“How much further, Willem?”
Wren leaned out of the carriage window, sheets of rain wetting her hair. Her Uncle’s coachman, Willem tilted his head down towards hers, water pouring down from his hat as he answered her.
“Not much longer, Miss!”
Wren sighed and ducked back inside the carriage, pulling her cloak more tightly about her shoulders. She reached inside a pocket of her dress and pulled out a crumpled and ink-stained letter. It was too dark to read it now, but Wren didn’t need the light to remember what it said; she had read it so many times now that the smudged words were etched on her memory.
My Dearest Wren,
Come at once! Something is very wrong here at Castcaglia Manor, and I fear the servants are not trustworthy. No one else would believe me, Wren, but I know that I can put my trust in the little girl that always took me so seriously. I will explain all to you once you arrive. Please hurry.
Wren had packed then and there and departed from her home in the early morning to head to Shippening where her Uncle’s manor was. Something must truly be wrong if her Uncle had written to her in such a frantic manner, and Wren was determined not to let him down. She felt the carriage suddenly slow down, and she leaned her head out of the window once again.
“What is it, Willem?”
“We’ve arrived, Miss!”
It was hard to see anything that night and in the rain, but when lightning lit up the sky, Wren saw the imposing silhouette of Castcaglia Manor. The door to the Manor opened up, letting a stream of light out into the darkness. A footman came rushing out and helped Wren from the carriage.
“Go on inside, Miss. I’ll tell the coachman where to go.”
She did as the footman said and dashed into the Manor. Wren hadn’t been to Castcaglia since she was a child, and so she didn’t remember the tall ceilings and giant wooden beams. Directly in front of her was a wide, wooden staircase with a midnight blue rug trailing down the center of it. To her left were several tapestries and paintings reminding her that although Castcaglia was a dark and rustic place, there were small details of the Manor that made it beautiful. Wren immediately searched around for something that was amiss in the Manor. Glancing about the room, she didn’t see any snooping servants or suspicious looking characters, and as she looked, a painting caught her eye that was so beautiful and whimsical Wren had to see it closer.
She shook her dress and squeezed some of the wetness from her hair as she walked over to inspect the large painting that was of King Iubdan and his Court. Animals danced in the background of the painting, and the King himself was rosy-cheeked and merry. Wren thought that King Iubdan’s Court must be the happiest place on earth, if it even existed. How she wished she could visit the faerie court…
She jumped out of her thoughts when the front door opened and closed again with a loud creak. The footman had returned, soggy and disgruntled, but he bowed to Wren professionally before telling her that he would announce her presence to Lord Kaster. She smiled and thanked him as he walked away, his shoes squeaking from the rain. Wren thought about her Uncle and wondered what could be wrong in this Manor. Uncle Kaster had always been a bit eccentric, but that was what she loved about him. He had told her many marvelous stories about the fey folk and warned her of dragons at a young age, and he was such a masterful story teller that Wren had always believed every word he had ever said to her.
“Wren, dearest! What a surprise!”
Wren turned around to see her Uncle coming down the stairs that were in front of her, wearing a smile that was a bit too large for him. His hair was slightly grayer than it had been the last time she saw him, and there were bags under his normally sparkling eyes. Uncle Kaster had never been considered handsome. Many people thought him a bit squirrel like in appearance and personality, but Wren had always found him the handsomest and most adventurous of men. His family had never liked him because of his adventurous spirit, and ever since Kaster was a child he had been talking of running away to live with the fairies or some such nonsense. He walked up to his niece and gave her a tight hug.
“I’m here. Just like you asked.” Wren said quietly after they had pulled away from each other.
Her Uncle shook his head and whispered, “Not now,” then he said loudly, “My, how wet you are! By the way, my darling, you aren’t the only person the rain forced in this evening! We have several guests that have found there way to Castcaglia in this dark night.” He held out his hand as if to guide her up the stairs. “Come, I will show you to your room. You will meet the other guests at supper, but for now, get into some dry clothes!”
