Beyond the Veil
by Hannah Spencer
‘I don’t like him, Nell. I don’t want you to marry him.’
Nell giggled. ‘He hasn’t asked me yet!’
Her sister glanced towards the door. ‘He’s so strange. It seems like there’s always a black shadow around him. When I look at his eyes, they just seem empty. Like I’m looking into hell itself.’
Nell looked away. The Earl was so caring and tender towards her, she knew that wasn’t true. But she shivered, despite herself.
‘You’re just jealous, Polly. Because he hasn’t been paying attention to you. Well, he’s mine. Mine! It’s about time I had a suitor. You’ve suitors enough, even if they are all butcher’s boys. I’m going to marry him, and I’m going to be the Countess of Desmond.’
‘But he’s like the devil in disguise, he’s—’ Polly cut short with a cry.
Nell followed her gaze and saw the Earl framed in the doorway. For an instant, she saw a shadow like a pair of immense black wings behind him, and then it was gone. A prickle ran down her spine, fading at once as his gentle smile greeted her. She began to blush and quickly looked down.
‘Nell, my dear.’ He crossed the room and laid his fingers on her wrist. A jolt ran through her body and her pulse quickened. ‘I’ve finished speaking with your father. Let’s go for a walk.’
She got up, then made a show of smoothing down her dress. It wouldn’t do to seem too eager. As she took his arm and they left the room, she shot a triumphant look at her sister. Polly was very white.
‘Nell, my dear. Your father has given me permission to ask for your hand.’ He turned, took her hands and knelt in one swift motion. ‘Will you marry me?’
The world spun round her, she could hardly breathe. She’d hardly believed he’d actually ask. She was all set to fling her arms round his neck, then quickly composed herself. ‘Oh, Gerald, this is very sudden. I have many suitors, and I don’t know yet who I should choose.’ She spoke the line she’d practised a hundred times and looked at him challengingly.
‘As Countess of Desmond, a third share of my castle and lands will belong to you and your future issue. I can acquire everything you may want, your heartfelt desires: jewels, dresses, silks from the east, perfumes from China. Anything at all. I have infallible means.’
She gasped. This was far better than she’d ever been hoped. He must love her so much! She half wondered what his means were, but that didn’t really matter. ‘Well, then, I will marry you.’
She trembled as he gathered her to him and pressed his lips to hers, and all further thoughts were swept away.
* * *
‘I want to come with you. I want to see how you do it. Show me where our means come from.’
‘No, Nell. It’s not safe. It’s no place for a woman. No place for a man either, unless he’s both brave and very adept.’
Nell stood up and slowly smoothed down the lovely saffron silk of her dress, offset perfectly by her new pearls. The Earl’s eyes followed her hands over her body, lingering on the swell of her hips, as she knew they would.
‘Please, husband.’ She tried to make her voice as honeyed as possible. ‘Please let me come.’
‘Nell, I’ve told you. No.’
Annoyed, she turned her back on him and walked to the fireplace. She heard the door shut and, a moment later, ran to it, quietly opened it and crept out.
He was going into the tower, she knew. The only place in the castle she was forbidden to go. She’d studied it from outside: impossibly high, always enshrouded in cloud, its shadow reaching right across the narrow inlet to the mainland. Strange sounds would drift down from it, along with shimmering flashes of green light.
Nell ran quietly along the dim corridor, the Earl’s footsteps already faint echoes in the distance, and reached a set of stone stairs. She began to climb, her feet slipping on the green damp. The maids obviously never cleaned here: she must be going in the right direction.
A narrow landing, three corridors leading off it. The flickering lantern on the wall did little to penetrate the gloom in any direction. She listened but could hear nothing but the fizz of the burning lamp.
She chose the left, but soon came to a dead stop. She looked round and up. She hadn’t nearly reached the top of the tower, but there was no way out. That was just stupid. Why build a corridor that went nowhere? With a grudging respect, she knew why. To keep people from finding whatever he had up there.
