“She’s an odd little thing, isn’t she?” a whispered voice commented to its compatriot, “Completely barmy! Belongs in the mad house!”
“Shhh!” the other hushed, “You don’t want the Dragon hearing you!”
“Indeed, Miss Fisher,” the housekeeper, Mrs. Carlisle intoned behind the gossiping maids, “That’s the most sensible thing you’ve said all morning.”
Startled, the two girls turned, blushing furiously as they awaited the wrath of the afore mentioned Dragon. Mrs. Carlisle raised a ruddy eyebrow and waited.
“Sorry!” they spluttered in unison, rushing to offer explanations. Mrs. Carlisle raised her hand.
“Away with you,” she scolded, the dregs of her Scottish roots coming out in her accent and exposing her irritation, “You’re paid to work, not gossip like magpies. If I hear it again, you’d best be looking for another position.”
As expected, the maids darted off like flames licked their heels, their tongues quieted for the moment. Gossip, Mrs. Carlisle knew, was like the wind. You could put up a shield, but it would find its way past eventually. It was her duty to make sure speculations conjured by idleness never reached her employer’s ears.
Even if Mrs. Carlisle had her own, unspoken reservations.
Her heels thudded quietly across the carpeted halls, the pictures of the Master’s ancient ancestry watching her every move and judging each step. Cold, grey faced men and women, much like the Master himself. She’d long grown used to the eyes and solemn frowns, if not the ominous prickling of her skin as she trespassed. She stopped outside one of the heavy, oaken doors, the portrait of the previous Mistress in her red silks at her back. Her expression held none of the cold judgement of her in-laws, only sadness and pity.
Mrs. Carlisle knocked promptly on the heavy wood and entered before listening for an answer. The icy chill struck her first, the room dazzling in the bright morning light. Their guest sat staring out the window from the foot of her bed, still and distant in a way unusual for the young girl. Winter was coming to its close, but its iciness was still there and she wore nothing but a nightgown.
“You’ll catch your death!” Mrs. Carlisle exclaimed, rushing in. She picked up a discarded shawl from the floor and cocooned the girl in it before snapping the window closed. A sharp trill and flapping startled her as something small flew at her face. The dreaded Dragon of the below stairs’ masses gave a girlish shriek that did not become her one bit, frantically waving her hands to ward off the erstwhile attacker.
It left her just as suddenly, flying up into the canopy of curtains to stake out its next move.
“What in the-? Well, I never!” the housekeeper huffed, surprise turning to anger as she spied up at the tiny, brown creature,’ “Another wren! That’s the third this week! I’ll have to get the broom!”
“Oh no! Don’t! Please!” Their guest spoke for the first time that day, “He was just bringing me the news! He meant no harm, really! You just scared him.”
“I scared him?” Mrs. Carlisle shook her head emphatically, “Oh Miss Anne! What a thing to say! It’ll make a mess!”
“He won’t,” the girl promised, brushing a blonde tress from her face and frowning up at the wren, “I’ll make sure of it.”
Mrs. Carlisle cast her a dubious look, but chose not to argue. Miss Anne was prone to her peculiarities, after all. A young woman she may be, but her face was still rounded with puppy fat and her eyes sparkled like a little girl’s. The housekeeper had found all manner of creatures in the months since Miss Anne had arrived. Winged little devils like wrens, sparrows and robins, rodents such as field mice and squirrels. Why, Mrs. Carlisle had once caught a deer trying to muscle its way in through the front door! It seemed every time she saw the young girl there was an animal nearby to greet her. Perhaps, she considered, that was the reason for the Master’s most recent project.
Her eyes darted outside involuntarily to the workers building a high, stone wall around the property, blocking the view of the fields and forests. With the warmer weather starting to settle in, the monstrosity would take little time to complete now.
Miss Anne followed her gaze, expression hardening.
“I should like to go for a walk today,” she pressed, as she so often did, “Outside.”
And like every time before, Mrs. Carlisle had to disappoint her.
“You know what the Master said,” she felt the guilt roil in her belly, “I’m sorry.”
Miss Anne’s head snapped to look at her, mimicking the movements of the little wren still hiding in the curtains. Her face was always so pale now, different to how it had been when she first arrived. She frowned deeply, lines that didn’t belong there creasing her youthful face.
“Have you found my ring?” she asked.
Another source of guilt.
“No Miss Anne, not yet,” the older woman sighed.
Miss Anne remained silent, twisting at her empty ring finger.
The Master brought her home with little explanation one evening six months prior. A small, fairy like creature in nought but rags and tangled yellow hair. Her eyes darted about her every second, her whole body constantly in movement as though she couldn’t stand to sit still. Mrs. Carlisle had done as she was bid, dressing her in fine clothes and escorting her to a guest room. She had thought little of the oddity until the girl couldn’t give her a name.
“Call her Anne,” the Master had said after a long, considering pause.
