The House on the Ridge

byTodd172©

Hope helped me change into my sleeping clothes, and afterwards changed into her own.

"Did Mr. Genovese say we could stay here, Mother?"

"Indeed, we may. It appears that we own this estate and much, very much, besides."

"I like this place, Mother. The house, the forest, everything. We have it here, the peace and solitude you need."

"We may." I could hear my own unease all too clearly. Despite the estate, despite wealth beyond belief, I found myself hesitating.

Hope seemed to miss my concerns, though, and bid me goodnight.

*****

The hallway flexed and shivered like the inside of a living animal. I could see my mocking self ahead of me, waving for me to come on, to catch up, one lip curled in a sneer.

There was a shimmer in the air like the heat of a fire rising, but the feeling was instead dank, and the taste of cold ashes filled my mouth. A slight scent of iron, of blood, caught in my nose, but it was in an instant gone, and I hastened to catch up to her.

To this other me that danced ahead.

Vague shadowy forms seemed to flock to surround her. Twisted things with no real form, but a feeling of power and an awful sense of alien being. She writhed unashamedly amongst them for an eternity, then looked directly at me with complete contempt.

With that, she turned and disappeared through a door, leaving only a laugh like slow falling pieces of leaded glass striking stone.

*****

I blinked awake, barely able to stand, just catching myself on the stout door in front of me. I'd had this happen before, many times, but I felt more disoriented than ever.

"Mother?"

I looked down and found Hope holding my hand, a silk ribbon linking my wrist to hers. "I'm awake. I think."

Hope gripped my hand all the tighter. "We must get you back to bed, Mother."

I let her lead me through the house and up the stairs, barely able to even walk in a straight line until we reached our room. She sat on the bed next to me. "I tied us together so you couldn't slip away."

"Did I say anything?"

She shook her head. "You were uneasy and unhappy, I think. But you said nothing. You tried that door, but it was locked, and you just stopped there. Maybe you were trying to get out, into the forest."

"Maybe." I did not want to share the dream with her, the wicked version of me that beckoned me on.

She sat in the chair next to me this time and held my hand through the uneasy sleep and restless dreams that followed, yet she looked fresh and awake in the morning through the magic, I suppose, of innocent youth.

A teapot sat on the small table near her, and she offered me a cup. "When dawn came, I went down and asked Mrs. Naxby if she could make some chamomile tea. It always seems to sooth you when you are ill. She is sending breakfast up so that you may get more rest."

I took the cup and sipped the warm tea carefully. "She always had some on hand for your grandmother, you know."

A knock on the door later, Tillie entered bearing a tray of breakfast.

After breakfast, we simply relaxed. Hope read and I slept until I felt I had to get up and walk a bit; even that was well after the mid-day meal.

Hope insisted we bring our cloaks with us as she had something to show me.

She led me to the end of the hall away from the stairs to the main foyer. "Miss Tillie showed me this yesterday."

"Tillie showed you or did you drag her along?"

Hope blushed a bit. "She seemed to enjoy it."

I doubted Tillie enjoyed very much at all, but when Hope opened the door and we stepped up the short flight of stairs, I decided perhaps she had.

"This is quite amazing, isn't it?"

"Yes, Mother."

We were on the roof where a broad slate-tiled walkway went from one wing of the Ridge House to the other. Ornate filigreed wrought iron handrails lined both sides, with a breath-taking view in every direction. Seemingly endless forests and moors graced three sides, while the other overlooked a turbulent broad river.

The winter sun was dimmed by haze, but the sky had no clouds. Shadows were oddly lacking, though the land seemed dark.

I looked over the forests and Hope spoke what I was thinking. "It's perfect, isn't it Mother?"

"It's private and peaceful. No crowds, no constant visitors."

"Do deer live out there?"

"I suppose they do."

Hope smiled. "I would like that, I think." She suddenly pointed up the road. "I think that is Mr. Genovese's coach. I saw it out front yesterday when he visited."

"I suppose we had best retire then, as we are dressed entirely too casually for visitors."

Hope giggled and we headed back down.

Mr. Genovese having apparently noted my discomfort the previous evening simply left a notecard to be brought up by Tillie. All papers were filed, all accounts were in order and at my disposal. The bank chairman had sent a letter with him, offering to meet with me at my convenience.

