Authors: Deborah White
Nicholas put away his knife and I turned towards him and was drawn back in. His hand brushed my cheek and the diamond of his ring raised a red weal upon it. Then all went black and it felt as if the heavens trembled and the earth stood still.
Nicholas has turned Martha out of the house now and he watches me like a hawk. He taunts me, saying I should not expect to be rescued a second time, for the rope-walker will never get close enough again. I
I must escape or, if I cannot, then I must take my own life, and I do not know if I have the courage for that.
I devise a plan. At night I can hear him. He never seems to sleep. He paces up and down, up and down outside my bedchamber. He has become desperate that this child I carry should be a daughter and have my red hair. I open the door to him before he breaks it down and I find him on his knees, rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, weeping. A chink in his armour. A weakness exposed. Now I know how it is I must play my card, the queen. I take him back into my bed. And every night after that, though he is always gone before dawn.
He wouldn’t let Claire go. Now he had her by both wrists. “Such selfishness. Margrat only thought of herself. If only I had unlocked the 21st spell, there would be Heaven now, here on Earth. My mother and my father, raised from the dead, would be at my side. You cannot understand what it is like never to have known your parents. To be raised in a supposed house of God by women who believed every flicker of humanity I showed was a sign of the Devil and needed to be beaten out of me. To have no one in the whole world who loves you and who cares whether you live or die. Can you imagine that?”
She felt tears welling up and spilling down her cheeks. She wanted her mum and dad so badly it was like a pair of giant hands had taken her heart and were squeezing the life out of it.
“But I found you at last, your birthday is over
and now you can open the casket for me. Release the spell.”
Claire was frantically trying to break free, kicking out at him. But he was so much stronger than she was. He twisted her round and, with her arms pinned to her sides now, he pulled her in, his mouth resting close to her ear.
“Oh, I will have it, Claire, because unless I do, your brother will be stillborn, just like all the others.”
“What are you talking about? I don’t have a brother…”
? Your mother is pregnant.”
No. It couldn’t be true, but then she thought about her mum’s mood swings, her sickness. He was right. Why hadn’t she seen it before? Why hadn’t her mum said anything? And what about her dad? Did he know?
“Claire. Open the Emerald Casket for me. Save your brother’s life and who knows, maybe what happens after will bring your parents together again. You want that, don’t you? More than anything.”
Yes. Oh yes, she did want that. “Do you promise me the baby won’t die?”
She felt him smile and his hold on her almost imperceptibly loosen. But she wanted her dad to come home because he
to and not because there was a baby. That wouldn’t be right, would it? That wouldn’t ever work. And anyway, the moment she unlocked the Emerald Casket, the little power she had over Robert would be lost. He wouldn’t keep his promise. He wouldn’t save her unborn brother. He wouldn’t need to.
Claire turned, Robert’s arms still encircling her. She looked up at him. Saw how his eyes glittered and felt his whole body tense in anticipation. Then, without a word, she brought her knee up hard into his groin. As he writhed in agony, she took her chance and ran for the door. But with a cry of rage he was after her. So close, one more step and he would catch her. In blind panic, she ran into the bathroom and slamming the door shut, she turned the key and felt for the light pull. Now she could see the window. She pushed it open wide and looked out. It was a long drop. She rubbed the palms of her hands together. They were slippery with sweat. She started to climb up onto the window ledge, one foot on the
edge of the bath and a hand pushing up from the basin. But her arms and legs were trembling and she felt weak with fear.
Now there was a rhythmic crashing against the door as he put his shoulder to it and tried to break it down. She could hear the grunting, rasping sound as he flung himself repeatedly against it. Claire’s mind was blanking out in terror. An animal instinct was telling her to get down and curl up, small as she could, in the little space between the bath and the basin. Wait for him to break down the door and then she would die and it would be finished. But a fierce, determined spark of anger flared up in the darkness of the terror and she made one last effort to climb up onto the window ledge. As she brought her right leg up, she felt her phone vibrating in her back pocket. “Zac, help me!” she screamed into it. “Robert’s going to kill me! He’s breaking down the door. A house on the Strand. No… no… the riverside. It’s called…” she scrabbled in desperation to remember, “Darke House. It’s called Darke House and there’s steps and Egyptian figures… and oh… his car outside. Silver. Grey leather seats. Call the police. Call them! Oh, my God.” She was sobbing as she slid
down the wall, but then her hand made contact with something hard. She looked down. Spray cleaner. She listened as the wood splintered and cracked. Felt calmer now. Steadied her breath. As he came crashing through the door, she was ready for him. Held the cleaner in her hand and sprayed him straight in the eyes. He roared in pain and stumbled, reaching out for the basin and blindly turning on the taps. Splashing the water into his eyes in desperation to wash out the burning liquid.
