Now that we've handed out the chapter sampler's at Comic-Con, I've been given permission to post the first two chapters from PROPHECY OF THE SISTERS. Enjoy!
Perhaps because it seems so appropriate, I don’t notice the rain. It falls in sheets, a blanket of silvery thread rushing to the hard almost-winter ground. Still, I stand without moving at the side of the coffin.
I am on
The reverend has long since left. I cannot say how long we have been standing at the mound of dirt where my father’s body lay, for I have been under the shelter of James’s umbrella, a quiet world of protection providing the smallest of buffers between me and the truth.
My feet will not move, will not take me away from my father, cold and dead in the ground.
“I’ll be along in a moment.” I have to shout to be heard, and she nods slowly, turning and continuing along the path toward Birchwood Manor.
James takes my gloved hand in his, and I feel a wave of relief as his strong fingers close over mine. He moves closer to be heard over the rain.
“I’ll stay here with you as long as you want, Lia.”
I can only nod, watching the rain leak tears down Father’s gravestone as I read the words etched into the granite.
Thomas Edward Milthorpe
June 23, 1846 – November 1, 1890
There are no flowers. Despite my father’s wealth, it is difficult to find flowers so near to winter in our town in
But there is nothing. Only a few small stones lying in the rain that pools on the dirt and grass. I bend down, reaching for a few of the dirt-covered stones, holding my palm open to the rain until the rocks are washed clean.
I am not surprised that James knows what I mean to do, though I don’t say it aloud. We have shared a lifetime of friendship and, recently, something much, much more. He moves forward with the umbrella, offering me shelter as I step towards the grave and open my hand, dropping the rocks along the base of Father’s headstone.
My sleeve pulls with the motion, revealing a sliver of the strange mark, the peculiar, jagged circle, that bloomed on my wrist in the hours after Father’s death. I steal a glance at James to see if he has noticed. He hasn’t, and I pull my arm further inside my sleeve, lining the rocks up in a careful row. I push the mark from my mind. There is no room there for both grief and worry. And grief will not wait.
I stand back, looking at the stones. They are not as pretty or bright as the flowers I will bring in the spring, but they are all I have to give. I reach for James’ arm and turn to leave, relying on him to guide me home.
* * *
It is not the warmth of the parlor’s fire that keeps me downstairs long after the rest of the household retires. My room has a firebox, as do most of the rooms at Birchwood Manor. No, I sit in the darkened parlor, lit only by the glow of the dying fire, because I do not have the courage to make my way upstairs.
Though Father has been dead for three days, I have kept myself well occupied. It has been necessary to console Henry, and though Aunt
I rise quickly, before I lose my nerve, focusing on putting one slippered foot in front of the other as I make my way up the winding staircase and down the hall of the East Wing. As I pass Alice’s room, and then Henry’s, my eyes are drawn to the door at the end of the hall. The room that was once my mother’s private chamber.
The Dark Room.
As little girls, Alice and I spoke of the room in whispers, though I cannot say how we came to call it the Dark Room. Perhaps it is because in the tall-ceilinged rooms where fires blaze non-stop nine months out of the year, it is only the uninhabited rooms that are completely dark. Yet, even when my mother was alive the room seemed dark, for it was in this room that she retreated in the months before her death. It was in this room that she seemed to drift further and further away from us.
I continue to my room where I undress and pull on a nightgown. I am sitting on the bed, brushing my hair to a shine, when a knock stops me mid-stroke.
The door creaks open, and with it a burst of cooler air from the unheated hallway.
She reaches out a hand for the brush. “Let me.”
I hand her the brush, trying not to show my surprise as I turn away to give her access to the back of my head. We are not the kind of sisters who engage in nightly hair brushing or confided secrets.
She moves the brush in long strokes starting at the crown of my head and traveling all the way down to the ends. Watching our reflection in the looking glass atop the bureau, it is hard to believe anyone can tell us apart. From this distance and in the glow of the firelight, we look exactly the same. Our hair shimmers the same chestnut in the dim light. Our cheekbones angle at the same slant. I know, though, that it is the subtle differences that are unmistakable to those who know us at all. It is the slight fullness in my face that stands in contrast to the sharper contours of my sister’s and the somber introspection in my eyes that opposes the sly gleam in her own. It is Alice who shimmers like a jewel under the light, while I brood, think, and wonder.
