She was walking home, late, again. Her father would surely find out this time. Mother could only cover for Matilda so often, even with her drunkard of a husband. All the girl could hope for was that Mother had already poured her father into bed for the night. If she saw the kerchief on the wrought iron railing that led to the main door, she knew she’d be safe.
Matilda was so lost in her thoughts, she forgot her surroundings. She forgot she was in the soupy fog of a North Island fall. The thick grey pea-soup that swirled before and after her made her smile. Fog kept most people indoors. None of the neighbors would see her, especially in her gunmetal shaded gown.
The girl’s rapid steps sent her sharp taps bouncing off the soot-covered buildings on either side of the narrow alleyway. The noise echoed and multiplied, until it sounded like an army marched through the passage. Matilda cocked her head to the side, listening for a ghostly reassurance that it was only her heeled boots making the sound.
When the long arm snaked out of the shadows beside the last doorway before her family’s manor, Matilda had no time to scream. Her legs betrayed her and she fell into the accosting arms.
“What have we here,” a ragged, oily voice breathed. “Looks like a filly’s gotten loose from the master’s.”
“Let me go! You have no right,” Matilda demanded. Trembling in fear and anger, she asked, “Who are you? Why have you detained me?”
A harsh laugh burst next to her ear. Matilda could smell the fresh onions amidst the rot in that breath. Her stomach lurched. Her slender fingers flew to her mouth, determined to keep her lavish late dinner in its place.
“We ain’t nobody, girl,” the voice licked into her ear. “And we’s ain’t detainin’ you. We’ve only decided we’re to help you. Trust us, girlie.”
“Are there more than one of you? How many? What are you helping me with,” the frightened girl asked, her voice cast low and, she hoped, sounding helpless.
“You’s was headin’ towards Master Stevenson’s manor, or I’m not worth me weight in gold. So, here’s a secret only us few knows; Master Stevenson’s to be made an example. See…,” the voice moved away from Matilda, leaving her in restrained silence.
The desperate girl twisted in her captor’s arms, but she didn’t make any progress in escaping. She flailed her arms and legs, hoping to distract the man long enough for him to loosen his grip. But she stopped when she felt her daintily booted foot sink into a leg and a stench of bog-water floated to sting her nostrils.
“Ahh, you’ve hurt poor Rob. Well, at least you’ve made a dent in the ol’ boy.”
The new voice was nicer, more polished. Much more the caliber Matilda was used to. Her head jerked toward the speaker. She gasped as she recognized the man with whom she had spent the evening. She blushed furiously as she remembered losing her inhibitions while the man watched. Then her cheeks flared with indignation.
“Charles, what am I doing here?”
“Matilda. I’m so glad the boys managed to catch you before you reached home. It would be a waste for a fine piece to go to waste, all for a drunk old man who can’t manage his debts,” Charles Vallingham chuckled at her.
“What? I don’t understand,” Matilda cried. She begged the man she thought was her friend, “Please, let me go. I won’t tell anyone. I’ll make Father pay his debts. I’ll hide his liquor. No, I’ll smash it all to pieces. Just let me go, please!”
Vallingham laughed, the mirth never reaching his sparkling jet eyes. Harshly, he barked orders to three large skulking men, in a language Matilda had never heard. In horror, she watched Charles Vallingham’s hand reach for her face. He roughly twisted her head until she stared at her family’s grand mansion.
Tears rolled unfettered from her eyes as three barrels of pitch were hurled against her house. Then she tried desperately to wrench her head out of the vile man’s grip, but she was too weak. In sobbing defeat, the girl watched as her family’s manor burned, along with every inhabitant. All fifteen people inside were sure to be asleep, at the hour of veil-less.
In the distance, Matilda heard the soulless advance upon the house. The pitch-flames didn’t bother the monsters in the least as they scrambled through the shattered windows and doors. Screams chased the last remaining Stevenson as she was dragged through the silvery streets. Blood and soot filled her nose, imprinting the odor on her soul. Her anger and hatred blossomed and she fought.
She fought until Vallingham’s golem threw her into the waiting carriage. A swift blow, placed just under her upswept auburn hair, pushed her into nothingness, to wait for the nightmares to come.