III

Lea knew that she had cried her last tear for the night, as she breathed out and pulled up to her feet. It could have been a mere second or possibly long hours that she had been lying there. A spell of dizziness hit her so fast, that Lea stumbled and grabbed at the trunk of a tree, to keep herself upright. Her heel clicked against level paving stone.

Curiously, Lea cleared away the leaves and found that she was standing on a small pathway that led off the main course where she had been running, and down a slight decline.

Lea moved her pale hair from her neck and continued brushing the leaves away, following the path down the hill, to a small hollow.

The dark house was so silent. It came into her view suddenly, surprisingly. Somehow, it was easy to miss, even though she was looking right in its direction. It blended in so well. It was part of the forest, just another group of trees, among thousands of others. Then it was not trees at all, it was a very stately home.

A pair of deer were grazing in the grass before the house. They looked up at Lea, as she approached, but did not run. They just watched her go to the front, up the steps and around the porch.

She knew this place. She had never been here before, but had heard stories from the people in town. They said it was a place for dread magic.

Supposedly, a great necromage had lived here, but that was ages ago. It was empty now. It felt empty, but like the trees around it, Lea had an odd feeling that the house was alive, and growing.

She looked up and half expected to see large leafy branches sprouting around the gargoyles and framing the bay window that was hung with black curtains drawn shut.

Lea placed her hand on the front door and pushed. It swung open without a sound. The long hall that led to a steep staircase was inviting. She glanced back at the deer that had resumed their meal and were ignoring her. She walked inside, and gently shut the door.

The owner had apparently moved out or disappeared many years ago. However, the house still contained all his old effects and time had taken its toll on everything. The furniture was terribly faded and shrouded in dust and cobwebs. The paintings on the walls looked blank except for large indistinguishable figures. Everything was settled exactly where you would expect it, in various shades of grey and black. There were leaves and dirt on the floor.

She walked through the hall and into a sitting room. A fireplace stained with black and was poised beneath another faceless portrait. Two small chairs and a lounge were situated around a coffee table where a tray of fine old china sat waiting. A spider had made its home in the teapot's handle, and the cups were stained and chipped. The table was peppered with dead leaves.

Her dark eyes wandered to an ominous black cabinet. Behind its foggy glass doors were various dark objects. Their shapes were impossible to make out properly through the old dusty glass, save for an old clock. The sound of the clock ticking surprised Lea. She walked tentatively to the cabinet and carefully opened the doors to look closer at the clock.

The hands were stuck at ten thirty. The second hand wrestled eternally against the face. It was resting just a few seconds away from the twelve, struggling forward and then falling backwards again. Lea was tempted to wipe away the dust from the grimy face and try to push the second hand forward. Tentatively she urged it forward. Gratefully, the pointer seemed to be encouraged by her help. It paused for a moment, then slowly moved one notch forward and rested there. The clock seemed to grin at her in appreciation.

Lea knew that the time was incorrect. She might have shifted the clock's hands to display the true time. But she had no real idea of exactly what time it was. So she left the clock to struggle on its own.

Returning to the hallway, Lea continued her search of the house and next found the ample library. Many books littered the floor with pages torn and chewed. The furniture had been ravaged, and Lea saw an old bird's nest in a circular window just below the ceiling and above the largest shelf. The steel ladder was coated with dust.

Lea went back into the hallway and again noticed the stairway greeting her at the back of the hall's throat.

The upstairs was all bedrooms. One of them was locked, the only room in the house she could not explore. Another room looked like it belonged to a child. There was a small bed, a mess of books and strange little objects like cards, marbles, interesting stones and paints. The closet was full of a young man's clothes, Lea guessed, by the size of everything.

She sifted through the jackets and trousers, the riding boots. In spite of being very old, it was all finely made clothing, the kind her family had never been able to afford.

Lea backed out of the closet and sighed, then caught sight of something on the ground.

A large black feather was nestled between a pair of funny pointed black boots. Lea picked it up, looking at the item curiously.

It was far too large to belong to any bird she had ever seen. Lea felt a chill, remembering rumors she had heard about sorciers. She placed the feather gingerly on the pillow of the boy's bed, and wondered to herself about the true nature of the family that had lived here.

She entered the largest room, a pair of double doors propped open slightly at the end of the hall.

This was the master bedroom. It was very fine, Lea could tell under the dust and ravages of time and weather, that this room had reflected beauty, class and wealth at its best.

