Day 11 - Story Advent Calendar.


Advent Calendar 11th December.

What’s in the attic? Who is the spooky Arthur and what does he want? And where is the mysterious Miss Mary Delford? Unlaced authors Elisabeth HobbesVirginia Heath and Catherine Tinley now pick up the quill as our story takes a darker turn…

Captive at Cragdale Hall


She made her way into the attic to look for the papers.  A draft whispered from a loose slate under the eaves and the candle streamed in the breeze.  From somewhere below her a door creaked.  Emma shivered, more from a sense of disquiet than the chill.  She remembered stories about brides trapped in chests, undiscovered for decades.  She forced herself to think of tales of treasure beyond counting, jewels and riches lying undiscovered.  That would be a better story to be in.
Her stomach gave a sharp tug.  She would have welcomed some refreshments but Arthur had been so persuasive, his voice gently insistent in a manner that brooked no resistance that she had acquiesced more readily that she might usually have done.  She shivered again, recalling his mask-like expression.
Left or right?  She had no idea where to start so spun in a circle and walked the way she ended up.  She set the candle down and picked her way between dusty crates, some of which clearly had not been disturbed for decades, until her eyes fell on a pile in the corner that was free of cobwebs.  Scuffed footmarks in the dust told her someone had placed it there not too many weeks before.  She unearthed a large box with a key attached to the handle by a piece of plaited twine.  The roll of parchment inside seemed old enough to be the papers she was searching for but when Emma unfurled it she saw it was something else entirely.  She brought the candle nearer to give herself more light and stared curiously at what she had found.
It was a portrait.  From the state of the canvas it had been torn from the frame that once held it, leaving the edges jagged.  The colours were unfaded and the workmanship was excellent.  The quality was not what drew her eye, however.  The subject of the work was a youthful, smiling man with bright red hair and green eyes that commanded the viewer’s attention even though merely cast in oils.  His hand rested on the top of a piece of furniture that appeared to be a mix of cupboard, lamp and pipe organ and on that hand was an unmistakable ring.  Emma gasped in surprise for she had last seen the ring adorning the hand of Miss Delford’s nephew as he had torn open the drapes.  Could this be a portrait of Arthur’s father?  She rejected the idea.  Arthur’s ice blue eyes and fair whiskers could not have been passed down by the red headed man in the portrait.  Come to think of it, the style of clothing was too fashionable to be an elderly relative.   It meant the man in the portrait could not be older than his mid-thirties if he was alive today.
Emma was so intrigued she only half noticed a footstep behind her.  A hand clasping onto her shoulder made her heart leap to her throat. She looked around and a sense of foreboding filled her.  She glanced from the hand on her shoulder that bore the ring, to the blue eyes of Arthur which were now hard as steel and shining on her in an unpleasant manner.
“Oh, hello,” she began.  “What are you doing here?”
“This isn’t the right part of the attic.”
It was no answer.
“I found…”
“I know what you found.” Arthur cut her off abruptly. "I think you had better come with me to my rooms."
Before she could protest he pulled her roughly to her feet and whipped the parchment from her fingers.
"We'll take this too," he muttered.

