Chapter 10: THE CARVED GALLERY
Such a warning shook Peter out of his lethargy and instantly he was awake. He glanced around the dorm at the others. Wes was being held down by two boys. The look on his face in the dim light was that of fury.
"I'm going too," he heard the Scot say through gritted teeth.
"No you are not McShane. You'll stay right here like a good boy," the foremost dark figure replied, obviously the leader. "We'll be watching."
Alex Faraday, another dorm mate whom Peter did not see much of as he was in the Pine form and had a lot of silvers and bronzes on his timetable, was sitting up in bed watching proceedings curiously, but not willing to get involved, whereas Sandy Ebrington appeared to be still fast asleep. He snored a bit, shifted in his bed and murmured "wouldyaliketadansss," before lapsing into silence.
The leader of the masked and robed boys gestured Peter forward.
"Don't worry," he said. "This won't take long and you'll be back in bed before sunrise, although probably too nervous to get any more sleep." There followed a distinctive series of cackles that Peter immediately recognised as a sound peculiar to third year pupils at St Spiritus. He knew his time had come and took a deep breath to prepare himself for whatever ordeal awaited him.
"Let's go then," he muttered in a resigned tone.
Silently the group left the dorm and made their way to a connecting corridor. What Peter was not prepared for was the sight of mysteriously robed girls who held in their midst the struggling form of Penny. They appeared to be waiting for the others to join them.
She cried out when she saw Peter and her struggling ceased. Whatever the immediate future held, they were to face it together. The presence of his sister gave a surge of courage to Peter also.
"Okay, you bunch of freaks," he spat out angrily. "Let's get this over with. You're not dealing with a pair of frightened first years you know."
The leader of the boys pressed his masked face up close to his captive.
"I know," he said smoothly. "That's why we're going to crank up the ordeal a little. We wouldn't put the poor little firsties through what you're going to do for us tonight."
No further conversation took place as the two groups made their way through dark corridors, up and down stairways and into parts of the school unfamiliar to Peter. His sister, however, thanks to her wanderings in search of the elusive Edwina Bunce was less lost in the maze of dim passages and felt she knew where they were headed when they all filed into a narrow side junction between corridors.
They stopped before a black cavern in a wall, and Penny recognised it by the carvings at its mouth as the spooky gallery she had noticed in earlier explorations. She remembered coming across it before that brief encounter with Penelope. This brought to mind Edwina's words about the mysterious apparition as being the most feared and dangerous ghost in the school. If she had been chosen by such a powerful spirit, would she allow her to come to harm? Somehow this seemed a comforting thought.
"Welcome to the Carved Gallery," the leader of the robed gang said. Everyone gazed at the great black orifice fringed by writhing scaley demons that seemed to move in lights held by wavering hands. Peter gulped audibly. This was certainly something out of the ordinary. Previously, in ascending from the caves below, he and Wesley had merely pursued a path towards the faint light that was the entrance to the side corridor without looking back the way they had come. The Scot of course recognised the gallery and was all too eager to distance himself from it, memories of a first year trial still fresh.
As if in keeping with the eerie sight, echoey sighs and moans floated in the cold air a moment and even the robed figures flinched a little.
"Keep that light steady," the leader snapped. "Melisandra, if you would be so kind?"
One of the girls hovering next to Penny, who was held fast by two others, stepped forward and rummaged in her robes a moment. She pulled out what appeared to be a fluffy green tennis ball.
"This is what you shall seek," she said in a voice tinged with a ritualistic mannerism. Then with impressive energy she threw the ball as hard as she could into the darkness and everyone listened as the sound of bouncing diminished into silence. The girls holding Penny moved her forwards so that she stood on the edge of the flagstones at the entrance to the Carved Gallery. They remained still, as if awaiting further orders.
"That's it?" Penny laughed. "Retrieve a tennis ball like a dog?"
Peter made eye contact with his obviously grumpy sister, who was becoming increasingly annoyed at having her sleep disturbed in order to play a game of go fetch. He was trying to calm her, so as not to make matters worse.
"You have summed it up perfectly blondie," the leader said, sarcasm oozing from every word. "Sisters of the Night, bind her up tight."
