Instead she’d been educated at home by her father. Their mother was long dead, and he had been her constant companion, training her to work with him. Reclusive by nature, she’d taken willingly to the role, but it meant a sheltered life in the dry, donnish atmosphere of his circle. She avoided the social side of Cambridge life, happy to be a quiet presence at her father’s side, respected both as his daughter and his assistant.
And yet... she must want something more, or she would not have surrendered to her aunt’s wishes.
“Charlotte will suffocate,” Aunt Elizabeth had said. “It’s essential for a girl to enter society, especially with the shortage of eligible men after the War. Look what a good marriage Fleur made. You must let me bring her and Madeleine out together – or do you want her growing into a dried-up old spinster, George?”
Her father had responded with a lot of huffing, but hadn’t tried to stop Charlotte giving herself over to her aunt to be presented at Court, and all the palaver that followed.
Charlotte, however, was no debutante. She longed to be charming and confident, to make friends and attract admirers, but the cold reality was that she hated it. She felt nothing in common with these bright, brittle people: young rich folk who all knew each other, who scorned anyone who did not fit in. Away from her own safe world, she’d fallen apart.
So much for Elizabeth’s hopes of matchmaking. If a man showed more than a passing interest, Charlotte would freeze with involuntary dread that turned her eyes to ice and her tongue to stone. However polite her words, everything in her demeanour growled, “Don’t come near me!”
Then she would overhear comments that crushed the little self-esteem she possessed. “Madeleine and Fleur are grand girls; it’s a shame their sister’s so stand-offish. Pretty, I know, but I shouldn’t bother, old chap; she’s as miserable as sin.”
So the more she suffered, the more she withdrew. Only her dread of Aunt Elizabeth’s wrath had kept her from fleeing back to Cambridge. Her aunt and sisters made a great show of “despairing” of her, not realising she found their disappointment the most painful blow of all.
Alongside her shyness, she harboured a streak of contempt for this social circus. Perhaps these people were wonderful beneath the glitter, but they seemed shallow compared to those she truly loved: her father, her brother David, and Anne.
The thought of home was all that sustained her, but if Madeleine began dragging her new friends back to Cambridge – nowhere was sacred.
I’ve had enough, she thought. My aunt’s not here. I can slip off to bed. I’d rather be scolded by Fleur in the morning than sit here another moment. She rose and hurried to the open door. No one noticed, until she made the mistake of glancing back to make sure.
The stranger, Karl von Wultendorf, was staring straight at her.
In that moment, everything changed. The world ceased to exist for a heartbeat, then recreated itself: the same yet indefinably askew. A shadow was whispering to her.
The attention of any man alarmed her, whether he was handsome and brash like Clive, or as awkwardly dull as herself. This man, though, was more than handsome. He had an aura of dark beauty that magnetised the whole room in the most sinister way; indifferent to potential admirers, as a candle-flame is indifferent to a moth. Yet it was not so much his beauty that arrested her as his air of self-containment. That, and the way his gaze cut into her like a light beam – cold and dispassionate, straight into her soul.
The look flatly terrified her. She fled up the stairs, praying that she would never see Karl von Wultendorf again.
“Who is he?” Madeleine asked at breakfast, wilting over a plate of toast. Even tired, she had the charm of a sleepy kitten, her copper-red bob aglow in the dull morning light.
Fleur wasn’t really listening to Madeleine’s chatter, Charlotte observed, but gazing distractedly into the conservatory where her easels stood amid tangles of greenery. Fleur had always been creative, painting landscapes, flower studies, and portraits in oils or delicate watercolours. Her husband Clive sometimes belittled her talent, a foolish habit that infuriated Charlotte.
Now Clive sat behind a newspaper as if in silent disapproval of her sisters. Madeleine didn’t care, of course, but his presence made Charlotte uneasy.
“Who is who?” said Fleur.
“Karl von Wultendorf, of course.”
“I don’t know. A friend of a friend... all sorts of odd people get dragged to my parties, I never know who half of them are.”
“They’re brought along for their novelty value,” Clive said from behind The Times. “Anyone strange or foreign, preferably with a title, and we’re supposed to find them entertaining... bloody ridiculous.”
“Don’t be such a misery, dear,” Fleur said mildly. “Even if he gate-crashed, he was too lovely to turn away. I should love to paint him.”
“Oh, ask him to sit for you!” exclaimed Madeleine.
