A web of love and obsession. A game of instinct and intellect. Who will win?
Easing off the accelerator, James Kington scanned the remote highland road for a glimpse of civilisation. A house. A signpost. Anything..
Where the hell was he?
The impromptu afternoon detour to put his limited edition Mercedes through its paces had seemed inspired at the time; the unfamiliar terrain was treacherous and addictive. The car purred its appreciation and he’d spent far too long indulging its insanely tight cornering and supercharged V8 thrust. Now, in the middle of nowhere, with night descending and a blizzard erupting, the electrifying buzz was a distant memory, fading fast.
A thud. The steering wheel jolted. Blow out! Senses exploding to life, he gripped the wheel, steering into the slide. No response, too much ice. Ease the brake, just enough to feel it bite. Too late. It’s going. The car slewed sideways through blackness towards what - a tree, a ravine. Body tensed, anticipating impact. Brain screeched survival, seconds count, make them count… skew ...slower….….slower…..stopped.
No collision, no bodywork damage, just the tyre - fixable.
Sudden death avoided for the moment, he snatched at a slower option - a pack of Sobranie Black Russians. Lighting up, taking a sharp, purposeful inhale, he relaxed back in the seat to assess the situation. God, nicotine didn’t cut it after adrenaline.
The temperature indicator read minus three, the fuel half a tank. He could conceivably last the night on idle so he wouldn’t freeze to death. He glanced at his watch, 17.46, somewhere in the Godforsaken depths of Scotland - stranded. London meeting planned for 09.00. Ring office.
He imagined what Nina would say. ‘Why did you have the GPS removed? It would make it so much easier to trace you.’
That was precisely why he had had it removed.
One glance at his phone solidified his position. One feeble, flickering bar. Tricky.
Nina picked up immediately, acknowledging something had obviously diverted him from his 4pm conference call. ‘James, I bypassed Segar. He was fine, says he’ll catch up with you next week. I presume Cooper was more belligerent than usual?’
‘Positively gladiatorial in the flesh.’
‘Plain sailing then……Is everything all right?’
‘Had a blowout in the Ingenieur, don’t know where the hell I am… I’m fine. It’s just the tyre.’ He paused to allow her to insert suggestions with her usual precision efficiency. ‘GPS, well obviously could be a help now,’ he agreed. ‘Off the beaten track doesn’t begin to describe it. Saw these crazy hairpins, couldn’t resist. White knuckle stuff.’
The snow appeared to be stopping, random white specks hurled by the wind.
‘Do you need me to book you a hotel?’
‘Nina, I’d book a hotel if I could find one. At this precise point in time I cannot even find the road.’
Glancing around he was stunned to discover a three metre high stone wall dangerously close to his right side. If he’d hit that?
Walls were for protection, to keep people out. Someone was behind that wall, an address, a location. Overhanging the wall, towering branches of huge oaks grasped the sky like thick black claws.
Nina was rattling off suggestions in his ear. Breitling Emergency? The mobile’s GPS? He was distracted; inspired by the possibilities of the wall… ‘Tomorrow seems unlikely, change the 5pm Hamburg to Thursday and text me the new flight. I’ll call Marcus.’
He cut the call and scrolled through his contacts, quickly rescheduling the 9am meeting in fluent German. Business completed. What now?
The trees above him shivered.
A small white face peered from the branches, a child’s face, perplexed, curious, hungry eyes and a mane of black hair, glistening wet with snow. He had a sudden flashback of early drug experimentation, abstract images and psychotic paranoia. He blinked and refocused, but the face was still there. A girl, very young, very small, lying motionless, snakelike, along one of the branches, so low on the branch and so startlingly still she appeared to be carved out of the gnarled wood. She looked mesmerised, but she wasn’t looking at him; her eyes were fixed on the phone in his hand, on the tiny blue light blinking like a beacon.
The phone slipped from his fingers, he fumbled to find it, keeping his eyes determinedly focused on the girl.
