Stoking the fire

Despite the pouring rain that has been falling on the ‘Grand City of Albany’ all afternoon, Eliza Earnshaw has managed to stay relatively dry. Flitting between awnings and carriageways, and not too proud to rely on the kindness of a stranger’s umbrella when offered. A single, plump raindrop manages to chance its way beneath Eliza’s bodice however, finding a path between her shoulder blades.  It gives Eliza a chill and she shudders as she races up the steps of her aunt’s townhouse. As she pounds on the door for entry Eliza tries to imagine what on earth her aunt had thought in setting her up with those girls; sniping, precious, gadabouts, all of them. What was the blonde’s name? Preena? So boorish. The others moreso. Eliza knocks again. Surely her Aunt Elsbeth couldn’t have thought them sound companions? She knows Eliza better than that. The shivering young elf smiles as she plays her escape over in her mind; a little illusory mouse skittering across the floor, a room full of suddenly screeching socialites, and Eliza had the cover she needed to vanish. She couldn’t have borne the rest of the evening with those people. No; a nice night in with an open fire and a good book sounded pretty good to Eliza right then. If only someone would come to the door and let her in! Eliza knocks again, this time putting her ear to the door. She could hear nothing from inside. Where was the doorman? Where was her Aunt?! Wasn’t Elsbeth supposed to be having that ‘civil club’ meeting she seemed to be endlessly organising? Perhaps they were busy chattering in the sitting room upstairs, Eliza thinks.

Eliza leaves the covered safety of the landing and goes back into the rain, racing around the side of the house. By the time she’s reached the servant’s entrance at the back that one plump raindrop has been joined by countless companions. Eliza is soaked. She was relieved as the servant’s door gives to her push and she takes a moment to collect herself in the dark, cool room beyond. Not a candle is lit, and in the darkness Eliza fumbles her way down the hall and into the kitchen, where she finds a dry cloth to wipe her face. It smells of onion. Where is everybody? If the staff had all left the house at once they’d have some explaining to do when they returned. It was unconscionable.

Eliza finds a candle and light, and makes her way upstairs. After drying and changing Eliza emerges from her room refreshed, but still seemingly alone. Trying to think little of it Eliza mounts the stairs again toward the library. As she reaches the upper landing a sudden sound breaks the silence; a scrape. Footsteps. Eliza can see the door to the library ajar, and from inside the soft glow of a fire. As inviting as it seems Eliza feels ill at ease. She extinguishes her candle and creeps toward the door. Eliza casts a careful glance around the room before entering, finding… no one. Surely there was someone here, the sound of movement was unmistakable. On the table by the window sits a half dozen saucers and the remains of sandwiches, seemingly abandoned for many hours. The leftovers from Aunt Elsbeth’s little gathering. Then where was the old elf herself? And why hadn’t the servants cleaned the area? Eliza tries not to dwell. All would be right in the morning. She moves closer to the fire to warm herself. The hearth was almost as tall as she was, with ornate carvings on stone pillars flanking the flames. It was deep too; almost too large for the modest library, always dwarfing the fire it held. Once warmed, Eliza moves along the adjoining bookcase, reading the names on the spines to herself; she seems to have either read the books already or they show little promise in entertaining her. She moves her way down the case leaving the fireplace behind. ‘The Ramifications of Residual Druidic Magic on Grain Produce in the Northern Reaches’ – too academic. ‘On Song: The Autobiography of Handar The Bard’ – too improbable. ‘The Romance of Ethel and Aldred’ – too popular. Eliza sighs, thoughtlessly running her fingers along the spines of the books. One, a deep red tome on the shelf at her hips is sticking out from the others and catches her hand. Eliza bends down to inspect it; ‘Herstory: The Secret History of Women In Power’. Curious. Eliza can’t recall hearing of such a book. She tries to draw it from its sheathe but at first it does not budge. Pulling harder, it doesn’t come loose but it does move, clicking forward before automatically slipping back into the bookcase. A scraping sound catches Eliza by surprise and the room grows darker. Eliza turns and watches the flames in the fireplace recede into a pit in the stonework it was just sitting on. Meanwhile, the back wall of the heath splits and withdraws, revealing a descending stairwell beyond. A hidden room! Eliza, candle in hand, peers down the formerly-secret stairway; the combined force of the candle and fire do little to drive away the shadows, however. As she watches, Eliza becomes aware of the silence around her; it suddenly seems threatening. The only thing breaking through it is the gentle crackling of the fire and… was that a choir? Standing this close to the stair, Eliza can hear what sounded like voices; a dozen or more, singing in unison. The words are faint and the echo of echos, and so can’t be rightly discerned. She glances back at the open door to the library before hitching up her dress and stepping over the fire into the darkness beyond.

The air grows colder as she descends. As deep as they go, Eliza guesses that the stairs, tight and dark, carry their users underneath the house. The song grows louder and more distinct as she travels. The voices begin to materialise, and Eliza realises it’s not a song, so much as a chant. The stair eventually opens up into a small, stone room, lit with braziers. Along the walls of the room are boxes, dozens of them. Many are filled with, what Eliza discovers are, clothes – different well-crafted outfits in the latest fashion. Next to the boxes are a series of hooks, a few of which have long, maroon robes hanging from them. A sudden rise in the volume of the chants catches Eliza’s attention, and she continues down the corridor to find their source.

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