Excerpt: Dawn's Promise

Excerpt: Dawn's Promise

Book 1: Silent Wings

Whetstone, Leicestershire. Spring 1880

“You shall die, you foul creature, for drawing the life’s blood from this beauty.” Having said the words, Dawn closed her eyes and said a wee prayer, asking for forgiveness for the execution she was about to perform. It was a serious matter to take the life of another being, no matter how heinous its crimes.

Then she squashed the greenfly between her fingers. Dawn tried not to look at the tiny life smeared over her fingertips. Instead, she concentrated on the greater good. She was forced to act to defend the roses. Nasty little bugs were destroying the blooms. Hungry mouths fixed onto stems and sucked the sap, which resulted in deformed growth. Not content with stunting the roses, the insects nibbled holes in all the petals and ruined the flowers.

She wiped her hands on the apron protecting her brown-plaid gown. There seemed to be a lack of ladybugs this year, the sworn enemy of greenfly. Had there been some offensive that reduced their numbers? Most people never even noticed the life and death battles that played out in miniature across a garden. Dawn did, for this was her dominion.

She would have to consult her books and determine what might be affecting the ladybug population so she could restore balance to the environment. The roses were the glory of the summer garden, and the ugly, battle-worn flowers would mar its appearance all season.

“As my first return volley, I shall mix up a garlic spray. That will show you all.” Dawn waggled a finger at the tiny green enemy clinging to the rose bush.

“Dawn,” her mother called from beyond the greenery, “you have mail.”

“Coming, Mother.” She glared at the army of advancing greenflies. They would not be victorious; she would see to that. She would not tolerate unwanted invaders in her garden.

As she rose, a flap of wings caught her attention in the overhanging elm. A raven, or the watcher, her mother called him. He had claimed their garden some years ago and could usually be found somewhere among the foliage, watching with his reflective black eyes. What did he find so fascinating that he returned day after day?

Dawn waved to the bird and then hurried toward the house. Her feet trod the lime chip paths, and her long skirts brushed against the box hedging. Her mother had crossed to the edge of the lawn and peered down the narrow path. Dawn wasn’t exactly hard to find, since their garden was neither grand nor substantial. Dawn had crammed as much into the small space as she possibly could. How she longed to stretch her wings and tend a larger area, but that would never happen.

An irregular tick thudded in her chest and she stopped. With one hand over her heart, she took a few deep breaths until the flutter within her settled. Only then did she continue on her way at a more sedate pace.

“Did you have company today?” Her mother stood on the cobbled patio. A smile pulled at the crow’s feet around her brown eyes. A lifetime of worry had added silver to her chestnut hair and lines on her face, but with her regal bearing and sculptured bone structure, she remained a beautiful woman.

“Yes. The watcher sat in the elm as usual. Do you really believe they report what they see to stone masters?”

Verity’s smile dropped and her expression turned serious. “Yes and I’d rather a watcher in the trees than a seeker in the undergrowth. But don’t let your father overhear such talk. Stuff and nonsense, he calls it.”

Her mother named rats and weasels as seekers of secrets who reported to the watchers’ opposing faction. Stories of mythical creatures fighting one another was all make-believe, of course, and Dawn was too old to believe in such things.

Verity handed over a small parcel and pulled her shawl tighter around her thin shoulders. “Whatever does this one contain, and is it alive?”

Dawn took the parcel and considered her answer. “Alive yes, but dormant.”

She could never tell her mother an untruth, not that Dawn had any great secrets to hide. Verity had a way of knowing the veracity of words. Father called her his truth taster because she said truth was sweet on her tongue and lies were sour. Her father occasionally brought business clients to dinner to have Mrs Uxbridge listen to them speak and cast judgement on their level of honesty.

“Dormant could mean a hibernating hedgehog,” her mother said.

Dawn traced her name written in black ink on the brown paper and enjoyed the moment of anticipation before she tore the wrapping from the contents.

“I requested a new cultivar of aquilegia. This one has brown blooms so dark they are nearly black.” She wanted to replant a tiny section near the rear wall. She imagined plants with foliage and flowers in the darkest shades possible to bring a trace of midnight to the backyard.

Her mother wrinkled her nose. “Black? What a horrid colour for a flower. Why would you want black in the garden?”

A wistful smile graced Dawn’s lips. “People think white the purest colour, but it is so easily spoiled. I think black is the most graceful and pure shade of bloom and leaf. Besides, it will be my small homage to our watcher, to see if I can replicate his ebony feathers with foliage.”

