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The Death of Yorik Mortwell
Inspired by the artwork of Edward Gorey, Windblowne author Stephen Messer delivers a mock-Gothic tale about poor Yorick (alas!), son of the Gamekeeper at venerable Ravenby Manor, who meets an untimely demise—in chapter one! Worry not, dear reader, for Yorick returns in ghostly form, intent on revenge. In the course of his hauntings, however, ghostly Yorick discovers that all manner of otherworldy creatures inhabit the manor grounds, and that he has a part to play in saving not only his still-living orphan sister but also the manor and everyone in it.
For every young reader who enjoyed the dour dalliance of A Series of Unfortunate Events, here is Stephen Messer's playful homage to the poor orphans of Charles Dickens, the bleak poetry of Edgar Allen Poe, and the exaggerated characters of Roald Dahl.
Stephen Messer The Death of Yorik Mortwell
The bowline knot, used since the time of the ancient Egyptians, is known as the king of knots. Yorik Mortwell tied quite a lot of them on the last day of his life.
Twelve-year-old Yorik Mortwell lay on the hard, cold ground, dead.
His day had started off rather better than that.
“Come on,” he had said to his little sister that morning. “I’ll show you how to snare partridges.”
They were reluctant to leave the one-room cabin on such a frosty autumn day, when the roaring fire they’d built had warmed that room so nicely, but Yorik knew they needed the food and Susan was always interested in learning about anything and everything. So they bundled up as best they could and went shivering onto the Estate.
They went deliberately along the paths, at first rough and wooded, then finely manicured, then rough and wooded again. They passed the mews and the winery and the fishponds and the shooting range. Through the dense woods they sometimes caught sight of Ravenby Manor, with its twenty-seven chimneys.
Once they heard a muffled droning, and the slim, fleet shape of Lord Ravenby’s personal dirigible appeared in the clouds, flying toward its mooring tower in a meadow in the Estate’s farthest corner.
“Here,” said Yorik, and they plunged off into the trees.
“H-how do you know?” Susan said, teeth chattering. She looked excited, though her lips were blue. Yorik vowed to get her back to the warm cabin as soon as he could.
“I’ve seen them feeding here,” Yorik said. They had come to a small clearing. “Now collect sticks.”
Yorik showed Susan how to build a boot-high fence of twigs in a semicircle around the feeding ground. At intervals they left openings for gateways made from sticks bent carefully into arches.
“The partridges will poke their heads through these,” explained Yorik.
Susan nodded, concentrating.
Yorik took a long spool of string from one pocket and his knife from the other. He cut several lengths of string, one for each archway. He showed Susan how to tie a bowline knot, reciting:
Lay the bight to make a hole
Then he slipped the free end of the string back through the loop in order to make a slip noose. They tied that end to the top of the arch. To hold the slip noose open, Yorik cut notches in each side of the arch, then secured the strings in each notch. Susan helped, and soon enough she was tying bowline knots and making slip nooses as though she’d been doing it all her life.
“Once they’re in the slip noose,” asked Susan, “can’t they just back out?”
“They can,” replied Yorik, “but they won’t. A partridge will keep trying to force its way forward, and the loop will hold it in place until we return.”
The work took a long, frigid hour, and by the end their fingers were red and numb and their ears ached from the cold. But they could stand back in pride and admire a perfect partridge snare.
“How lovely,” said a nasty voice from behind them. “But those partridges belong to me, you know.”
Yorik and Susan turned. A boy stood there, the same age as Yorik, leaning on a walking stick with a ruby knob on one end. Susan curtsied, and Yorik dipped his head. “Yes, Master Thomas,” said Yorik.
Master Thomas sauntered forward. He looked considerably warmer than Yorik and Susan. His heavy coat was made of wool, and he wore a fur cap and mittens. A black scarf was wrapped around and around his neck. He was stout to begin with, and these thick layers of clothing gave him the aspect of a cannonball. Mean eyes stared out from beneath the cap.
“What did you intend to do with your catch?”
“If it please you, Master,” replied Yorik, “the usual—eight in ten will go to the Estate, and two to the gamekeeper.”
“You’re not the gamekeeper.” Master Thomas smiled. “The gamekeeper is dead.”
Yorik and Susan stood in a vast, aching silence, thinking of their father.
Pleased, Master Thomas went on. “You should consider yourselves fortunate that my father has allowed you to stay on the Estate at all. And you repay him by poaching his birds.”
“We weren’t poaching, sir—” Susan began. But Yorik put a hand on her shoulder.
They stood shivering and silent as Master Thomas approached the snare. “Do not gainsay me, little girl,” he said in a tone as cold as the wind that cut through their clothes. “I say you were poaching. And I won’t allow it.”
He raised his walking stick and brought it crashing down across the little fence.
Yorik and Susan watched as he walked the length of it, at first bashing with the stick, then simply kicking. By the end, the snare had been scattered and trampled and ground into the earth, an hour’s labor gone in less than a minute.
The exertion had cost Master Thomas. He bent over with his hands on his knees, red in the face and breathing heavily, but looking satisfied with his work. When he had recovered, he straightened himself and removed a black handkerchief from within his coat. He blew into it while Yorik and Susan watched helplessly. Then he sighed, tucked the handkerchief away, and looked about as though he had forgotten about Yorik and Susan and was simply enjoying the day.
Finally he began to stride away. “Don’t let me catch you at this again,” he warned loftily, “or I’ll tell my father and he’ll have you thrown off the Estate.”
Yorik watched the cannonball as it rolled past and receded into the forest.
“You didn’t have to do that!” he muttered. Susan stiffened and gave a little whimper.
The cannonball froze, then turned slowly.
Master Thomas walked back to them, swinging the walking stick in a figure eight, the ruby knob leaving a trail as it cut the air. He walked straight up to Yorik and pointed the stick at him.
“Apologize,” he commanded.
Seconds passed. Yorik said nothing. He became aware, in that long silence, of distant sounds of the Estate at work, of chopping and barking and the neighing of horses.
Master Thomas pointed the stick at Susan. “Apologize,” he said softly.
“I’m sorry,” said Yorik.
“Good,” said Master Thomas. He looked all around. He looked up. Then he pointed with the stick. “Now fetch me that apple there. I’m hungry.”
Yorik and Susan looked up. “What apple?” Yorik said finally.
“The apple in the apple tree,” said Master Thomas patiently. “Fetch it. It’s up there at the top.”
Yorik waited. Master Thomas watched him. “It’s an elm tree,” said Yorik.
“It’s an apple tree,” said Master Thomas. “Now start climbing.”
Yorik began climbing the elm, cursing himself for his stupidity in talking back to Family. His father had taught him better.
At last he reached the highest point to which he could safely climb. He looked down to see what his next order would be. Master Thomas had used his time to gather an arsenal of rocks. He began throwing them at Yorik. Yorik tried to get as much of the elm between him and Master Thomas as he could, but there wasn’t much tree up there, and Master Thomas was walking around the trunk, taking his time. One rock struck Yorik on the leg, another on the hand.
Susan began to cry.
“Susan, no,” said Yorik. “It’s all right. It—”
He noticed the rock Master Thomas was holding. Even from high up, he could see it was a big one.
Then Susan had Master Thomas by the arm, struggling and fighting, and Master Thomas gave her a terrific shove that sent her sprawling.
Yorik hurtled down through the branches, everything gone red. He was shouting things, terrible things, and he looked at Master Thomas and saw that the boy had thrown that big rock, and it got bigger and bigger as it came, a large dark blur, and then something happened to the side of his head and he was falling. He was headfirst now, and he could see branches coming up at him. Something happened to his shoulder as it struck one branch, then something to a knee. It hurt awfully. He thought about trying to catch on to one of the branches, but though it seemed that the fall was taking a very long time, it was also happening quickly, and he couldn’t quite grab one. He was hitting branches and falling, and then everything simply went black, black as Master Thomas’s scarf and handkerchief. His last sight, as life faded out, was that of the big black bulk of Ravenby Manor, and then everything closed onto him.
• • •
Yorik Mortwell lay on the hard, cold ground, dead.
A long time passed.
There were voices.
“What’s it?” growled a dark, gravelly one.
“It’s a dead boy, silly!” said another one, haughty and refined.
Yorik opened his eyes to see who was speaking.
Yorik saw crisp winter sky above, and bare elm branches, and he could see where Dark Moon Lilith, forever invisible, blotted out a circle of stars. It was night.
Two startling faces leaned over, blocking his view.
The first face got Yorik’s attention immediately. It appeared to belong to a sort of girl—a sort of girl who was about three feet tall, and whose head was squat and round like a common toadstool cap. The rest of her was thin as a stick. Her hair was short, dark, and matted with dirt, and she had bulbous eyes that were entirely brown. They were light brown in the iris, and muddy brown in the pupil.