The fire crackles in the firebox, and I close my eyes, allowing my shoulders to loosen as I fall into the soothing rhythm of the brush in my hair,
“Do you remember her?”
My eyelids flutter open. It is an uncommon question, and for a moment, I’m unsure how to answer. We were only girls of six when our mother died in an inexplicable fall from the cliff near the lake. Henry had been born just a few months before. The doctors had already made it clear that my father’s long-desired son would never have the use of his legs. Aunt
I can only offer her the truth. “Yes, but only a little. Do you?”
She hesitates before answering, the brush still moving. “I believe so. But only in flashes. Little moments, I suppose. I often wonder why I can remember her green dress, but not the way her voice sounded when she read aloud. Why I can clearly see the book of poems she kept on the table in the parlor but not remember the way she smelled.”
“It was jasmine and… oranges, I think.”
“Is that it? The way she smelled?” Her voice is a murmur behind me. “I didn’t know.”
“Here. My turn.” I twist around, reaching for the brush.
She turns as compliant as a child. “Lia?”
“If you knew something, about Mother… If you remembered something, something important, would you tell me?” Her voice is quiet, more unsure than I’ve ever heard it.
My breath catches in my throat with the strange question. “Yes, of course,
She hesitates, the only sound in the room the soft pull of the brush through silken hair. “I suppose so.”
I move the brush through her hair, remembering. Not my mother. Not now. But
It would be easy to look back on our childhood and assume that Alice and I were close. In the fondness of memory, I recall her soft breath in the dark of night, her voice mumbling into the blackness of our shared nursery. I try to remember our proximity as comfort, to ignore the voice that reminds me of our differences even then. But it doesn’t work. If I am honest, I will admit we have always eyed one another warily. Still, it was once her soft hand I grasped before falling into sleep, her curls I brushed from my shoulder when she slept too close.
“Thank you, Lia.”
My cheeks are warm under the scrutiny of her stare, the closeness of her face to mine. I shrug. “I’m right here,
She smiles, but in it is something sad and knowing. Leaning in, she wraps her thin arms around me as she did when we were children.
“And I as well, Lia… As I’ve always been.”
She stands, leaving without another word. I sit on the edge of the bed in the dim light of the lamp, trying to place her uncommon sadness. It is unlike
When I finally pull back my sleeve, telling myself that whatever is there is there just the same, whether or not I look, I have to press my lips together to keep from crying out. It isn’t the mark on the soft underside of my wrist that is a surprise, but how much darker it is now than even this morning. How much clearer the circle, though I still cannot decipher the ridges that thicken it, making the edges seem uneven.
I fight a surge of rising panic. It seems there should be some recourse, something I should do, someone I should tell, but whom might I tell such a thing? Once, I would go to
I tell myself the mark will go away, that there is no need to tell someone such a strange thing when surely it will be gone in a few days. Instinctively, I think this a lie, but convince myself I have a right to believe it on a day such as this.
On the day I have buried my father.
The thin November light is spreading its fingers across the room when Ivy pads in carrying a kettle of hot water.
“Good morning, Miss.” She pours the water into the basin on the washstand. “Shall I help you dress?”
I lift myself up on my elbows. “No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
“Very well.” She leaves the room, empty kettle in hand.
I throw back the covers and make my way to the washstand, swirling a hand in the basin to cool the water before I wash. When I am finished, I dry my cheeks and forehead, peering into the glass. My green eyes are bottomless, empty, and I wonder if it is possible to change from the inside out, if sadness can radiate outward, through the veins and organs and skin for all to see. I shake my head at the morbid notion, watching my auburn hair, unbound, brush my shoulders in the looking glass.
I take off my nightdress and pull a petticoat and stockings from the bureau, beginning to dress. I am smoothing the second stocking up my thigh when
“Good morning.” She drops heavily onto the bed, looking up at me with the breathless charm that is uniquely
It surprises me still, her effortless swing from barely concealed bitterness to sorrow to carefree calm. It should not, for
“Good morning.” I hurry and fasten the stocking, feeling guilty that I’ve lazed in my room for so long when my sister is already up and about. I move to the cupboard, both to find a gown, and to avoid the eyes that always seem to look too deeply into mine.