Visibility was fleeting, but she was still there, wearing a thin cotton dress covered in a layer of snow, stomach and chest squashed flat against the thick supporting branch, eyes scanning the interior of the car for the light now lost somewhere. Retrieving the phone, sensing it as a way to make contact and make her real, he held it up to her. She roused, their eyes locked and terror snatched at her face. The shock of being spotted sent her bolt upright, losing her grip on the slippery branch she hurtled headfirst from the tree, disappearing behind the high grey wall.
He was out from the car in a second, yanking his long black coat from the back seat, looking around for a way to reach her. The wall stretched as far as he could see in both directions.
‘Are you okay?’
He set off, crunching through fresh snow, searching for a way through the wall. ‘Are you hurt?’
His mind was starting to doubt the reality of it all. It was numbingly cold and looking back his car was just a faint blur, disappearing by the second. This wasn’t a great idea, but she could be unconscious, in those clothes she’d be a frozen corpse by morning. If he kept the wall close to his right side, he couldn’t lose the car. Pulling up his coat collar he continued on. The wind stung his eyes with needles of watery ice. This was madness. Then he noticed a break in the wall; a tree had grown through the stonework. It was a tight squeeze, but he was reed thin, and with agile manoeuvring he was through and in the midst of a seemingly impenetrable forest of trees. Huge oaks huddled together in suffocating stillness. He hesitated; the air felt stale and oppressive, not a breath of wind or a whisper of snow.
Keeping the wall tight to his right side, calculating roughly where the girl should have fallen, he started to backtrack. The ground was alive with ancient roots snaking beneath him like eager fingers itching to trip. But he was light-footed and temporarily out of the blindness of snow he navigated his way through the snatching tentacles.
Suddenly a clearing: black sky above and fresh snow below, and there it was- a faint imprint in the powdery surface. Was that enough impact? She had fallen from a fair height. He toed the jagged impression and spotted a shallow trail leading off towards the bushes, following it to a thick clump of privet he crouched down and peered inside.
The eyes looking back were huge and scared.
‘It’s okay, don’t be afraid,’ he whispered. Had he ever whispered before? It sounded strange and not at all like him.
She drew as far back into the bushes as she could, face shrinking into her body until all he could see were the eyes, dark and defensive and warning him off.
‘Are you hurt?’
She looked so genuinely petrified he was unsure she could speak.
Moving nearer caused her to panic, she held him off with thin, flailing arms.
‘I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to help,’ he reasoned. ‘What are you doing out here?’
She was absurdly pretty, with fine delicate features, but she had a shrewd look, a caution that seemed unusually adult for her age. He had no idea how old she was, possibly ten, twelve at a push, but even at twelve, she was too young to be alone in the woods at night. What was she doing there? ‘Have you got parents around, someone I could get for you?’
His voice seemed to calm her, but she didn’t answer. Her eyes devoured him, fascinated and horrified at the same time.
‘Do you have someone?’ he coaxed.
Her face softened. She watched him with suspicious eyes that shivered in the gloom. Then slowly, cautiously, as if deciding to trust him with an awesome secret, she leaned out from under the cover of the bushes, towards him, but not quite far enough.
He leant towards her, easing the transition, and she rewarded him by breathing faintly in his ear. ‘Livia.’
He drew back to clarify, ‘Livia, is that your mother?’
She shook her head, but didn’t seem about to enlighten him any further.
‘Well, where is this Livia?’
For a second she looked anxious, but compelled. A cold hungry look that gave him chills. ‘In the house,’ she whispered.
He glanced around full circle: No house, no lights, just woods, dense, dark, and extremely uninviting. He tried reasoning. ‘Look, it’s freezing out here. I have no idea where I am and I don’t think I’m going to find a house, never mind Livia, so why don’t you take me to her?’
‘Can’t, leg's broke.’
He was shocked, as much as what she said as the matter of fact way she said it.
‘It’s broken. Are you sure?’ A peer through the bushes revealed the girl’s right leg lying limp and twisted.
‘It’s been broke before,’ she offered, as if such things were a common occurrence.
He was struggling to comprehend it. Her eyes were riveting, her face strangely bewitching. There was something not right. But her leg...He pondered what to do; he couldn’t leave her there.