Then she opened her mouth, and Yorik, had he been alive, would have run away in terror. The girl-creature had three or four rows of teeth all jumbled together, but worst of all, her mouth seemed to be filled with mud.
“ ’s lookin’ at me,” the mouth said, and some clumps of mud fell out and onto Yorik. The voice was thick and mumbled, and the dark brown eyes glittered.
“Of course it is!” The other face sniffed. “What wouldn’t, with looks like yours?”
Yorik, with great effort, pulled his attention to that one.
This face definitely belonged to a girl—a more normal-looking girl, except that she was extraordinarily pretty, with silver curls. Yorik could see that the hair wasn’t silver-colored, but actual silver. He had seen silver once, many years ago, when Mistress Doris, haughty as her younger brother, Thomas, had shown Yorik a silver cup she had stolen from the Manor’s collection. But Doris was long dead of the plague.
The girl with silver curls seemed to be playing dress-up, as she wore a crown in her hair that was made of laurel branches all woven together. Her mouth was pinched into delighted disapproval, as though Yorik were both appalling and necessary.
The faces stared at him. He tried to get up. His arms and legs would not cooperate. He knew they must all be broken. He had clear memories of breaking them one by one as he plunged out of the elm. His shoulder too, and his neck. Nothing worked.
He tried to speak. That, at least, was functional, although his jaw also seemed jammed to one side somehow. “S-Susan,” he said thickly.
“Huh!” exclaimed the muddy girl. “Can talk!”
“Of course it can talk, Erde!” Though the pretty girl’s tone was rude as ever, it was clear she was getting happier by the second. Her whole face gleamed as she peered at Yorik’s broken body. In fact, it did actually gleam, Yorik noticed. It had a shining halo around it—no, not just her face. Her whole body, or as much of it as he could see, shone with silver light. Her dress of gossamer green flashed and sparked.
Yorik tried to turn his head, but his neck was stuck in the wrong position.
“ ’s no good,” grunted Erde, putting her face close to Yorik and sniffing. He wished he could recoil in terror. “ ’s broken.”
“No, it’s perfect!” said the haughty girl, delighted. She sounded like the sort of maniacal little noble girl who might visit the Estate, whose laughter would float from the open windows of the Manor but whose face Yorik would never see. “It’s a tragically dead boy! Just exactly what we need!”
“Why tragic?” moaned Erde. Erde was a girl’s name, but this did not sound like a girl at all. It sounded rumbling and old, like boulders grinding together.
The gleaming girl sighed. “It died before its time! You can tell from looking at it.”
Light footsteps circled around Yorik. “These usually live seventy or eighty years.”
“Not long,” grumbled Erde.
“No, it isn’t. And this one looks about six.”
Twelve! thought Yorik, offended. But he didn’t dare contradict this noble-sounding girl.
“What’s a susan?” asked Erde.
“Probably a sister,” replied the silver girl.
“What’s a sister?”
“It means two humans with the same parent,” said the girl impatiently. “Stop asking questions.”
“We’re sisters,” rumbled Erde thoughtfully.
“No, we aren’t! That’s just a stupid human idea. You and I are completely different.” The girl’s eyes blazed with silver flares. “Especially you.”
Yorik worked his mouth again. “Wh-what h-h-happened?” Making words was difficult.
“Do not interrupt me when I’m speaking!” ordered the girl. She raised her arm, which was holding a slender twig with green leaves sprouting off. She waved this at Yorik in a threatening way.
“Tell him!” grunted Erde, waving her arms and hopping.
“Fine,” said the silver girl. She lowered the twig and bent close to Yorik. “What happened is that you’ve died, and it was a really horrible, nasty, tragic death too, by the look of things.”
Yorik wondered if he should apologize for that.
The girl looked him over. “You must have fallen from my elm. How many branches did you hit on the way down, anyway? Here, I’ll fix that.” She brought up the leafy twig and pointed.
Yorik felt the most curious sensation. Warmth spread through his limbs.
“Only my first season here,” continued the girl, waving her twig at Yorik, “and already I’ve found a dead human. You creatures have so little time to live, whatever are you diving out of trees for?”
Something in Yorik’s neck popped into place. He realized he could move his arms and legs.
“There!” declared the silver girl with a flourish. “Completely repaired.”
“Thank you,” Yorik said, sitting up.
“Don’t thank me,” said the girl. “You work for me now!”
Even in the dark night, Yorik could see everything perfectly. There were still remnants of the partridge snare scattered around, but they looked weeks old. He guessed, from the dry, snowy scent of the air and the stark, barren elm, that a month or so had passed, and it was now November.
And he was dead.
“I’m a ghost,” he said, amazed.
“And I am … I am …” The girl paused, seeming to think.
“The all-powerful Princess of the Aviary Glade!” she announced at last. “That’s what you can call me. And you are my servant. Your first order is to haunt the lands of your old human masters.”
“You mean the Ravenbys?” asked Yorik.
“Call them whatever you want,” the Princess said, swishing her twig. “You’re a ghost and you’ve got to haunt something. But while you’re at it, I require you to spy, with your ghosty eyes and ears. I want to know everything you see and hear.”
Yorik, who had been a servant his entire life, supposed that it was only natural he would be a servant in death as well. He looked at Erde.
“ ’m Erde,” groaned Erde, hopping. Clumps of dirt fell from her gaping mouth.
“She’s not your concern,” snapped the Princess. “You will serve me, or … or …” She looked about. She spied an acorn and snatched it up. “Or I’ll imprison you in this acorn forever!”
“You don’t have to make threats, Your Highness,” said Yorik humbly. “I’ll help.” He rose gradually to his feet, achingly stretching his creaky limbs.
The Princess looked suspicious. “You’ll help me? Just like that?”
“Of course I will. I want to haunt the Ravenbys. I want revenge!”
“You? Whatever do you want revenge for?”
“They killed me! Well, one of them did. He knocked me out of the elm with a rock.”
“Cor,” moaned Erde, dirt dribbling. “ ’s right.”
“Well then,” said the Princess, seeming disappointed. She dropped the acorn. “I suppose you’ve got to haunt him a bit. But I command you to report back to me.”
Yorik considered for a moment. “May I ask a question, Your Highness?”
Erde snickered muddily.
The Princess fastened her gaze somewhere above Yorik’s head and assumed an imperious air. “There is no need. I already know your question. You wish to know why a being as mighty as I needs a ghost to spy for me!”
“Well, no—” began Yorik.
The Princess stamped her foot. “It’s because of beastly Father! He has trapped me in this glade to punish me! I can’t do any magic outside of it. If I leave its confines I’ll be in terrible trouble. If I hadn’t found Erde hiding here, I’d be all alone, not that I would mind. Anyway, this is why your tragic death is perfectly wonderful! I now have a servant ghost-boy who can leave the glade to do my bidding.” She waved her twig gleefully, and flowers sprang up all around in full bloom, despite its being November. “There,” she said. “I have answered your question.”
Actually, she had not. Yorik hesitated. “Your Majesty,” he said, “I want to haunt my former human masters, but I don’t know how.”
The Princess shrugged. “You’re the ghost,” she said. “Why are you asking me?”
“I’ve only been a ghost for a few minutes,” Yorik replied. “I don’t know what to do.”
The Princess sighed heavily. “You know. Do ghosty things. Stagger around and moan. Make accusations. Humans are very weak creatures and are easily frightened. You’ll hardly have to do anything at all.”
Yorik had even more questions now. But he didn’t dare ask them. The Princess looked impatient, and Yorik had learned that a servant who questioned his betters would soon regret it.
Instead, he looked at Erde, who was sprawled in the dirt. She was using one of her skinny fingers—almost a claw, really—to draw intricate patterns in the earth. “Are you a servant too?” he asked.
Erde stopped drawing and looked up at Yorik, a fathomless expression on her dirty brown face.
“Of course she’s not my servant!” snapped the Princess. “Don’t be stupid! That’s enough questions. Now, you haunt!”
Though Yorik looked forward to haunting, his first thought was for his sister. As Pale Moon Luna rushed up from the east, he hurried along the deserted paths of the Estate to the cold one-room cabin. But he found the door hanging open, and inside only cobwebs and dust, shuttered windows, and moldy smells. Susan, and everything of the lives they had lived there, had vanished.