Clive gave a disapproving grunt. Fleur didn’t react. She was so uncharacteristically listless that Charlotte began to worry. Was it more than tiredness and the after-effects of drink?
“Well, I’m in love,” Madeleine declared. “If I find out he’s married, I shall die. He isn’t, is he?”
“For goodness’ sake, Maddy, I don’t know!” said Fleur.
“Don’t snap at me! Is your morning head that bad? I expect Charlotte to be dull and unsociable, but not you.”
Charlotte toyed with a boiled egg. Maddy’s remarks were more thoughtless than malicious. They were also accurate. She loved her sisters, yet from childhood – to her perpetual regret – she’d had little in common with them.
Fleur sighed. “Sorry, Maddy. The truth is, I had a wonderful idea for a painting last night and I can’t wait to start.”
“Wonderful idea?” Madeleine said archly. “You should keep away from substances brought by your strange friends.”
“You should try them, dear.” Fleur stretched, the sleeves of her robe sliding down her lily-white slender arms. “Makes one feel so marvellously creative.”
Charlotte swallowed a mouthful of egg whole, almost choking. She assumed they meant cocaine. Their father would be outraged at Fleur for trying to corrupt their baby sister. She tried to hide her shock, but failed.
“Oh, don’t give me that old-fashioned look, Charli,” said Fleur.
“But it’s illegal.”
“All the best things are,” Fleur said dismissively. “To be honest, I rather wish you chaps would go home. You are darlings, but you know I can’t bear distractions when I’m painting. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Well, I do rather,” said Madeleine. “I was hoping to stay a few more days.”
“You can go back to Auntie’s house.”
“You know Aunt Lizzie left town last week. She’s gone back to Parkland Hall to organize my birthday party.”
Fleur was unmoved. “Go home, then. You don’t mind, Charli, do you?”
“Of course not,” said Charlotte, too fervently.
“Oh well, Charlotte wouldn’t mind,” said Madeleine. “She’s hardly the life and soul of any party, is she?”
“Do be grown up about it, Maddy. It’s really important that I work. I’ll telephone Father and ask him to send Maple to fetch you.”
“God, home. What a bore,” said Madeleine.
“Buck up, Mads. It’s not long to your party, is it?” Fleur stood up and moved to the conservatory as she spoke, turning in the doorway.
“Two whole weeks,” Madeleine groaned. Then her face brightened. “Oh, I hope Karl will come to Father’s lecture. I must know who he is.”
In the car on the way home, it was Madeleine who sat in silence, while Charlotte made conversation with Maple, her father’s chauffeur and valet. He was a sweet man, not an atom of unkindness in him. The familiarity of his long, white-whiskered face comforted her. On the back seat of the Rolls Royce, a smoky leather scent wrapped around her like a blanket and she began to relax. Eventually she fell asleep.
When she woke they were in Cambridge and almost home. Her head ached and her throat felt dry and sore. Rain was sheeting along the tree-lined street as Maple guided the long bonnet of the Rolls through the gateway to their house.
“Are you all right, Charli?” said Maddy. “You’re deathly white.”
“It’s nothing, I think I’ve a cold coming on,” Charlotte replied, coughing.
Madeleine shrank away theatrically. “Well, don’t come near me with it.”
The Nevilles’ house was a graceful villa of creamy grey stone, sheltered by trees and a high wall. Charlotte drank in the sight as Maple opened the car doors. There was Sally, the maid, waiting in the porch, her thinness accentuated by her long black uniform, her hair in untidy wisps around her kindly face. With her was Maple’s wife Mary, a prim little hen of a woman who mothered everyone. Both hurried to welcome the Neville sisters home.
As Charlotte stepped inside and shook rain off her coat, the homely scent of ingrained beeswax and tobacco greeted her. The walls were panelled in dark wood, the rooms crowded with Victorian furniture. On rainy days, the gloom was oppressive, but at this moment the house spoke to Charlotte of peace and solitude.
Since their mother died, Mary Maple had presided over the household, aided by Sally and a cook; not a large staff by some standards, but George Neville preferred simplicity. He would probably have been happiest if he and Charlotte had lived there alone.
“Oh, I hate this house,” Madeleine said with feeling, shivering as Sally took their coats and hats.
“Maddy!” Charlotte exclaimed.