‘Who were you talking to in the car, is the car broken?’
‘I think we should concentrate on your leg, don’t you?’ he replied.
Her bottom lip trembled. She looked young and in pain.
‘What’s your name?’ he asked, trying to insert some semblance of kindness back into his voice. Naturally impatient, he wanted to get her dealt with and get away. But he sensed she had other ideas.
‘My names Bryony… Your voice is funny. Do you come from another country?’
‘Do you always ask strangers so many questions?’
She looked puzzled by this. ‘There’s never been any strangers.’
He could see her eyes circling, filling with more and more questions. ‘Well, Bryony, we’ve got to get you to a hospital.’
The word hospital sent her into paroxysms of panic, ‘No!’ she wailed, ‘No hospital, never! Livie will mend it.’
He was coolly dismissive, ‘A broken leg. I doubt it.’
‘She will. Livie can fix everything.
He was numb with cold and getting cramp from crouching. Retrieving his phone, Bryony’s eyes fixed instantly on it as if fused. No reception. Not a flicker. Slipping it back in his coat pocket, Bryony’s enraptured gaze return to his. She was watching, waiting… ‘Well, let’s find this Livia then shall we?’ anything to get moving while he still had some feeling in his legs. He paused a second, unsure of how to carry a child.
She offered her arms out to him. ‘Don’t you have any little girls where you come from?’
He succeeded in gathering her into his arms. ‘No,’ he assured her, bracing to lift. Sweeping her up, ‘Jesus, you’re so light!’ He couldn’t believe it; she was like a wisp of cotton - she had no substance at all.
She beamed with pride. ‘I’m a fairy,’
He stared down at her tiny body in his arms; she was paper thin and ghostly white and as she watched him looking at her she shivered proudly, as if conscious of how unusual she was. Her smile was rapturous and her hair sparkled with snowflakes. A fairy indeed he thought; and it seemed like the most obvious explanation. But he could see her breath and feel her cold skin. He was carrying real flesh and blood in his arms.
‘Okay, Bryony, which way?’ He struggled to remain detached, trying to keep well behind his practised mask of indifference. But she was getting to him, working her way through with those glittering eyes.
‘What’s your name?’
A question for a question - that wasn’t how it worked. He didn’t want to be friends, he wanted to get back in the car and drive seven hundred miles in the other direction. ‘The big bad wolf,’ he growled, ‘now which way?’
She frowned in exaggerated disbelief. ‘You’re not a wolf,’ she giggled, but her face wrestled with the possibility. As if deciding that caution might be necessary, she gestured ahead, through the full force of the trees. ‘Over there.’
He weaved his way through the suffocating gloom of the tangled wood following her erratic directions, roots twisted, branches snagged, he stumbled, almost dropped her. ‘I’m sorry, it must hurt like hell.’
She didn’t respond; perhaps she had passed out? He glanced down at her pinched white face, cheek pressed tight to his chest, biting her lip. ‘You can cry if you like... the coat can take it.’
Gazing up, concerned for him, she whispered a warning. ‘No one must hear.’
A desperate fairy whisper for a desperate fairy secret.
She was so serious he stared at her in disbelief. Her face was as white as moonlight and her eyes black as night, but she glowed, she looked as if she could ignite any second.
How strange she was. If fairies existed they would look like her. Eerily magnetising..
Then there it was before them, a massive white mansion. It appeared in a clearing as if it had silently emerged from a deep underground chasm. It was huge, fashioned in true gothic style, embellished with all the spooky attributes of a haunted house, straight from one of his ‘bestsellers’. Of course, that was exactly how it would be, given the make-believe fairy in his arms, but this was the best of its genre by far; three floors high and at least ten rooms wide from a quick count of the windows. That was thirty rooms, sixty if it was mirrored at the back, and it would be as impressive at the back. It was made for statement - it commanded it. Once grand and lavish, age and the elements had taken their toll. Beneath the imperious white façade the brickwork crumbled, eaten away by damp and decay. Spider-like cracks riddled the walls and splintered shutters hung precariously from broken windows, creaking in protest at such a slow, undignified death.