He laughed jovially and escorted her upstairs and to the hallway where her room was. “This is your room, Wren, dear.” He opened the door to a large room, decorated in blues and purples. Uncle Kaster walked across the room to another door. “This door leads to my room, if you ever need me.” He looked at her meaningfully and then left, presumably retiring to his own room.
Wren knew what the look he had given her meant, and she quickly crossed her room and opened the door that led to his. Her Uncle was standing in the middle of his large, red room, and was pouring himself a glass of wine. He turned around when she entered, and Wren saw that all looks of false joviality were gone. Uncle Kaster looked tired, beaten-down, and there was another look in his eyes that she had never seen before.
“Uncle Kaster, tell me truthfully…are you alright?” Wren regretted her words, for as soon as she said them, large tears welded up in her Uncle’s eyes and he set down his glass on a table.
“Oh, Wren. I am a selfish man, asking you here like this, and putting you in danger. But I had hoped that you would believe me, and tell me that I am not a crazy old fool.” He walked over to his settee and sat down, burying his head in his hands. “You never realize how frightening an old Manor like this is until you are unsure of what the shadows hold.”
The way he had said that last phrase made chills run down Wren’s back.
“What do you mean, Uncle? Please tell me what is going on…tell me what I can do to help!”
Her Uncle raised his head and looked at her, and she saw that the tears were gone from his eyes.
“Believe that what I am about to say is true. Tell me that I am notgoing insane! That is what you can do to help.”
Wren nodded numbly and her Uncle moved to allow her a place to sit beside him.
“It began about two months ago. Old houses creak, you know, and that was what I attributed the sound to.” Uncle Kaster began his tale with the familiar story-telling voice that Wren was used to hearing. “At night, I would hear a sort of scratching in the shadows of the library or in any dark hallway or corner of the Manor. I thought nothing of it at first but then…”
Wren noticed that her Uncle’s hands were shaking.
“But then I saw it. And what was worse, it saw me.”
A candle in the corner of the room flickered, causing Wren to scoot closer to Kaster.
“A creature is in Castcaglia. And this creature is not good. Why it is here, I do not know. But something tells me that it wants out…that it is somehow trapped in the walls of the Manor. And…I am the only one who has seen it. I fear that I am living in a fantasy world…that I have believed one fairy tale too many.”
“What about the servants? In your letter, you said that the servants were not trustworthy.”
Uncle Kaster offered Wren a limp smile. “I said that just to get you here. I was afraid that if I told you what I have just said, you would think me insane and not come. Ever since it saw me, it has followed me around the Manor; and it frightens me.” He nodded his head to his door, where there were feet-like shadows from outside of the door in the hallway. “Now tell me this. Can you see that? It’s the creature’s feet. It’s waiting outside the door. As long as I keep the door closed, it can’t come in. Something about this Manor bothers it. Can you see it, though? Tell me that you can and reassure me that I am still very much sane!”
Wren’s eyes widened and her pulse quickened, for she did indeed see the shadows outside of his door.
“Yes…I-I see it. Has it ever been…aggressive to you?” She asked, a slight quiver in her voice.
Uncle Kaster leaned back on the settee and breathed a sigh of relief. “No. I only see it occasionally. It stays in the shadows and remains hidden from everyone else.”
Wanting to make the subject lighter, Wren asked, “But how are you, Uncle? Are you still writing those ridiculous stories?”
A ghost of a smile appeared on her Uncle’s lips as he answered. “No…not lately. But you know that painting downstairs? The one you were looking at just before I came down? I think a tale about the tiny King Iubdan would be quite enjoyable to write.” He smiled wistfully but then his face darkened again. “That is if I can ever find out how to be rid of this creature in my house.” Uncle Kaster looked at his shivering niece and stood. “You have not yet changed. Go and do so now. You are safe my dear, brave, Wren. I will not let any harm come to you. Besides, I am the only person in the Manor to whom it has ever revealed itself. I do not think you have any reason to fear it.”
