After both too much and too little time, the cries and shouts died down and gave way to sick laughter. That’s how I knew they were leaving. These men had finished their task and were now joking about their success. It was disgustingly satisfied, the sound of a job well done, the sound of many congratulations.
Then I heard another sound: crackling. We watched them ride off, making sure we could no longer hear the horses before daring to even stand.
“Please,” I whispered. “Please.” Then I risked opening my eyes.
The sound had made it clear, but I still couldn’t believe they’d set fire to the house. We hurried from the garden, rushing though I worried our opportunity to help had passed. I pushed down my fear with each step, desperate to get closer, to see if anyone had lived. Only one corner of the house was in flames. There was a chance we could save anyone who was still breathing.
I stopped in front of the main door, afraid to step inside, terrified of what I was going to see.
“Mother?” A whimper came from the shadowy corner by the front door.
“Scarlet? Is that you? Oh, thank goodness!” She ran over, clutching her child as she wept violently. “My girl! I still have my girl!”
I looked at the house. Nothing stirred. Was she the only one left?
“Were those the Darkest Knights?” I asked, though I was already quite sure.
Lady Eastoffe whipped her head over to me. “How do you even know about them?” she asked, turning back to touch every inch of Scarlet’s face, unable to believe she was still there.
She shook her head, turning back to her daughter. “I thought they’d let us live in peace if we left, but I was wrong.”
This made no sense. “Why would they do this to you?”
“Oh, Mother, they came in with masks down and swords drawn, stabbing at anyone in their way, even the maids. I don’t know what happened to me. . . . I froze. I couldn’t fight.”
“You aren’t supposed to fight. You know that,” her mother urged. “You’re supposed to run!”
“A man took me by my shoulders, he held me for a moment, and I thought he was just going to kill me slowly. But then he grabbed me by the wrist and threw me outside. I tried to run, but I still couldn’t move. I crawled into the bushes and hid. I wanted to fight, Mother. I wanted to hurt them.”
Lady Eastoffe held her tighter.
“They spared me, and I don’t know why! And I watched . . . I saw . . .” She broke into sobs, unable to speak of it anymore.
I shook my head. I didn’t understand any of this. Hitching up my skirt, I moved to go inside.
“What are you doing?” Lady Eastoffe asked.
“Checking for survivors.”
Her blue eyes were hollow. “Hollis, listen to me. There won’t be any.”
I swallowed. “I have . . . I have to . . .”
She shook her head. “Hollis, please,” Lady Eastoffe said, her voice alone a clear warning. “That will do you more harm than good.”
The air of certainty around her words, as if this was nothing new, chilled me, despite the heat from the flames beginning to engulf the entire east wing of the manor. Maybe it was only in my head that we waited so we could live and go back to find survivors. Maybe it was already in hers that she knew we wouldn’t.
“I have to . . .”
She lowered her head as I pressed forward.
I walked into the house and was almost immediately run over by a servant carrying golden plates, running as if his life depended upon it. I sucked in a breath of hope, believing someone must have made it, but I instantly regretted the move as I coughed over the smoke.
Turning toward the great hall, where only moments ago we’d been toasting the future, I saw great tongues of fire devouring the tables and the tapestries and someone who looked to be Saul. He’d been brought down just by the door.
I dropped my eyes to the floor, covering my mouth to hold in the screams.
She was right. Simply seeing that had made the entire thing that much worse. Now, instead of the collective group dying, I had a face, an image. I was never going to forget the blood, the smell.
I wanted to keep going. I could try to find Silas. But the fire was set in more places than we could see from outside . . . and there were no cries for help. If Silas had made a plan for me, one in which I survived, I would have to walk away now. Because seeing him in pieces or being consumed by flames would not be something I lived through. And if I walked much farther in, I might not make it back out.
I coughed, struggling to breathe, and ran back outside.
Lady Eastoffe took in the horror on my face and nodded once. I looked over at Scarlet and had to guess my expression was a hollow echo of hers. She was lost in what she’d just seen, and I could see all the ghosts in her eyes. I walked down and embraced her, and she held on to me tight for just a minute.
Taking Scarlet’s hand and mine, Lady Eastoffe turned toward the path they’d freshly laid out for my wedding and stared.
“Where will we go?” Scarlet asked.
“Varinger Hall, of course,” I suggested dully.
Lady Eastoffe pulled her chin up and started walking. “Come, my girls. It won’t do to look back.”
But I did look back. I watched as the curtains carried the fire up, up, up. She was right; we had to keep walking.
It was obvious to me now that this family must have seen at least one moment like this before. How else could they step away from it so calmly, as if it was only a matter of time before another moment landed in their laps? Why else would they map out how at least one of them should try to live if they could?
Silas had told me about the Darkest Knights in a way that put some distance between them and him. But there was no doubt they’d come face-to-face before. It was just that this time, he didn’t walk away from the meeting.
If we had been thinking, we might have gone by the stables for a horse. Instead, we walked in silence, trudging toward my childhood home. It ought to have given me a sense of security, knowing I was finally going to pass through the doors of Varinger Hall again. All I could think of was why I had to . . . I’d have rather stayed locked out forever. My ears were on high alert, listening for the sound of horses or screams or anything that might have told me to start running.
There were no horses, though. Or screams. Just us.
When we finally approached the front gate, a steward was waiting for us on the steps. He held out a lantern, seeing there were three shapes instead of two, that there were only female silhouettes, and that the fine carriage was nowhere to be seen.
“Wake up! Wake up!” he called into the house. By the time we were at the front steps, there was a small army of staff to attend our needs, including the sweet lady who’d brought me letters when I lived at Abicrest Manor.
“Lady Hollis! What has happened to you?” she asked. “Where are your parents?”
Instead of answering, I collapsed in a heap and screamed.
IT HIT ME THEN, THOUGH I’d been aware of it for hours. My parents were dead. My husband was dead. I was alone.
“They won’t be coming home,” Lady Eastoffe whispered to her on my behalf. Her face was steady but hollow, with two clear tracks down her cheeks where tears had washed through the soot and dirt. Even like that, she looked noble. She went to move up the steps and was cut off by one of the staff.