I decided to rest a bit more; my sleep in the daylight had been far less disturbed than in the night, as was so often the case with my condition.

*****

Once again, I drifted down the hall, the dark moon ahead of me promising darker things, and leading me towards her, ever towards her. I knew I had to find her, to stop her.

Stop myself.

I was in an instant facing the door, aching to pass through it. A dull throbbing chant of half-heard dead voices pushed through it to me, calling me forward, calling me down.

*****

Hope stared down at me. "You were upset Mother, you sounded desperate."

"The dreams are back."

"Night is almost here and the moon is rising." She paused. "I went down to talk to Mrs. Naxby about supper, but I couldn't find her. The kitchen fire is cold. I couldn't find Thomas or Miss Tillie either. We're alone in the house."

A sick feeling washed over me, beyond even that of my illness. I had no suspicions of anything, only a feeling. "Where is the doorway you found me at, Hope? I cannot remember where we were when I woke."

"On the main floor just near the kitchen entrance." She squinted her eyes, thinking very hard. "You had pushed back one of the tapestries, and the door was there."

I couldn't think why this felt so important, but I knew it was. I slid off the bed. "This has to be looked into. The dreams are too intense."

"What about your condition, Mother?"

"The sickness will fade in a few days. I can bear it for now."

I could see in her face that she doubted me; she kept silent for a moment as I pulled on my robe and stepped into my slippers, then, setting her little jaw, she stared up at me as firmly as she dared. "Your illness will pass, Mother; it always does, but it will get worse before it wanes."

She wanted to demand to go with me but held back. She was correct, though. "I don't want you out of my sight in this place right now, and I may need your help anyway."

A smile struggled to break onto her face, but she suppressed it. "We shall need a lantern."

The sun was casting a dull brick red on the scattering of dead grey clouds as it rested on the horizon. "We shall, I think."

The house was steeped in silence as we quietly walked down the stairs. The heavy tapestries and scattered rugs seemed to swallow every sound.

Hope looked around fearfully for a moment. "It's so empty... like a tomb."

I didn't respond, just clutched her hand tighter. We had to pause at the bottom of the stairs as nausea washed through me again.

Hope led me down the hall towards kitchen. "It was..." she paused, "... here, I think."

She pulled a tapestry back and stared at the blank wall. "Oh."

I saw a familiar odd image on a tapestry a little way down the hall.

I traced the familiar darkened moon on the tapestry with one forefinger, then in a rush pushed the tapestry aside. I faced a door of heavy oak planks, iron-bound and solid as a stone wall.

Hope took in one long breath and nodded mutely, then remembering her manners. "That's it, Mother, that's the door."

I pulled the door, half hoping that it would be locked, but the treacherous thing swung open with only the slightest near-silent groan of protest. The gaping maw of the blackened stairwell waited hungrily.

The darkness seemed to suck in the light from the lantern, leaving the stairs black and foreboding, each stair-step felt rather than seen.

We reached the bottom and found ourselves wrapped in suffocating shadow.

Moving around in the darkness of the cellar was slow and uncertain. The lantern fought fiercely, and eventually we would just make out a vague menacing shape. Drawn almost against our will, we found ourselves pulled toward it as if by malignant force.

As the shape across the room was finally illuminated by the feeble light from our lantern, Hope gasped in horror.

I pulled in my breath. Martin's face stared at me, frozen in a look of pain and horror, eyes milky white. Mrs. Naxby, Mr. Genovese and a half dozen others who I had never met were piled, pale and breathless, like so many wax figures. Some were horribly slashed and cut, while others seemed simply still and unmarked.

I could smell no corruption, no putrid rotting, just an underlying scent of cold ash. I hesitantly reached out to touch the nearest corpse. The woman was cold, not the chill of death, but a deeper, ice-like freeze, her flesh hard and slick.

It took me a moment to see it, but the most horrifying realization was that the bodies were stacked and twisted grotesquely together to form a throne of sorts.

Shuddering in revulsion, I grasped Hope's hand. "We must be away immediately. There is great evil here, and the day wanes."

*****

We ran up the narrow stair and raced down the hall as best we could; I railed silently at my weakness and brushed falteringly along the wall, trying to stay upright as Hope pulled me along.

I gasped down at her. "We have to get away from here, try to make it to the road. Maybe someone can help us if we can reach the road while it is still light outside."