In a trice Penny found her hands tied behind her back and other coils of rope wrapped around her torso so that she could walk and talk, but not scratch her nose.
"If you think I'm going to do anything trussed up like this..." she angrily spat out but a sharp cry from her brother made her pause. She turned to face where he was being held and a large boy was twisting Peter's arm painfully.
"What do we break first?" the smooth talking leader of the gang said. "Your rebellious nature or your brother's rather fragile looking arm? Easy to say he fell down some stairs while sleepwalking."
Penny gritted her teeth. She could feel the distress of Peter's ordeal and realised she had no option.
"What do you want me to do?" she said grimly.
"Exactly what you said earlier. Somewhere, deep in the dark chasm before you is a little tennis ball. We want you to go find it and bring it back. You don't need to pick it up of course, you can kick it this way. Look upon that as an added challenge."
Penny ignored the comment and glanced again at the eerie corridor mouth with its glaring monsters restless to get at her, and the suggestion of even worse horrors waiting beyond.
"How am I supposed to find it without a light?"
The boy snapped his fingers and in a well rehearsed move a lighted candle appeared. It sat in a wide dish designed to catch melted wax and had a long handle. Penny made a face and swivelled to show her hands were tied.
"Open wide," the leader responded cheerfully and Penny took several steps back into the darkness in alarm. Briefly she toyed with the idea of simply running for it, but a sharp pain in her head drew her attention to the struggling form of her agonised brother.
"Say aah," the boy added coaxingly, moving closer with the candle outstretched, handle towards her. Slowly she opened her mouth and gripped the dirty wood with her teeth. It tasted of bitter wax and the heat of the candle flame was unpleasant. "There you go," he said in satisfied tones. "Try not to drop it or it could be a long night for you and your tender brother. He bruises easily doesn't he?"
Of course Penny could make no retort to these words of warning and resigned to her dumb task she turned and faced the cool breeze from the great gallery. The candle light barely touched the darkness as she moved on bare cold feet along the rough flags. At least she knew there was a continuous floor now so she jogged as quickly as the awkwardness of her situation allowed. Either side of her and from above she could half-sense demonic eyes upon her and curved claws flexing outward, eager to slice at the unwilling intruder. At least, she thought, they were silent creatures, for the cackling laughter from the third year demons followed her on her journey.
Her teeth began to ache and her eyes watered from the hot brightness of the candle flame. A blob of wax spat onto her cheek and she almost cried out at the pain. Meandering forwards she drifted to one side and her worst nightmare was realised as sharp teeth snagged her nightie and scratched a bare arm. This time she did cry out and shrieks of derision behind her rose in volume. This was indeed becoming an ordeal.
Disentangling herself from the monsters she had unwittingly stumbled into she paused for breath, panting rapidly as the wavering candlelight made the wall before her squirm with living things that slithered and writhed ceaselessly. She appreciated more what the poor first years had to go through to survive a year at St Spiritus - such a shock it must have been after some cosy little Primary School full of bright lights, colour and fun with words.
It seemed to take an eternity to get her bearings as more wax threatened to spill onto her face. She carefully checked every direction and realised she had travelled so far the dim entrance to the gallery was a speck in the distance. Swaying with exhaustion and flinching with cramp, Penny resumed her stumbling way until she was surprised by a growing lightness ahead. She realised the light she carried was bouncing off something. The end of the gallery. It was as ornately carved as the rest of the space and gave the terrifying impression she was approaching a nest of snake demons that grew and grew with each passing second. Then she stepped on something.
Instantly Penny felt the floor slip away beneath her. The candle flew from her mouth and its tiny flame flickered out. As she fell she cried out in pain and heard distantly a sound that might have been her name called by an anxious brother.
The coldness of stone flooring helped Penny gather her wits. Being tied she had been unable to break her fall and landed heavily on her shoulder. A small furry thing nestled against her leg. No, it wasn't a mouse. She had stepped on the stupid tennis ball.