He felt a surge of unease. The house looked empty and abandoned; there were no lights visible from any of the windows. Approaching the front doors he felt a quiver of what could have been fear. He thought he had been born without that particular gene. He might have to re-think.
‘Is this where you live?’ He seriously doubted it.
She nodded, relieved to be home.
The double front doors were open slightly. Broaching the grand front steps, he looked around again. This was creepy. Reaching the doors he entered cautiously. The stillness was haunting. His breath smoked in the freezing air but glancing down the girl in his arms lay alarmingly still, with no similar confirmation of life. Clusters of shadows loitered in corners in the pervasive gloom. It smelt old and musty. Surely she couldn’t live here?
In the cavernous hallway, tunnels of doorways led off in all directions, dark and distinctly unwelcoming. A sweeping staircase rose before him, dusty and threadbare but undeniably magnificent. In the shifting shadows a cathedral-sized stained glass window flickered its jewelled eye. He could hear his own breath and feel his own heartbeat, how depressingly normal of him.
‘Anyone here, Livia?’
He strained for any sound but the suffocating silence. Continuing forward along the hallway he called again, ‘Livia?’
Glancing down the girl was deathly white, with a strange waxy sheen on her skin like dew. Was she slipping into shock? He gave her a gentle shake. ‘Bryony,’
Barely conscious, she gazed around to get her bearings and gestured ahead, murmuring ‘Kitchen.’
A door at the end of the corridor was open slightly, a thin shaft of light glowed on the dingy hall carpet. It spurred him on. He pushed the door open with his foot, revealing light at last, though feeble and fluttering, illuminating a room the size of a banqueting hall. A huge rambling room with several deep copper sinks along one wall; the rest of the room was wall-to-wall dressers heavy with wall-to-wall dust, their thick pine shelves crammed with assorted jars filled with unsavoury looking contents. There was a walk-in larder beside him; the door hung open revealing nothing but a few limp mildewed sacks. The gloom was disorientating. He scanned the walls for switches, gas lamps even. Nothing, just candles, spluttering in various stages of life and death, some stuck in bottles in odd corners, others dominating the room in fantastically ornate silver candelabras.
A girl appeared from inside the larder and jolted in shock. Strangely she didn’t scream or gasp; just froze instantly to the spot. She was older than Bryony by two or three years, she couldn’t have been more than fifteen, a skinny waif-like fifteen.
No time for formal introductions. ‘She’s hurt. She fell from a tree.’ He offered Bryony out and the girl sprang into action, rushing forward, wiping her hands on her worn dress. She seemed reluctant to touch Bryony, or was it touching him, motioning for him to place her on the huge central table.
‘I think her leg’s broken. Do you have a phone?’
The older girl examined the damaged leg, as if deciding in a second that it wasn’t as serious as he had suggested she started scolding the dejected looking child. ‘Bryony you’ll not mend if you keep falling, the bones won’t knit right.’
He politely interrupted her, ‘Phone?’
Turning back to him she looked petrified. What was it with these girls? Her eyes tracked his every move while purposefully shielding Bryony with her body. She looked feeble but he got the feeling she would go for his throat if he made a move closer.
He was fine where he was. He just wanted to sort out Bryony and he’d be out of there.
‘You do have a phone, don’t you?’
She had her back to the table to protect the younger girl, eyes vehemently hostile.
‘Telephone,’ he repeated.
‘Go away.’ she spluttered.
Bryony whimpered and she turned to comfort her, stroking her forehead. ‘Hush now, be still. Be quiet, if we are quiet he will go away.’
‘Look, is there anyone in charge here, an adult? Where are your parents? Fetch your parents.’
She remained crouching over the younger girl, shielding her from him.
‘I've got a phone; just tell me where I am. I can go to my car and get help. What’s the address here?’ he demanded, trying to control what little he had left of his patience.
He heard Bryony whisper the word hospital to the older girl and her reaction was the same, instant panic. Feeling her way along the younger girl’s leg, stopping on a spot, she snatched at his hand. He resisted, but something in her eyes conveyed it was important. She had seized his hand and now she fixed it in place on the broken leg, just above the knee.
