Cornwall, England, 1640
Theodora Predennick failed to stifle a yawn. She wasn’t accustomed to rising so early. Being dressed and busy in the pre-dawn gloom felt unnatural. All her life, summer and winter, she had been woken by the first rays of the rising sun, and had retired to bed as the skies above her village turned black.
Her grandmother had warned her about the things that walked abroad after dark: goblins, werewolves, fair folk, and girls with wickedness in their hearts. Good girls were safely tucked up behind stout wooden doors come sunset. Dora had always been a good girl.
Her new dress pinched at her ribs. She adjusted the wretched thing to try and reduce the chafing as she worked the lump of dough on the table before her, kneading and pounding the mixture into submission.
The logs on the huge kitchen hearthstones crackled and spat as the damp bark was scorched away. The newly dried wood began to catch alight, billowing fresh smoke up the chimney and casting a warm glow that lightened the gloom.
When Dora was satisfied that the dough was ready she set it by the fireplace in a cloth-lined wicker basket so it could rise in the spreading warmth. It was time to light the fire beneath the baking oven.
She had just lifted the iron tongs, intending to prise a log from the main fire and use it to spark the smaller one, when she paused. Had she heard something?
No. Not at this hour. The master was still abed and cook wasn’t likely to rise for some time. She’d only been working at Sweetclover Hall for a week, but she already had a good sense of the daily rhythm. At this time she was invariably the only person awake. She must have imagined it.
She leaned forward, the heat licking at her skin. She prised the tongs open and grasped a burning log in the metal jaws.
Once more she froze. There it was again. She was sure she’d heard it this time. She bit her lip nervously. What to do?
The horizons of Dora’s life were not wide. She had travelled beyond the borders of her village only twice. Once, when she was five, to visit her paternal grandfather as he lay dying in a neighbouring village, three miles to the south. The only other time had been last week, when she’d left home to enter service here.
She hadn’t wanted to leave. She had begged her father to change his mind, but he stood firm. Dora was fourteen now, a grown woman, he said. It was time she made her way in the world. Did she want to stay stuck in Pendarn tending goats for the rest of her life?
Dora had wanted to do exactly that, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it. They’d secured her a position as scullery maid at the big house and she was to start immediately.
Who knew, with some dedication and luck she might be cook herself one day, her mother had told her. Imagine that, a Predennick cook at the big house! Her mother’s breast had swelled with anticipated pride as she waved her tearful daughter goodbye.
Everything that Dora had experienced since then – every sight, sound, smell, texture and taste – had been fresh and new. Some people would have responded with excitement at the novelty, but not Dora. She longed for the comfort of familiarity and the safe, reassuring sameness of the life she had left behind. She was not curious about much of anything.
And yet, perhaps all the newness had inspired her; perhaps she was becoming confident of her ability to cope with the unexpected; perhaps she was just foolish. But as she stood in front of the fire, straining to hear what she was sure was the moan of pain drifting through the dark, deserted corridors, she made an uncharacteristic decision.
She lit a candle, and decided to investigate.
Dora cracked open the heavy oak kitchen door, poked her head out into the stone-flagged, wood-panelled corridor, and listened intently.
The silence was absolute. Again she doubted her ears, but as she was about to withdraw she heard a soft rustle of fabric and a low moan. It was hard to be sure, but it sounded like a woman.
She felt a thrill of fear.
In the village they spoke of Lord Sweetclover in deferential tones of respect. No one had a bad word to say about him. He was good-natured, front and centre at all the big festivals of the year, everything a lord of the manor should be. True, there had been some concern when his father died a few years back, rumours that the young master was wayward and wanton, but he had assumed the role without complaint and had done nothing to bring disgrace to the district.
But here in the house there were whisperings amongst the staff. No one knew Dora well enough yet to confide any details to her, but there’d been enough knowing winks and slow, meaningful nods of the head from the stable boy, gardener and kitchen maid. She was aware of an undercurrent of disapproval and caution. The master, she had surmised, was not as lily white as everyone believed; he had decided to be more discreet only once he had assumed the title and its responsibilities.
