Authors: Holly Newman
Ice needles stung Leona's cold-reddened face, obscured her vision, and slid under the collar of her oversized coat. She should have wrapped a muffler about her neck, but she'd been too impatient, too anxious to carry out her wild plan. She shivered as rivulets of melting ice tracked down her spine. Bracing herself against the rough brick wall, she clung one-handed to the vines that were at once handholds and safety line. She wiped her eyes clear.
This was the night of the winter solstice. Was there pagan magic in the air? Was there a magic that fostered mad, impetuous schemes? She stared out into the night. She knew the ground was ten feet below her, but it might as well be fifty as much as she could see. The day had been veiled in soft, misting rains. No doubt tomorrow's sun would reveal a world swathed in a glittering ice mantle. But now, with a capricious north wind freezing rain into ice spears to fling against any so foolhardy as to leave the warmth of a home fire, it was winter's own hell.
It's only a little farther.
Grimly she held that thought, held it like a shield against fear, fatigue, and discomfort. She repeated it endlessly, like a Gregorian chant.
She'd come this far; there could be no turning back.
Leona reached up higher, searching for another secure handhold. Then she raised her booted right foot, blindly seeking out a foothold on one of the jutting quoins hidden in the massive tangle of vines that climbed the west-wing walls of Lion's Gate Manor. She pulled herself higher, praying with each step that the vines would hold.
A fool's errand.
The errant thought, like the biting north wind, pierced her mind. She tossed her head to clear her thoughts and sharpen her determination. Her other foot left the narrow ledge of the decorative string course separating the ground floor from the first floor. A few feet more and she would be to the cornice ledge separating the first floor from the second. From there she could edge her way over to the second-floor window where a solitary burning candle cast a soft beam of golden light out into the dark night. It was the only light in the wing and it beckoned her with the promise of warmth, though even without the light that window, that room, would have been her goal. Leona did not know what to expect when she attained her goal and looked inside. Until now she'd not thought beyond looking in.
With each hand and toehold, the vines grew thinner, weaker, the jutting stones farther apart. One patch of vine ripped loose from the wall where Leona grabbed it. The suddenness of its release nearly sent her reeling backward. She swallowed a scream of fear.
Charlie always maintained that scaling the vine-covered walls of Lion's Gate was a bit of child's work—no doubt an attitude he formed in his youth when sneaking out at night to kick up a lark with Squire Hembridge's son. Foolishly, Leona believed him. Under her breath she cursed, then bit her chapped lower lip in contrition. This had been her decision.
The closer Leona Leonard came to her goal, the more the niggling thought that she was on a fool's errand pervaded her mind. It hadn't seemed so that afternoon when the idea came to her while she sat in the warm, unusually crowded parlor at Rose Cottage with her companion, Maria Sprockett, and listened to the concerns of Lady Hembridge, Mrs. Thrailwithe, Miss Semple, and Vicar Davidson. Climbing the walls of Lion's Gate to peek into Charlie's old room seemed the logical course of action. As the only member of the Leonard family in the neighborhood (and as nominal estate manager in the absence of Lion's Gate's true owner, her brother Captain Charles Leonard), Leona felt duty bound to investigate.
The villagers did not like the new tenants at Lion's Gate Manor, and so they—represented by those gathered in the parlor that afternoon—told her. Repeatedly.
Truthfully, Leona didn't like the Norths either, particularly the son, Howard North. When she let the Leonard family estate to the Norths, however, she'd been more concerned with rental income than personalities, and the Norths did unflinchingly agree to the high figure she named.
They'd been at Lion's Gate eight months, and for eight months they'd irritated the good folk of Crawfords Dean with their superior ways and secretive dealings. Those secretive dealings were what led Leona to be dressed in her brother's cast-off clothes and climbing the old, established vines and the odd jutting stonework that was peculiar to Lion's Gate Manor in order to reach Charlie's boyhood room.
