Mog stopped at the second floor landing, squatting on the railing. Rowan stopped, too, just out of sight as she waited for the boom of the door knocker. Within moments of hearing it, she saw Miss Emily cross the entry hall and disappear inside the foyer. She heard the grate rattle, then the gears begin to roll. Miss Emily was opening the great doors to admit young Carrick and his companions. It was the stranger who would be a problem. Rowan’s marrow told her so. And, once inside, where strangers seldom were allowed, this one would prove trying.
Rowan waited until the great doors closed again. Then she waited just a little longer before descending. Her eyes were on the boy as she left Mog’s company.
As she descended, the boy looked up, his eyes locking to hers. There, for just a moment, she saw the fires light. They were gone just as fast, and his eyes dropped. He knows to hide himself. Good. At least some practices were known.
The stranger was female. Her arm hovered near young Carrick as if she were about to grab him back. Her face stared upward into Rowan’s, wide-eyed and round-mouthed. There was horror written there, not fear.
“Hello,” Rowan said, forcing warmth into her voice. “Welcome to West Gate.”
Again, the boy cast his eyes up, lights dancing. He smiled a quick, fleeting glimpse of dazzling teeth, then again dodged back to hiding.
“Are you…are…ah…Ms. Grove?” the woman stammered.
“My name is Rowan Grove, yes. The Sixteenth.” She descended the rest of the way and held her hand out, expecting civility. The woman backed a step, her arms-both of them-now reaching to engulf Carrick’s shoulders. He ducked away from her, slipping sideways toward Mark.
Rowan knew Mark, or at least knew of him, though this was the first time she’d actually seen him. To the woman, who stood a good head and shoulders shorter than she, she inclined her head and smiled a generosity she did not feel. “I hope you had a pleasant journey down from Portland.”
* * *
Abigail had run until she couldn’t run anymore, trying her best to stay up with the car. But, despite her best efforts, the car disappeared into the darkness ahead. The lights went with it.
Suddenly disoriented, Abigail tripped and fell, the jolt so stunning, so painful, that she heard herself cry out as if she were someone else, far away. She felt her hands and knees, then face hit cold, hard, lumpy stone. Then the darkness swept her gone.
It could have been hours later, though it was actually only minutes that Abigail’s eyes came open to a gentle light. Globes above and all around twinkled, and she realized that they somehow sensed her need and presence.
Groaning, she rolled over on her side and tried to rise. Her hands hurt. Her head hurt worse. And her knees. It was her ankle, though, that made her cry out when she tried to stand. Crawling over to the wall, she used it to help herself up. Shaking with the effort, she felt her stomach lurch as the lights around her began spinning.
“No,” she begged. “Don’t pass out.”
Her body betrayed her, though, and, again, darkness took her.
The next time she woke, she managed to get as far as the next curve, but there seemed no end of the tunnel. Her head spinning and her stomach lurching with nausea, she sat down.
“You can’t stay here,” a voice said.
Panicked, Abigail looked around. “Who said that?!”
A young girl, dressed all in white-white, flowing pants and a tunic that came halfway down her thighs-stepped into view, her movement causing more light globes to shine. “This way,” she said. “I’ll help you.”
The girl touched the wall and, with a grinding noise, a hole appeared beside her. She waved her hand, and light came on within. “This goes to the walk-through. You shouldn’t use the causeway. Someone could run over you. Besides, cobblestones aren’t meant for feet.”
Scared, Abigail just stared.
The girl waited, her head tilted to one side, a gentle smile on her too white face. Then she turned, and disappeared through the opening.
“Wait!” Abigail struggled to get up. “Please don’t leave me.”
“I’m waiting,” came the voice.
Hobbling over to the opening, Abigail peered in. Low rising steps led upward. Behind her, the lights went out in the big tunnel. Abigail stepped through, and, immediately, the door behind her rolled shut with a grinding boom.
* * *
Scars and skeleton was Nancy’s first impression. The woman has both feet already in the grave, she thought. Carrick can’t stay here. Not with this walking corpse.
