A brooding young man with wavy blond hair gazed out from the painting. He was dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt tucked into high white trousers, and he held a longbow in one hand. Leather braces adorned his wrists while a quiver of arrows hung from a belt at his waist. He had my mother’s eyes.
“Your grandfather was a fine archer,” Grandmother said, “especially with a longbow. This was shortly after we were married in 1953. Back when he was president of the Wolvern Archery Club.”
It was an ominous scene. In the background stood Carrick Hall, gray and eerie as if awaiting a storm. And in the darkened woods beside it, a glimmering creature, a great white stag like the one in the tapestry downstairs. The young man’s expression held both fear and determination, as if he didn’t want to hunt the stag but was duty bound to destroy it.
“Mum says he was kind,” I ventured. Mum had told me little else about him, in fact, other than that he’d died before I was born. The topic always seemed fraught with a tension I didn’t understand.
I could read nothing from Grandmother’s expression. She kept walking. I followed her out of the gallery and up the stairs toward my tower room, feeling slightly chilled. Had she loved him, or hadn’t she? Did she miss him, or didn’t she?
Grandmother took a few steps into my room and then hesitated, twisting away from the view of the gardens and the statue below.
“Here it is,” I said. I grabbed the blue dress with the Peter Pan collar from the wardrobe.
“Yes, that’s a classic!” she exclaimed. She stepped forward admiringly. “Look at the fitted bodice and the braiding. Probably 1958, ’59.”
I pulled another dress from the wardrobe, a floral Laura Ashley with a scalloped hem that I’d scored at a garage sale. She took it and held it up. “Oh, this is lovely! Not vintage, but just perfect. Look at the hemline!”
We examined dress after dress, holding them up to the light, pressing them against my shoulders to gauge the length. I blathered on about where I’d found them and what shoes I planned to wear and what else matched. Apparently she didn’t mind when people blathered—as long as it was about fashion.
“I don’t have a cardigan for this one,” I said of the blue dress. “I thought I’d look in the shops while I’m here.”
“You will,” Grandmother said, holding it up against me with an appraising eye, “because I’ll take you.” She said it with such authority that I wondered if she’d already planned an outing. “Would a trip to Hereford tomorrow be too soon after your travels? Or maybe Worcester? I could ask Paxton to bring the Bentley around after breakfast, if you like.”
No, I realized: She was planning this on the spot because she knew I’d like it. And because she wanted to spend more time with me. My lungs expanded with the sheer thrill of spending a whole morning—a whole day, even—with this glorious grandmother. “Can we?”
“Of course. And wear the blue dress tomorrow.” She then began unwinding her shawl. “It will go perfectly with this.” She lifted the shawl, its swirls of purple and green shimmering, and placed it around my shoulders.
“Really? You want me to wear this?” I couldn’t keep my hands off the silkiness of it, the golden flecks lighting up under my fingers like fireflies.
“Not just to wear. To keep.”
Just then, Mum appeared, so obviously startled at the sight of dresses scattered everywhere, the shawl around my shoulders, her mother and daughter smiling, that she nearly collided with the doorframe.
“Mrs. Fealston has announced supper,” Mum said, avoiding our eyes.
We followed her down the stairs in awkward silence.
Once in the dining room, Grandmother seated herself at the head of the long table, Mum to her right and me to her left. I was grateful for the presence of Mrs. Fealston, who insisted on serving us from a sideboard before leaving us to ourselves.
As we ate, a chilly draft crept along the floor. Mum’s sullen silence persisted throughout the meal—but Grandmother seemed oblivious. She spoke blandly of the weather, the gardens, the headlines. She made no mention of our planned trip till the very end, when we’d already risen to leave.
“Oh, Gwendolyn, dear,” she said offhandedly, “Eva and I plan to visit the shops in Worcester tomorrow. Care to join us?”
As before, Mum pressed her lips into a hard line. “Mrs. Fealston was planning to show Eva the estate,” she objected, her tone flat.
“Oh, I’m sure it can wait. I imagine there are any number of new bookshops in Worcester now. We could split up and meet back at that little café near the cathedral.”
In the brief silence that followed, I sensed a battle was being waged. Some sort of challenge had been thrown down—one freighted with many past challenges.
Finally my mother capitulated. “Very well,” she said. “What time?”
“After breakfast,” Grandmother replied. “Good night, then.”
Grandmother’s gaze met mine for a moment, then fell on my wayward curls. With a suddenness that seemed to quench all light in the room, her face drained of color, and she left.
I couldn’t sleep. It was only my first night in England, after all, and midnight felt like early evening to me. I’d just decided to grab a book from the bookcase when the clouds rolled aside and a brilliant moon blazed through my tower windows.
I flew toward the glass, drawn like a moth to the marvelous light. Was it bigger and brighter than a normal moon? Yes, it had to be. It lit the formal gardens with silvery magic. A curtain had gone up, some veil had been drawn aside, as if all the world’s myths could be told on this one fantastical stage. Anyone viewing it would expect to see impossible things.
And I did.
A lady stepped through the archway from the kitchen garden, pacing like a sleepwalker. Face obscured by shadow, she wore a flowing white garment that trailed behind her. Her lustrous hair rippled down, down, nearly to her bare feet. For a moment I thought the dryad herself had awakened and uprooted herself to roam the earth.
The lady glided across the lawn in the direction of the secret garden, pausing periodically as if seeking something she’d lost. She’d almost reached the hedge that hid the reflection pool when another movement caught my eye.
Following slowly, as if to not disturb her, came an enormous white stag.
Its antlers towered like the branches of an ancient tree, higher than the garden walls, glittering with moonlight. Its massive neck and torso rippled with power. Yet it moved with such gentleness and grace that it must’ve made no sound, for the lady seemed unaware of its presence.
The great stag followed her silently, a protective rear guard, until she turned away from the house and vanished into shadow. The creature followed. I watched until it, too, disappeared into darkness.
Copyright © 2024 by Sarah Arthur
A mysterious manor house hides the keys to shocking family secrets—and rapidly fading portals to other worlds—in the richly woven opener to bestselling author Sarah Arthur’s young adult fantasy series.
When fourteen-year-old American Eva Joyce unexpectedly finds herself spending the summer at the mysterious manor house of the English grandmother she’s never met, troubling questions arise: Why have her parents been so long estranged from her grandmother? What secrets are the manor staff—and the house itself—hiding?
When odd things start happening in the gardens at night, Eva turns to the elderly housekeeper, the gardener, and the gardener’s grandson, Frankie, for answers. Astonishingly, they all seem to believe that Eva’s favorite childhood fairy tales are true—and that her grandmother was once a queen in another world. But her grandmother’s heart is closed to the beauty and pain of the past. Now it’s up to Eva to discover what really happened.
Can Eva’s family’s relationships be restored? Do portals to other worlds exist, or are they closed for good? As she seeks answers, Eva finds herself unraveling dangerous secrets and wrestling with grief for a vanishing childhood, all while facing the fear that growing up means giving up fairy tales forever.
Fantasy | Young Adult [Waterbrook, On Sale: January 30, 2024, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9780593194454 / eISBN: 9780593194461]
Sarah Arthur has a B.A. in Literature and Intercultural Christian Education from Wheaton College, IL '95. Minor in biblical studies. She is currently a freelance writer and speaker happily married to her best friend, Tom.
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