The night grew clearer – and colder – as Serena walked hour after hour along the small rural road. It seemed to track as much upward as it did eastward once it wound its way across the heavily-wooded plateau and began to climb through the foothills of the White Downs of eastern Deepmoor to ascend toward Skelling, the location of her great-uncle Viktor’s feudal demesne. She had traveled this way many times as a young child but had always traversed these roads by carriage, never on foot. A journey that she remembered taking little more than half a morning by coach-and-four took much longer alone – particularly when encumbered by an elegant, white ball gown and shoes designed more for appearance than function. She was determined, nevertheless, to stay on her chosen course.
Between the rounded domes of the White Downs, the sky was beginning to lighten as Serena willed herself to continue. The stars were fading against the growing pre-dawn light as she forced herself to walk up the steep hill to the wide wrought-iron gates which marked the boundary of her great-uncle Viktor’s majestic hilltop estate. She found the gates locked. The road beyond the gate was overgrown with weeds and the goldstone wall which beamed so radiantly in the sunlight of her memory now was choking in thick creeping vines.
Unwilling to wait the few hours it might take for some member of her great-uncle’s staff to come unlock the gate, Serena decided to risk climbing the wall. Fortunately, the vines provided many a foothold, particularly where the roots and tendrils had penetrated the mortar. Even in her dress, the climb was not difficult, though she did manage to pop a seam. Once over the wall, she still had the expansive grounds to traverse. The great oaks which lined the avenue hadn’t been tended in ages, nor had the grounds themselves. Weeds were everywhere in sight and the once-stately oaks now appeared twisted and bent, strangled with such dense clumps of Blackheath moss that at first Serena mistook them for willows.
The avenue terminated at a great circular drive with a massive fountain in the middle, so large that it effectively blocked the view of an entire third of the driveway from whichever angle you looked. It featured four horsemen rearing up toward the center on great destriers fashioned entirely of whitstone, with water spraying upward from a small bowl in a circular arc to fall upon the horses’ heads. Serena’s heart leapt when she saw it, for that was always how she could tell that the carriage had arrived at the manor house when she was a little girl, for she could always hear the roar of water in that great fountain, even over the horses’ hooves and the creaking of the coach’s undercarriage. But now the fountain was silent and the noble beasts she loved were covered in deep green moss that reeked of decay and looked black in the near-darkness.
Serena wiped a tear from her cheek as she crossed the carriage drive to the grand entrance, still shrouded in twilight. Walking up a short, wide semi-circular flight of steps, she was disheartened to see how much the once-grand estate had descended toward ruin since she had visited last as a child. She had to watch her step a bit as the small, white steps were practically crumbling from beneath her feet. She paused before proceeding under the portico as the colonnade stood slightly askew with its once-elegant slim columns, all cut in single pieces from rare white alba stone, leaned slightly toward the south, giving the entire portico a shabby, dilapidated appearance. She pushed against one of the columns to test its sturdiness and judged them to be rather more robust than they looked. It was just a couple dozen feet to the doors, but even in the dim light, Serena was able to make out the deteriorated condition of the mahogany that once added a finishing touch of warmth to the cold stone, but now seemed entirely out of place. She remembered the double set of doors along with the grand portico and colonnade entry in much better condition in the equally happier days of her childhood, but now the place was so untended that for a moment Serena wondered if anyone still lived here. Then, taking a deep breath, Serena slammed the tarnished brass knocker several times, and waited. Long minutes passed, which seemed to reinforce her doubts as to whether the estate and manor were still occupied, when finally, the door opened a crack and a young woman’s face appeared, then soured.
“No alms, miss”, she said. “You can try the chapel in the town below, or perhaps the Greengrove up in Thistleton if they’ve naught for ye in Skelling town.”
Serena stood there, frozen in shock.
“Alms? You think I-”
She looked down at herself and only then realized the toll her journey had taken on her dress. No longer white, her gown looked shabby and disheveled, very much as if a poor commoner had gotten her hands on a gown from some noble lady’s leavings and passed through several hands before coming to her.