Wren nodded and stood, moving to her room, but stopped when she got to the door. “You said that there were other guests here. Who are they?”
“Hm?” Her Uncle had returned to his wine, and he looked back at Wren with eyebrows raised. “Oh. I believe their names were…Sir Aran and Deera or something like that. I will ask them again at supper.” He smiled, seemingly happy to have told Wren his frightening story, and shooed her into her own room.
After Wren had changed, she sat by the fire in her room and dried her hair, combing through it with her fingers. She was afraid. The Manor was large and very old…it would be scary at night without a creature scratching around in the shadows. Wren kept imagining what the creature might look like, and she had gotten herself so frightened by the images her mind had conjured up that she nearly screamed when she heard voices in the wall opposite to where she was sitting. Leaving the fireplace quietly, Wren moved to the wall and pressed her ear against it.
“…why I always end up wet when I’m with you!”
A male voice was speaking and Wren figured that the room across from hers must belong to the strange guests. A soft voice said something back to the male, and Wren heard him snort.
“Now you’re mocking me. I can’t help it if my hair looks like straw. I haven’t had time to groom.”
Groom? What an odd word to use.
“I suppose we should head downstairs. Keep an eye out for your friend.”
Wren noticed that the man’s voice shook when he said the last phrase, and she wondered who the “friend” could be. She glanced over at the clock in her room and saw that it was eight o’clock. Now that the time had come for Wren to leave and go to supper, she didn’t want to. The hallway was dark, and what if the creature was waiting for her outside of her door? She walked over to her door and debated opening it. The handle of it seemed terribly frightening; as though if she opened it, she would be allowing herself to be exposed to all the terrors of the world. But that was silly. Her Uncle had promised her safety, and safe she would remain.
Just as Wren was about to open the door, someone knocked on it.
“Miss?” a muffled voice asked, “Lord Kaster told me to escort you to supper.”
Breathing a sigh of relief, Wren opened the door and saw a young maid who dipped a quick curtsy.
“This way if you please, Miss.”
Wren followed the young girl down the hallway and to the dining room where the two other guests and Uncle Kaster were already seated.
“Wren, dear!” Uncle Kaster stood and walked over to where she was standing. “Allow me to introduce you to Sir Eanrin and Lady Imraldera. They’ve traveled all the way from the Southlands!”
Sir Eanrin stood and bowed to her elegantly and Wren had to bite back a smirk. Sir Eanrin (who must have been the voice she heard talking) did indeed look as though he needed a good grooming. His blonde hair was sticking out like a small hay stack, and yet in spite of that, he was very dashing. The way he dipped his head towards her in polite acknowledgement showed her that he had all the charisma of the most romantic of men.
Wren turned her eyes to Imraldera and saw that she was stunningly beautiful. Imraldera was definitely a Southlander with her dark hair and skin, and there was a warmth in her eyes that immediately made Wren want to be her friend.
“How do you do?” Wren curtsied politely and then moved to her seat beside Imraldera. When their first course arrived, Imraldera and Wren struck up a polite conversation.
“I’m terribly sorry the two of you were caught in this horrible storm.” Wren said with a glance towards Eanrin. “How did you get caught out in it?”
Sir Eanrin suddenly coughed into his napkin and he took a sip from his goblet. “That’s a long and dreadfully boring story, but when we saw Castcaglia Manor, we felt quite…”
Sir Eanrin was cut off by the scream of a maid who was about to serve the main course. The maid dropped the platter she was holding and held both hands over her mouth, looking into the corner of the dining room with wide eyes. Everyone at the table stood up instinctively, and looked to where she was pointing.
And that was when the Darkness descended upon them all.
Wren was pushed down by someone, and she heard Eanrin call out to Imraldera.
“He’s over here!”