The large bed was draped with a canopy of sheer fabric that fluttered slightly as Lea entered. The four posts were carved with figures, though their features where disguised by the dust. The bay window she had noticed before was on the far side of the room. A comfortable looking pillow was placed there on its bench. On the pillow Lea saw a discarded book, its bookmark resting somewhere in chapter three.

She walked to the vanity first. The glass in the mirror was too foggy and gave no proper reflection. Above it hung a large blank portrait.

Lea ran her hands over a wooden box on the center of the vanity. The lock was broken. She opened it and found that it was a music box, filled with jewelry; extravagant strings of pearls and gems, heavy golden earrings, glittering bracelets, diamond necklaces and all sorts of beautiful things that Lea had only seen the richest women wear.

Lea had not been expecting the music box to still play. But, she was surprised as the first minor cord hit her ears and the box began to sing a slow, pretty sort of lullaby that Lea was sure she had heard before.

Her eyes dropped and the brilliant gems in the box blurred, until she only caught sight of one thing, a glimmer of gold in the center of the box, half unwrapped in a silk handkerchief. The whole house was so grey that seeing this beam of golden light was quite suspiring to Lea.

Gingerly she held the ring in her fingers and felt the warmth of it rush through her. She slipped it on and admired the stone against her skin.

A sound like thunder shook the whole house and Lea froze in her place, she felt something below her feet from the rooms on the first floor. It moved quickly, rushing at a speed beyond anything thought possible by the sweet country girl. It traveled up the stairs and Lea looked to the door before she felt a strong breeze overtake her, the wind rushed all around her.

Lea shut her eyes tight and felt the world shifting inches from her skin, her hair whipped around her body, the unseen force was shivering through every inch of her, pulling at her clothes and daring her to open her eyes. The sound was louder than anything, dark and deep, like the sound of thunder suspended.

She fought against the force, and tried to open her eyes. She cracked her lids behind her splayed fingers and saw the leaves and dust whipping all around her, mingled with more black feathers like the one she had found in the closet. The doors of the bedroom were restlessly banging in their frames as the wind whipped around. Through her hands she thought she could see a large dark figure forming in the swirling leaves.

She snapped her eyes shut tight, afraid of the chaos around her.

Then abruptly it stopped.

Lea felt her hair fall, her skirt swished back across her knees, she opened her eyes and held back a gasp with her hand.

The entire room was completely transformed. It was no longer old, dusty and grey, but lush and alive. The colors were all rich, deep plum, blushing red, brilliant gold…. The house looked exactly the way she imagined it would have when it was still being used.

The sheets on the bed were neat and tidy, the embroidery looked exquisite. The sheer drapes around the beautifully carved wood were light and soft against the four posts. The figures carved there were beautiful angels, their flowing hair covered in flowers, and their wings so meticulously detailed that Lea felt sure to touch them would feel like real feathers. The floors were clean, and a beautiful oriental rug was spread out below her feet. The windows gleamed with the sunset outside. The curtains were drawn back, and no longer black, but as pale as Lea's hair.

She stole a glance back at the vanity mirror. Her image was no longer clouded by time and dust. She looked scared and disheveled, with dirt from the forest, and leaves caught in her hair. Her attention jumped to the portrait above the mirror.

All breath left her. In fact, Lea thought to herself, that she might never breathe again.

The figure in the painting looked just like her. But, it couldn't be. The face was right. Everything else was totally wrong. Her hair was styled like the rich ladies in town, with pins and curls and beautiful red flowers. She was wearing a dress that Lea knew she could never afford, not even if she married Mr. Holden. The fabric glimmered with pearls and jewels. She was wearing jewels. Lea had never worn anything so fine.

In alarm, she noticed her left hand visible in the painting. She was wearing the ring from the jewelry box.

She looked down at the box and realized vaguely that the lullaby was still playing. She snapped the lid shut. But the song continued as she fled from the room, catching one last glance at herself in the mirror, a gleam of gold on her hand.

It was not just the master bedroom. The whole house seemed to have been resuscitated, like it decided to breathe one last time, and brought life with it. The hallways were clean and sparkling with gold and fine polished wood. The paintings were all restored to their original beauty, but Lea did not dare look at any of them, as she dashed madly down the stairs, her heart pounding.

This indeed was a magical place. The people in the town had known something. She slid on the sparkling floor at the bottom of the stairs and almost tripped right into an expensive looking vase before she hit the front door hard and pulled the handle.

Nothing happened.

It was locked.

Lea ran into the nearest room, the sitting room. It was transformed, just like the rest of the house. Everything was in beautiful tones of peach and pink, and a small fire was warming the evening air in the fireplace. There was a window, but it refused to open to her touch as well.

