The Galloping Lantern
All copyrights belong to Rowan Visser
Lasiandra House was by far the biggest building in the Grimforest area. It sat on a hill, south east of Grimspond, at the end of the narrow lane which ran in between the graveyard, where a certain Mrs. Whitaker would pick her flowers, and the church, where a certain Mrs. Whitaker would place her picked flowers every Sunday morning.
The orphanage, built of grey and black granite, was an impressive seven storeys tall and had mean looking gargoyles staring down from every available surface all around the roof terraces. The lane leading up to the building was dilapidated, tree roots bulging through everywhere and weeds growing a foot tall through the many cracks.
Many years before, when the orphanage was first built, the forest had been cut back for three hundred yards all around the building, making it easier to shoot runaways as they scurried through the clearing. After a great unspeakable scandal funding Lasiandra House¶s funding was completely withdrawn and they couldn¶t afford to keep cutting back the forest. Over time the trees grew back and the forest reclaimed what was originally hers. Tall trees now came right up to the walls of the house, rooted in soggy, marshy soil. In between the trees thick, leafless bushes grew covered in mean hard thorns.
It was early in the morning when two people on horse back came up to the massive front door of the orphanage. Edwina Vander Scheuff noticed the pair out of a third floor dormitory window. They were just sat on their horse in silence, staring straight ahead at the door. One was dressed in a velvet red dress, her riding hood thrown back revealing bright red hair on top of a fair head. The other had a simple dress on, fainted blue, a brown shawl over her shoulders. Her dark hair hid her face completely. She watched them quietly for a while, hoping they would go away. It was too early to rouse anyone to greet them in any case. They did not move. She sighed and pulled away from her window. Her eyes darted around the dorm, looking to see if any of the other children were waking up. She did not want them to look out of the window and see her secret. It was not very often that people turned up unannounced and never at this hour. When ever people did come here it was usually late at night when all the children were supposed to be asleep. Never early in the morning. Edwina
Vander Scheuff was nervous, but she was not going to tell anyone. She had never told anybody anything, not in the last seven years, not since she was four. She only watched. Sometimes she laughed, sometimes she cried, but on the whole she watched.
Her eyes darted around the dorm again before she shuffled up on her cot and pressed her nose against the window to watch the two strangers outside. The big one got off the horse. She turned towards the door, nodded and turned back towards the girl who was still on the horse. Raising her hands she went to help the smaller rider dismount, but she jumped of nimbly by herself
µA new orphan¶, Edwina thought for a brief second before shaking the thought out of her head. She really hoped it wasn¶t. A new orphan always meant trouble. She knew this, she had watched it happen too many times. A new kid arrived, moaning and crying, scratching and picking at the scars all of them carried in their hearts. Everyone got upset, like a wave of tears and sobs, a hurricane of wailing and constant crying, a wild fire of cold disillusioning reality spreading from one part of the orphanage to every room and child. The nurses would try and calm the mass sadness down before eventually loosing their nerve and locking everyone in their dorms for a day with no food or water until the little ones were too tired to cry and the bigger ones too hungry to care. Edwina wanted the two people to go away, what ever their business was.
She watched closely as the two stood by the door talking to someone. She couldn¶t see who it was, but she was sure it would be one of the older nurses. In her mind she could see a smiley fat face explaining that the child would be well looked after and that there were many friends for the little one to play with. µThe first of many lies¶ Edwina thought. The tall woman in the velvet dress indicated something and then produced a small velvet pouch from nowhere. She undid the tie and opened the pouch for the nurse to see. A flash of gold caught Edwina¶s eye. µShe¶s giving them money?!¶ Edwina Vander Scheuff hated the nurses with a passion and she did not like to see them getting anything. She knew better than anyone that they did not deserve it, but never the less, she shifted so she could see better. The woman emptied half of the pouch¶s contents into a thick fingered hand belonging to nurse Edwina couldn¶t see. She didn¶t need to see, she knew it was nurse OµMara. She didn¶t know how she knew, she just knew. The woman tied the pouch again and pointed at it whilst explaining something. Then it vanished again as if it was never there. µToo strange¶, Edwina thought. It
had never been custom to give money to the orphanage, at least not with the people who usually brought children here. This amazing woman with the magic purse was certainly not one of those sorts of people« she was so appealing to watch. Dazzling. And rich! Edwina thought she counted seven gold coins spilling into the fat hand, which was an awful lot of money, more money than even the nurses had ever seen. Can¶t be an orphan, she decided. Orphans don¶t have money. Not like that. Next, the woman handed an envelope over to the fat nurse. It was sealed with a black wax seal. The fat nurse suddenly seemed to listen more intently as the woman said something else to her. She nodded vigorously and Edwina could see the nurse stroking the hairs on her left eyebrow with her right hand. µMust be very important,¶ Edwina thought.
