It was due to our word-wary friendship that I found myself on the third night after Ophelia's arrival, traversing the rampart wall that connected the dormitory buildings.
From its position well above our rooms, the wall itself was useless. In the unlikely event that the Laters had any reason to visit the Middles or vice versa, there was no reason to climb up and up, only to cross over and climb down and down again.
It was perpetually empty, abandoned and dark. The ideal spot for me to practice.
I clambered the worn, crumbling stairs to the rampart without a lantern, drawing courage from Balthazar as it bounced against my hip. Beadie had sourced two pieces of leather, thread and a thick needle for me. From that, despite my damn awful sewing skills, I was able to fashion a decent sheath. I attached a long strap to the sheath, belting it around my waist but under my pinafore. Hidden from view, but accessible.
Though I went quickly, the climb was more than I anticipated. The steps wound round and round, and soon sweat slicked against my back. My breath grew laboured. Perhaps these were stairs to nowhere. Perhaps I'd reached the top and step out into nothingness.
I considered turning back when a cool blast of air whipped down the stairwell. An eerie hum came with the wind. I hesitated, a lump forming in my throat from both thirst and nerves. The hum kicked into a low, sad moan. Was its wail a warning or a beckoning?
It's neither, Porty-sweets, I told myself. It's just the damn wind.
My hand went to Balthazar's hilt anyway.
I breached the arch and stepped out. The wind still buffeted the rampart but out of the suffocating stairwell, it was more welcoming. I tipped onto my toes to peer over the tall battlement to the ground below. It was a long way down.
Mama often told the story of how, as a barefoot, dirt-smudged, nearly feral, five year old, I climbed out of the hay loft and onto our barn roof. I had no memory of the incident but apparently, I was struck with fear once I reached the top. I began to scream and cry, inert.
Mama emerged from the house as Daddy ran over from the field. Daddy was 'white with terror ' but Mama was 'the picture of calm', wiping her sticky peach juice hands onto her apron. She'd been in the middle of canning and irritated at the disturbance.
Daddy rushed to the ladder to save me but Mama snapped at him to stop. He protested, I suppose, but followed her demand. Realizing that he wasn't coming to my rescue, I cried 'my fool head-off' for three minutes straight - according to Mama's account. I'm certain it couldn't have been that long. Once I quieted, she shouted that since I managed to get myself up there, I could definitely get myself down. She sent Daddy back to the field and she returned to her canning.
Whenever she got this part of the story in the re-telling, I shook my head. How callous of her, I'd say. I was obviously terrified. Mama would just shrug. But somehow I found my own way off the barn roof. In fact, I was back home in time for supper.
Everything turned out as it should, Porty-sweets, she'd say.
The rampart was much higher than the roof of our Belmont barn. This was the highest up I'd been in my life and would likely, ever be. As I peered down, the ground bent and rose towards me. Dizzy, I reared back, understanding why I was paralyzed on the barn roof many years ago.
I glanced to the sky to steady my feet. The girth of Lady Mac's tower hovered above. If indeed the castle had been built for battle, it had been thoughtlessly designed. The rampart was awkwardly situated not only between two turrets but behind the tall tower. The view of the hills beyond was narrowed, blocked by brick and stone. Only a shred of hazy moonlight cut across the east battlement. Any archers on that side would be completely exposed, while those on the west side would be hopelessly fumbling in the dark.
No wonder the castle had been abandoned by the armies and left to the lowly fate of becoming a home for undeveloped girls.
I stepped back from the battlement and drew Balthazar from its sheath. There was no wooden door to practice target throwing but it was just as well. Given my inexperience with the weapon, I was likely to toss it over the wall and down to the muddy wake below, lost forever.
In Sport, my fencing foil always asked fluidity of me. An elegant slash. A polite tap.
Balthazar asked for precision and blunt power. I tightened my fingers around the grip and pushed my thumb into the cross-guard. I raised my dagger hand to shoulder-height.
As a strange bellow escaped uncontrollably from my mouth, I lunged forward and ripped Balthazar through the cold night. Back and forth. Up and down. My invisible enemy took wounds in the pulsing arteries of his neck and the soft tissue of his stomach. Balthazar slipped up behind his protective ribs and penetrated his black heart.
I didn't bother with superficial cuts and fancy dagger flips. Those moves were only meant to distract and derail my opponent. Balthazar wanted to kill shots.
Once I reached the length of the rampart, my feet tangled together and I stumbled. I caught myself from falling, but just barely. My head buzzed with exhilaration as I sheathed my dagger for a rest.
The wind raced along the rampart, followed again by its unsettling wail. I closed my eyes and turned my face to it. No longer afraid.
After a moment, the wind calmed, the wail retreated. And then in the silence, the air near me shifted ever so slightly.
I wasn't alone.
My eyes flew open. There was another quick shift behind me. I whipped around, my hand once again drawn to Balthazar.
Darkness swallowed everything below the top of the battlement wall. I strained my sight, forcing my eyes to adjust to the shadows. I braced, expecting a crow to fly out at me, clawing and squawking.
I hoped for a crow. I prayed it was only a crow.
More movement. Directly in front of me. A soft rustle, like a boot grazing across stone. An exhalation.
"Speak! Or shall I go farther?" I barked, ready to grip and rip my dagger at the slightest provocation.
That single streak of moonlight still angled across the ledge-top. With another gentle rustling of boot leather, the apparition moved and coalesced into a shadowy human form. Then spoke a voice, rough with a throat full of gravel,
"Let your dagger rest. It can do nothing against a ghost."
"It'd suit me well then, I don't believe in ghosts."
"You don't? You should. Ghosts are very real."
I willed my heartbeat to slow as ice-cold blue eyes appeared in that streak of moonlight. They found me, unblinking. This intrusion was much worse than a crow. Nothing but a brooding boy sitting alone in the dark.
I had no way of recognizing him. But I knew exactly who he was.
YOU ARE READING
When troubled Ophelia is found dead, four of her classmates are accused. With conviction and punishment a foregone conclusion, the girls - Portia, Beatrice, Viola and Desdemona - plot a daring escape in order to unravel the conspiracy behind the mur...