Appolonia and Basia were meant to be one person, yet fate had cruelly rent them in two. Each one craved the other, spilling sour tears when circumstance thrust distance betwixt them and bouncing like excited pups upon their reunion. They exchanged wordless secrets with little more than a look, and it appeared to everyone around them that the pair knew things; things they shouldn’t. All in the house would lower their voices when the girls were nearby and none dared leave their bed-chamber unlocked. The twins—with their silvery hair, pasty skin, and pale blue eyes—passed from room to room like miniature ghouls, knowing full well their effect on the others. They styled themselves in the image of old photos and wore navy-blue pinafore dresses to enhance their ghostly appearance. It was all one big game.
Few ten-year-olds enjoy the dark and fewer still keep company with the dead, yet Appolonia and Basia spent many a night skipping through the graveyard that bore the bones of their ancestors, not a half-mile away from the rear of their home. On warm nights they snuck wine from the cellar and drank it atop the roof of the crypt. When the moon was full, they would run to the edge of the forest and sing songs to the wolves, whose howling filled them with glee. Some nights they would take meat from the kitchen and lay it at the fringe of the woodland, like an offering to old gods. They would retrieve what little remained the day after and bury it in the ritual manner of their forebears. The whole thing made them feel unruly and wild.
Their favorite place, however, was the palatial treehouse, built for them by groundsmen at the behest of their parents. Perched atop a great oak, it boasted three huge rooms, a balcony that looked out over the trees, and a wood stove against cold winter nights. The twins spent more and more time there with each passing year and they felt more at home in their little house than anywhere else.
When the mood struck, they would play marathon games of hide and seek, or test each other’s skill at sneak-thievery and pickpocketing. The pair would spend hours reading old books, telling wicked tales, or—best yet—sampling concoctions from their vast collection: tinctures and unguents that would make most people ill. Sometimes they had visions and saw slick, writhing things in the shadows. And sometimes, the things they saw would speak.
Of all their uncles and aunts, their grandparents, and older siblings, few trusted them and fewer still truly loved or even liked them. It was their father—Magnus: the great giant of a man—who held real affection for the girls. So, it was a terrible smite on their world when he up and died on the eve of their eleventh birthday. Even worse for all and sundry was that he left the estate to Appolonia and Basia with nothing else bequeathed to any other bearing the family name.
And resentment flooded the great house in poisonous waves.
There were whispers in the drawing-room, and curses in the halls. Sly looks across the dining table. Notes passed in the library at night. Alliances were quickly forged and long discussions held off-site, and soon came a list of possible solutions to the family’s shared obstacle. Two obstacles to be precise; barely four feet tall, yet seemingly insurmountable. And when words grew heated beneath the garish glare of desperation and it appeared that none of the proposed actions would serve, an idea emerged from the darkness.
It was their mother who knew where to find the right plants and she peppered the twin’s soup with enough to kill them each three times over. Every one of the family made it to the table that night; some arriving earlier than necessary. Eager eyes stayed fixed on the girls all through dinner; the twin’s relatives veritably vibrating with every slurp. After a time, Appolonia looked at Basia and the pair stood in unison.
“I can taste hemlock,” said Appolonia in a monotone.
“Conium Maculatum,” said Basia. “Excellent choice.”
Their mother shot up onto her feet. “That’s very impressive, girls. You know your poisons. It won’t help you, though. You’ve eaten more than I gave your father.” The woman produced a silver pocket watch and stared wistfully at its face. “You’ve got about thirty minutes. Don’t waste the rest of your life.” Laughter spread around the table like wildfire. Mother suddenly glared at her daughters. “Tell me, though, how do you know what hemlock tastes like?”
“We make tea with it,” drawled Basia.
“We’ve been drinking it in increasing quantities since we were seven,” added Appolonia.
“We hated it at first, but now we enjoy the taste.”
Mother looked around the table at her muttering relatives. “Why would you—”
Appolonia circled her chair and pushed it in neatly. “The shadows told us long ago that we should increase our tolerance for poison.”
Basia followed suit and skipped to the dining room entrance. Opening it, she headed toward the front door, stepping over a large leg of lamb on the hallway floor. “The Help has been told to go home after entrée,” said the small girl.
“What are you playing at?” demanded Mother, approaching the girls.
Growling echoed through the house and a massive shape materialized. A black wolf crouched over the meat, its hackles raised and its teeth bared. Appolonia stepped behind the beast and scratched it behind the ear. Mother dropped to her haunches and tears filled her eyes.
Basia patted the pocket of her pinafore. “We have your keys. For safekeeping.”
“Now we’re off to dig some fresh graves for your remains,” said Appolonia.
“If there are any,” added Basia.
The twins giggled as they locked hands and skipped out into the moonlight. They awaited the last of their furry guests before slamming the front door shut and locking it tight, savoring the snarling, ripping, and screeching sounds within.