With a frozen rage, Yorik swept back through the Wooded Walk, then onto the riding lane, then over the Tropical Tell to the front gates of Ravenby Manor. He stood looking at the tall iron spikes and the ornate R, as tall as he. He had never been allowed this close to the Manor, and from here its chimneys, gables, and steeples hulked more ominously than ever. Pale Moon Luna slid behind, transforming the house into black silhouette. High up and far behind the Manor, Lord Ravenby’s moored dirigible, the Indomitable, drifted like a thundercloud, its landing lights gleaming dimly through low clouds.
Those low clouds floated over the Manor, and where they caught on the points of the steeples, they sent out wispy tendrils like whirlpools across the roofs, lit by moonlight. Sometimes those wisps seemed to form fleeting faces before dissipating into the night. Yorik was transfixed. The Manor was dark, but here and there lamps flickered watchfully from windows.
Yorik reached for the padlocked gates. I am a ghost.
As he hoped, his ghostly hand pushed through an iron bar as though it were only a stream of water. The rest of him followed, and he stood on the gravel drive of the Manor grounds for the first time in his life.
He strode between the weeping white spruce that lined the drive like sentries. Yorik marveled at how quietly he moved. He seemed to weigh almost nothing at all. His feet, stepping lightly, did not crunch on the gravel. He did not even need to breathe. He moved with perfect silence, one with the night. He looked up at the stately Manor and remembered the ruby knob cutting the air. He felt angry and invincible.
He heard a growl and stopped.
One of the hounds crouched on the gravel drive between Yorik and the Manor, in the shadow of a weeping spruce.
Yorik knelt and lowered his balled fist. “Here, Hatch,” he said calmly. “What are you doing out of your kennel at night?” His first instinct was to return this escapee to the Kennelmaster. But why should he? He no longer served Lord Ravenby. He served the Princess, and he was certain she would not care if a few of the hounds ran loose.
Hatch did not heel. He growled a rumbling threat and showed his white teeth.
“Heel!” ordered Yorik, clicking his tongue.
Another growl, from the left. Two more hounds, Oke and Dye, padded closer on the short grass. There appeared to have been a mass break from the kennels.
Yorik rose slowly. He knew better than to show fear. He remembered what his father had taught him. Never show fear to hounds. And never run from a pack. This lesson had been meant for the hunting packs they sometimes encountered in the common forest, not for the hounds of Ravenby. These dogs were Yorik’s friends.
But now he could see dark forms darting from the shadow of the Manor. Growls and woofs surrounded him. He heard hot, panting breaths. A whiff of burning phosphorus floated on the air.
He fixed on Hatch, the pack leader. “Hatch, boy,” he called. “It’s Yorik. Heel!”
Hatch ignored him. The hunting pack tightened on Yorik like a noose.
Well, thought Yorik. Let them come. What can they do to a ghost?
Then Hatch slid from the shadow into soft moonlight. Yorik saw the familiar shape of the hunting hound—and something more. Hatch was enclosed in a green shine. No, not a shine, Yorik realized. An outline, an encompassing likeness of a larger Hatch, its fire eyes glowing like embers in a pit, its pale green teeth reflecting the moon. Hatch the hound was enveloped by this shape, this demon-hound, which moved with him as one. The other hounds, also bound in demon forms, crept onto the path.
Yorik fled for the gates.
The hounds did not bay as they did when they chased game. But Yorik heard the smack and hiss of flying gravel and knew they pursued. He felt as he imagined the fox feels as death closes in.
In seconds Yorik was through the gates. He turned. There was no hope in running farther. If the gate did not stop the hounds, then—he didn’t know what.
The pack had stopped short of the gates. They paced and prowled behind the iron bars, watching hungrily with fiery demon eyes and growls that sent tremors through the earth.
“Come!” thundered a voice. Yorik knew that voice. It was the Kennelmaster. The hounds retreated from the gates as their master emerged from the shadows, bundled deeply in scarves, his breath puffing in clouds.
“Mr. Lucian!” called Yorik. He stepped closer to the gate, eyeing the green shapes circling ominously.
The Kennelmaster clenched the iron bars with gloved hands. He thrust his sharp nose between the bars, eyes crinkling as he peered into the dark. He did not look at Yorik.
“Mr. Lucian …” Yorik brought up a hand in greeting.
“D’you hear that, boys?” called Mr. Lucian softly. He relaxed his grip and turned to the hounds. “That moaning there in the shadows? ’Tis not a Dark One. ’Tis only a wee ghost. We need not fear. I’ll soon drive it off.”
One by one, the green glows winked out. Then all Yorik could see were the hounds, his former friends, gathered behind Mr. Lucian.
The Kennelmaster opened his battered coat. He withdrew a candle and match. He lit the candle.
The candlelight cut into Yorik. He winced and flinched back from the gates.
Mr. Lucian, reaching into another pocket, paused at the sound. He closed his eyes and cocked an ear. “Speak, spirit,” he ordered.
“Mr. Lucian,” pleaded Yorik. “It’s only me, Yorik. I don’t mean any harm.” Even as he said it, he realized it was not true. He had meant harm indeed.
The old Kennelmaster opened one eye. “Ah,” he said thoughtfully. “I cannot understand ye. Yer speech comes from the land of the dead, a far-off land, though not so far for me as for some. A man must have a foot in the worlds of both living and dead to master hounds such as these. But I ken who ye must be. Ye were my friend, were ye not? Young Yorik, who died a bad death, an unjust death.”
“Yes, Mr. Lucian,” said Yorik sadly. “It’s me.” But he understood now that his words were nothing but moans to the ears of the living.
The Kennelmaster spat on the ground. “ ’Tis an ugly thing, boy. Ye deserved better, and now ye seek revenge. But ye cannot be allowed inside the Manor, not in life, not in death. Know ye that yer sister is safe, given work in the kitchens by Lord Ravenby. Yer body rests in the servants’ cemetery in the far field. Now ye must go and rest with it. Ye have no place here any longer.”
From another pocket Mr. Lucian withdrew a small brass bell. He held the bell next to the candle.
There was something about this arrangement that Yorik did not like. “Mr. Lucian,” he said desperately. “Hatch.”
The Kennelmaster rang the bell.
The peal of the tiny bell was like an ax splitting Yorik’s head in two. He screamed. Through a haze of pain he heard the hounds barking.
Yorik ran. The Estate blurred by. He soon found himself in the water garden, halfway across the Estate from the Manor. Only here did the pealing of the little bell fade from a skull-splitting scream to a faraway whine.
He lay on his back on the mossy earth next to a decrepit stone bench, listening to the mild, eternal gurgle of the tumbling fountains, and the gentle splash of frogs and their conversational croaks. Water flowed over worn stone, and fish swam quietly in the pools.
Haunting had turned out to be much harder than the Princess had implied. He could not see how to take revenge on Master Thomas or anyone inside Ravenby Manor. And he could certainly be no help to Susan, who was trapped deep in the kitchens.
Above, the stars wheeled and revolved. Yorik’s father had taught him the stars and constellations so Yorik could navigate if he were ever in a ship at sea. Naming these heavenly figures always soothed him. He spied two planets, Mercury and Vulcan, low in the east. And though Pale Moon Luna had set hours ago, he found the black disk of Dark Moon Lilith. There seemed to be more stars sprinkled about than there had been when he was alive. Orion’s Belt had not had four stars in it before, Yorik was certain of that.
As he pondered that fourth star, something startling happened. The world reversed itself, and suddenly he was no longer looking up at the stars. Instead, the whole night was spread out below him, and he was viewing the stars from above.
Yorik clutched the ground as the weight of the earth pressed down on his back and the Milky Way beckoned like an infinite river. He sensed that his tenuous grip was the only thing connecting him to the world—and that if he let go, he would fall into the universe.
I should fall, he thought. I should let go.
His thoughts drifted. Yes, I should fall. He imagined peace and ease. His grip loosened.
The stars pulled.
I am not needed here.
At this thought, his eyes flew open. No, that isn’t true, he told himself. I am needed here. Susan needs me.
Fall, a voice rasped. Here you have no place. Here you are not needed.
“No!” exclaimed Yorik. He became aware of something on his shoulder, whispering into his ear. He swatted with one hand, and for the barest instant saw something there, or nothing, an emptiness crouching and muttering—and then it was gone.
The emptiness was gone, and the stars were back in their proper place above him. He leapt up, his feet pressing lightly on the earth below.
Yorik reached for his weapons—his bow, his sling, his knife—before remembering they were no longer there, and would be useless if they were. He turned in a careful circle. Somewhere in the darkness beyond the starlit garden, he felt that something, more than one thing, was watching him silently, no longer whispering but waiting.
Bells and candles, demon-hounds, dark voices that came from voids—the night was fraught with danger for a mere ghost. Yorik wished that, like the stars, he were back in his proper place. He wished he were back in the cold cabin with his sister. But he was not, and he had much to report to the Princess. He hurried for the aviary glade, staying to the open paths of the Wooded Walk, one eye fixed on the shadows.