This was to her the last straw. Penny Thurwell had had enough of this ordeal. In a furious struggle to loosen her bonds the girl managed to wriggle out of the coiled ropes that bound her arms and she discarded the fibrous snake in angry contempt. She grabbed the tennis ball and thought of returning with it triumphantly to show she had succeeded in their pathetic game, but something made her pause.
Raised shouts could be heard in the distance now and Penny realised the gang had noticed her candle was no longer lit. They might be preparing to come look for her.
"Wouldn't it be funny," she mused, "if all they found was the rope used to tie me?"
Suddenly she felt she was no longer alone in the Carved Gallery. It was as if some cold shadowy presence had appeared out of nowhere and now bent over her in silent menace.
~ ~ ~
The leader of the robed gang tutted when he noticed the candle light in the distance flicker out. An echoey cry of pain floated on the cold air and Peter shouted his sister's name. He was quickly silenced.
"We'll give her a couple of minutes more. She's obviously dropped the candle, the clumsy thing. After we go fetch her, it'll be your turn," and the boy smiled behind the mask at Peter.
Thus they waited and waited and as all remained silent a signal was given. A boy and girl, robes swishing, moved into the blackness waving electric torches and shouting snide comments to each other as they went. Peter got the distinct impression they were a little nervous themselves and bolstered their courage with words.
Without warning a high pitched shriek issued from the darkness, long and piercing. Everyone froze, unsure what it meant. The members of the gang looked at each other for answers, and even behind the masks it was obvious they were more than a little terrified. Then there was a thudding noise, followed by another louder nearer sound, and something shot out of the gloom at such a pace it caught one of the boys cleanly in the face, knocking him to the floor. He scrambled up with a grunt of terror, dropped his torch and ran for it.
This acted as a signal for a general retreat and the other members of the gang hastily departed in several directions. Peter suddenly found himself alone in the dim side corridor nursing an aching arm and trying to locate the origin of the strange thudding sounds all around him. The object causing the noise was snatched out of the air by an athletic leap from Wesley McShane.
"A tennis ball?" he said as he examined the thing in his hand. Other second years appeared on the scene shortly after, including Penny's dorm mates, Priscilla foremost.
"We gave our guards the slip," she said proudly to the still dazed Peter. As she pondered how cute he looked in his pyjamas Wesley showed the ball to him questioningly.
"Have ye been playing some sort of game with the thirdies?" he asked.
"P-Penny," was all he said in response and, grabbing a torch which had been dropped by the poleaxed third year, Peter ran down the strange gallery at speed, ignoring the eerie shadows that reached out for him as he went. His only thoughts were for the fate of his sister. Wesley McShane followed at a slower pace, unsettled by his surroundings and puzzled not a little by the actions of his dorm mate. The others, glancing at the carvings, remained where they were, muttering among themselves as they tried to figure out what was going on. Alex Faraday, who had come along out of curiosity then yawned, decided the excitement was over for the night and eagerly returned to bed where Sandy Ebrington remained in perfect slumber.
Wes followed Peter by the light of his torch deep into the writhing darkness to the gallery's very end. He found him kneeling alone upon the cold floor, a picture of confusion.
"Where is the lass?" the Scot said softly, looking around at the moving shadows, none of which resembled Penny Thurwell in any way.
For answer Peter held up a bundle of tangled rope, illuminated by the torch. He gulped back emotion, trying to find an answer to what he was seeing. It was as if his sister had simply evaporated.
Wesley took the torch from the puzzled boy and waved it around. He flinched at the sight of demonic faces glaring back at him ruefully, angry at his disturbing their shadowy domain, claws seeming to snatch at the beams of light. His thoughts flashed back to that fateful night when he was brought blindfold to this very spot a year ago with a candle his only source of light and simply left there to find his own way back to bed. As soon as he was alone he had removed the blindfold and instantly regretted it. The Scot still had dreams about the ordeal, unpleasant reminders, but he knew too he had successfully made his way to the dorm where others greeted him with cheers and cake to celebrate. The cake was long gone, but the darkling images remained.
Peter shouted as Wesley mused on these things, waving the torch along a wall. The light had caught one of the great doors on that side of the gallery. Pulp's tool shed.