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. I am Serena Haunton. Lord Viktor Skelling is my great-uncle. I’m not some commoner come begging, but as I’ve come from Stirling Deep without a coach, I’ll grant that I do appear the worse for wear. I’ve come to pay a visit to my great-uncle Viktor.”
The young woman at the door eyed Serena with curious circumspection.
“Wait here. I’ll fetch the bailiff.”
The door closed behind her.
“Alms, indeed!” Serena spat, as she waited.
Now that she was standing still, the cold air got the better of her and she began to shiver, and the smells in the air were so different from what she remembered. Depending on the time of year, one might smell the fragrant white Bethany roses blooming from their trellises set against eastern wall of the manor near the hand-drawn well in late spring, the Red jasmine filling the air with its unmistakable nectar during the Golden Rule’s Assumption Feast of Bethany and lasting through the Greenway’s Rites of Midsummer, the heady aroma of the King’s Bounty in late autumn when the final harvests of the year are gathered together and a tenth set aside along with a tenth of all the yearling livestock to be given in tithe to the liege lord of each estate, passing all the way up to the King, and finally the dead of winter where the only smells are the winter meats roasting on the peat fires and being left out to freeze.
But all Serena could smell now was a persistently lingering odor of decay and rot as her great-uncle’s manor house and estate sat forlorn and neglected. Silently, Serena wondered if she should have come, but was torn also by worry. Surely the Uncle Viktor she knew would never allow his estate to wither to such a condition as this if he were capable of running it properly.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the door opening. A short and stocky man of middle age wearing a bailiff’s key upon a chain of office around his neck and a scowl on his oversized face, glared up at her.
“You say you’re kin to the Master?” he asked.
“If Lord Viktor Skelling still holds title to this estate, then yes”, Serena replied.
“Alright. Come inside and we’ll have the Master take a look at you before he retires.”
“Pardon?” Serena asked as she followed the man’s invitation and stepped inside. “But the sun is just now about to rise. Is Uncle Viktor unwell?”
“Never better, my lady” he answered, leading Serena through a voluminous entry filled with priceless statuary from across the civilized world, all covered in a thick coating of dust. “But I’ll answer no more questions about the master. He finds it very displeasing when anyone speaks on his behalf.”
Thinking it best to reserve the rest of her questions for her great-uncle, Serena remained silent as the bailiff led her past the entry, deeper into the manor. The bailiff proceeded without a word through each dimly-lit room and passage, until stopping in front of a set of worn ashwood doors. He turned toward Serena.
“I’ll be frank with you”, Grigori began. “You should expect to be questioned regarding your claim to being His Lordship’s kin, particularly your claim to be the daughter of his liege lord, the Viscount of Deepmoor. And if you should prove false, this will end very badly for you. Right now is your last chance to reconsider your claim. Recant now and you will simply be whipped for insolence and sent away. If you present a falsehood directly to His Lordship and are later exposed, you will likely not see the light of day again. Think carefully now… which will it be?”
Serena was dumbfounded, then too angry to speak. After a struggle to calm herself, she responded.
“It may have been years since I was last here, Grigori, but I assure you that I am Lord Viktor’s great-niece and it is your insolence which ought be dealt with, bailiff. I walked for hours through a cold night to see my uncle and I mean to see him. Now.”
“As you wish”, he replied, opening the doors. “You cannot afterward say you were unwarned.”
Grigori led the way, walking into a very large room which Serena recognized had previously been used as a dining hall, but was now empty. Only the dais remained, which had previously featured the high table, but upon which now was only a single large chair placed in the center facing into the room. The man sitting there was both familiar and not. The face was mostly the same as Serena remembered, but the intervening years seemed to have aged him in a strange fashion. He seemed more fatigued than aged, she decided; as his skin seemed paler while his hair seemed a little darker. The biggest change, once she came to stand closer to the dais, was in his eyes, however. Her great-uncle Viktor had always had a merry air about him, causing his eyes to twinkle, especially in low light such as this. Perpetually smiling, Uncle Viktor was fond of laughter, good wine, and a roaring fire. But the man she saw now seemed to be none of those things. His face was drawn and haggard, and his eyes held none of the mirth they had during her childhood, like candles whose wicks had guttered out and gone dark and cold.