‘Keep her still.’ Her voice was weak, but her eyes were insistent. ‘I’ll fetch Livia.’
He was shocked, not least by suddenly finding himself clamped to Bryony’s scrawny leg but by the older girl’s sudden transformation from shrivelling wreck to commanding general.
She was gone and he was alone with Bryony who looked up at him in helpless despair while the silence engulfed them. Her leg was a violent purple colour now, cold under his fingers, like a stick of ice. The skin was dirty and covered in scratches and old bruises, her socks, filthy and frayed. He noticed her brown lace-up boots were far too big and worn thin. One pair passed down through the family, but what family? Were they all sisters? If Livia wasn’t the mother, was she another sister?
The intensity of her eyes almost pulled him over. Blinking in the force of his stare a tear spilt, running from her thick black lashes like a tiny diamond. It trickled down her bloodless cheek and dissolved into the table, swallowed whole.
He watched her watching him, amazed by her stillness, was she even breathing? She lay there limp and defeated, ashamed of her tears and her feeble legs that paralysed her with pain.
He recognised that face, that horror of being mortal.
She started shivering; violent tremors that racked her entire body.
Kington quickly removed his coat and covered her; very aware he would probably have to burn it later. No doubt she had lice and nits and any number of unpleasantries harboured about her person.
She snuggled under it, luxuriating in the warmth as if it were a miracle.
A door on the other side of the room opened and in floated the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. This was Livia; somehow he knew it must be. She was barely older than the other one, the shy one who followed her in like a trailing ghost, but she had an intense presence, such an overwhelming effect on him, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Thin and pale, with the most amazing hair, pure white platinum falling to her waist in long straight shafts that tapered at the ends. Bare footed, she glided across the room like ice on steel and the flowing hair moved with her like a cloak. She couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but everything about her made a mockery of youth, aloof, above such trivialities, such demeaning restrictions.
Moving to the edge of the table beside him she immediately took control. She had glanced at him once, briefly, to acknowledge to the other one that he was indeed there and not a terrifying figment of her imagination. They had exchanged wary looks, but Livia appeared to be supremely unafraid of him and her steady grey eyes convinced the terrified one to ignore him and concentrate on her and Bryony.
She lifted his coat to expose the damaged leg.
‘Her dress is wet… from the snow,’ he explained. Then he noticed that they all wore similar dresses of ridiculous thinness, faded pastel floral-prints of an indeterminate age. They looked as if they had been caught rifling through their grandmother’s wardrobe. Weren’t they cold? It was freezing.
Livia looked to him, clear, direct and paralysing. ‘Thank you,’ she said. Removing the coat she offered it back to him, as if anticipating his immediate departure.
‘No please, keep her warm, her need is greater than mine.’ He smiled and she smiled back, a grateful smile that illuminated the entire room.
‘If you are sure? Your blood will be ice. You are from outside.’
It sounded like a slur, an inference that he wasn’t as equipped as they were to cope with the cold. He shrugged it off, he was a man, and never more so than that second. That amazing face, those eyes, so pale yet bright, saltwater clouds with the sun filtering through... But she was young… too young.
‘Absolutely,’ he assured her.
She seemed hesitant, as if she should offer him another chance to escape, or did she want him to go, and was now reluctantly stuck with him? He couldn’t tell. But there was something strangely resigned about the way she replaced his coat over Bryony. He couldn’t put his finger on it but it seemed resolutely final.
She looked to Bryony, but she didn’t look contrite, far from it, she looked exultant, proudly displaying her dangerous stranger. Look what I caught in the woods. Aren’t I clever? Not a word was spoken, but everything was said in the extraordinary telepathy that seemed to flow in the frost of their breath.
Livia examined the leg, directing the other girl to fetch potions and ointments and soon she was surrounded by pots and jars and rickety bundles of dubiously clean bandages.
‘Look, we should get her to a hospital,’
Livia simply smiled again, as if to pity his foolish naivety.