On the way, he crossed the carriage path. As he did, Lord Ravenby’s great carriage loomed out of the dark and pounded past, clattering and banging. The overworked horses, coated in foaming sweat, rolled their eyes and then were gone, off toward the carriage house. Yorik wondered why the carriage was out so late, and why the horses—normally so well cared for by the stable hands—were being pushed to dangerous limits. There must be a terrible emergency of some kind. Could a Family member be ill? He hastened on, wondering.
Back in the glade, the glow of gossamer and silver soon led him to the Princess and Erde.
“You’re back!” exulted the Princess. She was busily waving her twig about, weaving spells. Unseasonable blooms were popping out all over. A gray cat, hunting birds, wandered into the glade. The Princess made an emphatic flourish, and the cat shrieked, pawed the air wildly, and raced away. “Look, Erde, the ghost-boy has returned! Well, did you frighten them to pieces?”
Yorik hesitated. “No, not exactly.”
“No?” said the Princess. “Well, it’s not necessary. Tell me everything you learned, ghost!”
“I learned a lot, Your Highness,” said Yorik eagerly. “I couldn’t get into the Manor, but—”
“What?” said the Princess. “What Manor?”
“Ravenby Manor,” said Yorik. “It’s the center of the Estate … I mean, of the lands of my human masters.”
The Princess frowned, and her twig made a shower of sparks. “The center?” she said. “Why couldn’t you get in?”
Yorik felt less eager. “I couldn’t get past the hounds. They—”
“What hounds?” said the Princess. “Why should a few silly hounds matter to a ghost? Scare them off!”
“These aren’t normal hounds, Your Majesty. They’re guarding the Manor, they—”
“Guarding it? Why?”
“I don’t know,” said Yorik. “But perhaps if one of you could tell me how to get past them—”
“How should I know?” The Princess shrugged. “That’s servants’ work. You’re supposed to know these things! You’re supposed to be terrifying. Dogs should be scared of you, not the other way around.”
Yorik looked desperately at Erde. She was crawling about in the dirt. It took him a moment to realize that she was following ants. She shrugged too. “Ghosts haunt,” she croaked.
“But these hounds have a demon form. And their master drove me off with a bell and candle. I—”
“Enough excuses,” interrupted the Princess.
“This is your job and you have to do it right! I ordered you to go out and spy for me, and you come back and tell me you can’t, because of what? Bells? Candles?”
“Your Majesty, even if I can’t get into the Manor, there’s lots more of the Estate to explore. I could—”
“Oh no,” said the Princess in a most withering tone. “There might be more candles out there. I never knew having a ghost-servant would be this much trouble. I should have left you all broken.” She pointed her twig at Yorik. “You might frighten a dog that way.”
Yorik backed away hastily. “Your Highness, the hounds are for hunting. They normally stay in their kennels at night. But for some reason they were out patrolling the grounds. The Kennelmaster said something about Dark Ones.”
“Dark Ones?” The Princess sniffed irritably, lowering her twig. “Never heard of them. Humans have a pack of stupid beliefs, don’t they?”
“Yglhfm,” rumbled Erde suddenly. Yorik and the Princess looked at her. She was staring at them, her huge, soulful eyes brimming with muddy tears.
“Oh,” said the Princess quietly. Her face fell, and her burning silver glow faded to a soft smolder. “Them.”
“What?” said Yorik. “Who are y … gl …?” He tried the word but couldn’t say it.
The Princess straightened. “They’re nothing for servants to be concerned about.” To Erde she said, “Don’t you worry. If any of them come around my glade, they’ll be caterpillars.”
Yorik did not get the sense that Erde was completely reassured. She turned back to her ants and began weaving her skeletal fingers into complicated patterns. The whole line organized itself and began marching off to the north.
“See how far I’ve fallen, Erde!” the Princess fumed. “Begging good-for-nothing ghost-boys to spy for me. Me! All because I can’t see a thing outside this glade.”
Erde crawled to the Princess and took her hand. Mud drops plopped from her eyes.
“I only wanted to help you,” said the Princess. “Curse beastly Father!”
Erde grunted sympathetically.
“Your Majesty,” said Yorik. “Please, I can help. Tell me more about the Yg … the Dark Ones.”
“Yglhfm.” The Princess gave a dark laugh. “You can’t even say the name. I told you, they’re not your concern. They involve powers you humans cannot grasp.”
“Not a human,” grumbled Erde.
“Close enough,” snapped the Princess. “These mysteries would blast its mind into a million fragments!” She peered at Yorik. “You don’t want your mind blasted into a million fragments, do you?”
“No,” said Yorik.
“No, you don’t,” continued the Princess. “Because it’s very unpleasant. So stop asking!”
Erde released the Princess’s hand and went back to giving orders to the ants.
The Princess raged on. “This is all beastly Father’s fault! Now I’m stuck with a useless ghost who’s scared of a couple of dogs. Dogs! I could turn them all into caterpillars if only I could leave this stupid, horrible glade.” Her leafy twig sparked and sputtered.
“Your Highness,” said Yorik, “why does Erde need your help?”
“Just look at her!” the Princess said, pointing her twig. “They’re killing her! Can’t you see?”
Yorik looked with worry at small brown Erde. No one seemed to be killing her at the moment. He took a different approach. “Why can’t you leave?
Why did beastly Fa—I mean, why did your father trap you here?”
Everything in the glade went silent. The birds stopped chirping. The frogs stopped croaking. Storm clouds gathered on the Princess’s face. Only Erde continued communing with the ants as though nothing were wrong.
Yorik felt that he had asked the wrong question. “My apologies, Your Majesty,” he said quickly. “I—”
“You know,” said the Princess ominously. “Having a servant ghost-boy has not worked out as well as I’d hoped. First you run away from a bell, and then you ask a lot of rude questions.”
“I’m sorry,” said Yorik.
“Perhaps you should go,” replied the Princess coldly. “Yglhfm are my enemy, and there’s obviously nothing you can do against them.”
A black pit formed inside Yorik at these words. Then he became aware of Erde standing beside him.
“Need him,” Erde said to the Princess.
“No!” shouted the Princess. “I don’t need him! You are both forgetting who I am!” There was a thunderclap. She leveled her twig at Yorik. “Leave my glade,” she said, seething. “Get out.”
Yorik looked at Erde, whose eyes sparked grimly.
He bowed. “I’m sorry,” he said. He turned and left the glade.
Yorik moved back into the cold cabin.
The cold didn’t bother him. Rather, he discovered that the neglected, dust-heavy, cobwebbed room suited him. Nights, he shuffled about the cabin and its environs. Days, dazzled by the sunlight, he retreated to a dim corner, where he huddled until darkness returned.
He spent seven nights in this lonely condition. He hoped that perhaps Susan might visit her old home and he would be able to see her. But of course, with her new duties at the Manor, she would not be likely to leave. His instinct was to venture out, to trap or hunt or gather, or to patch the drafty holes in the walls and thatched roof. But even if he could have done these things, there was no one for him to feed, and he had no need for shelter from cold or rain.
On the eighth night, boredom and restlessness drove him to wander farther from the cabin.
He wanted to stay away from the Manor, the servants’ cemetery, and the aviary glade. And so he trudged along the Wooded Walk, past the Summerhouse, and up the Red Lion Steps. He found himself in the topiary garden. He wound along its paths, looking at the fantastic shapes sculpted skillfully from holly, myrtle, and yew. Most were animals, but there were also pyramids, obelisks, and clouds.
In the center of the well-groomed topiary garden was a large mound on which the grass grew wild. It was enclosed by an ornate little fence that no one ever crossed. Yorik recalled whispered stories that someone had been buried there long, long ago, and that the mound was perhaps haunted.
Well, thought Yorik, if it’s haunted, then whoever is doing the haunting might teach me something about being a ghost.
He crossed the spiky fence. As he stood at the foot of the mound, a gust of wind came up, lashing the wild grass. The wind blew through the assemblage of animals, tossing their branches. The cloud-shaped pines seemed to tumble amid the animals, which in turn seemed to leap and frolic. A laurel lion crouched, then leapt playfully at a holly elephant, which reared and lifted its trunk, just missing a myrtle swan taking flight. Everything went around the mound like Yorik imagined a carousel might. The gust died as suddenly as it arrived, and the carousel stopped—but now all the animals had turned toward the mound and bowed or lowered their heads.
Yorik turned. There, on top of the mound, crouched a motionless hare.
Yorik automatically considered how he might shoot the hare. But of course, that was no longer needed. He watched the hare. The hare watched him. Yorik ascended the mound, expecting the hare to bounce off into the bushes at his approach.
