The scullery maid placed a tray on the table with a glass of milk and a plate of éclairs. They looked absolutely delicious; large as a rolled-up fist and almost spilling over with cream.
“Go on, help yourself. You must be hungry. My blood sweat and tears went into those éclairs and besides, the time for rest has come.” The maid said with a knowing smile.
Timmy found the comment rather odd but was far too hungry to protest.
The most decent meal he had in the last couple of days was a moldy piece of bread he’d wrestled from a roof rat the size of a cat. The éclairs on the other hand were fresh, warm, and all his.
He grabbed one and bit into it, the creamy center melting onto his tongue with a smooth familiar taste.
“Buttercream…” Timmy exclaimed shoving the rest of the éclair into his mouth. “I love buttercream.”
The maid chuckled, pushing the plate closer to the boy as he smiled in grateful bliss. “The young sir loved it too, God rest his soul.”
The maid did a weird cross sign across her chest and grabbed an éclair as well. Then she watched Timmy eat for quite some time without saying a word.
When he finally managed to ignore the woman’s strange tendencies, he munched through half the plate, savoring each bite as if it would be his last.
For all Timmy knew, it would be. He dreaded the return to that heap under the bridge, to hunger and loneliness. Where was his mother and what was taking Tommy and his father so long to find them?
They needed to leave this place as soon as possible, go far away and never return. The watchmen had invaded and poisoned the city. It was no longer the paradise it once was.
“Not too fast now, you don’t want to choke.” The maid said as she poured Timmy a glass of warm milk and pushed it towards him.
“There there, eat up. A growing boy must have all that he can eat while he still has his teeth.” She went on with a squeaky chuckle as Timmy nodded, took the glass, and drank.
Ever since he had arrived, Timmy had gradually dispelled the rumors of House Lanka. Old as the building was, it hardly seemed haunted.
If anything, it was warm, clean, and smelled of baked goods and clean beddings.
It smelled just like home.
The mourning maid of House Lanka was also furthest from the figure spoken of in the stories. Yes, she had soot on her face, bloodshot eyes, and crooned under her shoal, but she was kind and very much human.
Ghosts couldn’t after all bake cookies and pour milk.
If only Timmy had known, he’d have come here soon after the raid instead of huddling under that moss-ridden cold rock. His hope now was that she would help him find his mother, wherever she had gone.
“And when you’re done, we’ll get you out of those dirty old rags and into some clean pajamas and socks. A boy like you shouldn’t have to sleep on the streets when there are so many rooms in House Lanka. The Lord would not want that.” The maid went on, securing her nightgown.
“Who is the Lord of House Lanka?” Timmy asked through a mouthful of chewed cookies.
“Lord Sospeter Lanka of course,” She replied, then her countenance fell.
“Though as you may already know, things have since changed after the raid and the house is not as it used to be.” The maid added and something about how she said it sent a cold shiver through Timmy’s body.
He did not know why.
“Why do you say that?” Timmy asked warily.
He did not wish to delve into the true horrors he knew lay behind the stories, yet still, something pulled him to know more about the house, about the Lankas.
“Don’t mind the mumbling of a sleep-deprived woman.” The maid added with a kind smile. “Go on, eat.”
Normal as she seemed, Timmy still thought her a rather peculiar young woman. For one, she had spotted him sleeping under the abandoned toll bridge.
Timmy did not know how, for he had always made it a point to squeeze past the cavern in the wall next to the dry river bed to allow his mother space in front of him.
There, under the collapsed stones, Timmy knew that even the rabid stray dogs could not get through to bite him. Nobody who passed there ever saw him for his mother had made sure he was well hidden and unseen, most of all from the watchmen of the city.
Yet somehow this woman had found him. How?
After he had finished his eclairs and milk, Timmy gave a satisfied belch, embellished by the maid’s chuckle. “Excuse me.” He blushed.
“You are excused,” she said with a giggle, “A most glorious sound to hear…”
The maid added stacking the dishes onto the tray. “Shall I get you some more?”
Her eyes, round and glossy under the yellowish glow of candelabras beckoned him to say yes. However, sense told him to wait, to be careful.
He still did not know why the old woman was being so kind to him. Did she work for the watchmen now that the house obviously belonged to another? Would she turn him and his mother in if she knew they were on the run?
If she did, it would undo his father’s sacrifice as well as that of his brother. Suddenly his appetite waned. “No thank you, ma’am. I’m famished. I should be going now, mama will be worried if she returns and doesn’t find me.”
The woman giggled delightedly as she cleared the tray. “Rest will do you better young sir, then in the morrow, we shall go to seek her out. It is not safe outside at this time, more so for a young boy.” She said as she walked gracefully towards the kitchen; almost floating.
“Where are we going?” Timmy asked wiping his hands on his ripped trousers.
“Well to take a nice hot bath of course and then off to bed.” The maid added walking away.
“Bed…?” Timmy asked perplexed.
A bed; like food, seemed like a thing heard of yet seldom familiar at this point. However, sleep sounded like a comforting thing after such a lovely meal and such a long long time in the cold.
Hesitant, Timmy followed silently.
The grand foyer outside the living room shone bright with candlelight, its polished mahogany walls plastered with hundreds of portraits.
The portraits climbed all the way up, disappearing beyond the reach of candlelight. In all of them were the same distinguished-looking people, Lankas probably; the first targets of the watchmen.
“Who’s this?” Timmy asked eyeing a particularly tall black-haired boy with creamy white skin.
He reminded him somewhat of his older brother Tommy. Timmy wondered if he and his father were still alive but stopped immediately he felt his throat constrict.