She’d never be able to find him now. She ran back to the landing, her feet echoing on the stone floor, then stopped. There was now only one other corridor leading off it.
She looked round. It was the same place, she was sure. The newel post had a mark like a flowerhead. She heard a sound like a faint, whispered laugh and jumped. Perhaps she should go back. He’d be furious if he found out.
A quiet slither drifted along from behind her. She held her breath, then a small shape hurtled out of the shadows. The rat ran straight over her foot before disappearing again. She almost screamed, then breathed deeply for a moment.
She’d just go a bit further, she decided. It was so boring, being married. Nothing like she’d expected. She wasn’t even permitted across the causeway to the mainland.
The corridor doubled back on itself, and then turned again. The tower looked narrow from the outside, she couldn’t see how all these corridors could ever fit inside it.
She walked and walked, twisting and weaving, taking junctions at random, finding neither doorway nor staircase. She ought to go back. She’d been in here for an age; the Earl could be back before she found her way out again.
She turned back. She rounded the first bend and found she was standing on the landing where she’d started. There’d been no stairway there a moment before. She was walking out of the third corridor, the one that had disappeared before. She shivered. What was going on?
That whispering laughter came again, and she turned and ran down the slimy stairs, not stopping until she was back in her warm and well-lit chamber. She was just pulling the cobwebs from her sleeve when the Earl entered.
She discreetly flicked the dirt into the fireplace, cast a hasty eye over her dress, composed her face and then turned round. ‘Oh, husband. You’re back already.’
‘I have a gift for you.’ He was smiling. He held out his hand and she gasped. A necklace, real gold, with a ruby pendant sparkling on the chain.
‘Gerald, it’s beautiful!’
‘My guides provided it for you, as a consolation prize.’
His eyes met hers, and were no longer smiling. Did he know? She couldn’t move as he walked towards her.
He fixed the chain round her neck, his hands lingering on her throat.
‘Husband, who are your guides?’ She looked at him defiantly.
He hesitated. ‘They are spirits. Beings from another world.’
‘Take me with you to the tower. I want to see dead people.’
‘Everyone sees dead people, every day, Nell.’ His hands slowly tightened.
‘What do you mean?’
‘We are all dead from the moment we’re born. It’s just a matter of time.’
The fire crackled. The Earl’s thumb stroked the vein in her neck and she arched her head up.
‘Take me with you,’ she breathed.
‘Nell, they’re dangerous. They possess powers you can’t imagine. I’ve studied the arts for twenty years, that’s the only reason I’m safe. If you entered the tower—’
‘But you can protect me. You know how to do that.’ She gazed at him, eyes sultry, hoping it was true.
‘Yes,’ he conceded. ‘I could.’ His fingers strayed down her spine.
‘I’m so bored here, husband. I’ve nothing to do, no one to talk to. You won’t let me go out. Sometimes I wish I could go home.’ She looked down at the floor.
His hands stiffened. ‘All right. I’ll take you to the tower.’
She jerked her head up and started to thank him.
‘But on one condition,’ he warned. ‘All the while, you’re to make no sound, no matter what you see. If any sound escapes your lips, I won’t be able to protect you. Do you understand?’
‘Oh, thank you, husband dear. I won’t let you down.’
* * *
The room was at first glance empty. Then as her eyes grew accustomed to the unnatural veil of gloom, strange things began to emerge. Three human skulls on a shelf. The head of a fox, mouth open in a snarl. Rows of bottles, the contents moving of their own accord.
A man’s body fashioned entirely of straw, except for the grasping fingertips, which seemed almost like flesh. It was clothed in peasant’s garb, eyes wide and mouth open in a silent scream.
Next, a mirror engraved with strange symbols. She looked into it and saw a grey churning ocean, empty in its vastness. Then the blazing sands of a desert, a wasteland of ice, a city of strangely garbed people. Her mouth opened in amazement, but she remembered her promise.