“Well, it’s so dark. Living here doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Their father came into the hall to welcome them. He was wearing a shabby tweed suit over a shirt with an old-fashioned stand-up collar. His grey hair – once as red as Maddy’s – was thinning, and his white moustache was stained yellow by tobacco. Charlotte, who loved, respected and feared him, was shocked that Madeleine could be so downright impertinent. Yet it was Maddy who ran to kiss him, not Charlotte. She’d never been demonstrative.
“Had enough of London at last?” he said, awkwardly patting her shoulder.
“No, never,” said Madeleine. “Marvellous party last night.”
“H’m? Was your aunt at this party?”
“No, she went home to Parkland last week. You know that.”
He shook his head, torn between pleasure at their return and disapproval of their gallivanting in London. “She’s supposed to be chaperoning you.”
“Oh, Father, don’t be so conventional. We were at Fleur’s last night, not an opium den.”
He glowered, but Madeleine took no notice.
“I didn’t want to come home, but Fleur chucked us out because she wants to paint. Can you believe it?”
“Oh, well, the Season’s over, isn’t it?” He glanced meaningfully at Charlotte. “Time to resume useful work.”
They entered the drawing room, a dimly lit space of brown, crimson and ivory. The air was busy with the ticking of a dozen clocks, their father’s collection.
“Not me,” said Madeleine, stretching out on a sofa. “I’ve been invited to lots of weekends in the country.”
“Have you indeed? Let me consider that. You are not going on your own.”
“Well, I’m sure Charlotte’s not coming with me.” Madeleine removed her shoes and flexed her silk-stockinged feet. Oblivious to her father’s stern tone, she contrived to evade his discipline like a fish sliding through wet hands. In contrast, Charlotte was enmeshed by his authority, couldn’t bear to incur his disapproval. “Don’t be grumpy as soon as we’re home.”
“I’m not in the least bit grumpy, young lady. We’ll discuss it after lunch.” He looked at Charlotte. “And how did you enjoy all this debutante nonsense?”
What to say? He must guess that she’d loathed it, but she couldn’t admit as much in front of Madeleine. Before she’d composed an innocuous reply, her sister was talking again.
“Father, I’ve a favour to ask.” Her tone became earnest and respectful. “Charli and I met an Austrian visitor last night, a most charming gentleman, who is interested in studying at Cambridge. I suggested he come to your London lecture next week so I may introduce him to you. He’d be so thrilled. He says you’re famous!”
George Neville huffed a bit, pretending not to be flattered. “Oh, well, I dare say it won’t hurt to invite him up, show him around. I presume he knows my field is experimental physics? Is that his area of interest? Famous, h’m.”
Charlotte didn’t hear her sister’s reply. Her head was spinning. However irrational her feelings, she couldn’t endure the idea of a stranger in the house. It was a sense of foreboding: that once invited, he might never leave.
She interrupted, “I didn’t meet him. We know nothing about him, Father, and you’re far too busy. Maddy shouldn’t have—”
“Charli, what’s wrong with you?” Madeleine said, exasperated. “He’s only a man, not a sabre-tooth tiger.”
“Still, I’m the one who works with Father, not you.”
Madeleine’s brown eyes narrowed. “What right have you to tell me who I can invite to a lecture, or to our home? You’ve been impossible, the whole Season. In fact, you nearly ruined it for me.”
“What?” Charlotte gasped.
Their father tried to interrupt but Madeleine wouldn’t stop.
“My first Season should have been a whirl of sheer fun from start to finish. Instead you’re there like a ghost at a feast, vanishing like a scared mouse if anyone dares look at you, people asking, ‘What’s wrong with your sister?’ and me making excuses for you, ‘Oh, she’s shy, only happy with her books.’ Well, I don’t think you’re shy at all, Charlotte. I think you’re an utter, selfish misery!”
Numb, Charlotte walked out of the room. Their raised voices followed her.
“Madeleine, please, that was uncalled for. If your mother was alive...”
“Well, it’s true, Father. A girl’s Season should be about her, not about jollying along a hopeless older sister. Why did she even bother?”
Charlotte went upstairs to her bedroom, sat at her dressing table, and put her head in her hands. Madeleine was right. She’d been too wrapped up in her own fears to see that her behaviour might hurt her sister. Maddy might be self-centered, impetuous, and full of herself – but still, she was young. She deserved some gaiety before adult life began.