After a little more, of what looked like conversation outside, the tall woman got down on one knee in front of the girl, lent over and kissed the girl on her forehead. The girl smiled broadly and gave her a quick hug before taking the fat fingered hand. The woman watched as the girl was led into the orphanage. She then mounted her horse and trotted off at great speed.
Edwina quickly slipped back into her bed and pulled the thin, hole-ridden, covers up to her chin. µWell,¶ she thought, µisn¶t that strange?¶ She lay there for a long time trying to understand what she had seen when the morning bell went.
At breakfast Edwina sat in her normal place, where she had always sat, nearest to the nurses. When she first came to the orphanage she thought it was because they felt sorry for her because she could not talk, but now she knew she was assigned that seat because nobody else wanted to sit near the them. They didn¶t shout at her too often so she didn¶t mind. Most of the them thought she was deaf, but she wasn¶t going to correct them. Why would she? It turned out that sitting so near them had quite a few advantages. She could listen into all the conversations if she was careful, and she was very, very careful. So careful that Edwina knew about everything that happened in Lasiandra House. Everything. She even knew who was up for punishment, who was doing nightshift, who was late getting out of bed, what part of the orphanage stood empty, which was a bigger part than most would have thought - everything. For Edwina Vander Scheuff breakfast everyday was like listening to the Orphan News Broadcast, she got to hear all the news and gossip from around the entire orphanage and all she had to do was pretend that she was deaf.
Breakfast that morning was the usual watery porridge with a glass of thinned milked. Edwina picked at her food whilst trying, as inconspicuously as possible, to find the new face amongst the other kids. She looked and looked, but could not see anyone she did not recognise. Disappointed she turned back to her porridge and shoved a spoonful of cold gloop in her mouth. It tasted of nothing, as usual, but she carried on eating. It was all she¶d be given until the special treat of an apple at recess. Maybe the new child was in another room being giving sweets and warm treats for breakfast Edwina thought whilst swallowing down a gloop of cold watery porridge. Nothing was beyond these nurses. She frowned and decided that she had, had enough to eat. She didn¶t dare put her spoon down though, just for in case the nurses were watching. If you weren¶t eating you had to get out of the dining room and she really wanted to hear about this new girl.
µDid you see the size of that horse?¶ a nurse two seats away from her said. It was nurse Connelly, a skeletal nurse with a vicious temper. µI can¶t remember the last time I saw a horse that big. Will have to look it up in the library later,¶ she paused to take a bite of her toast.
Another nurses chipped in, µAnd they¶d been travelling all night. Slept in the forest apparently«¶
A swig of hot coffee followed the toast for nurse Connelly. µOh, and what a beautiful woman. I only saw her from the side through the office window, but she looked like she needed a slap just for being so lucky. No one should ever be that good looking, it is unholy. Would send the mind of most men straight into the cutter.¶ Some of the other nurses giggled, looking around to see if anyone was listening.
Edwina¶s ears burned with the effort of listening whilst pretending to be eating her breakfast.
µYes, she was ever so pretty,¶ said nurse O¶Mara, µbut ladies let¶s not forget the most important thing.¶
µThe brat she brought with her?¶ nurse Connelly asked.
Edwina could hardly contain herself. She was getting the inside scoop.