"There!" Peter said. "She must have gone in there to hide." He leapt to his feet and went over to the great handle, grasping it firmly. He pulled and pushed and rattled the heavy wooden door but it would not move.
"It only opens from the inside," Wesley reminded him. "Unless you've got the key." He pictured the great bunch of metal rods and pegs Pulp carried with him at all times, some of them of medieval vintage.
Peter was not listening. His anguished concern for his sister drove him to search for other doors, ignoring the menacing shapes surrounding them as he tried each one. There were only two others and they were equally locked and bolted. No other ways to and from the gallery could be found. When Peter started scrabbling at the great flagstones in the darkness in search of hidden trapdoors Wesley felt it was time to intervene.
"She's not here, Peter me lad," he said firmly. "We'll need to be getting back to civilised parts of the school and start a proper search."
Peter nodded in the torchlight, resigned to the extraordinary fact his sister had vanished into thin air. The two boys solemnly returned to the narrow passage that connected the gallery to the main corridors and were surprised to find Priscilla Pickles waiting for them alone. She seemed to cringe into a corner wrapped up in a frothy dressing gown and was holding a ball of wool for some reason. As soon as she saw the boys and realised they were not demons walking the night she seemed to relax.
"Thank goodness it's you," she said, smiling widely and pocketing the wool in her gown. "This is all very exciting," she added breathlessly, looking over her shoulder as she did so.
"Penny's not here," was all Peter could say. "She's gone," and Wesley nodded in grim affirmation as he switched off the torch.
"I should think so too," Priscilla replied affably as she made to lead the others away from the creepy darkness. "I told her she'd catch her death wandering about these corridors at night."
Steely-eyed, Peter gazed at this unorthodox member of the Clueless Society in disbelief at her comment. His sister had disappeared without a trace and all her dorm mate could do was make a joke of it.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" the girl said, taking a step back timidly. "Ask her yourself if you don't believe me. Or rather, no you can't as boys are not allowed in the girls' dorm for obvious reasons. They might see things they shouldn't," and to emphasise her point she wrapped her dressing gown more tightly around herself, a garment so bedecked with ribbons and frilly lace she looked like a giant mobile doilly.
"What are ye saying?" Wesley asked, peering intently at the increasingly flustered Priscilla, who began to sniff a little. She felt the anger from these two boys and didn't understand why they were being so unkind.
"I got cold myself while waiting for you to return from that horrid tunnel you seemed so eager to explore," she whimpered as she began to tell her story in her own unique manner, "and went back to my locker for a thicker gown while you were playing some game with those other boys."
"Some game!" Peter interrupted with a hiss but Wesley touched his arm.
"Let the lass say her bit," he suggested and the three began walking towards the main part of the school.
"Well," Priscilla continued a little more brightly, "as I rummaged among my numerous selection, trying to decide the best one to wear I glanced over at Penny's bed and thought how nice to see her all tucked up warm and cosy. I asked what had happened when she had gone out earlier with those strange girls and she just said she had got cold so came back to the dorm to snuggle under the bedclothes, the lucky thing. I decided to wait for you and Mona was with me for a bit but she ran off when she saw shadows so I was left in this creepy little corridor wondering what to do next, you know, thinking all this might be secret society business. Please, if it is, can we do it more in the day time as I need my sleep too you know," and she ended this plea with two quick sniffs and a quiver of her lower lip that suggested she was on the verge of tears.
Peter made a face as he absorbed what the girl was saying and then gave the startled girl a big hug and a clumsy kiss on the forehead. Without further explanation he ran as fast as he could to where the second year girls dorm entrance could be found, losing his way a couple of times in the process as he dodged patrolling teachers. Priscilla and Wesley had caught up by this time and the former gave Peter a side-long look as she drifted past and entered her dorm room. Seconds later as Peter waited impatiently, Penny came out to greet him wrapped in gown and slippers.
"I'm fine, really," she insisted to the excited and relieved boy. "We're twins remember? You'd know if anything was truly wrong. Did you like my scream by the way?"
"It was brilliant sis!" Peter replied, bubbling over with pride and anxious to hear the whole story. "How," he gasped, "did you escape?"