“Anne?” Uneasiness gripped her. Rosie cheeked, little Anne who used to sing at her father’s knee had been dead these twelve years, ‘”But-“
The Master’s head had snapped up, dark eyes caught in some fury Mrs. Carlisle couldn’t put a name to.
“She is to be called Anne!” he insisted.
And that was the end of the matter.
As the winter storms raged and the long nights passed, Miss Anne became a fixture in the house. At first, she didn’t speak much, offering strange little chirps and croons instead. Her fingers stretched out to touch walls, windows and doors as she walked on light steps. As when she had arrived, she just couldn’t be still and spent most of her time flitting about from window to door all day long. She was never allowed out though, the Master had given his orders firmly there.
It became so normal for Mrs. Carlisle to have the yellow haired girl moving silently in the corner of her eye that she almost dropped the tray she had been carrying when Miss Anne first spoke.
“Have you seen my ring?”
“N-No Miss,” Mrs. Carlisle caught herself, “Have you lost it?”
“Yes,” her voice was a little husky, “Its important.”
“I’ll keep an eye out for it then,” the housekeeper promised.
Miss Anne graced her with the first of many smiles.
March came in like a lion, icy winds howling and whistling throughout the house. Mrs. Carlisle had to chase off a flock of pigeons that had somehow found their way into the parlour. The cook shrieked at the nest of field mice in her pantry and the maids were sent scurrying by a rather precocious fox that had snuck its way into the laundry room. The workers had to stop their construction of the wall due to the ill weather and the Master was often found in an irritable mood. Miss Anne too often followed in the wake of his anger.
The wren was now always with her, sitting on her shoulder or sometimes mussing her hair. The Master didn’t like it, but the more he insisted that birds were not for keeping in houses, the more defiant Miss Anne became.
It was strange. The quiet, ethereal creature that had always flitted about was becoming wilder by the day. More often than not she was found without her shoes, with her hair loose and flowing, with small animals clinging about her though they never usually came into the house. And as the weather started to warm, Miss Anne grew in strength and the Master tried harder to maintain his grip on her.
They were putting bars on the windows now, wrought iron works that twisted in fine patterns, but they were bars all the same.
Mrs. Carlisle felt a frustration she was unfamiliar with. It was not her place to question the Master’s decisions, but this seemed…wrong. She couldn’t think of Miss Anne, with her sweet smiles and love for living things to in anyway warrant these kinds of measures. The girl wasn’t a danger to anyone, least of all herself.
Mr. Higgins, the Master’s valet, shared some of her concerns. He was the most familiar with their employer’s habits, but even he couldn’t explain the behaviour.
“Its not fair!” Mrs. Carlisle said indignantly, “She’s such a dear lass!”
The valet laughed.
“So, you’ve become the Dragon that guards the princess, as opposed to terrorising the house staff.”
Mrs. Carlisle pursed her lips.
“I do no such thing!” she protested, “The girls in need of a friend, that’s all.”
“You’re getting soft in your old age,” Mr. Higgins teased, “Used to be you struck fear and respect in girls like Miss Anne.”
“Watch who you’re calling old!” she huffed, “The house is still run tight as a ship run under my eye, I’ll have you know.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” he said good humouredly, “You seem happier with her around.”
Mrs. Carlisle chose not to answer.
She ventured outside a few days later. It was a cheerful and dewy morning, the wet grass slicking her skirts as she strode into the fields, feeling like a small girl again. A basket and sheers at the ready, she spent a good hour picking a whole bushel of wild flowers for Miss Anne’s room. If the girl couldn’t leave the house, she decided, then the outside would be brought to her.
Bright yellow cowslips and pink foxgloves were joined with fresh white daisies and sweet violets. The cacophony of colours was a satisfying sight. The world was alive that morning, brushing away the confines of winter for the joy and freedom of spring. She looked back to the manor, surrounded by its half-finished stone walls, barred windows and hulking, distant form. A house of ever winter, she thought, a house that never woke up.
It was no place for Miss Anne.
Pushing away the sudden reluctance she felt to return, Mrs. Carlisle gathered up her basket and set about on the path back to the house.
She had barely handed off the flowers to a maid when a scream tore through the halls, high and despairing. Without a thought, the housekeeper ran, heart beating furiously in her chest. Foreboding gripped her like a vice as she followed the sound, all the way to Miss Anne’s room.
The door was cast open, the Mistress’ portrait staring right in, piteous eyes weeping for the sight they beheld. And what a terrible sight it was.
The Master standing over the crumpled form of Miss Anne, her cheek red from a slap and tears streaming down her face. Cupped to her chest is the still form of the wren, crushed and broken.
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Carlisle yelled, getting between the two, “Get away from her!”
The Master’s dark expression should have terrified her, instead she felt only anger. He reached out and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her out of the room despite her protests.
“No one is to enter!” he yelled, wrenching her away and slammed the door with Miss Anne inside. The girl’s cry of outrage and sadness was dulled by the heavy wood, but it still struck a chord in Mrs. Carlisle’s heart.