He watched them floating around the injured girl, assembling their crude jam jars full of potions and had the overwhelming urge to laugh, but strangely, not at them, at himself. He was just standing there feeling glaringly out of place, out of time, as if he had wandered in on some bizarre Alice in Wonderland tea party.
‘I can phone for a Doctor,’ he offered, trying to galvanise them into some sort of reality. They weren’t really serious about these ointments, were they? ‘I can phone from my car.’
Livia said nothing, concentrating on the job in hand. She offered Bryony a grubby cup filled with something that looked suspiciously like wine. She had decanted it from a vintage whisky bottle and was urging her to drink it. It wasn’t whisky, it was red and watery looking and Bryony didn’t want to drink it, she squeezed her mouth shut in protest.
She held the cup to her lips, gently coaxing, ‘All at once. It will help, you know it will.’
He was astonished. ‘You’re getting her drunk?’
‘It helps with the pain.’
‘Don’t you have anything else?’
‘No, I have nothing else. Do you?’
He didn’t, and that look made him feel hopelessly out of his depth. Shaking his head he decided to remain silent.
Bryony gulped the wine and laid her head back on the table, resigned to her fate. She glanced across to him hovering in the shadows and whispered to her sisters. ‘He’s very strong. He carried me all the way from the wall.’ She wanted them to like him, she obviously did. She couldn’t take her eyes off him, they were drowsy and soft. The wine was working, but she looked scared.
‘Help hold me still?’ she asked.
He looked to Livia for confirmation it was okay, not relishing the idea.
She smiled and paused, waiting for him to join them. Obviously if he kept quiet his presence was accepted. There was a formal hesitancy. She was waiting for him to want to join them. Her smile was like a tiny shaft of sunlight rising from the chilled gloom, barely perceptible in the shifting shadows. But he saw it. He felt it – and he had felt nothing like it in his entire life, nothing so sweet and so utterly pure.
Bryony offered out her trembling hands and he took them, they weren’t childlike and pudgy, these were parchment white, almost bare bone, with ragged black fingernails.
‘Hold them here,’ Livia instructed, gesturing to Bryony’s breastbone. Placing his hands in the correct position and pressing them firmly down before leaving him to continue without her. Her touch was ice, her skin smooth like glass. She squeezed her eyes slightly, silently conveying the need to exert some pressure. This was definitely going to hurt.
The older girl was positioned, gripping one leg at the ankle and the damaged one above the knee. They were really going to do it.
‘Look I’m not sure this is a good idea,’ he interrupted.
Livia glanced to him, impatient, distracted now. But she returned to work, dismissing him effortlessly, like swatting a fly.
Bryony insisted on looking to see what they were doing and Kington found he could keep her more contained by abandoning the central pressure and pinning her down by a hand on each shoulder. She couldn’t raise her head so couldn’t anticipate the sudden shock of pain.
He was in on it. It felt wrong, and he was participating.
Livia was precise and methodical. She examined the swelling and placed her ear to the bruise as if listening to the bone. Bryony looked to him in a surge of panic, an accusing look, a desperate look. If he hadn’t been there, she wouldn’t have fallen.
‘If I don’t move will you kiss me?’ she blurted.
The other girls froze a second. Or was it him? He looked down into Bryony’s dark, hypnotic eyes, hungry for every inch of him. Looking up, both her sisters were the same, watchful and wary but mesmerised with curiosity. They were waiting for his answer, willing his answer. He was uncomfortable. A kiss, it seemed so perverted somehow. Or was it just his interpretation of a kiss. She meant a peck on the cheek, surely. That’s what you did with children. He had no dealings with children, had no comprehension of the innocent workings of their minds. What was an innocent mind?
‘No problem,’ he managed to say before the weight of their eyes consumed him.
Livia’s small slender fingers made precise, pressured indents on the swelling, reading the bone like Braille, a subtle squeeze, a slow stretch, another squeeze, soft, steady, meticulous. He had to pinion the convulsing child, but she didn’t make a sound; it was as if some invisible object blocked her mouth. The eyes conveyed it, the gestures conveyed it. Inside she was screaming the house down, but there in that room, there wasn’t a sound, not a murmur, all was silent, and eventually, all was still, save for the faintest whisper…. Kiss me.