A month ago the Norths began to say a young relative was coming to stay with them. A young girl, they said, who was sadly demented. This in itself was not an unbelievable event. Cases of insanity were blessedly rare; nonetheless, they were known to occur, and heated debate on the wisdom of home care for the afflicted invaded polite drawing rooms. What shifted the North situation into the realm of suspicion was the undeniable fact that in the months the Norths had lived at Lion's Gate, they'd been singularly unfriendly. Repeatedly they declined invitations to sup with one or another member of Crawfords Dean's restricted society. Nor were they prone to social conversation should one chance to encounter them in the village. Plainly spoken, they snubbed their neighbors. Why the sudden course of volubility?
When the child arrived, she was installed in Charlie's old room in what had been the nursery wing of Lion's Gate. The servants were not allowed to go near, nor even see the girl. She was kept locked in the bedchamber, attended only by Mrs. North and her daughter Joanna.
Mrs. Thrailwithe's housekeeper's daughter—a maid at Lion's Gate—reported to her mother that she'd heard pitiful sobbing coming from the room. On another occasion she had heard the child screaming at Mrs. North, telling the woman that her uncle would kill them. This outburst was followed by the unmistakable sound of a resounding slap. The young maid's disclosures rekindled the villagers' dissatisfaction with Lion's Gate's tenants. Finally the vicar— prompted by outrage among his parishioners (particularly the more affluent ones)—called on the Norths and asked to see their afflicted young relative. He was refused.
These actions, coupled with their previous attitude and Howard North's unspeakably randy behavior toward several young girls of the neighborhood, raised the hackles of Crawfords Dean's inhabitants. Thus the reason for the assemblage that afternoon at Rose Cottage.
It was ironic, actually. When Leona assumed the stewardship of Lion's Gate three years before, upon the untimely death of her eldest brother, Edmund, the same self- appointed village representatives gathered in the Blue Saloon at Lion's Gate. Their mission that day had been to urge Leona to desist in her foolish idea to manage the property for Charlie. It was beneath her and, furthermore, unladylike. They flocked to insist she go live with her sister, Rosalie, and her brother-in-law, George Sharply. She appeased them that day by saying she wished a quiet year of mourning away from the embarrassment she would most certainly feel as the sister of Edmund Leonard. Socially, she explained, it could not do her favor to be known as the sister of the man who had been killed by an irate husband after being found in
with the man's wife. Though they all professed shock at her indelicate language, they were forced to concede her point.
By the time her formal full year of mourning ended, everyone in the neighborhood was used to her managing the Leonard property. In truth, she made amazing strides in the reorganization of the Leonard family fortune. She'd removed herself and her companion to Rose Cottage, leased the house, repaired the outbuildings, and turned a good profit on the harvest. The first lessees she found for Lion's Gate had been a retired naval captain and his family. They were well liked in the neighborhood. They might have been there still if, after two years, the captain hadn't missed daily sight of the sea. It was with mixed feelings that the family gave notice and moved away to take a house nearer Bristol.
Given the popularity of the naval family, it was not to be surprised that the neighborhood would look at their replacements with a wary eye. For a while that was the excuse Leona gave to herself when she discovered the villagers did not like the new tenants of Lion's Gate. Finally she was forced to admit—albeit reluctantly—that she might have made an error in judgment That admittance rankled. Nonetheless, she was bound by her duty to her family to see the situation set to rights. Furthermore, she did not want any talk or even whispers that it would be best if she left the stewardship of Lion's Gate in the hands of her officious brother-in-law and quietly went to live with Rosalie and him. That was a suggestion she would fight with every ounce of her being. She held a duty to her brother Charlie and a duty to her family name. She would not let Edmond's profligate existence destroy the family honor. Not so long as she could draw breath and work to regain the dignity that Edmund so casually stripped from them all!
That was why she clung precariously to the side of Lion's Gate, struggling to find a secure foothold on the rapidly icing quoins and ledges.
Her boot scraped down the rough brick before settling on another quoin, the sound unnaturally loud in her ears. How could they not hear her? The din of the new manufactories could not be louder. She reached up higher, her numbing fingers curving around a clump of vines. Her teeth clenched, and a quick prayer ran through her mind.