The Earl drew a circle round her with chalk, surrounded it with lighted candles and shimmering stones.
‘Remember, not a sound.’
He lit a lamp. Immediately the shadows gathered, swooping and diving towards the sphere of light. He threw some herbs on a brazier which flared up purple and yellow, emitting a sickly, earthy smell. She hardly dared to breathe.
Then something appeared, crawling out of the mouth of a skull. A dwarf, hideously deformed. Its teeth were yellow and sharp, and it smelt of the grave. It hobbled round her circle, clawing towards her with sharp talons, but it couldn’t penetrate the barrier. She searched round for her husband, but couldn’t see him. Where was he? She clutched her arms tightly round herself, longing to call out for him.
The dwarf sidled back into the shadows, and the Earl materialised. He nodded approvingly. ‘Remember,’ he cautioned.
More herbs. This time the straw man began to stagger towards her. ‘Help me!’ it screamed. The words seemed to come from all around her. ‘Help me!’
Its eyes wheeled in their sockets. It stretched its hands towards her. The nails were worn and cracked, the legacy of a lifetime’s work.
It reached the edge of the circle, and Nell shrank back, her hand pressed over her mouth. Just as she thought it was going to get to her, it struck against an invisible barrier and fell. Its hair caught in the flames of the brazier and in an instant it was ablaze. Soon nothing was left of it but the lingering scream.
The Earl reappeared, bent and pulled something from the smoking ashes that remained. An elaborate string of pearls, nearly identical to the one she was wearing. She felt she was going to be sick.
He held it up to her, smiled, and placed a warning finger to his lips.
He himself began to change. His face stretched, his eyes widening, then distorting until she was sure he would be pulled apart. His arms and legs were stretched out, longer and thinner until they enshrouded her entire circle, entwining round and round. She stared up at the hideous monstrosity that had once been his face, and then she opened her mouth and screamed.
* * *
‘I remember it like it was yesterday,’ the old man continued, ‘even though I was only a nipper at the time. Gave me nightmares for months, it did.’
Matilda looked across the empty, grey-green sea and shivered. The tide was creeping in, and she’d barely gathered enough cockles to feed herself, let alone the rest of the family. Why the man had decided to stop and talk to her, she had no idea, but she wished he’d let her get on. Mother would not be happy.
‘Right there, it was. A castle like Satan’s himself. This outcrop was part of the causeway to reach it.’
‘What happened?’ she asked, despite the near-empty basket at her feet. A good story would compensate for an empty belly. That was what Mother always told them, although she knew it wasn’t really true.
‘It was like an almighty earthquake, as if Thor himself had arrived. The ground split open, the sea began to boil, the causeway crumbled, and the castle was swallowed by the waters.’
‘The Earl was never seen again?’
‘Oh, he was. That’s why you’ve got to be careful, lass. It’s the anniversary today, and on the anniversary of their fall, demons walk among us.’
Matilda looked across the sea again. It was like a mirror, betraying no secrets. The faintest salty breeze touched her face but it barely disturbed the opaque surface. ‘And what will he do?’ Her voice was barely a whisper.
‘He loved his wife dearly. If he should find someone, and they utter a single sound that he warned his wife against, then she will be freed, and you will take her place beyond the shadowy veil in hell.’
You. She broke her gaze from the mesmerising stillness and turned to face the old man. She was now alone.
She looked up and down the shore, but he’d gone. Must have disappeared behind the rocks. She bent to pick up her basket, regretting now that she’d wasted so much time, then dropped it with a start.
The man was only a few paces in front of her. A gentleman, dressed like no one she’d ever seen before. She was so shocked she could barely curtsey a greeting. She looked into his eyes, and he smiled at her gently and tenderly, as she’d dreamed someone would one day. She went dizzy, her breath caught in her throat, and she looked down to hide her blushing cheeks.
‘Good evening, my dear,’ he said.
Copyright © 2015 by Hannah Spencer