Kington sat on a wooden ladder-backed chair, cupping a steaming mug, trying to get closer to the pitiful fire, a slab of peat and a few twigs, pathetic. He looked around the kitchen, drawing on a dying cigarette. There were two monstrous cast iron radiators at each end, obviously not functioning, topped with various books to level them they served as makeshift shelves for candles. Antiquated brass taps spanned the copper sinks, but a row of metal buckets full of water lined up along the floor in front of them. There were lights, ornate Victorian glass pendants, so why candles? It was archaic.
The middle girl, the shy one, was cooking bread in an ancient range the size of a small car. He watched her, he liked watching her. He had never seen such visible fear before. It was amusing in a quaint, naïve way; catching a cautious glance he smiled in appreciation; her impossible shyness was so real and so rare. That last look was too much; she hid her face behind her long red waves of hair and concentrated on the cooking. The door opened and Livia entered in a gust of fresh air. She smiled at him, easily, as if she had known him for years. She wasn’t shy, far from it.
‘I see Bethany has fetched you some tea.’
Bethany, a name to the hidden face, he smiled in Bethany’s direction, but she couldn’t bear to look; he had made sure of that. To his amazement, and slight concern, Livia sat on the floor before him and placed her hands on his thighs in an obvious gesture of friendliness and gratitude. It felt strange to him, invasive, such easy affection given so freely, but it appeared to be perfectly natural to her.
‘Thank you for helping me with Bryony, she’s getting so big now I can hardly lift her.’
‘So you are our stranger,’ she said, with a cool, ephemeral smile. ‘Bryony says you are the big bad wolf.’ She smiled, amused at the concept, but her eyes said she wasn’t as young as her sister and as easily distracted.
‘My name is Kington. James Kington.’
‘Kington,’ she repeated it slowly, digesting it.
‘And you are?’
‘You know my name, it’s Livia.’
He smiled and so she smiled. She seemed relieved; like she had passed some test and now it was his turn. She drew closer, sniffing the air as if identifying his scent. Her eyes reflected challenge and attraction. There was no caution, no coy embarrassment. She studied him with the clinical intensity of a primitive captor surveying a formidably advanced and fascinating species, analysing every curve and crease: his boots, his legs, his arms and chest. The fabric of his clothes appeared strange to her. She stroked it, measuring the thickness of the coat with her fingers and the thinness of the suit jacket underneath. He saw her eyes twitch to zoom. When she reached his face she was on the tightest close up. It took intense concentration, but she was totally still, a kneeling statue with strange slow eyes that licked the surfaces and lingered in the crevices. Kington grew uneasy. It was too close, too weird. He liked weird, but not this. It felt as if she was drawing the marrow from his bones and the neurons from his brain. Why wasn’t he resisting? What was in the tea?
She stopped, and smiled, as if to thank him for a most revealing dissection, but there were some things that seemed to puzzle her. ‘You are beautiful,’ she whispered, ‘and you are a man.’ She sounded doubtful, and plainly suspicious, looking to him for an explanation. Her eyes were soft now, young and eager and open to anything. Impress me, they urged, make me shiver with shock.
Kington recognised those eyes. He’d had that effect on women for as long as he could remember, especially when he held their stare. But this was different, this was curiosity. It wasn’t sexual, it was something else. Something he couldn’t quite put his finger on. She was concentrating on his hair now, he watched as she absorbed and analysed.
He let her explore. It felt strange, but somehow necessary. Hopelessly fascinated, she looked at him with an almost God-like wonder. Her eyes sought his, anxious to explain it all. ‘Mother said that beauty is an illusion,’ she waited for him to confirm that it was true.
‘I think she is probably right,’ he agreed, amazed at her incredible ability to intoxicate. ‘But in your case, I think not. You wear it very well.’
She didn’t smile as expected; just continued to stare, studying him so closely the pores of his skin tightened. She probed his eyes; the doorway to the soul. He felt she wanted his soul.
‘What do you see?’ He asked, curious that she could get so close and that he could let her.