Curiously, the animal did not flee. Instead, it regarded Yorik with glassy, bottomless eyes. Yorik stepped closer. The hare remained utterly still.
There was so much intelligence in the hare’s eyes that Yorik felt compelled to speak.
Good evening, replied the hare solemnly.
“Why aren’t you afraid of me?” asked Yorik.
Should I be? inquired the hare.
Yorik thought about the many hares he had snared for the Manor kitchens and for his family’s supper. “Hares are afraid of people.”
You are not a person, said the hare.
“Then what am I?”
You are a child of the living night, as am I.
“You’re dead too?” asked Yorik, as politely as one could ask that question. The dignified hare invited the utmost respect.
No, the hare replied. Not yet.
That answer hushed Yorik. Still the hare did not move, but gazed searchingly at him. Yorik realized that this hare was larger than it had seemed at first. In fact, it was growing.
“What are you?” said Yorik.
I am a hare, came the reply. But Yorik could see that the hare was suddenly as large as himself. No, much larger. The hare grew taller, until it towered high above him, looming like the Manor. Its fur was now a leafy tangle. The hare had become a majestic yew tree, and its eyes shone with starlight.
“You’re a topiary!” exclaimed Yorik.
The topiary hare did not answer. Another gust of wind blew, but the carousel animals did not move. Yorik felt their respectful stillness in the presence of the hare.
He ventured another question. “Why is it that I have never seen you before?”
The hare’s voice assumed a rich cant. There is much you can see now that you could not see before. You can see things as they are. You can see both that which is living and that which is dead.
“Yes,” answered Yorik.
What else have you seen? inquired the hare.
Yorik thought about this. He thought about the foam-flecked horses and the whispering voice and Erde’s muddy tears. “Something is wrong with the Estate,” he answered finally. “Something bad has happened.”
Silence, wind, and rustling leaves. Then—The land is being consumed by the Yglhfm. What shall you do?
“Me?” asked Yorik, surprised. “There’s nothing I can do.”
No, Ghost. There is much of which you are capable.
This time Yorik was the one who was silent.
What shall you do? came the question once more.
“Why are you asking me?”
It is not I who asks. I ask on behalf of the Oldest, mother of us all.
“The Princess?” asked Yorik, confused. “But she told me she doesn’t need me. She threw me out of her glade.” He did not understand any of this. No one had ever asked Yorik to do anything. Yorik had only been ordered to do things, all his life and all his death.
“What happens if I do nothing?” he asked, genuinely interested.
I do not know, came the reply. It is your choice.
“I want to protect my sister,” said Yorik.
Is not the fate of one bound to the fate of all?
Yorik had not thought about it that way. If the Estate was in danger, then his sister was too, and protecting the Estate would do the same for Susan. “What can I do to help, then?” he asked.
We do not know, Ghost, replied the topiary hare. We do not know how to stop the Yglhfm.
Yorik suddenly felt a presence—the same presence he had sensed in the water garden. He looked past the hare, past the mound, and into the woods beyond the topiary carousel. There he saw a shuffling emptiness gliding between the trees, the same emptiness that had crouched on his shoulder and rasped into his ear. He heard soft muttering.
“Is that a Dark One?” he asked.
Yes, said the hare, but its voice was strained. Yorik sensed another presence, and then another, three in all, gathered outside the topiary garden.
A tremble raced through the branches of the hare. We must leave for now, it said. As must you.
As Yorik watched, the starlight in the hare’s eyes faded. He turned to the other animals. The lion, elephant, and swan were motionless, back in their places, no longer bowing toward the mound.
The muttering grew louder. Ghost—the dark voices began, but Yorik did not pause to listen. He raced from the garden with all the swiftness of wind.
Back in the one-room cabin, he pondered the words of the wise and dignified hare, who believed that protecting Susan would protect them all. He thought of the terrified horses, the hounds who guarded the Manor, the Princess, Erde, Master Thomas, and Susan.
Is not the fate of one bound to the fate of all?
If that was true, then he had to find a way to protect them all.
Yorik could see that the dismal cabin was falling to ruin, soon to be reclaimed by the forest. He looked at the cold ashes in the fireplace, and for a moment he could see three people there: Father, himself, and Susan, laughing and playing as a warm fire blazed.
He shook his head and turned away. That world was gone.
He walked outside, looked at the cabin for the last time, then strode off toward the Manor.
As Yorik walked down the carriage path, he recalled what Mr. Lucian had said: Ye seek revenge. At first that had been true. But no longer.
Pale Moon Luna had set hours ago. Even with Yorik’s ghost eyes, the world around him seemed sunk into a well of black. Silence was heavy over all the thousands of acres of Ravenby Estate, its four great hills, its innumerable trees. The only sounds came when he passed the mews. Inside he could hear the falcons stirring, unsettled and anxious.
Then he heard a voice.
“Yorik, dear Yorik.” It was a girl’s voice, high and laughing and pretty.
Yorik looked around. The voice seemed to float from a distance. Nearby there was a stone arch, with a little path of trampled dirt going under it. Yorik followed the path into a small clear space, like a bubble carved out of the dense bushes and trees. In the bubble was an old marble bench, and on the bench sat a girl.
“Mistress Doris,” Yorik breathed. He automatically bowed.
Mistress Doris had been dead for years, but she had been older than Yorik when she’d died, so now they were nearly the same age. She wore one of her beautiful dresses, and had an expensive hat and perfect shoes. She patted the bench beside her and giggled. “Dear Yorik, I’m not your mistress any longer. Sit beside me.”
Yorik sat awkwardly on the stone bench. “I was sorry when you died,” he said haltingly.
It was true. Mistress Doris had not been a friend exactly. But she had been the terror of the Ravenby family, and part of being the terror of the Ravenbys involved consorting with children like Yorik and Susan. She stole things from the Manor and distributed them to servants, who dutifully returned them. She broke things; she escaped at night; she fought the other noble children who came to visit. And then curiosity had gotten the better of her, and she had gone to look at plague victims, and caught the plague herself, and died.
“Well.” Doris smiled. “I’m not sorry you died. Now we can have terrific fun together.”
“I can’t have fun,” explained Yorik. “I have to protect Susan. She’s working in the Manor kitchens, and—”
Mistress Doris waved her hand. “Yes, you need to protect her from my horrid brother, don’t you? He murdered you, and no doubt he will gladly murder your sister too.”
Yorik gaped. “I don’t think—” He was not sure what to say. He didn’t think Master Thomas would deliberately murder Susan. Would he?
“Yes,” said Mistress Doris. “To keep your murder a secret, he might do anything. He is a horrible, bad, evil little boy. He must be punished.” She giggled. “Now we shall punish him. But first we must get past those demons that guard the Manor. Do you know how to do that, Yorik?”
“Y-yes,” said Yorik, hesitant. “I think I do, now.”
“Mmm,” sighed Doris happily. “Then you can get me past them as well, can’t you?”
Yorik was silent for a long time. He looked at Doris, who smiled beatifically.
“The hare said—” he began.
“The hare lies,” Mistress Doris interrupted. “It is a demon, and so are those two creatures in the aviary glade. They must be punished along with Thomas. Now you must take me past those guardians.”
“I don’t think I should do that,” Yorik said.
Doris’s smile vanished. “Those demons are keeping you from your sister. And just look what they did to me.”
She showed her ankle. In the ghostly skin, Yorik could see two throbbing bite marks, glowing angry green.
“The hounds are guarding the Manor from the Dark Ones,” said Yorik.
Doris bared her teeth. “You don’t have a choice, boy. I order you to take me past the demons.”
Boy? Doris had never spoken to him that way before. “I don’t serve Family any longer,” he replied.
Mistress Doris’s face went white. “You are a servant and always will be. You will get me past those demons and we will finish my naughty brother.”
“No,” said Yorik, confused. Doris and Thomas had fought incessantly, he remembered. But Doris would not have hurt her brother.
Doris inched closer. “You know what happened last time you disobeyed a Family command.” Yorik watched her eyes cloud over and then swirl away into empty voids of deepest dark.
“Yes,” he said, staring straight into the voids. “But I don’t think you’re really Family.”
Mistress Doris scrambled up to Yorik until her furious white face was only inches from his. “Yesss,” she hissed. “I’m Missstresss Dorisss.”
“No, you’re not,” he said clearly. “I can see things as they are now. And you’re not really Doris.”
“Ifff I’m not Fffamily,” she whispered, “then what am I?”
Yorik remembered seeing that emptiness before, in the darkness of the water garden and the trees beyond the topiaries. He looked at the glowing bite marks on Doris’s ankle. “You’re a Dark One,” he said.