“You should see the house, Lia. The entire staff is in mourning clothes, on Aunt
I turn to look at her, noticing the flush on her cheeks and something like excitement in her eyes. I push down my annoyance. “Many households observe the mourning period,
“Yes, well, now we shall be stuck inside for an interminable time, and it is so very dull here. Do you suppose Aunt
I do not bother arguing. It is well-known that
* * *
We spend the day in the almost-silence of the crackling fire. We are accustomed to the isolation of Birchwood and have learned to occupy ourselves within its somber walls. It is like any other rainy day save for the lack of Father’s big voice booming from the library or the smell of his pipe. We don’t speak of him or his strange death.
I avoid looking at the clock, fearing the slow passing of time that will only seem slower if I watch its progress. It works, in a manner of speaking. The day passes more quickly than I expect, the small interruptions for lunch and dinner easing me toward the time when I can escape to the nothingness of sleep.
This time I don’t look at my wrist before climbing into bed. I don’t want to know if the mark is still there. If it has changed. If it is deeper or darker. I slip into bed, sinking toward darkness without further thought.
I am in the in-between place, the place we drift through before the world falls away into sleep, when I hear the whispering. At first, it is only the call of my name, beckoning from some far-off place. But the whisper builds, becoming many voices, all murmuring frantically, so quickly that I can only make out an occasional word. It grows and grows, demanding my attention until I cannot ignore it a second longer. Until I sit straight up in bed, the last whispered words echoing through the caverns of my mind.
The Dark Room.
It is not entirely surprising. The Dark Room has been at the forefront of my mind since Father’s death. He should not have been there. Not in the one room that would invoke the memory of my mother, his beloved, dead wife, more than any other.
And yet, in those last moments, as life slipped from his body like a wraith, he was.
I slide my feet into slippers and make my way to the door, listening a moment before opening it and looking down the hall. The house is dark and silent. The footsteps of the servants cannot be heard in the rooms above our own or in the kitchen below. It must be quite late.
All this registers in seconds, leaving only the faintest of impressions. The thing that gets my attention, the thing that makes the small hairs rise on my arms and the back of my neck, is the door, open just a crack, at the end of the hallway.
The door to the Dark Room.
It is strange enough that the door to this, of all rooms, should be open, but stranger still that there is a faint glow leaking from the small gap between the frame and the door.
I look down at the mark. It shadows my wrist even in the darkness of the hallway. It is this I’ve been wondering, is it not? I think. Whether or not the Dark Room holds the key to Father’s death or the reason for my mark? Now it is as if I’ve been summoned to that very place, called to the answers I sought all along.
I creep down the hallway, careful to lift my feet so the bottoms of my slippers don’t scuff along the wood floor. When I reach the door of the Dark Room, I hesitate.
Someone is inside.
A voice, soft but urgent, comes from within the room. It is not the same frantic murmur that called me here. Not the disjointed voices of many. No. It is the voice of one. A solitary person whispering inside.
I don’t dare push open the door for fear it will creak. Instead, I lean toward it, peering through the opening into the room beyond. It is difficult to get my bearings through such a small crack. At first everything is only shapes and shadows. But soon I make out the looming white sheets of the covered furniture, the dark mass I know is the wardrobe in the corner, and the figure sitting on the floor, surrounded by candles.
My sister sits on the floor of the Dark Room, the glow of many candles casting her body in soft yellow light. She is muttering, whispering as if to someone very near, though from my vantage I see not a soul. She sits on folded knees, her eyes closed, arms at her sides.
I scan the room, careful not to touch the door lest it should spring to life and glide open even further. But there is no one else there. No one but
No, it is that my sister sits with the rug pulled back, a large, well-worn rug that has been in the room as long as I can remember. She sits, as naturally as if she has done it countless times before, within a circle carved into the floor. The angles of her face are nearly unrecognizable, almost harsh, in the candlelight.
The cold from the unheated hallway seeps through the thin fabric of my nightdress. I step back, my heart beating so loudly in my chest that I fear
When I turn to make my way down the hall, I have to resist the urge to run. Instead, I walk calmly and step into my room, closing the door behind me and climbing into the safety and comfort of my bed. I lay awake for a long time, trying to force from my mind the image of
* * *
The next morning, I stand in the clear light streaming through the window, sliding the sleeve of my nightdress up and over my wrist. The mark has become darker still, the circle thicker and more prominent.