That’s what Rowan Grove seemed to Nancy-a cadaver. Tall, skinny beyond emaciated, with skin so pale that Nancy swore she could see straight through it right to bone and sinew, the woman had to be somewhere in her nineties. She might be Carrick’s aunt-great aunt? Great-great aunt?-but this was a terrible mistake. Kin or not, this was not a woman who was fit to raise a healthy, growing boy. And the house-mausoleum, actually-no. There was nothing normal here, nothing wholesome. Nancy wouldn’t…couldn’t leave this fragile child to waste away here.
“We had a good trip down from Portland, yes,” Nancy said after what she knew was far too long a pause.
She had to broach it. Best to do it now, before social niceties clouded out practical necessity. “I’m afraid, Ms. Grove, that there’s been some mistake. Not to seem rude, but you’re just too old to raise this child.”
Nancy expected either acquiescence or an emotional storm. She was prepared for that-ready. What she wasn’t prepared for was laughter. But that’s what the cadaverous woman did-laughed. Outright.
“I-I don’t see what’s so funny,” Nancy said.
“Of course you don’t,” the woman answered, still chuckling. “Please. This way.”
Again, the woman indicated to her right. “No. You don’t seem to understand, Ms. Grove. You’re too old. The State of Oregon-”
“Ms. Rutherford, is it?” the woman barked, her voice suddenly and precipitously thunderous.
All around, lights blinked and glass chattered. Somewhere off to the left, something crashed. Nancy gulped. Her ears were ringing.
“Follow Deputy Mark Sutter,” the woman commanded.
Nancy tried to object, but Mark and Carrick were both smartly marching off toward a line of pillared arches.
“Now, please,” the woman said. Then, haughtily, she nodded, like a queen commanding some servant. Reluctantly, against her will, Nancy followed Mark and little Carrick through the most central of a set of seven archways set within a wall of wood and stone.
* * *
Mog watched them go from his perch atop the banister. An agonist had come to West Gate, but it was the only way to get young Carrick freed from the clutches of the interlopers. He agreed with Rowan that to abandon the youngster was profane. That the West Gate should be jeopardized to right the error of Pyridian arrogance was, however, unacceptable. Better that the Pyridians themselves should have chanced the consequences.
The neuman’s coming proved less troubling, though it, too, brought gamble. That the two events should coincide in simultaneous breach seemed too convenient to be happenstance. Mog sincerely hoped that Rowan wisdom proved itself, but, should it fail, he had the means and liege, and he would not shy from using them. This Rowan knew. She was forewarned.
Behind him, rustling, and, without looking, he nodded once, a burst of wind battering him.
* * *
Carrick had always wondered about what his mother called the outkin. Meeting one, he decided that he liked them, and he really liked this house. If all outkin houses were like this one, he’d like to meet them all.
Running down the length of corridor, lights blinking on as he went by, he felt like he could breathe for the first time since Mom and Dad-.
He stopped, suddenly and completely. Why had they left him? Why hadn’t they stopped those men? They could have. He was sure they could have.
A glimmer above caught his attention, and he cast his head back, his eyes searching for the ceiling. There didn’t seem to be a ceiling, though. But there were sparkles, like stars. What was really neat was that the big rounded pillars that rose upward like tree trunks didn’t seem to end. They just disappeared up and up into where darkness met the sparkles.
“Carrick, come here.”
He glanced back. It was the woman. He took off again, running faster and faster toward the light at the end of the long hall, feeling freer and freer the farther he got from her. He felt safe and maybe even happy for the first time since Mom and Dad had gone away. He never, ever wanted to feel sad, scared, and smothered again. Especially smothered. Here, he could breathe. Here, he was sure that he could be free forever. If he could just lose the blinky woman.
* * *
Mark Sutter watched the boy’s exuberance and smiled. He remembered feeling just that way-like he’d finally found home and safety. Sheriff Kinney was right, though. Social Services was bound to find these folks just a little too much to swallow. Rutherford was going to be a problem. He hoped she’d surrender gracefully, but, just like Kinney, he felt it doubtful.
~ ~ ~