The long, wide hallway was resplendent with ornate mirrors, oil paintings of previous occupants and intricately carved wood and plaster. As Beth paused to gaze at a particularly severe-looking woman, she realised just how much she enjoyed the research aspect of writing.
Splintermoon Manor, a 16th century mansion, lay deep in the Essex countryside. It was reputedly one of the most haunted houses in Britain, and as such, was the perfect setting for the novel Beth was planning. She wasn’t one to just surf the internet for research, Beth preferred to visit places, take photographs to refer back to and soak up the ambiance; there was a strong atmosphere in the manor to absorb.
She continued slowly along the polished wood floor, taking a few shots as she meandered then halted as she came to a strangely carved wood panel. This was so different from the rest; taking a photo she then moved closer.
The panel’s carvings of runes started at the centre then worked in an ever-growing spiral towards the edges. Around the frame were strange symbols; some she had come across in earlier research, but others were entirely new and they fascinated her.
Beth placed her index finger on the centre rune and traced it along the spiral until she heard a soft click. She looked around, but was alone. As she turned her attention back to the panel, she noticed a thin bead of light from one edge that hadn’t been there before. She pushed gently at the edge and was surprised when the panel swung inwards on well-oiled hinges, revealing a brightly-lit passageway.
Beth’s eyes grew wide and her mouth gaped; most old mansions reputedly had secret passages, but she never thought she would find one. After a brief hesitation she stepped over the lintel and gazed around. There was a dead end behind the panel, but the long passage turned a corner ahead so she couldn’t see how far it went. Taking a deep breath she began to walk forwards.
Moments later, Beth heard a soft click behind her. She whirled around and saw the panel had closed. No-one was there. Trepidation coursed through her, but she continued on her path.
The passage seemed so long with its many twists and turns; although still lit, the passage gave Beth chills, especially as the eyes in the paintings seemed to follow her. These portraits had a sinister edge – all the frames had the strange symbols carved into them.
Beth turned another corner and was met by a huge door with the exact same carving as the hall panel. She paused, pondering whether to continue on, her curiosity warring with her practical side, when the door swung open. Curiosity won and Beth moved cautiously over the threshold.
Entering the large room, she heard a reedy voice, “Welcome, Beth.” Sitting in an armchair by an open fire was an old man. Dressed in clothes from the Victorian era, his papery skin resembled parchment yet his eyes sparkled with youth. It was strange seeing this ancient man with such eyes.
“How do you know my name? Who are you?” Beth blurted out.
The old man chuckled. “Allow me to introduce myself – I am Edwin Splintermoon and your great, great uncle. I’ve been expecting you, my dear.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Beth replied automatically. “Sorry, but what do you mean you’ve been expecting me?” An uneasy inquisitiveness scorched her eyes and voice.
Edwin skirted the question, “You look so much like her, you know,” his voice wistful.
“Amelia,” he replied pointing to a portrait on the far wall. Beth’s eyes followed his finger and gasped as she caught sight of the woman. Apart from the hairstyle and clothes, she could have been gazing at her own reflection.
“Will you tell me about her?”
Edwin nodded and gestured for her to sit opposite him. Beth complied and waited for his account.
“Amelia was my eldest sister, your great, great aunt, and mistress of this manor. Five years after she inherited the house she met a man and became smitten. I didn’t like or trust him – he had shifty eyes – and tried to persuade her to send him away. She wouldn’t hear of it and we had a terrible fight. Two nights later, there was an awful commotion coming from her room. Fearing for her safety I rushed in, but there was no sign of her. Her room was in disarray and on her bed I found a lock of her hair and a drip of blood. She has never been seen or heard from since that night,” Edwin’s voice became sadder in the telling.
“I’m so sorry,” Beth wasn’t sure what else to say. She looked down at her hands and failed to see a strange glint in the old man’s eyes.
“You are the last descendant of our family and will soon inherit this magnificent home. As such, will you do me the honour of signing our family book?” Beth raised her head and saw a pleading in Edwin’s sad eyes. She nodded and he rose, shuffling across the room to an old writing desk.
On the desk was a huge tome. The outer covering looked like animal skin and the pages inside like parchment. He flicked through until he found what he sought – part of a family tree. He pointed at the elaborate diagram, “See?”
Beth stared at the page; there was her name and above that those of her parents and grandparents. Edwin passed her an old-fashioned quill and pointed just below her name. “Sign it there, please.”
As Beth signed her name, she was surprised to observe red ink on the page. As she watched, it altered to black. Strange, she thought. She moved towards Edwin. “I really must go now. It’s been lovely to meet you – perhaps I can visit you again.” She extended her hand.
Edwin grabbed her hand in his papery ones; a sadistic grin marred his features and a sizzle of fear trickled down her spine. She pulled her hand away and moved towards the door, but it had vanished. Beth gasped and she heard a wicked chuckle behind her.
“Sorry, Beth, you’re not going anywhere. You see, in signing the book you have bound yourself to this house forever. You can never leave and you can’t destroy the book either, it’s protected by the curse.”
“Curse? What curse?”
“Legend has it that one of our ancestors was a witch hunter in the seventeenth century and he tricked a witch into falling in love with him just so he could destroy her. When she realised what he had done, she cursed him and his bloodline for all time. Within a couple of days of her death, this book appeared in the house. Every descendant of the witch hunter who writes in it has been bound to the house and isn’t released until the next relative does so. Now it’s your turn and I can leave . . . at last.” As she watched Edwin began to grow younger and at the same time, lose substance until he was little more than an outline.
“Will you help me, please?” she begged, tears forming.
“Sorry my dear, there’s nothing I can do. Perhaps you should be careful what you sign – after all, you can’t judge a book by its cover!”