BY JM CYRUS
Copyright is held by the author.
NORA PULLED the covers over her ears and tried to ignore the wailing singing taunting her from outside. It was made much worse by knowing she was the only one in the house who could hear it. She hoped her lines of protection would hold, and she longed for sleep’s oblivion.
“They’ll be gone by morning,” she chanted. “They’ll be gone by morning.”
Her affirmation increased in speed and volume as the deranged yammering outside gibbered and cackled. She repeated it until the words lost their meaning.
Sleep eventually claimed her in its enveloping embrace, her exhaustion undeniable.
She awoke to a dawn chorus with no unwelcome harmony, and the mist of morning dew in the fields was empty save for the ordinariness of a bleating flock.
Nora went about her duties. She had been at the manor property of Adh-Mor House for more than two months and had adjusted to its rhythm. She was determined to make herself welcome and indispensable and carried out her chores with unquestioning conscientiousness.
Amongst the scrubbing, cleaning, kitchen assisting and heavy lifting, she joined the banter, listened to gossip and rumours, and did what she could to integrate into the below-stairs ranks. A not insignificant part of her also wanted to distract herself from the years prior to her arrival.
She considered when to redo her barrier today. Whilst polishing the windows, she watched the master’s carriage leave, disappearing into the mist. The housekeeper interrupted her calculations by asking her to tidy his study in his absence.
“Mr. O’Connail will only be out for a few hours, please be efficient.”
Armed with a bucket of rags, chamois cloths, and a broom, Nora went to the study. She had to give its door handle a hard shove to enter, the aged brass mechanism heavy and stiff. She mentally added it to a list of things to ask the housekeeper. She had noticed many of the house’s handles were like this.
The study would have been an impressive space, but instead, it was overwhelming, a visual cacophony of knowledge. Shelves lined the wide walls, even going above the large windows and doors. Above the fireplace hung charts of constellations, lunar phases, and planetary orbits.
The shelved books were in utter disarray, with vertical stacks and many books backward, riffling paper visible. The floor and desk were a mess. Books scattered the floor, many open, as well as clothing and shoes. As Nora tidied and folded, she found a wrinkled apple and empty cups amidst the maelstrom.
Whilst creating order in the desk’s chaos, she up righted a picture frame, discovering a portrait in exquisite detail of the master as a young man with an older couple. Based on the similarities, Nora presumed these were his parents. However, the master’s red hair was not streaked with grey like now, and he was not wearing his usual spectacles. He still did not have his right arm, though, his jacket’s sleeve pinned to his shoulder.
The artist had taken care with light and shadow, incorporating a ray of sunshine hitting the figures’ faces. The vivid green of master’s and his mother’s eyes stood out. Nora looked into the sitters’ eyes for a few moments, before continuing her work.
The books’ subjects were disparate and varied. Nora could not help but flick through a few pages as she tidied, the call of knowledge irresistible.
At her allotted time she felt she had done all she could. She returned downstairs, stopping by a window on her way, examining the forest’s edge on the valley’s other side.
It was time she redid the barrier.
She returned to the kitchen carrying herself with a busy air, as if she were on an important mission. She checked no one was nearby and entered the pantry. She approached a laden shelf, pushed a few items aside, and reached to the back, retrieving a wide glass jar, about three-quarters full of clear liquid with brown flecks.
On her exit outside, she purloined a paintbrush from the gardener’s trug.
Whilst keeping a watchful eye for an audience, she conducted her rounds. Every ground-floor window and door was painted with a line on its ledge or frame. Nora would watch as the wetness coalesced and began evaporating, checking no holes appeared in the runoff.
She tried not to think about how guilty she felt doing this. She needed somewhere to hide, and this was a good place, but that meant she needed to protect the residents without them realising. She needed to keep her history secret. It was better this way.
She consoled herself by thinking that at least she could protect them. And if her plan worked it would not be for much longer.
It took her more than an hour to orbit the house. With one window remaining, the cloakroom beside the front door, she had to pause round the corner. Two gardeners chatted amongst the topiary. She leaned against the house’s stone wall and waited for them to finish. Her thoughts meandered as the gossip overflowed past her until an exchange made her listen.
“When do ya think e’ll tell ‘er?”
“Hopefully soon, mate. It’s gettin’ rather tricky bitin’ our tongue.”
Nora’s curiosity burned, and she craned to hear more. But she saw the housekeeper approaching. Before she saw Nora, Nora walked towards her, anticipating the woman’s greeting.
“Ah, Nora, could you help Spane with the silver?”
“Of course, Ma’am.”
Nora vowed to return to finish her boundary, but in the chaos of other tasks, she did not.
That evening she lay in bed, aches from hard work fizzing off her skin. After the silver had been polished, elbow grease judiciously applied, she had squeezed herself between furniture beyond the point of comfort to capture stubborn spiderwebs. She had beat laundry, scrubbed the kitchen floor, kneaded bread, and climbed ladders to dust chandeliers. She hoped sleep would claim her quickly.
Having drunk her medicine moments before clambering into the cool bedding, her mouth was coated in astringency.
