The ruckus had summoned the men. The four of them stood nearby, their crossbows not quite raised to bear on Twig. Unsure about the situation, they kept at the ready.
“If he’s a ghost and all, what good’ll these do anyhow?” one of them muttered.
“You can’t see through him or ought. Can’t be a ghost no how,” another muttered.
They all looked to the woman on the porch for guidance. She walked to the edge of the porch, her crossbow also at the ready, but not pointed at Twig.
Twig inhaled. “My name is Twig Lithnmark,” he said.
“I know your name,” the woman said. “You were the lord of this manor.” Twig stood completely still, noting her use of the past tense. “What are you now?” the woman asked. “Are you a ghost? A demon? I can’t tell.”
Twig clutched his cloak around his shoulders and met her grey eyes. He didn’t know the answer to that question.
“Speak up,” she said. He gave the easiest answer.
“I am Twig Lithnmark of the Zombie Corps, a soldier in the Covenant Army Special Forces.”
“I knew all of that as well,” she said. “But the Covenant Army is disbanded and the Zombie Corps disappeared without a trace.”
News to Twig. He stood like a stone, not sure what else to do.
“Are the horses settled?” the young, red-haired woman asked one of the men. Everyone looked at her, holding the cat in front of her pregnant belly. “Well, I want to know,” she said.
The men glanced at the woman on the porch, asking for instructions. Twig kept his gaze on the redheaded young woman.
“Well, answer her,” the woman on the porch said.
“Aye, Mistress Trilby,” one of the men said. “Still on edge and all, but quiet for now. Won’t be happy till he’s gone,” he gestured with his crossbow at Twig. “When are you sending him away?”
“Can’t send him away if he’s a ghost—not how you’d send away a beggar,” one of the other men said in a hurried, hushed voice.
“Hold your tongue,” the red-headed woman, Trilby, said. “He is not a ghost. He’s a travel, and he’s clearly cold. We’re asking him in for a cup of tea before we do anything else.”
“Trilby,” the woman on the porch started in a stern voice.
“Mother, he is one, cold man. Let him come in and warm up,” Trilby stared her mother in the face. Her nostrils flared. The woman on the porch looked back at Twig, as if evaluating him as a threat to her person. After a few seconds of appraisal, she came to entirely the wrong conclusion because she turned and went into the house, muttering permission for him to come inside. As a trained strategist, Twig considered that a tactical error.
He did want to get out of the cold; though this woman, mother of Trilby who looked so familiar, frightened him. He feared who she might be. He didn’t want to know her name.
“Go about your chores,” Trilby told the men, still unsure where to point their crossbows. They stayed where they were. Rolling her eyes, Trilby looked Twig in the face. “You look rather sickly. Are you all right?”
“I do not know,” Twig replied. It was the truth. His joints all ached as if all his liquids had been replaced with coarse sand—his guts curled in on themselves with pains like hunger—the cold bit him down to his bones. He had felt the same for days without abatement. But it had grown no worse either. He was unsure how he was. He functioned higher than ever. Without once pausing to sleep or eat he had walked to the manor house over two days.
“You don’t know?” Trilby said. Twig shook his head. “That’s strange.”
“It is strange,” he said.
“Hmm. You may know better after a cup of tea. Come inside with me,” Trilby walked up the stone steps to the porch and into the tall double-doors of dark wood.
“You are open with your hospitality,” Twig said, his tone flat. She seemed too trusting to him. He feared that she misunderstood the situation.
“Because you don’t deserve our hospitality?” she said, looking at him from just outside the door. “Or maybe you think we should be more cautious of a stranger. But you are not a stranger.” Twig remained silent, looking at her with eyes unblinking. “You are my grandfather. I know your face.”
Like her mother, Trilby looked hard at Twig for a moment. Trilby’s attitude lacked all the suspicion of her mother’s and made it up with great curiosity.
“It is strange,” Trilby said. “Are you coming? We’re letting the cold in.”
She went into the house. Twig stayed where he was, hesitant to follow. He would not have let such a one as himself into his own house. The men around him moved away as Trilby went in, and the older of the four muttered at Twig’s back, “Get along—the lady told you to go in. Don’t you get comfy, mind. I’ll be in not long after to keep an eye on you.”
Twig looked around at the man, who went into the stables without looking back. Though he didn’t know the man, Twig could tell he cared about Trilby and her mother. That comforted him. Walking up the steps, Twig went into the house. The dark doors slammed behind him. Glancing back he saw the old woman, Hilda, had thrown the doors closed and dropped the bar to hold them shut. She glared at him then went through a small door that led into a servants’ passage to the kitchens. The front hall where he stood had two torches in sconces on the walls and seven candles giving it nearly no illumination, leaving it shadowy and chilly. Twig could see every crack in every grey stone in the walls and floor anyway. His eyes needed very little light.
“This way, please,” Trilby said. She set the cat down and rested a hand on top of her belly. “Mother’s parlor is warmest.”
“I know,” Twig said.
“I suppose you do.” Trilby went past the buffet where all the seven candles in the hall sat in a candelabrum and two candlesticks and went through a small door behind a heavy tapestry of a butterfly. She held the tapestry open for Twig so he could go in first. He paused outside the door, looked into her face. Wariness shaped her eyes, but also curiosity. A twitch of a little smile curled her lips for a moment and disappeared as quickly.
Twig considered returning the smile. He memorized every little fleck in her eyes, scrutinized every pore in her young skin. He guessed her thoughts dwelt on his cold presence—read caution in the hand stiffly resting on top of her round belly. Twig listened for the baby’s heartbeat—the little pitter-pat skipped, like a surprise.
“Ooh,” she said introspectively, her eyes glazing over and a whimsy-filled smile on her lips. “He’s kicking.”
“She is kicking,” Twig said.
“She?” Trilby grinned at Twig. Twig nodded. It had to be a girl. He could tell by the way the heat in her blood moved through her veins. Ever-so-slightly lower than a boy. It was a new talent he’d gained: a hypersensitivity to heat, especially in blood. He knew not from whence the talent arose. “That’s nice. Ooh,” Trilby said again quietly. “Can we sit now?”
Twig turned from her and went through the partly open door into the parlor. This room stayed warm, being small the heat that became caught inside the wood-paneled parlor tended to stay. A fire flickered in the hearth at the end of the room and early, cloud-choked sunlight through the leaded windows in one wall lit the room. The woman from the porch, Trilby’s mother, sat at the heavy table in the middle of the parlor. A cup of tea in a delicate cup sat at her elbow and a tray of more tea and cakes sat on a corner of the table near the door Twig entered. Trilby’s mother stared at Twig, and fiddled with a large wooden locket on a brass chain. Twig knew the locket.
Continued on Tuesday, November 29...