He drew his keys from his pocket and locked the door. Mrs, Carlisle tried to stop him, making a grab for the keys, but the Master is bigger than her, younger and a powerful man besides. Miss Anne started screeching, pounding against the wood with all her might and crying “Murderer!” at the top of her lungs.
“Let her out!” Mrs. Carlisle’s voice joined the girl’s, “You beast! Villain! Let her out!”
The Master took her arm in his icy grip, dragging her away from the door. Mrs. Carlisle could no better fight his pull than she could the tide, though she did her best to. He brought her up short near the staircase, breathing heavily.
“Compose yourself woman!” he shouted, as though he was any better, “This is behaviour unbecoming.”
“You let her out!” the old Dragon roared back, “This isn’t right!”
“This is MY house,” he released her, “She is under MY care and I know what’s best for her.”
“You only care about yourself,” she scolded, “You’re a fool. That girl will never bend to you.”
This seemed to give him pause and he regarded her with those cold eyes, though perhaps there was something tremulous and fearful there too. Mrs. Carlisle felt no sympathy for the lonely man, thinking only of Miss Anne’s tear stricken face.
“Mrs. Carlisle,” his tone was thunderous, “This evening, in my office if you please. We will discuss your conduct.”
“No,” she said, before thinking, staring at him angrily, “Consider this my notice. I resign.”
She turned on her heel, back towards Miss Anne’s room. The Master didn’t stop her this time, a small mercy.
She could hear Miss Anne sobbing though the door, banging her little fists against it and pleading to be let out.
“I’m here!” Mrs. Carlisle called through the wood, “I’ll find a way to get you out. I promise, miss.”
“My ring,” the girl cried, “Please Mrs. Carlisle, it’s the only way! You must get me my ring!”
“I don’t know where it is, miss,” the former housekeeper’s eyes stung, “I’m sorry.”
“He has it!” anger was rife in her voice, “He’s always had it!”
There was no question of who ‘he’ was.
“I will!” Mrs. Carlisle promised, “I’ll get it for you! I will!”
Making a promise and keeping it were precariously different things, as Mrs. Carlisle found out. Her interactions with the Master had not gone unnoticed. Here, the Dragon came out in full force, tongue sharpened with fury and eyes watching for even the slightest hint of offense. Twittering maids were nothing to her.
In such a mood as this, if she had come across the Master once more it might have come to blows, but as it was the man had locked himself away in his study.
Sleep escaped her that night. She would have to leave soon and still hadn’t figured out a way to help Miss Anne in her predicament. Guilt and worry warred in her mind as she tried to think. Surely a key would be more useful than a ring? Yet the desperate way the girl begged would stay with her always.
Before she knew it, she had wrapped herself in a shawl and was softly padding up the stairs.
A candle her only source of light, the shadows made it easier to ignore the eyes following her. She was surprised, however, to find she wasn’t the only one to haunt these halls this night.
Mrs. Carlisle quickly blew out her candle when the flickering light of another caught her attention and crept up quietly. A single candlestick stood balanced on the ground beside Miss Anne’s door. It highlighted a dark shape leaning there, groaning and crying softly.
“…please stay,” the mumbled words were hard to catch, “Don’t leave me again Anne. Don’t go!”
Whatever Miss Anne said through the door in response was lost by the great intake of breath and the sobs of the Master starting anew. At his back, the portrait of his wife looked on, her sad gaze softened in the candlelight to something almost gentle. Mrs. Carlisle held herself against the wall, hand over her mouth as the Master withdrew something from his pocket and opened the door.
A pale hand extended out, the Master pressed something into it and shuddered, holding that hand tight for one, long moment. With a final cry, he took off in the opposite direction to where Mrs. Carlisle stood, disappearing into the shadows.
Mrs. Carlisle moved quickly, rushing to the door and flinging it open. The room was bathed in moonlight, the window wrenched open, letting the cool night air in. The body of the dead wren lay on the window sill and she was surprised to see a second small wren standing beside it.
It saw her, making a loud chip, before darting out through the bars of the window and disappearing into the night.
There was no Miss Anne.
The next morning was quiet. There were no workmen on the walls and the household was still a bed. Dawn had just broken the sky into a mix of pink, orange and deep red. The flowers were barely beginning to turn their heads towards the sun, arrested in the dreaminess of twilight. A herd of deer walked the fields in the new light of morning, watching the cold grey manor for signs of life.
The door creaked open and a lone figure dressed for travel wandered out. Her greying red hair was frazzled and she looked tired, as though she had been awake all night. She went without goodbyes or fuss. She left without references or her final pay.
But she went feeling lighter with every step she took away from the building.
And so, it was that on a bright, spring morning, the old Dragon packed her bags and left the wintery house forever. Her sole companion? The little wren that landed on her shoulder, a small, golden ring wrapped around its leg.