Morning in the Carvil Valley had dawned foggy and cold, and foggy and cold it had remained. On the frontward bench of the antique wooden carriage, the driver sat like a large grey grub, bundled in too many layers to maintain his humanity. Ahead, the two-horse team jostled within their restraints, their ragged breathing producing great bursts of steam and their iron shoes striking sparks upon the ancient paving stones that marked the Old Valley Road. The trees on either side of them were already leafless and skeletal, poised over the road like withered, twisted hands, ready to snatch away any unwary traveler who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. No birds sang in the branches, and no quick-hearted woodland creatures stirred in the undergrowth. All was still.
“It looks like death here,” said Fiona MacInnes to her mother, Sorcha. “Has the forest always been so unpleasant? It didn’t seem so last time.”
“Closer to your uncle’s property the sights are kinder. Here, in the deep of the wood, it has always been gloomy,” the older woman replied. “Although, with every passing year, it seems to grow darker.”
Fiona polished the glass of the window with her sleeve to refresh her view of the outside world. “But it is not upon Uncle Alasdair’s land that I am to live out my days, mam.”
Sorcha gave her daughter a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Edmund Manor is not so far away from it, dearie. I am sure it will be just as lovely as Carviliet.”
Fiona wasn’t particularly convinced of that point. Despite never having had seen the place, she suspected that Edmund Manor would much resemble its proprietor, Lord Henry of Carvil: certainly not ugly, but not exactly handsome, either. The uninspired product of a faltering aristocracy.
“How long has it been, mam?” she asked.
“Since we last came to visit Uncle Alasdair? How many years?”
Her mother looked thoughtfully to the ceiling. “Five, at the least. Duncan was just a wee thing,” she said, stroking the head of her youngest son, who lay asleep on the bench beside her. “And we still had our poor Seoc with us, too.”
Fiona swallowed at the mention of her middle brother’s name. “It seems like only yesterday, and an entire lifetime ago.”
“So it does.”
She turned back to the window to watch the grim scenery pass by, and saw Seoc’s face reflected back in her own. They always had looked very similar. Same long, narrow nose and high cheekbones. Same loosely curled hair—although hers was her father’s red, where as Seoc’s had been nearly black, like their mother’s. Same creaseless eyelids, inherited from their maternal grandmother. Same brown, almond-shaped eyes. Had his been darker than hers? She thought they might have been. With every passing month, though, her memory of him grew less and less distinct. He had gone from a person to an image; then from an image to a concept.
The sun rose over the mountains and the forest began to thin. At a fork in the road, they followed the directional sign that pointed them left “to Carviliet” rather than taking the right “to Edmund Manor”, and descended a steep hill into a section of open woodland populated with dry, golden grass and young oaks, many still clinging to their red and brown leaves.
“Are we nearly there?” asked Duncan, who had awoken during the downhill stretch and now sat upright, rubbing his eyes and peering through the window.
“Nearly,” said Sorcha. “You’ll be able to see it in a few minutes.”
The boy pressed his pudgy face up against the glass in anticipation of the view as the landscape continued to crawl by. The trees were now short and sparse enough that the mountains could be seen through them, distant and towering, with deteriorating shrouds of mist clinging to their rocky sides. Their peaks sparkled with a dusting of snow.
Fiona couldn’t see it at first—Duncan’s head was in the way—but then the road curved, and the magnificent Castle Carviliet rose up into her field of vision, its many towers and turrets standing tall and proud in the morning light. This, at least, was as beautiful as she remembered it.