"Master Grae has the key."

Lea shrieked and whipped around in fright, she saw no one at first, but babbled her plea, "I was just out for a walk. Please let me leave. I did not think anyone lived here!"

"Well reasoned. No one lives here," the voice was coming from a small black figure behind the couch. She saw a soft edge of fur and glanced at a clawed paw half hidden behind the clawed feet of the couch. Fear washed over her; a wolf.

"I-I did not mean to steal either!" she stuttered, suddenly remembering the ring on her finger. She tried to pull it off, but found that she could not.

"It is thine own property, now." The wolf poked its long snout out from the arm of the couch, long sharp fangs hung over pink lips.

"I am so sorry," Lea murmured again, backing into the hallway, "If I had known...."

"Take what is thine. Trouble me not."

"Who are you?" Lea's voice was small as she sensed another presence in the hallway and turned to spy a wolf cub looking at her curiously. There were other animals in the house, she hadn't seen them while she was running down the stairs, either because they were still hiding, or because she just hadn't noticed them, but now she saw birds and mice, all of them congregating in the hallway, watching her with beady eyes.

"What is thy name?" a bird had come into the sitting room and perched itself sideways on the frame.

"S-Sealea" She murmured.

"Sealea Andwyrden," growled the wolf.

Cruel joke. Lea glared at him, "Sealea Moore," she corrected.

The Andwyrden family were well-known villains. Some of the most famous stories were attributed to Warloge Andwyrden and his bride Mina, or their son Graeson. They were some of the most powerful magical creatures in the world, of the variety that could live for hundreds—maybe thousands of years and spread destruction and terror across generations. Some of the stories about them were centuries old. Why would he give her such a hateful surname?

"No longer is there a place for thee in the house of thy father, child," the bird trilled.

Sickness was replacing the panic that Lea had initially felt as the house transformed. She started trying to pull the ring off, but it stubbornly remained on her hand, as if part of her body, it seemed to pull the flesh in every direction when she struggled with it.

"Thy ring will only be removed after the death of thy husband." The bird informed her.

"What? Why would it do that—I haven't got a husband."

"Thou hast a man, and he has thy hand."

"Nonsense," Lea bit down hard, clenching her jaw as she tried to pull the ring off with another violent jerk.

"Boney lacks knowledge of curses," the wolf was slinking out from behind the couch now, "No woman can wear that ring save for the true love of Sorcier Grae. His bride. Here we see it on thy finger, and so I call Thee Sealea Andwyrden. My newest mistress; a human child."

"It can't be right," she argued with him, "Where is the contract? Where is the agreement or dowry, where is the groom?!"

"The laws of November dictate no such pomp."

Lea struggled over her words as she tried to think of another reason why it wasn't true. It couldn't be true. In their own roundabout way, these animals were trying to help her understand that she was already married to Sorcier Grae, of all monsters. The ring wouldn't come off. Magic.

"May God spare me," she pleaded, "Mother was right."

"The hands move," the wolf spoke like a warning, and a flurry of fur and feathers behind Lea told her that the animals in the hallway were moving rapidly.

"Where are you all going?!" she demanded.

"The hands move," dozens of voices sang and called out to her, as rats and wolf cubs and birds and a number of creeping lizards and other creatures scurried through the air and across the hall, each of them with a different destination in mind.

"We must hide," the wolf spoke again, Lea was between him and the door, but she moved automatically, the breath momentarily stolen from her chest as she saw how large the beast really was. His ears came up past her waist and his wide jaws could easily close around her entire body. "The hands move."

He joined the stampede in the hallway. Lea tried to stop the animals as they ran, but all they would say to her was, "The hands move," in a dozen different registers and all of them with the accents distinct to their species.

They had all vanished soon enough. She searched the house for a few minutes, calling to them, but they were well hidden, every one. If they knew how to leave the house, she wished they would have told her before they deserted her.

She found herself back in the sitting room.

Her eyes fell on the old clock in the beautifully restored cabinet. The glass cover remained open as she had left it. Lea thought it strange. She expected that the clock would be restored to its prime condition. But the clock looked no different than before. It was the only thing in the house that was still dark and dusty, except that it was ticking.

The hands were moving, not as quickly as they should—but they moved, none-the-less. The clock now displayed twenty-seven minutes to eleven.

Lea tried the door again, and all the windows between the front and back of the main floor. There was another door in the kitchen that also refused to budge. She was trapped, and now she was alone.