She was thoughtful a second. ‘I see an old soul in a young body,’ her eyes were watchful, wary of his reaction.
He was surprised by her astuteness. ‘Correct.’ He applauded her unnervingly accurate evaluation. ‘I’m old, I’m ancient!’ He laughed. How long since he had heard an honest word from anyone?
She looked contrite, perhaps she had upset him? ‘But I don’t know what souls young men are supposed to have,’ she added, ‘I have never seen a young man.’
‘You’ve never seen a young man!’ he almost choked.
‘No...only old souls in old bodies.’
Their eyes locked. The room was huge but somehow there wasn’t enough air. The hands on his thighs were heavy and warm and he felt uncomfortable. This was a little too friendly for his liking. He drew himself up in the chair; the move broke the stare and spilt the tea, spraying lurid green splashes on the bare wood floor.
Livia wiped it with the hem of her dress, observing the cup was still half full. ’You’re not drinking your tea.’
He was hoping she wouldn’t notice. Not only was the cup grubby, the tea itself looked like urine. ‘What tea is this exactly?’
He examined it with even more distaste than before. Her hands had been swiftly removed when she wiped the floor, but now, for some bizarre reason, she chose to grind her chin on his knee in their place.
He looked at her and she didn’t flinch. Her eyes were clear and quite without fear, and her smile lingered. She was so sure and confident and strangely unfazed by him. Unnerved by her intensity he needed a deflection. ‘This is an incredible house.
How many rooms does it have?’
‘Don’t know,’ she replied, as if she really didn’t.
‘You don’t know how many rooms? How long have you lived here?
‘A long time.’
‘You’re incredibly remote here.’
She smiled proudly, as if remoteness was its most endearing feature.
‘Do you know where the nearest hotel is? I shall have to get moving soon.’
‘Hotel?’ She didn’t seem to understand the word.
‘I need the name of the nearest town or village?’ He waited expectantly.
Her eyes clouded as if considering something, but the shrug came with the same resigned helplessness. ‘Don’t know.’
This was serious. Her chin was boring a hole in his knee ‘This house, where is it. Does it have a name?’
She drew back, as if sensing danger was imminent and preparing for a quick getaway. ‘Raglan Hall,’ she replied, considering his face with hesitant resolve.
He waited for more but it didn’t come. Curbing his impatience. ‘Raglan Hall, well, we’re getting somewhere.’ He smiled, but it wasn’t returned. ‘What’s the rest of the address? The address you give to people that visit....friends...?’
‘No friends....just us.’
He latched on it eagerly. ‘Yes, but when you have visitors you have to tell them the address,’ his eyes coached hers to respond to order.
‘We don’t have visitors,’
He recalled Bryony in the woods…..there’s never been any visitors.
‘You’ve never had any visitors?’
‘Only you,’ wrapping her long thin arms around her knees, she stared at him.
It was an impressive stare and he was forced to re-think. He glanced to Bethany cowering in the shadows, hostile and defensive, and it occurred to him that perhaps they were alone, three young girls in such a remote, inhospitable place. It seemed impossible to believe but somehow strangely obvious. Livia with her ice cool front, braving it out, repelling any advance with counter attacks and diversions; those clear grey eyes and that smile that could melt stone.
‘Where are your parents?’ he asked, deciding directness would save a lot of time.
Livia glanced to Bethany. The silence was extraordinary, and for the first time, Bethany’s face took on form and purpose. Her eyes transmitted unquestioning trust, but she was wary. Livia looked back to him, slowly tilting her head as if trying to assess if he was worth such precious secrets. Her long hair trailed along the floorboards like slithering silver snakes.
Bethany rushed out of the kitchen, slamming the door.
It was a relief for Kington; he was suffocating in the charged atmosphere.
Livia adjusted her dress and slid her hair behind her shoulders to face him, as if the moment was of such immense importance she had to get it right first time, the one and only time. She drew him close with conspiratorial urgency. It was a deathly secret, a tremendous confession. Once told; there would be no going back. Was he sure that he wanted to know?
He was riveted.