She had seen him only twice, when she’d taken platters into the dining room. He was a tall man in his mid-thirties, dark haired with a hint of grey at the temples; heavy browed, with deep brown eyes and a fine, square jaw. Somehow all the fine features, which should have rendered him rakish and handsome, failed to fit together as they should. The impression he gave was of solidity rather than panache.
Still, he was unmarried and Dora, unworldly though she was, was not entirely naïve. She had little doubt that he rarely took to his bedchamber alone unless he desired the solitude. Dora thought it likely that he took liberties with the kitchen maid, probably Mary, the coach master’s daughter, and possibly even Cook.
However, he did not flaunt his conquests, and nobody seemed to find his behaviour outrageous enough to require their departure. He was lord of the manor, and rank had its privileges.
Now here stood Dora, in a dark corridor lit only by the candle she held, hearing the moans of what sounded like a woman in pain emanating from the open door of the undercroft.
Her every instinct was to close the door and go back to the baking. This was not her business and it could only lead to trouble. Imagine her parents’ disappointment and shame if she were sent back to the village in disgrace, dismissed for prying into the affairs of her betters.
On the other hand, they would not want her to stay in a house serving a master who might place Dora’s virtue, or even her life, in danger. She held the lowest position within the household. If the master were to take a fancy to her and drag her down into his undercroft to share the fate of the poor woman whose moans now disturbed the silence of the house, she would be powerless to stop him.
She had to find out. It was probably her imagination running away with her, but it had never so much as strolled before so she was quite surprised to find it running, especially at this ungodly hour.
Maybe Cook had got up early, gone down there for some wine and slipped on the stairs.
That was it. Only explanation that made any sense.
Satisfied that she had hit upon the truth, Dora stepped confidently through the undercroft door and peered down the steps.
Dora had witnessed plenty of awful things in her life.
There was a man in her village with a gaping wound on his neck that had oozed pus since before she could remember. Her grandfather had a tumour on his face when he passed away, as big as his nose. Her younger brother had died after a tiny cut on his leg had become infected, and an infection had taken him from the world in the slowest, cruellest way possible.
Dora had seen all these things and accepted them as normal. Deformity and sickness did not disturb her. She had a strong stomach.
But the woman on the undercroft stairs wasn’t just sick, she was ruined.
She was covered in terrible burns. Her clothes had melted into her skin, and one of her legs hung down over the stone steps at an angle that told of numerous broken bones. She was barely breathing.
But that wasn’t the worst.
Her right arm reached out towards Dora as though grasping for aid, but the other was withered and bent, and it was blurry, faded, as if seen through water. One second it was there, the next it was transparent, then it was back again.
The woman was not only entirely beyond repair, she also wasn’t entirely there.
Dora had no idea what to do. She couldn’t imagine what could have happened to this poor woman, or how she had found her way to the undercroft. It was plain that no physician could save her.
If she shouted for help, the master may come running. But what if he had done this terrible thing? And what, then, might he do to her?
She stood in the doorway, looking down at the woman, frozen. Then she heard the noise of a door opening upstairs, and footsteps on the landing above her. Her scream had woken the house.
‘Dora,’ gasped the injured woman, as if squeezing out the syllables was the hardest thing she’d ever done.
Dora felt helpless. She peered more closely, trying to reconstruct the ravaged face. Was it someone she knew? The footsteps above reached the top of the main staircase.
Dora scurried down the undercroft steps until she reached the prone figure.
‘Mistress, pardon me, but what can I do to help?’
The woman reached her hand up and grasped at the air.
‘Hand …’ she wheezed.