As she fell asleep, a nagging sensation lingered in her chest. She dismissed it as the knowledge she would soon hear the same sounds she had heard every night for a fortnight.
She woke a few hours later to the penetrating noisy singing. But there was something within the wordless disharmonious chorus that scared her; a hint of triumph amidst the gibbering insanity. Nora knew something was very wrong.
She opened her curtain. The gibbous moon and a million stars illuminated the landscape. To the untrained eye, it looked peaceful.
She saw the clear aurora-like line of her barrier hovering around the house, strengthened by her fresh reapplication.
But something undulated within it, a peculiar visual tang. She pressed her face against the glass and looked left. The glowing border hazed.
Nora resisted panic, concentrating on what she knew. The barrier was not broken, just weak. The wailing was still outside, not inside. The jar was not empty.
She had time, but she had to move fast.
Putting on boots and her coat over her nightgown, she left her tiny room. She opened and shut the door in increments, managing to avoid the thundering clunk of the stiff handle.
She tiptoed the servant’s corridor, then ran, trying to keep her steps quiet.
She stopped in the kitchen pantry for her jar, an inch remained. She pocketed some sugar cubes and a paper packet of thyme. She would prefer rowan, but there was not enough time to go to the tree. This would have to do.
Berating herself, she rushed to the cloakroom, going through the main foyer. The wide windows cast angular pools of moonlight on the tiled floor. She could hear the wailing singing closer, the voices had gathered by the cloakroom window, sensing her omission.
She stopped, another sound making her freeze.
Something large was taking a deep, phlegmy breath just beyond the front door. It was loud, rattling and growling. Her insides liquified as she heard the shifting scrape of heaviness on stone and gravel.
Her anxiety was already making her heart race, and yet it pounded still harder. She shivered, her skin cold, her knees weak and her hands tingling. Panic, confusion, and fear fought within her.
Desperation spurred her on, the deranged giggling now coming from inside the cloakroom.
With a stumble, she reached the door. The door handle shook, and Nora was glad of its stiffness. She knelt at the doorstep and got ready to unscrew the jar’s lid. She realised she did not have a brush.
She fought back a profane exclamation, but a faint angry sigh escaped.
The voices shifted, their terrifying, insinuating singsong incorporating frantic, triumphant, taunting giggling.
Nora took a breath. She wanted to shut her eyes but did not. She pushed her sleeves, put her bare hands through the jar’s wide neck, and flattened them into the liquid at the base.
She sucked air through her teeth, wincing as the heavily salted mixture painfully got into every single abrasion, scrape and cut from two months of manual labour.
Swearing under her breath at the stinging, she smeared her wet hands across the door’s tile step. She had to re-dunk several times to solidify the line, cursing herself with every new application.
She watched with relief as a flickering blue light only she could see coalesced into existence. The sounds beyond screamed in frustration.
When complete, the light rose as a wall before the door, with piercing shrieks of anger beyond. The voices combined with violent crashing, smashing and overturning. Nora hoped there was nothing precious in the cloakroom and took deep, calming breaths.
The disordered sounds continued for several minutes. Then the sound changed. There was a growl of intense animal anger, climaxing in a roar.
The chaotic sounds of tantrums changed to war and agony; clashing, fighting and whimpering. There were loud thumps as things were thrown.
Nora was aware this was not the same as the singing. These noises were real, potentially audible. She hoped no one else could hear them. She wished she could not.
The sounds dissipated, quieting to finish with a small pained whine.
Nora counted to ten under her breath, feeling the skin on her hands smart. She recounted facts. This was the only door. It is now sealed against them. The sounds have gone quiet. My jar is not empty.
She opened the door.
In the moonlight streaming through the open window, there was carnage and disarray.
Glowing, green, humanoid bodies ten inches long in various states of brokenness lay amongst the wreckage. Shelves had been torn off walls, boxes and crates broken open, coat racks hung askew, and items were thrown about. Pools of iridescent, green liquid splattered the room and everything in it, originating from the small, shattered, pointed carcasses.
But none of that was what caught Nora’s attention. What commanded Nora’s attention stood in the room’s middle.
A gigantic creature, animalistic but no animal, stood with the bearing of a man, easily nine foot tall, densely furred in reds and greys. Its shoulders were partially slumped, its posture tired but still battle-ready, fur raised, panting deep, rumbling breaths.
It reminded Nora of a cat, a bear, or a wolf; but the overriding instinctual reminder was of predator. Nora fought back her evolutionary instincts of prey, of danger, of fear, and examined it.
The creature’s eyes met Nora’s, and it emitted a low warning growl combined with a background whine.
Taking deep breaths and making no sudden movements, she wove through the carnage and stopped a foot away from the creature.
She lifted her right arm, holding her empty, salt-encrusted hand open in friendship and offering, and reached for the creature’s left shoulder. As she reached, she saw it cradled its other arm, its right. She peeked round the bristling, furred elbow, and saw it had no right paw; the arm ended midway down the forearm.
She looked back into the creature’s familiar green eyes and swallowed.