Arthur’s fist had clenched her hair and he was dragging her. Stunned at first Emma went where he pulled, but then her wits returned and she scratched and clawed at his hands in her struggle to break free. “Let go of me!”
He ignored her and continued towards a narrow staircase at the furthest end of the attic. Emma tripped as he yanked her down the stairs, her scalp screaming in protest and her lungs screaming louder. No servant came to her aid nor called up to see what all the commotion was about. Her heels scraped the wooden floor as he pulled, then he abruptly stopped in front of a door. He wrapped one arm tightly about her throat as he fumbled for a key in his pocket. She fought him as he turned it in the lock and then found herself splayed on the floor as he roughly pushed her inside.
It slammed behind her casting the room into darkness. Emma scrambled to her knees as she heard the barrel of the lock roll back into place, yet even so she tested the handle to free herself. The heavy oak door did not budge as she shook it; behind it only Arthur’s retreating footsteps could be heard receding down the hallway.
The soft groan from behind her made her jump.
“Hello… Is anyone there?” Emma squinted in the blackness as she took a wary step forward.
Another groan. The sounds of heavy and laboured breathing.
She dashed to the window and yanked the dusty velvet curtains apart. As her eyes adjusted to the sudden shaft of light she saw him. Spread-eagled in the corner. Eyes closed. Long-legged. Broad-shouldered. A thin trickle of crimson blood running into his thick, red hair. His face the same one from the portrait she had found.
The fact that he was locked in here too meant they had kinship and she knelt beside him to help. She ran her fingers carefully over the wound. The cut was small but beneath it was a hard bump, warm to the touch. Years of treating the countless bumped heads of her charges gave her enough experience to know his wasn’t too dreadful, but he might have other injuries and she already knew he was concussed. The pulse which beat in his neck was firm and steady as she ran her hands all over his head and neck. No blood stained his white shirt, which she also took as a good sign as she undid the knot of his tightly wound cravat to give him air.
His eyelids fluttered then opened. That simple movement seemed to take great effort and he frowned against the unforgiving light before focusing. “Who are you?”
“Emma. Emma Rehnquist. Who are you sir - and why have we been locked in this room?”
The question seemed to momentarily flummox him and he struggled to sit, then gave up to rest heavily on his elbows. “I’m Hugh. Delford. Or Viscount Darby if you want the full and tiresome moniker. And no, I have no idea why the pair of us are locked in this room. Where the hell are we?” He rubbed at his temple as he gazed around dazedly. “This is Cragdale Hall. What are we doing here? It’s been shut up for the winter.”
“Delford? You must be related to Mary Delford, my new employer, and the man who shut me in here - Arthur. Her nephew.”
“Mary doesn’t have a nephew!” This piece of information seemed to annoy him. “And nor has she employed anyone, Miss Rehnquist. Believe me, I should know! Like me, you have clearly been lured here under false pretences.”
“No sir- I have letters from Mary herself.”
“You can’t have.” Those intense green eyes locked on hers sheepishly. “Because technically I am Mary.”
“You’re a woman?” Emma couldn’t help herself, her eyes swept the length of his manly body before she stared at him, incredulous. Surely it couldn’t be possible? His grin was exactly the mischievous one she had seen in the portrait.
 “Of course not. I made her up to hide behind.

They inched along the dim corridor, Emma holding her dusty skirts for fear she would trip on an unseen obstacle. In front of her, Hugh moved assuredly, quiet as a cat. Despite his size, he was surprisingly precise and controlled in his movements. They passed an open door, through which Emma glimpsed an unmade bed. Someone was living here, despite the house being shut up for the winter.
It had taken most of the day to loosen the hinges on the solid old door. Hugh had declined to tackle the lock, which was new, but instead had focused on the ancient joints. They had worried at them with a spoon and a broken candlestick, eventually managing to loosen the screws. From there, they had eventually pried the wrong side of the door open enough to allow first Hugh, then Emma, to squeeze through.
It surely had to be the strangest day she had ever spent, mused Emma, as she followed him along the dusty corridor. They had talked constantly as they worked, exchanging their life stories, opinions, and speculation on why they had been brought to Cragdale Hall. Hugh had been brought by force – the last thing he could remember was a blow to the head outside his Harrogate hotel the day before.
They had quickly confirmed that their shared interest in astronomy had to be key to their imprisonment. Emma knew that amateur scientists were often willing to share their learning and their discoveries, but occasionally there was jealousy. She had been unaware that someone would go to such lengths as this though. Hugh entertained her with tales of lectures given, and challenges made, and tempers lost among his colleagues, though he also, had never suspected that rivalries could end in kidnap.
‘It must be the comet,’ he mused. ‘It has caused great excitement as you know, but I have not yet published the exact details, which is why I invented Mary to hide behind.’ He flashed her another of his quick grins. ‘To discourage my more unscrupulous colleagues from any attempt to steal my papers and lay claim to my discovery.’ 
Despite never having been kidnapped, imprisoned or deceived like this in her life, Emma found that Hugh’s company meant that the hours had passed with rather more laughter than distress. As ordeals went, it had been surprisingly enjoyable.
They crept down the staircase to the ground floor. Ahead of her, Hugh stopped suddenly, turning towards her and holding up a hand to indicate she should be still. Emma, lost in reflections of how his eyes crinkled up in the corners when he smiled, was unprepared, and bumped into his solid frame. His arms instinctively shot out to steady her, and for a breathless moment he held her. Their eyes locked, and for an instant she saw surprise, then confusion in his. She felt as though the earth was standing still, pausing in all the vastness of space, while they each truly looked at the other. His gaze dropped to her mouth, then he shook himself and resumed a friendly, distant expression. He bent his head and whispered softly ‘There is someone in that room.’
Emma followed his gaze. The next door in the corridor was ajar, and she could faintly hear someone moving around inside.


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