And there is something else.
In the stark light of day, it seems quite obvious what it is – the thing that encircles the circle itself, making the edges less clear. I trail a finger across the surface of the mark, raised as a scar, following the lines of the snake that coils itself around the edges of the circle until its mouth is eating its own tail.
Few girls of sixteen would know it, but I recognize the symbol from Father’s books on mythology. It is at once familiar and frightening, for why should such a symbol rise from my skin?
I only briefly consider telling Aunt
I chew my lower lip. It is impossible to think of my sister without remembering her posture on the floor of the Dark Room. I resolve to ask her what she was doing. It’s a logical question, under the circumstances. And then I will show her the mark.
After dressing, I step into the hall, preparing to search for
My mind is made up before I fully realize it. I make my way swiftly down the hall. I don’t hesitate on the threshold of the room. Instead, I open the door and step through it in seconds.
The room is just as I remember it, the curtains drawn against the daylight, the rug back in place over the wood floor. A strange energy pulses through the air, a vibration that seems to hum through my veins. I shake my head, and the sound almost disappears.
I move to the bureau and open the top drawer. I should not be surprised to find my mother’s things there, but somehow I am. Most of my life, she has been no more than an idea. Somehow, the fine silk and lace of her petticoats and stockings make her seem very real. I can see her suddenly, a flesh-and-blood woman, dressing for the day.
I force myself to lift her underthings, looking for anything that might explain Father’s presence in the room at the time of his death – a journal, an old letter, anything at all. When I find nothing, I do the same with the other drawers, lifting and searching to the very back. But there is nothing there. Nothing but the paper drawer liner that long ago lost its scent.
I lean lightly against the dresser, surveying the room for other possible hiding places. Crossing to the bed, I kneel and lift the ghostly coverlet, peering beneath the bed. It is spotless, doubtless cleared of dust and cobwebs only during the maid’s latest round of cleaning.
My eyes settle on the rug. The image of
I move toward the rug and am at its edge when my head begins to buzz, the vibration closing in on my thoughts, my vision, until I think I might faint. The tips of my fingers become numb, a prickly tingling beginning at my feet and radiating upward until I fear that may legs will give out altogether.
And then the whispering begins. It is the same whispering I heard last night before coming to the Dark Room. But this time it is threatening, as if warning me off, telling me to go back. A cold sweat breaks out on my brow, and I begin to tremble. No, not tremble. Shake. I shake so violently my teeth clatter together before I sink to the floor in front of the rug. A small voice of self-preservation shouts at me to leave, to forget the Dark Room altogether.
But I must see for myself. I must.
My hand weaves and shakes in front of my eyes, reaching for the edge of the rug. The whispering grows louder and louder until the great buzz of many voices becomes a shout within my head. I will myself not to stop, grasping the corner of the rug with fingers that can hardly close around the fine weave of the carpet.
I pull it back, and the whispering stops.
The circle is there, just as it was last night. And although the whispers are silent, my body’s reaction to the circle only becomes more violent. I think I may be sick. Without the cover of darkness, I see that the gouges are fresh where the wood has been dug away to form the circle. This is no remnant from my mother’s time in the Dark Room but an addition much more recent.
I pull the rug back over the carving, rising on wobbling legs. I will not let it drive me from the room. My mother’s room. I force myself to the wardrobe as I had planned, though I must step around the rug for my feet cannot, will not, allow me too close.
Flinging open the wardrobe doors, I perform a quick search, knowing it is not as thorough as it could be and knowing just as well that I no longer care. That I really must leave the room.
In any case, there is nothing of note in the wardrobe. Some old gowns, a cape, four corsets. Whatever drew Father to this room is as inexplicable as the reason for
I step around the rug, making my way to the door as swiftly as possible without actually running. The more distance I put between myself and the rug, between myself and the circle, the better I feel, though still not well.
I close the door behind me more loudly than I should, leaning against the wall and forcing down the bile that has risen in my throat. I don’t know how long I stand there, catching my breath, forcing my physical symptoms into submission, but all the while my mind is full of fierce and frightful things.