Her hand met the creature’s pelt, and he shivered at her touch. She reached through the dense soft fur, putting the herbed salt on her fingers against his skin.
With a shudder the creature’s shape diminished to just over six feet tall, muzzle and ears retracting, fur receding from his face, neck and upper torso. It was almost beautiful in the shift, fur and skin unwrapping and rewrapping like flower petals.
It stopped as a mixture, a creature from the waist down, a more than usually hairy man from above, a familiar face within. His eyes still glittered with animal intensity, and as he opened his mouth in a growling gasp, he showed very sharp teeth.
Keeping one hand on his shoulder, Nora threw the last drops from her jar over his shoulder with the other, provoking a hiss.
“That should keep you halfway for a few minutes,” Nora muttered, lifting her hand away.
The animal man looked at her.
“Hello, Mr. O’Connail, sir,” she said.
“You’re the new maid? Nora Weallan?”
He frowned at the room with annoyance. “What a mess.”
“I haven’t seen sentinels this far west for a long time.”
Nora shook her head and looked at the moon through the window. “I didn’t realise your kind lived this far east,” she said.
“One could say that it was fortunate this evening. Otherwise, no one in the house would be alive anymore.”
Nora swallowed. Anger overtook her fear and her guilt.
“And now everybody’s still in danger! Their brothers and sisters will come looking! Once the sun rises the Empress will be able to smell their blood, and…”
She stopped herself. He frowned at her. “You know an awful lot for a maid.”
She looked away.
She moved away, guilt raging.
“Nora.” His voice was stern.
She picked up a useless, broken box, and put it down. She chose another and started to retrieve pieces from the floor.
“Nora.” His voice was louder.
She turned back to him, tense and petulant. The emotional upheaval of the night had flayed her of her filter. “What’s it to you?” she retorted.
“I am your employer and this is my house! What is going on?” His voice contained anger, but mostly concern.
Nora sighed and dropped the coat she had been shaking. “I lied in my application.”
“I said I came from a house in Jura. Instead, I came from a different large house. Somewhere else.” She looked pointedly at the green bodies strewn about the room.
His eyebrows rose with realisation. “I’ve never heard of someone escaping before,” he muttered.
“Well, now you have.” She met his eyes with hard-won confidence.
“And now they are after you,” he sighed.
“I was handling it,” Nora muttered.
“It doesn’t look that way.”
“I just needed a few more days of medicine and then I would be undetectable!” His eyes widened, but he said nothing. Nora started babbling. “They hadn’t found me until two weeks ago, and the barrier was holding! It was unbroken until I got interrupted, and —” she trailed off as his body language slumped.
He ran a hand through his long, loose hair, and sighed. Nora watched the muscles move underneath his densely haired skin, and the cuts from the tiny knives closing up. “And you were what?” he asked, exasperated. “Putting a salt line around the house?”
“No,” she answered. “I’d been painting herbed, salted water on the window ledges and doorways.”
His tone now was impressed. “I have to admit that is pretty smart. But that would have taken months to build a proper barrier.”
“I just needed more time for my medicine and they wouldn’t be able to sense me anymore!”
“Nora, you put my entire household in danger!” Displeasure strengthened as he spoke. “What were you thinking? It almost doesn’t matter what your plan was! Everyone here was at risk! What would have happened if I hadn’t been able to shift?” he finished with a growl.
Defensive, indignant anger rose within Nora. She knew he was right, which added guilt to the mix. “I’d finished the line by the door,” she muttered.
“I said, I’d finished the line by the door, sir. I was handling it.”
He opened his mouth but said nothing. He scanned the room and gazed out the window. Either the moonlight or the combination of auburn and grey hairs made it look like he shimmered, a liminal, halfway being.
In the silence, Nora noticed some of the bodies were already starting to transform into loam and petals.
“I will tidy, salt and fumigate the place. You need to go for your run.” Her voice was a whisper.
Their eyes met and Nora wondered whether she had overstepped a line.
“Thank you,” he answered. “I will be back before dawn. We should talk in the morning.” Nora nodded, knowing it was inevitable. “Now, if you could give me the sugar cubes you have in your pocket, that would be helpful.”
Nora rummaged, and as she brought out the cubes she ground them in her hand, feeling the sticky, sharp corners.
They shared another glance before she smeared the powder across his shoulder, disrupting the salt crust.
With a growl and a re-peeling shrug, the impressive beast shape returned, and he stood tall. Nora gasped. He turned and jumped out the window and into the moonlit garden and into the distance.
“Well, I know what I’ll be doing for the rest of the night,” muttered Nora. “This whole place will need dousing before the sun rises.”
The little bodies were mostly changed into dried leaves and magnolia petals, their blood into earthy piles and smears.
She pushed her sleeves up, tied her coat tighter, and went to make more salted water in the kitchen. She had a bit more time, so she might as well go to the rowan tree on the way.
JM Cyrus is a speculative fiction writer living in London, England. She writes whenever there is a chance, and reads even when there isn’t one. Her work can be found in numerous anthologies, magazines, and online. A full list is available on her site. Say hello at jmcyrus.writer [at] gmail.com