So Dora, eager to give comfort to the dying woman, fought back her revulsion and reached out to take the offered hand. But before she could make contact, a spark of crimson fire leapt from the woman’s fingers, arcing between her and Dora and then …
Dora was suspended in mid-air on a bright sunny day, screaming in alarm as she fell onto a cushion of bright fabric, the likes of which she had never seen before. She bounced clumsily back up into the air, her skirts flapping and her arms waving. Then back down again and a series of lessening bounces until she sprawled in a heap and looked up into the eyes of ten startled children, all in their stockinged feet, wearing the strangest garments she had ever seen. ‘Big kids aren’t allowed on the bouncy castle,’ said one prim, outraged little girl. And then …
Sprawling on the floor of a chamber hewn from rock, cathedral – large, silent, ice cold – was she in a cavern? A grey half-light picked out floor-to-ceiling racks of cocoons, each containing the blurred outline of a person. There were thousands of them, stretching away into the darkness. She rose to her feet and saw movement in the distance – three tiny figures, so far away. They were waving. She raised her hand to wave back and then …
Water, shockingly cold, up to her neck. She sank beneath the surface before she could even take a breath. Her clothes dragged her down into the dark, suffocating depths. She thrashed and struggled, and broke the surface with her face. She caught a glimpse of a large boat under sail, a warship or a privateer, perhaps. She sank back beneath the water before she could call to it. She fought her way up again, her face breaking the surface for a second time. She managed to raise one arm out of the sea and wave at the distant ship, but the cold and the weight of her dress were too much. She sank again, fast. She felt her ears pop, felt the pressure increase on her as she realised she was about to die. Animal panic pulled open her mouth to try and take a breath to ease the fire in her lungs. And then …
Lying in a puddle, gasping like a landed fish on the floor of a clean white room, sterile and silent but for the soft hum of unseen engines. There was light without fire and warmth without sunlight. Breathing hard now, wild eyed with terror and confusion, Dora cried aloud when the door opened and a tall, fat man in a strange white jacket came into the room. He walked forward slowly, anxious not to startle her. He reached out. ‘Take my hand. Take my hand and everything will be all right.’ But even through her fear she wasn’t going to make that mistake again. She scrambled back against the wall, gabbling refusals and protestations. Her back hit the hard wall and then …
Awful, deafening noise. A huge explosion next to her and she was sprawling in rubble, crying and screaming and begging for it to stop. Hands on her shoulders, pulling her backwards. She struggled but then there were hands on her feet, and she was lifted bodily into the air and carried away. Dumped on the ground behind a low brick wall. Bangs and crashes and strange, devilish humming. She coughed as the foul smoke and dust clogged her wet nostrils and frantic, gasping lungs. Hands on her face, forcing her to look up into the bright blue eyes of a young man with close-cropped black hair. Over his shoulder she could see a dark-skinned girl carrying some type of musket. She had a nasty wound across her forehead that leaked blood down across her face. ‘Calm down, Dora, breathe,’ said the boy. ‘It’s OK. You’re all right. It’s a lot to handle first time. I remember. But you need to concentrate, you’ll only be here for moment. I need you to listen, yes?’ Dora nodded, shaking. The boy’s accent was strange, foreign.
‘Don’t.’ Yelled the dark-skinned girl. ‘You mustn’t tell her …’ But she was interrupted by a series of small explosions that drew her attention away. She raised her odd musket and began shooting beams of light at unseen attackers.
The boy bit his lip, worried, but continued speaking. ‘There is one thing you need to know.’ He leaned forward, as if to whisper in her ear her, but then …
Darkness, night-time, winter cold made worse by wet clothes. Firelight through trees and the soft chanting of human voices. She did not know what language they were using, but it was not English. She ran forward, hoping for aid, but found herself standing on the edge of a clearing facing a burning pyre. Tied to a post in the centre of the conflagration was a young woman who screamed and screamed as the flames licked up her legs and her dress caught fire. The crowd stood singing songs to the dying victim; Dora presumed they sang in hope of speeding her to salvation from her wickedness. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The witch’s face was the same face that Dora had seen looking back at her in the mirror a hundred times. The witch was her! Dora screamed in mortal terror as she watched herself begin to burn. The crowd turned, saw her, cried in horror at the impossibility of it, and then …