Her mother shook her head. “You do have some strange fancies. Perhaps your father and I should not have kept you so much from other children, but we do worry so about—”

Dawn laid a hand on her mother’s arm. “I have never needed playmates to entertain me. I am content in my own company.”

Her mother laid a hand atop hers. A hand with long, fine fingers so like to her own. Mother and daughter were so similar in appearance that only the changes wrought by time stopped people from assuming them to be sisters. They shared the same bone structure, colouring, and alabaster skin as though James Uxbridge had contributed nothing to Dawn’s creation. Dawn wished she would age as gracefully as her mother. Would she live long enough to find out?

“Come in for tea, dear. You have been overlong in the garden and it is time for a rest.” Her mother tucked her arm through Dawn’s.

The older woman drew the younger toward the house. Dawn didn’t feel weary and was sure her legs could carry her a few more times around the narrow paths, but on the subject of her health, she deferred to her mother’s superior knowledge. Her delicate condition had contributed to the worry lines on her mother’s brow, and she didn’t want to be responsible for another.

A child’s laughter floated over the high brick wall from the neighbouring house, and Dawn glanced in its direction. If she had been healthier or bolder, she might have climbed a tree to see what games were played next door. Although she had lived in the house for over ten years, she had never formed more than a passing acquaintance with her neighbours.

There were once three children in the garden beyond the wall, all of similar age to Dawn. In earlier years, they used to climb the wall to talk to her as she worked in the garden or ask her to fetch an escaped ball or toy. Her parents thought childhood games too taxing on her heart, and watching others play was the extent of her involvement. Over time, the neighbours stopped scaling the brick as play was abandoned for more adult pursuits.

Two were married now, and Dawn suspected the squeal of delight came from the oldest daughter’s toddler. A pang of loneliness opened up inside Dawn’s chest. She would always be the observer as others lived out their lives around her.

Their home was one in a row of identical red brick terraces. The yard was long and narrow, mimicking the tall and slender house. They kept a modest household, with only three servants to help with the daily chores. Her father’s bookkeeping business paid the bills, but it left little for indulgences. Dawn had no need for hats or parasols, and much preferred the occasional rare plant or bundle of seeds.

The two women walked through the open double doors that led to the parlour. Her mother closed the doors behind them and pulled the lace curtains across. Dark wooden panelling covered the bottom half of the walls, the top half given to a flocked wallpaper on which flaming birds roosted in red and orange trees. Dawn had always wondered why they didn’t catch the tree on fire. Her father sat in his armchair by the hearth, his attention fixed on the bundle of letters on the side table. A silver letter opener lay next to the correspondence. One by one, he slit them open and examined the contents.

Dawn kissed his cheek before sitting on the chaise opposite.

Mr Uxbridge glanced up at his daughter and frowned over the top of his gold-rimmed glasses. “You look pale, Dawn. Have you been standing for too long?”

She loved her parents dearly, but they would treat her like the most fragile plant. While everyone expected her condition to claim her early, she longed to experience life first. Did the rare orchid sitting on a shelf in the glasshouse dream of a riotous forest?

“I am told a pale complexion is much desired, Papa. And I have not been standing, as I sit on a stool when I am out in the garden.” She unwrapped her parcel while her mother poured tea. Within the small cardboard box, nestled in tissue paper as though they were delicate crystal, were several aquilegia seed heads. They looked like tiny hands with the fingers pinched shut. Each funnel contained black seeds the size of an ant. Dawn would grow the seeds in her glasshouse while she considered the perfect spot for the new plants.

Sipping quietly at her tea, Dawn turned her thoughts to the tea plant. What a shame the climate didn’t allow her to grow one. An ornamental garden was a delight to look upon, but more and more she thought of growing useful things, like tea or vegetables. Their glasshouse was too small to accommodate much more than one lonely orchid and her seed trays. Dawn would give up all her worldly possessions (but none of her plants!) for more land.

Her father grunted and frowned at the letter in his hand.

“What is it, dearest?” Mrs Uxbridge asked.

He folded the letter back into a rectangle and tucked it into the pocket of his jacket. His reading glasses came off, and he folded the arms shut. “I have been summoned to town on business that cannot wait. I would greatly value your assistance is this matter.”

Mrs Uxbridge placed a biscuit on a saucer before handing it to her husband. “Of course. I am ever at your disposal to taste the veracity of men’s words.”

Dawn sat up taller. A rare trip into town would relieve the ennui of talking only to her plants. “Oh, mother, may I go also? I could manage a walk along the main street to look in the windows while father attends to business.”

Her parents shared a glance before her mother answered with a shake of her head. “Dawn, there will be far too many people. The crowd and the walking might be too much for your heart. I fear you have overtaxed yourself today already with your work outside.”