There was much thumping and crashing in the dark and somewhere in the racket Wren heard the whimper of an animal…or was that a child? Slowly, the Darkness was lifted and Wren looked around the room. Chairs had been overturned and she saw Uncle Kaster on the floor next to her quite unharmed. She couldn’t see Sir Eanrin anywhere, but over in the corner where the maid had been looking, Imraldera sat with a bony and ugly child in her arms. Uncle Kaster stood up and ushered a rather hysterical maid out of the room, leaving the door cracked behind her.
Somewhere a cat meowed, and Wren looked over at Imraldera once again. A large, fluffy, orange cat sat beside her, grooming its paws. The cat glanced up at Wren and its whiskers twitched. She could have sworn that it was smirking at her.
“What…?” Wren began but Imraldera had already begun to speak.
“I believe we have some explaining to do. Eanrin?”
The cat that had been sitting beside Imraldera was suddenly no longer a cat; instead, Sir Eanrin was standing before them, a smug smile on his lips.
“Well,” He said, “Where to begin?”
Uncle Kaster sat down in his chair with a thump and ran his fingers through his hair.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” He groaned and rubbed his eyes with one of his hands while Wren patted his shoulder.
“Yes…I realize you must have been through quite an ordeal with that…Imraldera, are you sure it’s not going to bite you?”
“As long as you don’t come near him, yes. Get on with the explaining.”
“Fine.” Sir Eanrin cleared his throat and looked at Wren and Kaster. “I suppose you know of the fey folk? Fairies and all that? Well, I happen to be Sir Eanrin of Rudiobus, Chief Poet to King Iubdan. You’ve heard of me, I presume?”
Wren and her Uncle shook their heads and Imraldera chuckled at Eanrin’s forlorn expression. The child shifted in her lap and grunted.
“Well, not all fey folk are as honorable as I am. There are such creatures as the Black Dogs. They’re the most dreadful creatures, and we,” Eanrin jerked his head towards Imraldera, “Found out that one of them had run away into your world. He had taken one beating too many from his mistress. You see, Imraldera had met this chap about a year ago and felt sorry for it or something, so she dragged me…”
“…into the chase to find it.”
“Chase?” asked Wren.
“Hm? Oh, yes. His brother, the other Black Dog, is out to find him. We ran into him a couple of times and just barely escaped.”
“But how did you know he was here?” Uncle Kaster asked, raising his head from his hands.
“We had lost his trail when Imraldera saw Castcaglia Manor…do you know what Castcaglia means, Kaster?”
Uncle Kaster shook his head.
“It means ‘captive’.”
“A name holds more power than you would think,” said Imraldera, “And I thought that if the Black Dog came here for safety, he would most likely be held captive by the Manor’s name. We didn’t know for sure that he was here…it was just a lucky guess.”
“What I don’t understand,” said Uncle Kaster, “Is when I came downstairs to the dining room, he,” He looked over at the child, “Was down the hallway, looking at me in the most frightful manner.”
Eanrin looked at Imraldera and back at Kaster. “He was down the hallway? I thought he would have been concealed in the shadows of that corner for a while, now. Was the door closed to the dining room the whole time we were in here?”
“I don’t know…it…yes, yes it was. I remember I told the maid to keep the door closed.”
“And you’re sure it was in the hallway when you came to dinner?”
“Yes. I’m positive.”
Eanrin rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and glanced at Imraldera.
“What do you make of that?”
Imraldera was about to reply when the child leapt up from her arms and growled at the doorway which Wren suddenly realized, was open. A large, Black Dog was gazing at them all, sizing the group up with its glistening red eyes. Then the room plunged into Darkness once again, and Wren, not realizing what she was doing, lunged in the direction of the creature. She caught hold of something furry, but it felt much smaller than a Black Dog.
“Mreeeooowl! Unhand me!”
Wren let go and decided to sit still and wait for the lights to come back on. She heard a vicious growl and another caterwaul at one point in the Darkness; and when the light finally returned to the dining room, Imraldera was brandishing a knife and fork and Eanrin had a bleeding arm.