"Not sure really. Went through a concealed door, wandered about a bit and eventually found myself in a familiar corridor. There were shadows moving nearby so I skirted them and got back to my dorm, jumping into bed to get warm. Other girls started trickling back in and when Priscilla arrived I thought the whole business was over. She told me to stay put and with Mona she went to check to make sure the coast was clear. And that's it really."
"Concealed door?" Wesley said as he hovered at Peter's shoulder. Mona Kidger came up just then.
"Back to bed you lot, inspection coming and we all need to be where we should be," and she made a gesture of urgency.
Penny hugged her brother and shook Wesley's hand awkwardly before they all departed.
Peter instantly found himself gratefully tucked up in bed moments later, and just as the third year gang leader had warned, too excited to sleep. His sister had reminded him they were twins, in tune with each others' feelings most of the time. The waves of joy and excitement coming off Penny as she told her tale as flatly as she could did not make sense. Something extraordinary had happened to her and for some reason she did not want to tell him.
~ ~ ~
Breakfast next day was surreal. The usual hum of conversation at the various tables was replaced by a curious silence and a great deal of glancing over at where Penny sat scraping marmalade onto toast and being offered extra slices by her dorm mates.
Even Priscilla was quiet, knowing that to say anything would be to attract the attention of everyone in the room.
"Pass the salt please," she once said, for she had some poached eggs to tackle, and there was a strange shudder at the other tables. People froze in mid munch or with a glass of juice suddenly stuck to their lips. It was too spooky for the beribboned girl and she made to depart early, breakfast only half eaten.
"Come on Penny, let's disappear," she said, choosing her words unwisely as she stood. Other chairs creaked and scraped as people craned their necks to see.
"What?" Priscilla finally said, losing her cool at last. "You think we're going to disappear in a cloud of smoke - poof! - and leave all our clothes behind?" and with that she grabbed Penny's hand as the latter tried to finish her juice, and dragged the poor girl away from the staring crowds.
Peter sat back in his chair and laughed. He was enjoying the apparent celebrity status his sister had suddenly acquired after the incident of the previous night. The story had clearly spread rapidly among the dorms how she had turned the tables on the third year demons and sent them scattering followed by a disappearing trick that baffled everyone. Yet he was as much in the dark as anyone and could only wave away enquiries from curious questioners on how she had done it.
"Magic," he would say, "my sister is magic," and they believed him.
One person not so pleased with the turn of events was Sandy Ebrington. He had slept through the whole ordeal thing and woke up finding Penny Thurwell had transformed into a heroine overnight without any help from himself. At least he could agree she was magic in her way and watched with some complacency and a little pride of his own as many first years approached her between classes to shake her hand and offer her sweets. Some would touch her sleeve before running away and others just simply stare at her passing. Peter had never seen his sister blush so much in his life and burst out laughing again at each token of worship.
There was one dark cloud in all of this of course. Big Bell was acting as monitor the following day and drew the twins aside to offer some advice.
"Enjoy the celebrity status while it lasts Penny," she said half-smiling. "Their number might be few among the third years who indulge in these pranks but they are a proud lot. Rumour has it their reputation has been slighted by a lower year girl and they will want to redress the balance so to speak. First years are even using your name as a talisman now. If you've got any problems come see me at any time or leave a message at the fourth year common room entrance and I'll sort it out." She raised a beefy fist as emphasis. "By your track record so far though," she added with a grin, "it might be best if the thirdies didn't mess with you." With that she ushered them to their next lesson, Ancient History, Bronze level, with Miss Gemini Castor.
Before transferring to St Spiritus, the twins had shown a natural interest in history so had found themselves once again in a higher grade class than usual among unfamiliar boys and girls. This time however they were greeted with a degree of respect different from that meted out to them by the snobbish pupils in Speculus's class.
Miss Castor it had to be said was indifferent to their antecedents. She was one of those teachers whose very demeanour suggested it would be unwise to enter her classroom with a casual attitude or sloppy thoughts no matter where they came from. She had the bearing of a strict sports mistress and approached her subject with a vigour that left her pupils breathless in their attempts to keep up. She had begun the new year curriculum with an aggressive assessment of the Trojan Wars and ploughed through the various intrigues and arguments among long dead heroes and villains of the past with prodigious ruthlessness.