Disappointment washed over Dawn, but she kept a bland smile on her face. “Of course.”

Being content on her own didn’t mean that she was devoid of all human emotions. She longed to see something of the shops, the riotous displays and diverse merchandise. To move among people and be a part of life, not a neglected aspidistra, forgotten in a corner of the parlour, gathering dust on her leaves.

“Perhaps tomorrow you and I could visit the book seller and see if the book on herbs you ordered has arrived?” her mother offered in consolation.

“That would be lovely. After tea, I shall start on my drawings for the area I want to redesign.” Looking down on pedestrians while she sketched at the desk by her bedroom window was the closest she would come to the bustle of everyday life.

With tea and biscuits consumed, Dawn helped her mother fasten her bonnet and kissed her parents on the cheek as they descended the front steps to the waiting carriage. She waved and watched until the horses trotted around a corner, then she closed the door and walked up the stairs.

Her father owned an accounting firm that maintained debtor and creditor ledgers for several larger local companies. Dawn tried to console herself by saying she would have been bored sitting in his offices with the large ledgers laid open on the desks. His clerks laboured by faint light inscribing numbers in neat columns, the only sounds the scratch of nibs or rustle of paper.

Yes. That would have been terribly boring; far better to stay at home in her room. She drew planting plans, erased ones that didn’t fit, and then tried something new. Throughout the process, she consulted her books for details on foliage and size and tried to imagine the overall effect she strove to achieve. She barely noticed when the sun dipped low in the sky and the maid came in the light the gas lanterns.

“Have my parents returned yet?” Dawn laid down her pencil. Her mind had wandered from the original task, and instead she drew a fantasy plan with large open spaces and exotic specimens.

Sarah, the young maid, turned the knob on the wall lantern, then held up a match to light the gas that rushed through the pipe. “No, miss. Do you still want dinner served at the usual time?”

“Yes, please. I’m sure father is simply delayed and they’ll not be far away.” Business often dragged as father reviewed the ledgers and double-checked the calculations performed by his clerks. He kept a large abacus on his desk that clattered as he slid the beads back and forth, and Dawn imagined him frowning at the rows over the top of his glasses.

Odd though, that he requested Mother’s assistance at his meeting. That implied he thought someone was being dishonest.

As she gathered her loose papers, Dawn picked up the polished obsidian egg she used as a paperweight. Bigger and weightier than a hen’s egg, her mother had given it to her some years before along with an outlandish story. Her mother said it was a precious artefact and that a brave man had died to retrieve it. His dying wish had been to entrust her with it. She said she vowed to protect the object and in return, it would protect them.

“I don’t believe a word of it,” Dawn muttered to the egg. “But just in case, you are safe from the seekers here. I promise my room is weasel free.” Dawn placed the paperweight in the middle of her papers to ensure no breeze disturbed her work during the night.

Downstairs, she waited in the dining room, expecting her parents to appear at any moment. A modest dinner was laid out on the table, but she didn’t want to start alone. As the grandfather clock ticked off the seconds and minutes, the soup grew cold and the gravy congealed around the beef.

Sarah appeared in the doorway, a worried frown drawing her brows together.

“You may as well clear the table please, Sarah. I’m sure mother and father decided to dine in town and forgot to send on word,” Dawn said to the maid.

Although she said the words, cold dread settled in her stomach. Where were her parents? Her mother knew Dawn would worry, and would never jeopardise her delicate health by failing to return home when expected or sending a note to explain their absence. Had there been some accounting disaster at the office, like a ledger gone wild with tallies out of alignment, or beads strewn over the floor from a broken abacus? Or a gentleman accused of lying who demanded satisfaction for the insult? She struggled to think what could have detained them.

Dawn moved to the front parlour, where she would hear the carriage along the road. She couldn’t pace; her body wouldn’t tolerate the exertion. Instead, she wrung her hands over and over while ignoring the open book on her lap.

At last, the steady clop of horses hooves and the driver’s call of whoa came from the street. She glanced out the window but did not recognise the shape of the carriage in the dim light outside. Perhaps they lost a wheel, or something happened to one of the horses. That would explain the delay and the strange conveyance.

Her heart was already beating erratically when the violent knock came at the door. Dawn and the maid both rushed to the entranceway. A policeman stood on the top step, his helmet tucked under his arm and a light mist falling on the shoulders of his dark uniform.

He never even uttered a word. He didn’t have to, as his mere presence was sufficient premonition of terrible events. Dawn mouthed no and fainted. Her body dropped to the floor unaware of the chaos that erupted, for her mind had already fled the hideous news.