The thing gave a harsh chuckle. Not ONE, it rasped. MANY.
Mistress Doris’s face became dry and hollow. The skin smeared and faded. And just before the image of the girl disappeared, those black void eyes cleared and became a girl’s again, and a tiny, distant voice, the voice of Mistress Doris, pleaded, “Yorik—help me!”
Then she was gone.
In her place sat several things, or not-things, presences that were there and not there. There were more than he had sensed before—perhaps five. They were each a little blob of midnight, plump like large pears. He saw that there were a few more up in the trees, squatting on branches. They did not seem to have eyes or any other features, but Yorik sensed that all of them were looking at him, and in that look he sensed a vast, terrifying hunger.
Revenge, they chorused. Two Dark Ones dropped from a tree and slid closer to Yorik.
“No,” said Yorik, leaping up.
The two stopped. Revenge, they said in their rasping whine. Revenge on the one who killed you. Revenge on his family.
“No!” said Yorik firmly, shaking his head. “No revenge.”
Then we will take you, they chorused. We will take you like we took the girl. Like we are taking her brother. They slid toward Yorik, and despite his desire to show courage, he stepped backward. An unfamiliar panic seized him, a wild fright as he imagined the Dark Ones consuming him, and Susan’s death at the hands of the evil Master Thomas.
The two nothings sprang toward his shoulders.
Then there was a terrific whoosh, and two objects flew past Yorik. They caught the nothings in midspring with a tremendous thump. Yorik thought it sounded like someone had punched a ball of dough. The objects sped onward, taking the Dark Ones with them.
Suddenly the vast hunger was no longer focused on him, but on something behind him.
There in the path crouched the tiny sticklike figure of Erde. As Yorik watched, she reached her little clawlike hands into her mouth. They emerged with two dripping mud-balls. With a snapping twist of her body, she threw the mud-balls, and two more Dark Ones went flying from the bench with a magnificent thump.
Instantly the Dark Ones abandoned Yorik and clustered around Erde. More appeared in the trees above her. He could sense waves of ravenous hunger washing from them to her, far stronger than their craving for him. And Yorik could sense something else. He could sense their triumph.
Erde twisted and whirled, but there was no escape. She curled down and made two more mud-balls and threw them, but there were too many of the hungry voids. They pressed close to her, dropping from the trees, growing larger as they neared, as though opening their voids to devour her.
With a rushing leap, Yorik jumped over the cluster. He landed in the tiny gap between them and Erde and reached for her. He felt her long fingers wrap twice around his fist, clenching so tightly it hurt. He looked into her eyes and saw sheer and abject terror staring back from their deep brownness.
He lifted Erde into his arms and ran. The girl weighed almost nothing, and the world flashed by—carriage path, riding lane, forest, fishponds, shooting range, and then the aviary glade.
The Princess was there, in an orb of throbbing light. Her face was streaked with tears. When Yorik knelt and placed Erde on the ground, the Princess instantly gathered her into that glowing, silver, loving light.
Yorik turned. The protective light illuminated everything. There were no Dark Ones to be seen.
“Why?” the Princess was screaming. “Why did you leave? They could have destroyed you!”
Erde’s voice was muffled by folds of the Princess’s gossamer gown. “Looking for him,” she growled.
“You can never leave again, no matter what, never never,” cried the Princess angrily, sobbing. Then her eyes flashed at Yorik. “This is your fault!”
But Yorik was not looking at the Princess. He was looking toward the Manor, where Master Thomas was, and remembering what Dark Doris had said about keeping Yorik’s murder secret. Those had all been lies—hadn’t they?
He left the safety of the Princess’s light and raced for the Manor.
Yorik entered the Manor grounds through the limestone wall by the kennels. The piled stones had a strong, musty odor he had never noticed in life. He half expected the old stones to tumble as he pushed through, but they did not seem aware of his passing. He peeked inside the kennels, but Mr. Lucian and the hounds were not there. He hadn’t thought they would be.
He walked across the frosty grass toward the hulking and massive house. He knew the hounds would come.
And they did.
He felt a presence to his left. He turned and saw Hatch watching him, enclosed in his green and glowing demon form. The hound rumbled and growled, deep in his chest.
Yorik knelt in the grass. He raised his balled fist. “Here, Hatch,” he called softly.
Hatch crept closer, his paws crunching in the frost, his fire eyes burning at Yorik. His muscles were tensed to lunge.
The hound leaned toward the waiting fist. His nostrils flared, and he padded around the boy, sniffing from all sides. Yorik sat calmly, feeling the hound’s bonfire breath wash through him. The green glow pulsed, and the whiff of burning phosphorus strengthened.
When he was finished, Hatch crouched on his haunches in front of Yorik and whimpered happily. The bold green tongue came out of his mouth and licked Yorik’s hand.
Delighted, Yorik reached out and stroked the
hound’s spirit self. His hand tingled as it brushed the green fur. Hatch nuzzled him fondly with his spirit nose.
“Hello, Hatch.” Yorik grinned. For one moment he felt alive again.
The other hounds arrived, running low, gathering around Yorik. They made growls, whimpers, whines, and low barks. Yorik stood up. “Yes, I know,” he said. “You must go and guard the Manor from the Dark Ones.” He looked up at the sleeping mansion.
The pack woofed and raced away, spirit lights shining in the night.
Yorik made for the South Wing. He did not know the Manor, but he had heard that this was where servants entered. He reasoned that the kitchens must be nearby.
He passed high, arched windows and tall walls of stone. All the doors he saw had multiple locks. Beside a set of triple-locked wooden doors in the very back of the Manor he saw a pinpoint of firelight. As he drew near, he saw that it was Mr. Lucian, wrapped in his scarves and smoking his pipe.
The pipe lowered as Yorik approached the doors.
Mr. Lucian sniffed the night air. “Ah, I sense ye are near, young Yorik,” he said quietly.
Yorik said nothing. He knew that would be useless.
“The hounds have elected to let ye pass, so ye must no longer mean harm to the Family. And ye had the good sense to know it.”
“Thank you, Mr. Lucian,” said Yorik, too polite not to respond, though his voice was only a moan in the night.
Mr. Lucian went on. “I must warn ye, then. There are Dark Ones inside. Some got through without me knowing, before I brought out the hounds. A few have slipped through since. Their power is in their words. Their lies can force ye to their will.”
No, they can’t, thought Yorik, remembering the water garden. The Dark Ones had tried to influence him, to tell him no one needed him. And they had failed. What, then, was their true power?
“Good luck to ye, lad. May ye find yer peace at last.” Mr. Lucian raised his pipe once again.
Yorik pushed through the padlocked doors and into the Manor.
He wandered through the South Wing. He walked through doors and walls. He found rooms full of beds where servants slept. Everything was dingy and musty and cold. Wallpaper peeled from walls. Carpets were worn through. Twice, Yorik thought he saw another person out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned, the person was gone. Another ghost? he wondered. But if there were others like him in the Manor, they were keeping to themselves. At last he found a kitchen—and Susan.
The Matron and several girls had risen early to ready the kitchens for breakfast. Several enormous stoves needed fire. Susan was at work in front of a vast field of eggs, cracking them into bowls. Beside her was bread for slicing and bushels of oranges for squeezing. All around, kitchen maids bustled.
Yorik longed to run straight to his sister. But the people, and light, and fire overwhelmed him. He shrank into a quiet, shadowed corner. His sister was singing softly; he could hear her clear voice under the kitchen din:
Her eyes the glow-worm lend thee,
The Matron, passing by, put her hand on Susan’s shoulder. “ ’Tis a beautiful song, my dear,” she said. “Where did you learn it?”
Susan smiled wistfully. “My brother taught it to me, ma’am.”
The Matron nodded sadly, stroked Susan’s hair, then moved on.
Susan continued humming the tune as she cracked one egg after another.
Watching his sister, Yorik sang quietly:
No will-o’-the-wisp mislight thee,
Then he saw Master Thomas.
Or rather, he saw Master Thomas’s eye, peering from a crack in a doorway far on the other end of the cavernous kitchen.
Master Thomas was watching Susan.
The crack closed.
Yorik rushed through the wall. He darted through another wall and then another, to a corridor where Master Thomas’s round form was bumping up a stairway. But something about the round form was too round, too humped. Something about Master Thomas had changed.
Then Yorik realized why the form was wrong. He realized he could not get too close to Master Thomas, not yet.
He must not let the Dark Ones know he was there.
Two of their blobbish shapes squatted on Master Thomas’s shoulders. Yorik could hear them making urgent, murmuring sounds. From this distance, Yorik could not tell what they were saying.
