The storm blew in with them, coughing wind and wet over the heavy rug. Hood drooped over her face, Sisily cast her gaze down at the pitch-black letters seared into the mat:
A message for all and sundry, not only for strangers seeking shelter from an ill-tempered night. She flipped her hood back and scanned the hall for clues to the sort of host who would greet all visitors in such a manner.
The room spoke grave volumes with its voice of stone and shadows and its heart-stopping centrepiece.
A tree of bone in a hall of decay.
Branches, some blanched ivory, others yellowed or sharp-splintered, others still caked in cemetery dirt, rose in a knobble-jointed tangle to the high, hollow vaults of the ceiling. They clutched at the rotting rafters.
Banisters flanked the staircase and lined the landing like broken wooden teeth. Suits of rusted armour stood sentinel in alcoves. Pictures hung on panels, paint surrendering to cankerous moulds, portraits of ancient men and women riddled with smallpox, courtesy of armies of creative woodworm.
Sisily shivered. The damp and blowing wind at her back suddenly seemed quite warm. Her company had chanced upon the wrong port in this storm.
“I think we had best leave,” she said to the man loitering beside her. He was built like a wall and could’ve provided shelter singlehanded if positioned better. His fists had taken care of the mansion’s door and Sisily felt bad about that – until she had seen the interior. “We’ll have a bit of a whip-round and leave some coin for the damages.”
“Place looks deserted, if you ask me.”
“I’m not so sure.”
When every recess and cranny housed the promise of a ghost, a property did not deserve the title of ‘deserted’. Abandoned, perhaps. Sisily hoped they would be abandoning it shortly. Even the drafts seemed to chase and flap around in a panic like trapped birds hunting for the way out. She empathised.
“I’ll tell the others we’re moving on. They won’t like it.”
“Thank you, Grievance.”
They would not like it one bit. The wheel on their company’s carriage had surrendered to a pot hole and they were on foot. With no sight of another house within the next mile.
Grievance moved and for the briefest of moments his bulk blocked out the worst of the storm’s breath.
A fleeting spell of illusory warmth mingled with regret at having to leave the prospect of even this gloomiest of shelters.
Sisily half-turned. And glimpsed a movement up on the landing. Where some of the darkest shadows roosted. But also where lightning flashed and set something shimmering.
“Grievance,” she called. “Wait.”
It didn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, but she wanted to see it again. Grievance planted himself to her left and watched with her, without any idea of what she had seen.
Together they waited out the thunder rumble. Together they waited out the silence. Together they fixed searching gazes in similar directions as the lighting flared again.
The Holy Symbol of Meloch dangled like a large pendant over one corner of the landing. It twirled in the draft. Unbidden, Sisily’s eyes flicked to the opposite corner. The storm stole away the lightning, ever so miserly with its illumination, but she could swear she saw another symbol. Something – a shape – hung in approximately the equivalent position in that corner in any case. The very next stab of lightning confirmed it as another symbol of Meloch.
“Implies the owner’s a religious sort.”
Sisily nodded. “I know. It’s not great news.” Her company were an uncouth lot, too fond of strong liquor and colourful language. They had been thrown out of temple festivals for staging impious and improper plays. But if a devout follower of Meloch abided here and could be persuaded to let them weather a single night under his or her roof, Sisily was sure her troupe of players could stomach a priestly host for so short a time. If their host preached unduly at them, why, they could simply smile and nod and down another snifter of the good stuff.
“Tell them we’ll stay. Fetch them in.”
“Righto.” Grievance shambled outside.
“Hullo? Hullo there? Cooooooooeeeeeeeee!” Sisily called to the remotest wings of the house. “Listen, we’re in a fix! We only wish to hole up for the night! It’s hellish out there! We have bedrolls! So we can doss down in your hall if that’s okay! We’ll be perfectly comfortable!”
The holy symbols flashed again in the lightning. An answering welcome of sorts.
True, the UNWELCOME mat and the tree of bone – and a good many other qualities besides – argued to the contrary. But perhaps the bones were some memorial to family ancestors. And the mat – well, perhaps a side-effect of a more recent family bereavement. And it was entirely understandable for anyone to shun company under such circumstances.
Whatever the case, the house felt safer and a bit – a tiny bit – more inviting with the serene benevolence of Meloch to watch over them.
A passable sanctuary, Sisily hoped.
[To Be Continued…]