µYes, that little brat.¶ She looked around the table at the other women and slowly put her right hand on her left brow. It was her habit to role these brow hairs, which were perfectly suited to rolling, whenever she was about to saying anything of consequence. She used to role the hairs on her chin, but now it was the long, thick hair on her left brow that were rolled instead, thankfully. Her bloodshot eyes look from nurse to nurse before she continued.
µWe have strict instructions to keep her in good health until the C.D.C. can come and pick her up.¶ She gave the hairs another roll and then added, µLadies, I want you to be aware that this one comes with a health warning. The woman from the C.D.C. did not explain much, but she did say that this one is not to be let out and, even though she might not look dangerous, she is to be watched day and night. Any strange occurrences needs to be reported and under no circumstances is she allowed any visitors.¶ She rolled her eyebrow ferociously and frowned. µIs that clear ladies?¶.
Edwina found it really hard to concentrate on her breakfast, not that it was hard to forget about the bowl of watery porridge. She shifted in her seat and tried to keep her eyes down so as not to draw the attention of the nurses.
µThe girl,¶ Nurse O¶Mara continued, µis currently sleeping. Apparently she had some sort of ordeal yesterday and is to be left to rest. Personally, I don¶t think anything happened to her, but it is what the C.D.C. wants so I don¶t mind if she sleeps a little. As long as she is quiet, right?¶ She looked around the table to see the nurses smiling their agreement. µWe will give her until after lunch to recover and then she will be shown to her dorm. I don¶t know about you lot, but I want to know what all this C.D.C. business is all about, s o any child who is seen talking to her at length should be interrogated privately afterwards. Anything she says that seems out of the ordinary should be reported. I can not stress enough how important it is that we find out what the fascination with this child is.¶
Edwina found herself staring and had to look away quickly. Her mind raced, but it was clear what O¶Mara was planning. They were going to find out what it was that this C.D.C. place, what ever that was, wanted from the girl and then they are going to ask for more money for her release. The poor girl, Edwina thought, she had not even managed to get to her dawn and
already the nurses had it in for her. She wished she could warn her, tell her to run away while she wasn¶t being watched, but of course she couldn¶t. She had to keep her nose well out, as she has always done. It does not pay to interfere in the nurse¶s business. Even if she wanted to, she would not be able to sneak past the nurses and into their private quarters where the girl lay sleeping. And even if she did manage to get past them all and find the girl Edwina knew that she would not be able to tell her to run away. What if she spoke to the girl and it turned out that she had the wrong end of the stick? She would be exposed for nothing and Edwina valued her privacy above all else. She sighed and looked back up the table to where the nurses were sat.
Nurse Jones, the least nasty of the nurses in the orphanage, was leaning over, whispering something in nurse OµMaraµs ear. When she sat back again nurse O¶Mara smiled.
µThat¶s good Jones, very good.¶ the fat nurse said. Then she took a big gulp of her tea and slammed her cup down on the table. µBreakfast is now over!!¶ she announced in her loud booming voice, µThe last one to leave will be doing dishes!¶ The usual rush for the door instantly broke loose, children pushing each other this way and that to get out the door first. No-one wanted to do the dishes. The crazy thing, Edwina thought, was not that the nurses were interested in the dining room being evacuated after breakfast, but that they enjoyed watching the children trample each other. It was just cruel, but it was the way it was and she knew that unless she got a move on she¶d be elbow deep in dirty dishes until lunch time.
Edwina pushed her chair out to get up, wishing that she had eaten more of the watery breakfast when a big hand gripped her shoulder.
µYou¶re coming with me, little miss nosey.¶ Nurse O¶Mara was smiling down at her. It was not a nice smile. Her fat cheeks were too shiny and the hairs on her chin looked like wires trying to grab at Edwina. As she looked up at the towering, hefty nurse she felt her legs go weak. In the two years Edwina had been at the orphanage she had never had a run in with nurse O¶Mara, but she had heard that this one had a particularly nasty streak. Her heart raced.
µI¶ve been watching you the whole time and I think someone needs a lesson in µmindyour-businessµ.¶ Nurse O¶Mara gripped her shoulder painfully hard and led her away in the
direction of the nurses rooms.