He followed as close as he dared. They were no longer in the dingy, peeling, threadbare part of the Manor. The carpets were thicker now, the floors polished. Mirrors hung on the walls. Glistening silver and paintings could be seen. Doorknobs shone.
They were climbing. Yorik crept up long, wide staircases with marble banisters, keeping Master Thomas’s hurrying form ahead of him. Once, he sensed a Dark One looking back, and he leapt through a wall into a musty sitting room.
Then Master Thomas went along another corridor, turned, opened a door, and went inside.
Yorik poked his head through the wall, just enough to see into Master Thomas’s lavish quarters.
Master Thomas was sitting on the edge of the bed, his hands clasped in front of him, rocking back and forth. He was crying fat tears that streaked down his face and plopped into his lap. His weeping face was torn with misery.
You must kill her, said the Dark One on Thomas’s left.
She knows your secret, said the one on the right. She knows what you did. She will tell your father.
Then the two chorused together: And when your father knows, he will banish you. You have always disappointed him. You are useless and weak. He wishes your sister still lived, so that the Estate could be left to her instead of you, you worthless failure.
Master Thomas moaned.
“No,” whispered Yorik.
Instantly the Dark Ones turned their hunger onto Yorik.
The ghost-boy! they chattered. He is here!
Yorik stepped through the wall into the bedroom. “Leave him alone,” he said.
Look, they whispered to Master Thomas. Look! The ghost of the murdered boy has come for revenge!
Master Thomas sniffed. He blinked in confusion.
Look, fool! screamed the Dark Ones. Then they began to make noise, a high, whining, and monstrous sort of singing.
Though Yorik knew that Master Thomas was not aware of the Dark Ones on his shoulders, something about that piercing song seemed to direct the boy’s attention. Master Thomas peered into the dark corner where Yorik stood.
Their eyes met. Horror sprang onto Thomas’s face.
“No!” said Yorik. “Wait, the Dark Ones, they—”
But it was futile. Master Thomas leapt to his feet. “Yorik!” he said. “No!” He stumbled backward.
Run! screamed the Dark Ones.
Master Thomas ran through a set of doors onto his balcony.
Yorik wished he had Erde with him. She could do something about the two Dark Ones. Not knowing what to do, not wanting to scare Thomas further, Yorik began to leave.
Then, through the doors, he saw that Master Thomas was standing on the stone balcony railing.
The Dark Ones screamed of ghostly terrors, of a wrathful Yorik coming to seek vengeance.
Master Thomas wobbled on the balustrade. He seemed to think he could escape by leaping to the next balcony. But Yorik could see that it was too far, and Master Thomas, never a graceful boy, was going to fall.
Yorik ran onto the balcony, wondering if somehow he could tear the Dark Ones away before something awful happened. They were hissing more whispers into Thomas’s ears, urging him on with You fool, you useless, cowardly, stupid, hated waste—you must jump!
Yorik reached hopelessly for Thomas as the Dark Ones shrieked in triumph and vanished.
Master Thomas fell through the night.
Yorik raced to the balcony’s edge and looked over.
Far, far below lay the body of Master Thomas. Yorik, having had one himself, could see that the boy had a broken neck.
Twelve-year-old Master Thomas lay on the hard, cold ground, dead.
The Princess had established herself on a sort of throne, which she had cultivated from the low branches of a sycamore.
“Hmm,” she said. “A really horrible, nasty, tragic death, by the sound of things.”
“Does that mean he’ll wake as a ghost?” asked Yorik.
The Princess frowned. “I hope not. I’ve enough trouble with the ghost I’ve already got.”
“Saved me,” croaked Erde, almost angrily. She was huddled in the dirt.
“Yes,” sighed the Princess. “He did. Well,” she said to Yorik, “if that one does turn up, I don’t want you bringing it back here. I’ve finally got the place looking respectable.”
Yorik agreed that the glade looked lovely, especially in the nighttime. He was sitting on the grass in the middle of an absolute explosion of flowers, perfect green flora, and tall, thriving trees. Yorik wondered why the Princess was doing all of this in the middle of winter, but knew he could not ask. Only after he’d saved Erde had the Princess allowed him to return to the glade.
But he did have other questions.
“I don’t understand why Master Thomas could see me,” said Yorik. “None of the other living can.”
The Princess yawned. “Probably because you’re supposed to haunt him. He’s the one who murdered you, you know.”
Yorik had been pondering this. “I don’t think he did that on purpose. Killed me, I mean.”
“Let’s find out,” replied the Princess. She pointed her leafy twig.
A flickering, faded image appeared near the elm. It was Master Thomas, bundled up in his white wool coat. It’s an apple tree, said the image. Now start climbing.
Yorik stood, startled. “Is that a ghost?”
“Sort of,” said the Princess, twirling her twig. “It’s a memory.”
Two flickering gray Dark Ones were hunched on the shoulders of the image. They spoke, sounding whispery and scratched. The servant boy is very clever. He’ll find out what you did. Throw a rock. Throw a rock.
They repeated this again and again. The image bent, chose a rock, and threw it. The Princess twitched the twig, and the image vanished.
“I’d find out what he did?” said Yorik, surprised. “What were they talking about?”
“I don’t know.” The Princess shrugged. “But it’s only human business, so it can’t be very important. I have other things to worry about.” She looked at Erde.
Yorik was worried about Erde too. She had dwindled since her encounter with the Dark Ones. She had stopped having conversations with ants, or drawing in the dirt. She mostly huddled, slumped and motionless.
“Are you sick?” Yorik asked.
Erde nodded. “Sick,” she sniffled. A piece of mud fell from her mouth. Yorik noticed that the mud was drier than it had been. Erde was drying up, like the creek bed during a drought.
“Can’t you help her?” said Yorik to the Princess.
The Princess shook her head grimly. “I could,” she began, “but beastly Father—”
Yorik was done with hearing about beastly Father. “What does that have to do with it? The Dark Ones can’t come near you. You have loads of power.” The Princess’s eyelashes fluttered. “True. But my power is limited to this glade because of—”
“Beastly Father,” said Yorik.
The Princess gave Yorik a withering look. “Yes. The instant any bit of me left my glade, he would know. And Erde’s sickness comes from outside. It comes from them.”
All of Yorik’s attempts to repeat their word for the Dark Ones—Yglhfm—had only made the girls giggle nervously.
“I don’t understand,” said Yorik, “why they make her sick.”
The Princess and Erde exchanged searching looks.
“Tell him,” grunted Erde weakly.
“Are you sure?” said the Princess anxiously. “He’s only a human.”
Erde looked at Yorik. “Not a human.”
“It’s still a human,” objected the Princess. “Just a dead one, that’s all.”
Erde wearily rumbled, “Tell him.” She closed her dark brown eyes.
A wind blew through the glade. The trees and flowers stirred. Patterns flowed across the grass and across the surface of the pond. The light in the glade darkened.
“Very well,” said the Princess. “I will show you who Erde is.” And to Yorik’s surprise, when she said that, her voice did not sound high and haughty as it usually did, but deeper and richer. It stirred and echoed in his mind. Goose bumps rose on his arms.
The Princess stood and raised her leafy twig. Her glow deepened, and her gossamer dress grew black.
“Be honored, boy,” she said. “This knowledge is a gift rarely given to one of human birth.”
Suddenly the pale moon flickered and vanished. An instant later it reappeared.
Yorik was no longer on the Estate. No, he was, but the land had changed. The trees and flowers were gone, and a river flowed through the glade where the pond had been. But he could see the four hills of the Estate rising up around him, four brown hills dotted with scrub.
And he was alone.
Yorik stood and walked to the nearest of the four hills, then ascended for a better view.
Below, the river twisted and wound through the hills. Yorik knew there was no river on the Estate, only a small creek that flowed in a different place. He looked at it with interest, then was surprised to see a red lion rambling along the bank.
Yorik looked toward the Manor.
There was something there, not a manor, but some other kind of structure. It was high and arched, made of stones piled one on the other. It had a raw look that the Manor did not, as though cobbled together by hand. The windows were made from colored glass.
Its front doors opened, and men came out, dressed in brown robes. They held spears.
They are hunting the red lion, Yorik realized.
“Yes,” said the Princess’s rich, deep voice. The voice descended from the starry sky, and from the night shadows all around, but neither the red lion, as it padded dreamily along the rushing river, nor the men in robes with their spears raised seemed to notice. “All of this happened ten thousand human years ago.”
Yorik watched as the men spread out to encircle the red lion. Suddenly they rushed forward, hurling their spears. The red lion whirled around and roared a primal roar that shook the heavens.
Pale Moon Luna flickered out once more, and there was darkness.
“Wait, Your Highness!” said Yorik, anxious. “Did the lion escape?”