Suddenly Charlotte saw her own life as a dark vortex: her father’s home not a refuge but a prison, because she couldn’t face the bright coldness of the world. Failure loomed like a cloud, and at the centre was Karl von Wultendorf: the gaze that had flooded her with terror. Maddy’s rage was the last straw.
All this is my own fault. There’s something wrong with me.
Charlotte felt choked with guilt. She would do anything to heal the rift with Madeleine, but she couldn’t change the past, nor repair her flawed self.
Why am I so terrified of life? Maddy’s right, I shouldn’t have gone to London, but I did so to prove I could be normal, and all I’ve proved is that I’m not.
Someone tapped on her door, turning the knob. She turned round, hoping to see her sister there. Maddy rarely stayed angry for long.
Instead, her friend Anne Saunders peered cheerfully around the door. Not waiting for an invitation she strode in, slim and long-legged in a white shirt and riding breeches. Her cropped dark hair framed a strong face with dark eyebrows, a warm and lively expression. She’d known the Nevilles since childhood; her father was their doctor, and recently Anne had got engaged to their brother David. Also she was Charlotte’s only close friend, a feat she’d achieved by sheer persistence, meeting aloofness with warmth until Charlotte finally lowered her guard.
“The Prof says you’re not well,” said Anne. She gave Charlotte’s father that nickname, although he wasn’t officially a professor. “Was London that exciting?”
“Hardly.” Charlotte smiled, glad to see her. “Don’t come too close, I think I’ve caught the flu.”
“Oh, I never catch things like that,” Anne said dismissively. “Well, what sort of time did you have? Find a string of suitors? Potential rich husband?” She sat on the edge of the bed.
“God, no.” Charlotte shuddered. “I don’t want one, thank you.”
“Come on, this is me you’re talking to. There’s a dreadful atmosphere downstairs, while you’re lurking in your bedroom. What’s happening?”
Charlotte took a breath so deep it hurt. Her lungs were on fire.
“I’m being foolish. I hated London, so Maddy’s furious with me, and I feel terrible.”
“Maddy’s angry because you didn’t enjoy yourself?”
“It’s my own fault.” Charlotte gave a brief explanation.
“It sounds as if she’s being childish, not you,” said Anne. “Why do you always blame yourself?”
“I...” She paused. “Really, there’s no use in going over it.”
“That’s your trouble,” Anne said gently. “All these years I’ve known you, Charli, and you still can’t confide in me?”
“It’s nothing, truly. I hope Maddy will forgive me. I’m much more worried about Fleur. I think she’s dosing herself with... something.”
“Cocaine?” Anne didn’t sound surprised. “It’s probably the fashionable thing among her set, not that I’d know. I’m sure she’s sensible enough to stop. You worry too much.”
“And Maddy’s taken up with some awful stranger.”
“Oh, why’s he awful?” Anne leaned forward, fascinated.
“Because he’s a stranger!”
Anne started to laugh.
Charlotte said, “Yes, I know it’s ridiculous, but I felt – oh, I don’t know. I’m under the weather. You should go away until I’m more rational, and less infectious.”
“Well, if you say so.” Anne stood up, looking sadly at her. “Go to bed with a hot drink and some aspirin; that’s advice from the doctor’s daughter. And don’t forget David will be back for Madeleine’s fancy-dress do. He’ll cheer you up, if I can’t. Have you decided on your costume, or is it secret?”
“Lord, I haven’t given it a thought.” She gave a groan of exasperation. “I’m sorry, Anne. It’s Maddy’s eighteenth birthday, and all I can do is moan! I’m just not – I’m sorry.”
Anne placed a hand on her shoulder. “I’m concerned about you, Charli. You have to talk to someone eventually, you know.”
Anne let herself out, leaving Charlotte feeling worse than ever. Anne was only trying to help, but Charlotte couldn’t bear to be seen as weak, hopeless and needy. Brave front, she told herself. I’m not made to be a party girl. I’m a cold scientist. Cold cold cold. That’s who I am.
Madeleine stayed away but her father came to her, felt her hot forehead and shook his head.
“Get yourself into bed, m’dear,” he said with bossy affection. “You’re no use to man nor beast in this state, spreading germs. Go on, I’ll send Mrs Maple with a hot drink.”