Few children had ever seen the nurses rooms, but it was rumoured that there were devilish tools of torture stacked away in cupboards and rooms exclusively used for punishment of those deemed ¶naughty¶. Edwina did not look forward to finding out if there was any truth to these rumours. The way nurse O¶Mara was gripping her, with her fingers digging deep into her shoulder, did not settle her nerves either and in her mind she could see herself being tortured as soon as they were behind that terrible door - the door with the copper plaque that read ¶Nurses Quarters¶.
The corridor seemed to stretch on forever and she felt an overwhelming need to shout, ¶I am sorry! Please don¶t hurt me!¶, but stopped herself. For as long as she could remember her silence was her comfort, if she gave it up she would have lost and she would end up at wretched as the other children she spent most of her days with. She had to stay strong in her head even if it meant gritting her teeth against the worst imaginable pain.
µI have something very special planned for you, young lady. Something I think you¶d do very well at¶, nurse O¶Mara spoke down at her, dragging the girl along. They reached the µNurses Quarters¶ and the fat nurse led her through.
Edwina was not prepared for what she saw and her anger at the nurses were instantly reinforced Going in that door was like going into a different world. The children in the orphanage were used to bare walls and hard stone floors. Here, in the same building but a thousand miles away, the walls were covered in polished wood and hung with paintings, lots of painting. The saints they sometimes heard about in mass were looking from those paintings and she could sense their disapproval of her being amongst them; it was not right for her dirty little feet to be walking on such soft carpets. Everything smelled clean, mixed with the faint odour of cooking, lovely smelling cooking. She wished nurse O¶Mara was not stood so near her so she could take in the full aroma without having it tainted with her sweaty smell.
µEdwina,¶ the nurse said as they walked down the corridor, rolling the long hair on her left eyebrow between the thumb and index finger of her right hand, ¶I want you to listen to me very carefully, because what I am about to say is very important.¶ She stopped walking
and glared down at the child beside her.
µThis new girl who arrived this morning, she is not different from any of the other children here, but we need to treat her differently. I want you to look after her. Can you do that, Edwina?¶ Nurse O¶Mara looked at her in anticipation, her face half obscured by her left hand.
Edwina nodded, unsure what she was agreeing to.
µGood girl,¶ the nurse smiled at her for a second before her face scowled again. ¶There is one thing I want you to do and it is the most important thing. If you do this one thing while she is here, I promise you, you will not get in trouble. Do you want to know what that one thing is?¶
Edwina was frightened but nodded her head regardless.
µEdwina, it is absolutely important that you and this new girl have fun. In fact it is vital that you spend all day having fun. If you do not entertain her I will come and get you and then lock you up in a room so dark that you won¶t be able to tell your arm from your leg, do you understand?¶ The nurse had an evil smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
Edwina¶s eyes were wide with confusion. Fun? She would get into trouble if is did not have fun?? For as long as she could remember fun was off the menu and now she could get into trouble for not having any. She was very confused but sensed that things were looking up, somehow. Smiling gingerly she nodded her understanding. As nervous as she was of failing in her task, she could not wait to give it a go. It sounded very much worth trying.
Edwina tried to smile as they walked up stairs and down long corridors, but whenever she thought she managed a smirk the thought of the dark room would bring a frown back to her. She really hoped it was an empty threat.
At least she knew that she was very excited to meet this new girl and it seemed as if they were walking forever before they finally came to a stop in front of a door with the numbers 713 on it. With the set of keys she been carrying the nurse unlocked the door and went to go
in, but stopped short.
µOh, there is one more thing, child.¶ The nurse looked down at the child again and dropped her right hand to her side. µEdwina, I need you to try and remember everything this girl says to you. Every evening you will come to me and tell me what she¶d said.¶
Edwina¶s eyes grew wide and she shook her head, pointing at her mouth. Surely the nurse knew she was mute?
µDon¶t you worry, deary,¶ the nurse smiled again viscously, µwe have ways to overcome that little obstacle. I think you know what I am talking about«¶ Then she pushed the little girl towards the door.