Claire pushed past him and ran. Along the landing all in darkness. Stumbling down the great oak stairs. But still too many steps from the front door when she heard him behind her. No time to get out now, so she slipped into the carved wooden cupboard, where his coats were kept, and pulled the door in silently behind her. Hoping he wouldn’t find her. Knowing he would. Though sound was muffled inside, she could feel him getting closer and her nose was filled with the sweet, unsettling smell of him. Cassia, myrrh, aloes. Cinnamon and flowers. Then the whispering, soft and insistent.
. As if he was trying to draw out her soul.
I won’t listen. I won’t listen. I won’t listen.
But though she pressed her palms hard against her ears, the words still repeated, filling up her head.
Then the door swinging open and the coats parting and his hot breath on her face and his thumbs pressing down on her windpipe. Not enough to kill her. Just enough to turn the darkness blood red. Her eyes rolled up and she began, as he intended, to slip out of consciousness. All she could hear now was a noise like the sound of the wind sighing through leaves. A soft dull thud, like a great oak felled and falling into soft earth and then the pressure on her throat was gone and there was light dazzling her eyes, and arms cradling her and a voice saying “Claire. You are okay. Please… you are okay now. The police are coming.”
* * *
They’d told her later that it had taken four men to hold Robert down. She could hear him shouting out in the hall. Hear him calling her name. Raving, saying he must have the spells, she must fetch the spells or he would die.
She’d pressed her fingers into her ears, but could still hear him. She was in shock. Shaking so
much her teeth were chattering, even though Zacharie had found a blanket to wrap her in and was holding her close and stroking her hair.
“I was so afraid I would not find you in time,” he said. “But then, just as it does when I first step out on the wire, the fear went and I could think fast. I ran. Across the bridge and onto the Strand. I know it already. But which house? You know what? The ring showed me. I don’t know how it works. It is…”
“Bee-zarr.” Claire smiled.
“Yes. Amazing! As I ran one way, nothing. But as I ran the other, just as you said, the ring felt hotter and when it was so tight I thought my finger would drop off, I saw the car and looked up at the house and there were the Egyptian figures.”
For a few moments, inside their heads, they both re-lived the scenes that had come after that, until Claire broke the silence.
ring would open the box. He’d followed me to the circus. He knew about you, Zac. I think he knew about your ring.” Claire’s throat was bruised and her voice was hoarse.
The ambulance men had wanted to take her to the hospital. But it wasn’t the one her mum and
Micky were in, so she’d said she wouldn’t go. “Please, just get my dad and he can take me home. I’m tired. Just very, very tired that’s all. I’ll be fine.” The ambulance man had looked at Zacharie, raised his eyebrows… as if to say, “What do you think, mate?” And Zacharie had nodded and said, “She’ll be okay. I’ll stay.” And he had pulled her in closer and she’d felt his lips press down on the top of her head.
Now, with her eyes closed and cradled against him, she told him about her grandma and her obsession with plague and with circuses. What she knew about the casket and the spell and the ring. About Robert’s visits and the smell of cinnamon and flowers that hung around him like a cloud of incense. How Robert had talked of Margrat as if he had known her in life. How she, Claire, knew the name from her family tree, and the sheaf of papers bound up with the red linen braid. And finally how Robert had told her the only way she could save her unborn brother’s life was to open the Emerald Casket.
Zacharie said nothing and when the silence went on for too long, Claire pulled away from him and sat up and saw that he was frowning, tiny lines
forming between his eyebrows. His mouth looked set and hard. He didn’t believe what she was telling him. That was it. He’d been drawn unwittingly into this madness and he didn’t want any more to do with it. She couldn’t blame him. He was a stranger after all. She was nothing to him… her hand, still trembling from the shock, went up to his mouth and touched it. A ghost of a smile and then he took her hand in his and held it so tight it hurt. But she didn’t pull away.