“You should ask Erde,” sang the voice of the invisible Princess. “She was there.”
“Erde was there? I didn’t see her.”
“Look closer, then, ghost. Erde is there always.”
The pale moon reappeared.
Yorik saw the four hills. It was winter. The river was broad and frozen. Luna’s white light glinted on the ice. The piled stones were gone, and in their place were solid huts built from wood and packed snow. Smoke rose from them. Though everything was cold and barren, the huts looked homey and warm.
“Do you see her?” asked the Princess.
Yorik turned in all directions, looking everywhere, but he saw only the hills, mist, and blown snow. “No.”
“You are not looking.”
“I am!” said Yorik.
“Further back, then,” came the Princess’s deep voice, like a rolling thunderstorm.
Dark, then light. This time there were no huts, no people. This time there were only tall trees covering the hills. There was no river, but a valley of ice that looked as permanent as a mountain. The hills were larger this time, and boulders jutted from them.
Yorik looked for Erde and did not see her. I need a higher view, he thought.
He found a jagged boulder on his hill and scrambled quickly to the top.
His gaze roamed over the ancient Estate.
“I see something,” he said suddenly.
“Yes,” rolled the voice of the Princess.
What he saw were the hills. But they were not hills. They were something else. They came up crookedly, the hills. Not hills. Knees, and shoulders. Boulders jutted up like bones and teeth, and the valley of ice like a mouth.
“It’s Erde,” breathed Yorik. “I see her.”
“She is the soil of winter and summer,” chanted the Princess’s faraway voice. “She is the land and the bones beneath it.”
Everywhere he looked now, Yorik saw Erde. He felt overwhelmed by her size and majesty.
“She is the Oldest!” he exclaimed. “She is the one who asked the hare to speak with me.” He felt humbled that these great beings would ask him for anything.
“Yes,” snapped the Princess’s voice, and this time it was right next to him and as sharp and haughty as it had ever been. In an eyeblink, Yorik was back in the aviary glade, and the Princess was scowling at him, and Erde was huddled shivering in a tiny ball on the ground.
“Yes,” she said again. “And you can imagine how bad things have gotten if any of us are asking you for help.”
Yorik looked sadly at Erde. She was so small now. “What happened?”
“Yglhfm,” moaned Erde in a sad voice.
The Princess’s twig slashed the air. “At first there was only one of them. It was there when you saw the hunt for the red lion. Back then it was only an infinitesimal shadow, and utterly beneath notice. But recently it somehow opened the way for others, and their numbers have swelled. And now, great Erde, poor Erde, is almost gone.”
Yorik and the Princess looked grievously at little, huddled Erde.
“I’ll stop them,” vowed Yorik.
“And how do you plan to do that, little ghost-boy?” laughed the Princess. “However will you do that?”
Lord Ravenby laid his last child to rest in the Family crypt in a grief-struck ceremony. Over the three months that followed, Yorik explored every corner of the Estate, listening and watching. He explored the Manor too. He was careful to avoid Dark Ones. But once, early on, he was nearly caught.
It was an evening when Yorik had been investigating the bluebell patch on the Manor’s hanging terrace. Pushing through the flowers, Yorik felt a sudden, strange trembling, hardly perceptible at first. As the feeling grew, he found himself convinced that this was all useless, that he was too weak to fight the Yglhfm, that he was only a mere ghost who fled from bells and candles.
The trembling became a flutter, and then a surge of panic that nearly overwhelmed him.
He had felt this surge before, he remembered—outside the mews, when he had confronted Dark Doris. He jerked his head up and spotted black voids gliding through the bluebells, coming closer.
“No,” he said through his teeth. “You can’t take me this way. Hatch!” he shouted. “Hatch!”—and then the hound was there, leaping onto the terrace and growling, and the voids fled.
After that, Yorik and Hatch always explored the Manor grounds together.
But Hatch could not enter the Manor itself. They tried once, when a door was left propped open. But a footman found Hatch in the hall and drove him away with curses and kicks.
Hatch whimpered when Yorik insisted on entering the Manor without him.
“I must, Hatch,” Yorik said soothingly, stroking the hound’s spirit ears. “I’ll be careful.”
Yorik always found the hound pacing nervously outside when he returned from within.
Inside the Manor, Yorik found that despite the hard work of the Kennelmaster and the hounds, more of the Dark Ones were somehow slipping through. Yorik learned to avoid bedrooms, where Dark Ones gathered at night, muttering into the ears of sleepers as though whispering into their dreams. And, despite his curiosity, he was forced to stay away from the grand sleeping chambers of Lord Ravenby, where the largest clusters of Dark Ones were found. He could only assume they were whispering into the dreams of the Lord of the Estate too, but in far greater numbers.
Yet he could not stay away from these chambers entirely, for it was there, more and more often, that he found Susan. She seemed to have graduated in the hierarchy of the Estate’s servants, for now it was she who brought Lord Ravenby’s tea at odd hours.
One night Yorik watched as she was stopped in the hallway by Lord Ravenby’s doctor, who had two Dark Ones on his shoulders.
“Here, girl,” ordered the doctor crisply, snapping his fingers. Susan came obediently, and the doctor placed a vial on the tea tray. “This is sleep medicine, for your master’s insomnia. Put two drops in his tea, just before it’s served.” The doctor hurried away.
Susan watched him leave, then put two drops in a plant instead. The next day, the plant was dead. After that, Susan threw away anything the doctor gave her for Lord Ravenby.
Soon Lord Ravenby was calling for her at all hours. Yorik noticed the older servants watching her, shooting resentful looks. They often had Dark Ones on their shoulders. Accidents began to happen, such as a servant spilling hot water on her, scalding her.
And the Dark Ones began to pay more attention to Susan too.
One night as she was bringing tea, she was turned away by the butler. “But I was told Lord Ravenby is asking for me,” she protested. Nevertheless, she was forced to surrender the tray. As she left, Yorik noticed two Dark Ones following her. Yorik followed too, anxiously, keeping a safe distance.
Strangely, Susan did not return to the maids’ quarters, but went up a back staircase instead. Soon she came to a storage closet, in which there was a ladder. Up the ladder she went, pushing open a trapdoor at the top. The Dark Ones were behind her. Yorik waited, then climbed after, fading up through the trapdoor. He found himself in a long, narrow, deserted attic, surrounded by thousands of things for which the household had no immediate need—stacks of beds, wardrobes, and mirrors stretched in all directions.
He heard a scraping sound and found Susan reaching into a space beneath a floorboard. From there she removed Eleanor—the corncob doll Yorik had made for her years before. She stroked the worn yarn of Eleanor’s hair and gazed out a garret window into the night.
Yorik crouched, hidden in a wardrobe, watching.
The two Dark Ones crept near Susan. You are all alone in the world, girl.
Susan began humming softly.
You should have stopped him from killing your brother. Your brother’s death is your fault.
With gentle fingers, Susan combed Eleanor’s hair.
Yorik stood, putting a hand in his pocket. A few of Erde’s mud-balls were there, made by her for his protection.
You are only a weak little girl. Your master is going to turn you out into the snow.
Yorik withdrew two mud-balls.
You should slip the poison into his drink! the dark voids hissed.
Yorik put one hand back to throw, then stopped as he saw his sister’s soft smile. She continued humming as she carefully straightened Eleanor’s homespun dress.
The Dark Ones bristled and pulsed. Then there were more, four more, fading in from the corners. Too many for Yorik’s mud-balls. They gabbled and cried, surrounding Susan and chanting horrible fears at her. He had seen them do the same thing with Thomas, to deadly effect.
And then Susan sang. In a clear, high voice, she sang, looking out into the night. Yorik knew the song—a lament their father had taught them, an old song in a dead language from across the sea.
The Dark Ones’ babbling taunts faded away. Slowly, silently, they disappeared back into the shadows.
Susan kissed Eleanor, laid her beneath the floorboard, and crept away.
Not that night, nor on any night to come, did they gain control of Susan. They failed, just as they had with Yorik in the water garden. Gradually, they gave up trying. Yorik watched, and wondered why this was.
The Dark Ones did not fail with others in the Manor. Gradually their control and their numbers increased. Yorik noticed that some of them had even stationed themselves in a scattered circle around the aviary glade.
The Princess wasn’t worried. “They know better than to get too close,” she sniffed from her sycamore throne. “By the way, if that other boy is coming back, it should be soon.”
“Won’t he be in danger?” asked Yorik, remembering what happend to Doris.
“I should say so,” chuckled the Princess, chewing absently on the end of her twig. “Sounds like they possessed him once already. He’s forever vulnerable now. They’d only have to touch him to get him back.”
And so Yorik began to wait below the balcony where Master Thomas had fallen.