“He’s gone, Eanrin.” Imraldera’s arms slumped to her side and she dropped the knife and fork. “The other Dog took him away.” A tear slid down Imraldera’s cheek and she wiped it away. Eanrin moved over to her and patted her shoulder awkwardly.
“It’s alright, old girl. We’ll run into him again…and next time we won’t lose him.”
“Your arm is bleeding.” Wren pointed to Eanrin’s arm.
“What? Oh. So it is. It’s only a scratch. Nothing to worry about.” He smiled and then looked over at Uncle Kaster, who was standing up and brushing himself off.
“Thank you for your hospitality, good sir, but I think we have imposed upon you long enough.”
Imraldera nodded and they both moved to leave the room when Uncle Kaster called out. “You can’t leave like this!”
Eanrin turned around with eyebrows raised. “Why ever not? I thought you would be glad to be rid of us and the Dogs.”
“Of course not. You’re a Faerie! You must tell me more about your life and where you live…I’m a writer, you see.”
“We really do have to go, my friend. Urgent affairs of knighthood call.”
“Then take me with you!”
Eanrin’s eyebrows shot up to his hair line.
“My life is so dull here, and the only person I care about in the whole world is Wren. I can’t speak for her, but I’m tired of my life. So long I have written of fairy tales, I want to live one! Surely there is something I can do in Rhubarb?”
“Quite. Well, isn’t there?”
Imraldera gave Eanrin a half smile and nudged his arm with hers, making Eanrin flinch.
“I thought you said it was just a scratch?” Imraldera asked.
“It is, but that doesn’t mean you can go around prodding it!”
“I can tell stories. Wonderful stories. Tell him, Wren!” Kaster turned to Wren with that familiar gleam in his eyes and she nodded.
“He tells the most marvelous stories. They’re fit for a king.”
“See!” Uncle Kaster’s eyes shifted from Eanrin to Imraldera.
Eanrin rubbed his jaw with his hand. “I suppose King Iubdan would like to hear some of the stories you mortals conjure up about him. What do you say, Imraldera?”
“I think that sounds marvelous.” Imraldera smiled kindly. “And isn’t Gleamdren looking for a new ladies maid?”
“I…” Eanrin’s brows furrowed. “She is?”
“Yes, she is. You didn’t know that?”
“I knew it! I just forgot. Wren? How does that sound to you?”
All eyes turned to Wren. She could see by her Uncle’s frantic look that he wanted her to come with him, and she thought back to the life she led. Wren owned a small cottage and had no living relatives other than her Uncle and his family, whom she didn’t care for at all. She had always longed to go to a magical kingdom, and suddenly the image of the painting of Iubdan and his Court flashed in her mind. She had the opportunity to meet and live with the fey folk.
Uncle Kaster hugged her and Eanrin said, “Come on, then!”
They all moved out of the doorway and were about to leave the Manor when Eanrin stopped.
“Wait. What about all of your servants. Surely you can’t just leave them?”
“I have a will that takes care of all of that. They will be fine.”
“Look! It’s stopped raining.” Wren opened the front door and stepped out into the cool night air. The night was brighter after the storm, and Wren thought that the moon had never been lovelier. Imraldera came out and stood beside her, a melancholy look on her face.
“Are you alright, Imraldera?” Wren asked quietly.
“Yes…I’m fine. I had just hoped to save him. I wanted to give him a home.”
“You will, some day.”
“Yes. Some day I will.”
As the small group left Castcaglia Manor, they didn’t see the two large creatures that watched them leave. Their wolfish shapes were silhouetted against the full moon that had risen behind them, and one of the creatures whimpered. The other snarled at the first one, and then turned its head back to the people heading off into the wilderness. This would not be the last time they would meet. Whether it would be in Goldstone Wood or not, they would do battle with each other once again. Eventually, the Black Dogs left, leaving Time to deal with the large structure they left behind. But no matter how long the grand manor stood it would always go by its name, a name that meant “captive”.