“Claire, you know when we met, I told to you about some prophecy. Do you remember? Well, I thought it was stupid. A stupid fantastical
my family had made up. Jacalyn believed it though. I heard her whispering it to herself every night. On and on until I knew it by heart, too.”
“What does it say will happen?”
And when he told her, she felt the puzzle was finally taking shape.
“Robert must know it too! He thinks I’m the red-haired maiden doesn’t he? And he thinks I’m the true daughter. But what does
mean? Claire’s free hand went up to touch the silver chain. “But he knew my birthday and that I was going to be 14.”
“When? When is your birthday?”
She’d forgotten. With all the chaos and terror, she’d forgotten her birthday! She looked up at Zacharie, eyes wide in surprise.
“Today. My birthday’s today.”
* * *
A young police officer, Emma, had been left to look after them. She’d been told to stay until Claire’s dad came and she hovered nervously around, putting a stop to any more talk about the prophecy, until Zacharie, flirting with her outrageously, said saving people’s lives made you feel very,
hungry. The way they were looking at each other made Claire feel inexplicably cross and she snapped, “Breakfast would be good!”
And Emma said, “Oh god, yes. Sorry. You
be starving. I’ll see if there’s bread for toast and make some coffee.” And she rushed off.
There had been other policemen, a couple of detectives and some forensic people in the house too, but they’d gone now. Claire could hear them out on the street and then driving away. There was someone still on the front door, but only Emma
in the house and she was down in the basement kitchen.
“I’m going to look for the box,” Claire said, “before Emma comes back.”
“I’ll come with you.” He slipped his hand into hers, had started to pull her towards the door, when they heard Emma call up, “Zac, I can’t seem to get the gas to light…”
“You go. I’m
you can keep her busy while I look.”
Zacharie made a face at her. “Don’t be long… or I’ll start to worry.” And for a second, he came so close, she thought he was going to kiss her.
* * *
She was afraid the door to Robert’s study would be locked, but it was wide open and the smell of the incense, the cinnamon and flowers was so strong inside the room, she had to will herself not to be sick. She went and drew back the curtains and pushed the window open as far as it would go. Light flooded in and she breathed the cool, damp early morning air. When her breathing had steadied, she turned back into the room, ready to
start searching for the box. What was it Robert had called it? The Emerald Casket. And there it was, on his desk. Waiting. Unconsciously, her left hand felt for the ring as it had begun to do when she felt afraid. It felt tight and hot. She stepped forward and pulled the box towards her. There was the sound, and getting louder, of someone calling her. She tilted the box upwards so she could see the crocodile-head cartouche clearly, and she pressed her ring into it. Words were twisting and whispering in her head,
Soon. Have patience, for the time has not yet come.
And now someone was shaking and shaking her. “Claire! Claire!”
It took her a second to register where she was. She looked down at the box she still held in her hands. It was closed tight.
“You found it then?” Zacharie took it out of her hands and started to examine it. “It doesn’t look much does it? Have you tried opening it?” He glanced at his own ring.
“Yes, and nothing happens,” she said, taking the box back from him and tucking it under her arm. Zacharie was looking at her oddly… almost as if he didn’t believe what she was saying. “Look,”
she said, rapidly changing the subject and pointing under the desk. “Robert’s bag. The one he always carries around with him.”
Zacharie bent down and pulled it out. Undid the buckles. Looked inside. Counted 20 small, yellowing scrolls each tied with a strip of red linen. He picked one out. “Shall I open it? What are we looking for?”
“I don’t know, something… a clue.” She watched Zacharie unroll it carefully and together they looked at the hieroglyphs filling the pages, the inks still vivid. Around the edge of the scrolls, a design like twisted rope. And dancing on it, a line of rope-walkers, male and female. All with red-gold hair.
” Zacharie held out the scroll to Claire, “It’s me!”
She took the scroll and looked at it. At the writing, the spell… if that’s what it was… written down. “Let’s open the other scrolls,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe one of them…”
But they all looked the same. Different combinations of hieroglyphs for sure and now she looked carefully, she could see each ropewalker had a subtly different face; its own individual
character. But there were no clues she was able to decipher.
Look at this one!” Zacharie held out the scroll for her to see. “See… there’s the box… and it’s unlocked!”
Claire snatched it from his hand. Saw at the top of the scroll a figure with the body of a man and the head of a bird with a long curved beak, holding up an open casket out of which swirled silvery blue dust and glittering stars and galaxies of light.