“Your Lordship, this is the visitor. She approached us with a claim that I feel she ought make directly to you.”
Serena cleared her throat, surprised to find herself nervous.
“My name is Serena Haunton. Bradford Haunton, Viscount of Deepmoor, is my father…”
Her voice broke and her knees trembled.
“…at least, I always thought he was. I just learned yester-eve from my mother that he is not, after all. She confessed it before witnesses! I don’t know what to do, uncle. What does this mean?”
Lord Viktor looked down on her from his seat, unmoving. Grigori was the first to speak.
“Do you recognize this girl, my lord? Does she speak truly? Is she kin, or shall I have her flogged?”
An flash of irritation passed briefly across Viktor’s face.
“Grigori, I rue the day I had that scourge made for you. You’ve grown overly fond.”
“As you say, my lord.” Grigori replied. “And the girl?”
“The girl I do not recognize.” Viktor began. “But the issue may be with my memory. I do recall my nephew and his lady visiting on occasion, but not in some time. This young woman would have been a child then, and I do recall them bringing a girl child with them. I will not say that this is not the same girl.”
“I sense that she may be an imposter. Her appearance is shabby. Her dress is torn and dirty. She shuffles when she walks. Everything about her is common, my lord.”
“Child, what is your mother’s name?”
“Dorothea, uncle. She is of the Stratfords of The Steadings. Her brother Barclay Stratford holds Grimstead for the Crown.”
“Has she other kin?”
“Yes, uncle. Her younger sister Ermiline is Lady Spalding, wed to the Viscount of Paldingham.”
“Tell me now of your father”, he asked.
Serena started to speak, but the words caught in her throat.
“Right. Tell me of my nephew, the Viscount of Deepmoor.”
“His name is Bradford, uncle. He took my mother to wed twenty years ago.”
Viktor nodded again.
“And how came he to inherit Deepmoor?”
“From his father, Alford Haunton, the eighth Viscount of Deepmoor, upon his death.”
“Indeed. All true. Every detail correct.” Viktor said, as he sat back in his chair. “Are you satisfied, Grigori?”
“No, my lord. She could have been taught what to say when put to the question.”
-Viktor rolled his eyes.
“Aye, but to what purpose? Do you not think that someone attempting to take advantage would create a story that establishes kinship by blood? This girl has done the opposite, saying rather that she is no longer blood, but as a bastard girl is now kin to me only by bond. As always, Grigori, you see only the surface. The girl has trekked through the night. Of course her appearance is shabby. Of course her dress is torn. And after walking for so many leagues and miles, it is no wonder that she shuffles from fatigue. But you missed what was beneath the surface but just as visible. You missed her bearing. Even as fatigued as she must be, she stands straight and tall, her head held proper. She looks me in the eye and she looks down on you. Something a commoner would never dare. She speaks as one born to nobility, for that is what she is. Perhaps I should put your scourge in her hands and see how fond you remain of it.”
Serena found herself unable to resist a smile as Grigori recoiled.
“As you wish.” Grigori said softly. “I serve at your pleasure, my lord.”
“Enough talk of that.” Viktor began. “My dear Serena, you tell me you do not know what to do.”
“Aye, uncle. I do not understand what all of this means. You were ever kind to me. I came seeking refuge and advice.”
“And you shall have it.” Viktor smiled. “Grigori, have Katarina prepare a chamber for our noble guest. See to it that she is shown every courtesy.”
“As you wish, my lord.”
“And Grigori, fetch quill and parchment. It appears that I’ve a letter to write.”
On to Chapter 4 – Scene One (password required)