This is really quite funny, she thought later, as she lay sweating and shivering in bed, staring at the dark ceiling. Only I could be glad to catch the flu. Now I’ll miss Father’s lecture to the Royal Society, but I wanted an excuse because I’m too much of a coward to meet Maddy’s gentleman friend. Despicable, but I do not want him here!
When she fell asleep, fever extended horrifying tendrils into her dreams.
A weird, rhythmic noise approached her from a great distance. She stood on a brooding, desolate shore; a sooty beach and an iron-grey ocean. She felt tiny under the inky sweep of the sky, helpless before the waves’ crashing power. Birds were flying towards her with a steady whump-whump-whump of wings: featherless, primeval creatures with long teeth like razors. The only specks of colour were their blood-red tongues, each one slithering and hissing in a cage of fangs. Slow and malign, they flew towards her. The anticipation of their approach was unbearable.
Then David was beside her. The beach was a battlefield, and as they waited for the birds to attack, he was giving cheerful instructions: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes, old girl.”
Looking around, she saw behind them a bright green meadow sheened red with poppies. “David, I’ve found a way out!” she cried, and began to run towards the brilliance.
He wasn’t with her. She tried to turn back but couldn’t. A vast trench lay in front of her and he was on the far side, with Anne, Fleur, Madeleine and Father. They were stranded. Charlotte was helpless. She couldn’t save them from the dark birds that soared inexorably closer on vast black wings – yet she wouldn’t desert them. She stopped and faced the creatures. The agony of waiting was an electric heaviness in her stomach. It felt strangely thrilling, as if she dreaded the raptors and desired them at the same time. Their mouth-beaks opened and the steaming red coils of their tongues came lashing out...
Every cell of her body tightened and she woke, gagging with fear. Yet mingled with the nightmare she experienced a pleasure so intense that it left her breathless.
The darkness was a warm breathing weight on top of her...
Drenched in sweat, she found herself lurching up in bed, switching on her bedside lamp before she was properly awake. She sat gasping for breath, her whole body a mass of pins and needles. Gradually the racing of her heart began to ease.
Lamplight shone dim and warm on panelled walls. Hers was a moody room, at times comforting, at others full of dark, frightening corners. Charlotte was desperate to break the veil of her night terrors. She glanced at the clock: three in the morning. Picking up the photograph of her mother from her bedside table, she lay back and focused on the beautiful face.
Charlotte could barely remember her, but sometimes she sensed her mother actually beside her, placing a cool hand on her forehead. It’s all right, darling. Go to sleep.
The portrait was more an icon than a memory; so far away was the slender, stately woman in Edwardian clothes. She had an unusual face, its length balanced by large, deep-lidded eyes and a full-lipped mouth. The nose was short and delicate. Although her expression was solemn, a slight lack of symmetry in the features made her look girlish, exquisitely pretty under a mass of shining hair. The faded sepia had been hand-tinted with coloured inks. Her eyes were a rich violet-grey, her hair warm brown frosted with golden-blonde.
Charlotte knew the colours were true, because she was the image of her mother.
Annette Neville had died soon after Madeleine’s birth. Charlotte had been less than two years old, too small to remember more than fleeting impressions: a swish of long skirts, cool white hands. Her father and mother laughing together. Then an endless night of screams muffled behind closed doors... The horror replayed in her mind’s archive, first the screams and then the silence that rang forever with echoes of her mother’s pain.
Charlotte believed in ghosts. She believed them to be tangible phenomena with a scientific explanation, unknown as yet. An interaction between places where the dead had lived and the minds of the living? She knew that ghosts were real to people who saw them. She often felt her mother beside her, like a friend, radiating all the calm wisdom that Charlotte lacked.
Her father had never recovered from Annette’s death. But at least he had Charlotte, who was so like her. That was why she could never leave him. It was her duty to replace her mother in his heart... She was the photograph come to life, the image that must stay the same forever.
Charlotte left her bed and went to the window to stare out at rain-drenched darkness. She felt oppressed, webbed into the pattern of her life. Her head was full of images. A glowing, sparking laboratory in a cellar. Dark oak rooms through which the living moved like ghosts and the voices of the dead still echoed. A pale face with amber eyes that gazed straight through her...
And the sky... was she seeing things, going mad? She could see the wind, and it was solid: a hill of liquid glass that turned slowly over on itself like a wave. On its slopes were black shapes. The dark birds of her fever? Not flying, these creatures, but running. Running towards her through the sky.
Copyright (C) Freda Warrington