There was no need to hope for what he knew wasn’t possible. He could not get back to the city anyway, especially not without his mother.
Death awaited them there.
Timmy’s father had warned them against going back when he sent them away. Timmy hated the thought of leaving his brother behind, but Tommy would not leave their father’s side.
“Take care of mama for us won’t you.” Tommy had said.
The one thing I had to do and I’ve failed, Timmy thought, having no idea where she was. He had only shut his eyes for what seemed a second and when he awoke he was alone in the cavern.
Where had she gone? Why had she gone and left him alone? Did she not care what happened to him? Had they not lost enough already?
Whatever lies beyond the city, she had whispered before he slept, is far better than what lies inside. Sleep now, the time for rest is upon us. Your father will find us. We just have to wait here and wait quietly, okay?
Timmy nodded and obeyed, so why did she still leave him?
His mother had made that promise, but it had been months now and Timmy was still alone. Why?
Had she lied? Had something happened to papa and Tommy… to her? Had she abandoned him and fled alone?
No! That’s not like mama. So what happened?
“What?” the maid asked turning.
“This boy…” Timmy added pointing to the portrait. “Who is he?”
She squinted in the direction of his finger smiling. “Ah yes, the young master, such a darling he was.” She surveyed the other people in the portrait.
“Unfortunate thing what happened to them all.” The maid said with a sigh.
“What do you mean… what happened to them?” Timmy asked feeling the hairs at the back of his neck prickle.
Her eyes were somber, looming in the darkness. “It’s nothing to concern you with now; a sad story with an even sadder ending.”
She said heading towards the kitchen. “Now wait here for me while I get the keys for the upstairs rooms. I’m certain I put them somewhere in here.”
She mumbled disappearing down the hall, leaving Timmy alone with the ghosts of House Lanka… the ghosts of his past.
He had heard the gruesome tale, though he wished for his sake, like the house and the maid, that it was all untrue.
They captured and tortured Lord Lanka to reveal the whereabouts of the rest of his family and shot the young master in the back when the Lord refused. Then they dragged him across town naked, chained to their horses until they found his wife.
The Lady Lanka was spotted under the bridge and was chased and murdered at the stroke of midnight, shot as she ran towards the wheat fields. Thereafter she was mauled by the watchmen’s dogs and left to bleed to death.
Fortunately, there was no sign of the young sir whom the townsfolk say managed to escape.
The carnage that ended an entire line played over in Timmy’s mind. In his head there was more; a blast like a wildfire from ignited gun powder to weed Lady Lanka out. She ran even though Lord Lanka shouted for her to comply.
She did it to protect the young sir.
He imagined the sound of the blast, the crumbling of rocks, Lord Lanka, driven into a mad rage, pummeled with gun powder…
Again Timmy stopped himself from thinking. It was too painful, too sad a story to imagine right now. He needed to keep his spirits up, gain his strength, sleep, then rouse to find his mother in the morrow.
If papa and Tommy said they would come, then they would. He was sure of it. He and his family would escape to the country, to peace and an end to war.
Timmy returned his attention to the portraits.
Now that he was looking at them, they did not seem quite as frigid and beastly as the watchmen’s tales described. Mrs. Lanka for instance seemed a lot fairer than Nick the butcher’s boy had said she looked, familiar even, as did the Lord and young master.
How odd, Timmy thought.
He was far too young to have ever her… he did not remember seeing any of the Lankas portraits anywhere in the city. Besides, they were far too distinguished and important to matter to a boy like him.
A boy like him… who was he after all? Was he a butcher’s boy like Nick? What was it that his father did again? Was his brother in the army?
His head started to hurt as he thought and he stopped, returning his attention to the portrait of Lady Lanka. Surely she was far too tall, slender, and stunning to have ever graced Timmy’s ancestors’ quarters.
Would his grandmother have been noble enough to host her? What did his mother even do come to think of it?
His head throbbed again and he stopped his train of thought. Instead, he paid attention to Lady Lanka’s long flowing black hair, her big beautiful brown kind eyes, and… and… wait a minute.
Timmy moved closer to the portrait and stared. There between Lord Lanka, Lady Lanka and the young master was a short skinny looking boy he was quite sure was… no, it couldn’t be.
These portraits had to have been done ages ago, even before his parents were born, before the war that began his days under the abandoned bridge. So why was there a young boy in the Lanka portrait who looked just like him?
A jangle of keys in the hallway drew him away from his thoughts. “Here we go. The keys to the bedrooms…” the maid said… no, not a maid, not a random ma’am either.
Looking closely at the woman who emerged from the darkness beyond, he saw her as if for the very first time. She was tall, slender, and stunning with long flowing black hair and big kind knowing eyes.
The woman headed towards the stairs with a jug in her hand and a wide smile. “Come along Timmy, the water’s still nice and hot and you must rest.”
“Mama…?” Timmy said still rooted to the spot.
“Yes, my boy?” She asked smiling in his direction.
It did not make sense to Timmy what had just happened, yet somehow, strangely, it still did.
Then it dawned on him.
“Am I dead? Are we dead? Is papa… is Tommy?”
She held her smile for a moment, though it faltered with time. The truth it seemed was too painful for even her to ignore.
“Come… it is time to sleep and papa and Tommy await you.”
The chill returned to Tommy’s body, now filling every inch of him as the room shimmered away, bringing him back to the cavern in the wall by the river bed.
He hesitated, but for the first time since his death, Timmy embraced his grave, calming in its eternal lullaby.