She nodded, wide-eyed, but stumbled to a halt as soon as we entered the great entrance hall. Thomas stood poised very properly in front of the doors.

"Leaving so abruptly, Madame?"

I stood straight trying to hide my shortness of breath. "We just... just... I just want to take Hope for an evening walk, Thomas."

A sneering humour lit his eyes. "I rather think not. A lantern in your hand? It's clear you've just come up from the cellars and we all know what you've seen there, so I believe it is time for this charade to end."

I pushed Hope behind me and whispered to her. "Go. Up the stairs past our rooms, go to the roof walk."

"Mother...?"

"I'll catch up to you, but I can't outrun him right now and you can."

She hesitated for just a moment then I heard her scamper up the stairs behind me.

I shook my head. "Thomas. You don't have to do this. We just want to leave."

He laughed, low and mocking. "Oh no, that wouldn't do at all. Not with all the trouble we've gone through. It would ruin all her plans. She'd be very angry, she would, and I wouldn't enjoy that at all." He paled slightly at that. He shook his head and flexed his hands.

I waited until he started to step forward, then I hurled the lamp at his feet. My sickness betrayed me, a spasm of weakness hitting me at just that wrong moment. Instead of bursting all over him, the lamp glass popped free and the glass bottle cracked open feebly, spilling oil lazily onto the carpet. The flame of the lamp died in a sad curl of smoke.

He shook his head sadly in grim humour. "That's most pathetic... Madame."

I began half crawling up the stairs, drawing my ragged breaths in as best I could while he watched in cruel amusement.

He stepped forward slowly, casually kicking the top of the lantern as he stepped over the oil and it rolled in a long lazy circle.

Thomas grinned evilly. "It's been a long time since I felt a soft neck crack in my hands. I'm really going to enjoy this."

I looked at him over my shoulder as I struggled up the stairs and saw the wick of the lantern spark to life behind him. Unhappily he followed my gaze and saw the flare as the wick hit the oil-soaked rug.

He growled unintelligibly and swept his coat off, turning, prepared to beat out the flame. He cast a nasty glare back at me. "You'll suffer for this."

Thomas paused for a long moment, clearly pondering whether he should kill me first or deal with the fire, a bit too long as it turned out. The fire seemed to come alive all at once, spreading across the carpet and catching on the tapestries with terrible speed.

Realizing the fire was beyond smothering with his coat and tails, Thomas charged up the stairs, away from the licking flames chasing across the floor.

I staggered onward, but caught in yet another spasm of weakness, there was no chance I could flee from him. He shoved me into the wall, my sickness making a mockery of my desperate attempt to escape, I fell to the ground helplessly. Instantly he was on me, kicking again and again into my ribs until I curled up gasping for breath.

Thomas looked over at the burning tapestry and snarled angrily.

With one last kick, he sent me rolling against the bannister, doubled up in pain. "She'll be furious over losing the mansion. You should have just had the good grace to die when you were supposed to."

I curled up tighter, unable to do much more than that.

Looking down at me, he grimaced. "Fine then, burning's as good an end as any for you." Then he turned and began to run down the stairs, looking for an escape.

He stopped suddenly at the second landing, staring at the sea of flame that the foyer had become. "You've killed us all!"

I lay feigning helplessness as Thomas came back up the stairs, red fury on his face. Just as he reached the top, I lashed out with a kick into his shin, catching him as he stepped, with only one foot touching the ground. He pitched back down the stairs, flailing wildly.

As he fell back, he grabbed the only thing he could reach. The massive flaming tapestry tore loose of its hangers and wrapped around him in a burning shroud as he tumbled down the main stairs into hellish foyer.

I flinched back from his horrifying, inhuman screams, then lurched up the hallway toward the roof exit, clutching my ribs as every breath sent spikes of pain through me.

Desperately praying that Hope had made it up to the roof, I stumbled up the short flight of stairs and pushed the door open, falling into the final dying light of day. If we could cross the roof, we could escape the fire.

I saw her immediately. She stood near the railing, next to Tillie and another woman, a woman I hadn't seen. The woman turned and I gasped in shock, nearly swooning at the sight.

It was me.

*****

The face, the hair, I saw them in the mirror every day.

I faced myself; a harsh, anger-lined version of myself, lit by the gibbous glow of the rising full moon.

The woman in my dreams.