"And so in conclusion Helen was a tart who ran away with her Troyboy Paris to escape the Spartan regime at home and wallow in the luxuries of the East," she declared in vehement tones, as if taking the whole matter personally.
Just then Miss Castor looked at her watch and signalled with a brisk hand chop across her throat that the dose of ancient history was at an end. Her manner was that of one disappointed, for she had been enjoying herself immensely. Pupils blew out their cheeks in relief at what was a rollercoaster ride of wars and heroic deeds and burning cities and the noise of slamming desk tops, screeching chairs and shoving books into holdalls competed with each other as everyone made their way out into the corridor.
"Next week boys and girls," Miss Castor raised her voice stridently above the noise, "we'll conclude the Trojan Wars with Achilles whining and whinging over booty shares with Agamemnon, but until then I want you all to write down five reasons why you think the Trojan horse strategy of the Greeks was an underhand, ignoble and downright cheating way to beat an enemy." Miss Castor had her own views on who were the true heroes in ancient times. She was a thoroughly modern teacher.
"What does ignoble mean?" a boy asked another as they all poured through the stone-arched doorway to freedom.
"No idea," came a reply. "Don't worry about it. She'll have forgotten she even set that task by next week. Let's make sure no swots do it and remind her on the day."
"I thought that bit about Helen's skill in sorcery was quite interesting, that all her allure was done by magic potions and stuff," Penny said while the group of second years were still packed together in a narrow side corridor before monitors could pluck the Pewter pupils out of the way.
"She was a tart, you heard teacher say," another girl replied.
"You'll need magic potions if you ever want to be alluring," a boy responded before Penny could open her mouth, and he emphasised the final word with an odd modelling pose. The male half of the crowd sniggered gleefully.
"Penny won't," the girl replied. "She's magic already."
Before anyone could agree or disagree a small boy ran forward from the main corridor. Both his size and the yellow tie he wore in an elaborate knot told of his first year status.
"Penny Thurwell!" he squeaked as he approached at a rush, hand outstretched holding a flower.
"Uh oh," Peter whispered. "Another admirer," and he snorted with suppressed laughter. Penny stood there, dreading the encounter as the other pupils watched in amusement, even the monitors. To Penny's utter embarrassment the boy knelt upon the stone floor in front of her and proferred the wilting flower.
"May I introduce myself?" he began, looking up all sparkly eyed. Before anyone could object he did just that. "I am Stanley Winstanley of the Balafleet Winstanleys down east," he recited. "And it would give me the greatest honour to pledge myself as your true knight and doughty warrior, sworn to protect you from evil and other unpleasantries that may occur. May I beg a favour from you, a scented kerchief or lock of hair?"
There was a breathless silence following this high pitched request and as whispers and sniggers increased Peter stepped forward.
"No you may not," he said emphatically, thrusting out a menacing fist. "Now, scram!" and the little boy jumped up and ran off, still clutching the flower.
As laughter resounded in the echoey corridor, which Peter felt half obliged to join with he glanced at Penny to see how embarrassed she might be. To his surprise there was a look of concern on her face.
"Did the small but doughty knight frighten you?" he asked with a smirk.
"You didn't recognise him?"
Peter shook his head.
"Never seen him before in my life," he insisted.
"Yes you have. In the third year science wing," Penny said. "Being pestered, or so we thought, by the Fright Club gang. Remember how he didn't seem particularly bothered by the incident and rudely dismissed our offer of help?"
"Y-e-s," Peter slowly recalled the incident. "Nasty little twerp."
"Now he's making nice, all of a sudden," Penny observed archly. By this time they had been separated from the Bronze pupils and were on their way to another lesson behind a fourth year. So that she could not hear what they were saying Peter replied in a whisper.
"Reckon he's a Lux minion?"
"Exactly. Helps to be paranoid in this place. It seems the third years are planning something new already and I fear that little Stanley Winstanley brat is somehow involved."
To be continued...