She allowed the vines to take her weight. A popping, ripping sound heralded the give of the vines' grip on rough brick and stone. She panicked, and her other foot scraped frantically along the wall. The vine sagged an inch. She threw her weight sideways, forcing the foot still resting on a quoin to take her weight again. The scrambling foot found purchase on another jutting stone. Her free hand caught the edge of the cornice.
Pain shot through her fingers and down her arms, a sharp, knifing pain. She ignored it, fighting desperately against it. Her tired muscles quivered, but she held on. Slowly she pulled herself up until she could fling one arm and elbow onto the narrow ledge. Straining to throw her weight forward, Leona moved her feet up the wall until one knee joined the arm and elbow. Painfully she pulled herself up and rolled over, her back against the rough wall.
She sat for a moment on the narrow stonework ledge. She gulped cold air, her breathing ragged, her head tipped back.
She was oblivious for a moment to the icing sleet that struck her face. No matter what, she was not going back down the way she came up. She would find some other way—even if it meant revealing herself to the Norths.
Resolutely, she turned to kneel on the ledge. Her stiff muscles screamed pain, and her chest ached. She blinked and wiped her eyes again. Her gloved fingers felt like blocks of ice against her skin. The supple leather was stiffening in the freezing air. The fancy thin gloves offered little protection, but without them her hands would have been scraped and bloodied. She crawled stiffly toward the lighted window, vaguely wondering why the drapes were not yet closed against the night's chill.
Carefully she crawled along the narrow ledge, her mind racing ahead with visions of what she would see when she looked into the room. An ugly, misshapen form or an elfin sprite? A wild-eyed individual with only the vestige of humanity, or a martyred saint? What was the truth behind the rumors? Were the Norths innocent victims of malicious village tongues, or were they the stuff of bogeyman stories told by nurses to frighten their charges into obedience? Carefully, ruthlessly, Leona stamped down her more wayward thoughts, shoving them into shadowed recesses of her mind. At the window's edge she stretched her head and neck forward until the wavering light from a tallow candle spilled across her face.
Leona's attention was momentarily diverted by the sight of the cheap, smoky candle. She wondered at the North's affording Lion's Gate if they must needs use tallow candles. Of course, she wryly conceded, it may have been an economy forced by Howard North's penchant for aping the London Town Tulips. His padded and wasp-waisted jackets were not the work of a country tailor.
Leona's eyes swept the room. It was devoid of most of its furniture. Where was the old highboy and the inlaid chessboard table? Curiouser still, where were the bed hangings and window drapes? On the bed, in place of the heavy embroidered counterpane, were fur throws.
At first Leona thought the room empty; then a tangled mat of drab brown hair lifted from one of the fur throws. The hair belonged to a young girl, a young girl praying with every fiber of her being. Her skin was sallow and, where lashes brushed her cheeks, dark circles ringed her eyes.
Interesting—the eyelashes were as fair as were the eyebrows that framed her eyes. They did not match the drab brown hair for they were red-gold. The child's lips moved in a silent "amen." She straightened, one finger swiping a stray tear from her cheek. Her countenance bore the saddest expression Leona had ever seen on a human being. It was a look of utter hopelessness and defeat that wrung Leona's heart
Was this a mad child, a child so far gone to humanity that she must be shut away from servants or God's minister?
The bone-chilling cold was forgotten as Leona studied the small figure. She watched the child slowly rise from her knees and approach the bedside table nearest the window. When she leaned forward to blow out the candle, Leona caught glimpses of red in the girl's hair. Startled, Leona realized the child's hair was dyed—and poorly at that. Without a second thought, Leona rapped on the window.
The child looked up. There was no immediate fear in her expression. Instead, curiously, there was hope.
It was the sudden shift from despair to hope that decided Leona. The child was obviously a prisoner—but not because she was mad. And if she wasn't mad, what was she?
Leona beckoned to the child, smiling as warmly as her stiff features would allow. She pantomimed the child opening the window. She was halfway through her dumb show when the child rushed forward to work the stiff latch. Furtively she glanced toward the door before pushing the window open. Without waiting for Leona to come in, she ran back toward the candlestick to blow out the candle. The room went dark just as Leona's leg settled over the windowsill.