She leered at me; an unhealthy, lurid smile splitting her face. "Well, dear Sister, aren't we a sight?"

"Sister? I don't have..." Even as I started to say it, I knew I was wrong. She was too much the evil parody of me.

Her smile widened, a feral animal grin with less humanity than the savage smile of a rabid dog. "Oh, but you do, Dear, Dear Sister. I'm your older sister, Marguerite. They never told you about me because they were ashamed of me." Her eyes glittered madly.

"Why... why would they be ashamed?"

"I'm their terrible little secret. A family of their status with a daughter committed to the asylum for the criminally insane?"

I grasped the railing, my head reeling as I fought to understand. She chuckled, a low rasping sound like a dying animal. "Oh poor, poor Isobel. I started with breaking dolls, how I so loved breaking dolls. But I found so much better. There are stone foundations behind the House that were servants' quarters. I burned them all. Those Outside talked to me, told me what I had to do to gain power, real power. I chained the doors shut so they couldn't get out and I burned them all." Her eyelids fluttered and she shuddered in ecstasy.

She opened her eyes and pouted mocking-sad. "Father and Mother didn't like my little fun at all, but they wouldn't bear any scandal, so they locked me away and pretended I didn't exist. Years and years of cold water treatments and cold stone walls, before Those Outside helped me escape. The sanatorium burned in a most terrible fire, and so Father believed me dead, or he certainly would have been more cautious. Perhaps he might even have warned you."

I glanced over where Tillie was holding Hope tightly to her. "Just let Hope and I go, we'll leave and never say anything to anyone."

"Oh darling Isobel, I can't do that. When I take over the estate it will be as 'Isobel.' With you living away for so long, nobody will know I'm not you." She shook her head with a sardonic smile. "Of course, that only works if your dear little daughter died. We'll say it was of the fever I suppose. It would be fitting." She chuckled at some private joke. "Her father died of fever, her grandfather died of fever. Don't you find that interesting?"

I froze, uncertain and afraid to ask.

"Just a little concoction I invented. A drop or two in the afternoon tea and they die in a couple days. It looks just like the Fever. Nobody even questions it."

"You murdered Conall and Father."

"Of course I did. It wasn't difficult at all."

"Why?" I hated the weakness in my voice, but the pain was overwhelming.

"How else to get you back here so I can take your place? Besides, it was quite entertaining. I often just send Tillie to deal with these little things. She's remarkably skilled, you know, and so very quiet. She's completely mine, completely in my thrall, so she will do anything I demand of her, just as Thomas. But your Conall and our Father were family, so it seemed fitting to take care of it myself."

She looked over at Hope and Tillie. "I think it's about time sweet little Hope went on her way."

Hope gasped as Tillie's grip tightened on her arm.

I raised my hand weakly, pleading. "Tillie! Please, she hasn't done anything to you!"

Marguerite's laugh rose madly, ringing in the darkness. "Tillie? Appealing to her better nature? Oh dear, she hasn't one. Not at all. Her name's not even Tillie."

"Tillie?" Hope whispered the name plaintively.

"Try 'Blinky.' That's her old name from when she worked for the Forty Thieves gang in London after she escaped prison." Marguerite's laughter hissed nastily. "I doubt she even remembers her Christian name. She used to have one, you know. A long time ago she was quite the respectable little factory girl. Such a common little thing. Of course that was before a drunken sot of an Earl rode her with her husband and her new-born down in the streets." She made a dramatic sad face. "It took her six months to walk again, then she learned it's not acceptable to carve up a toff, even if he killed your little family. She's much more interesting now. Not common at all."

I tried to stall for time, as an excuse to struggle closer to the madwoman. "That's why she can't speak."

"Oh no, that is why her eye doesn't open right, but her tongue was cut out later by a rival gang when they caught and tortured her. They did most unspeakable things to her, then wrapped her in an old carpet and threw her in the Thames. All done and gone, but my little Blinky can be a bit difficult; she simply refused to die. She hunted them down later and killed them all. She's very fond of her little stiletto, quite the murderous little thing."

Tillie stared at me steadily, her dark eyes emotionless and cold as the night. She held the long needle-thin knife to Hope's throat. My unspoken plea died in my throat.

Marguerite rolled her eyes. "Blinky, finish the little thing off, I'd hate for her to have to watch her mother die in front of her."

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