697 words (2 minute read)

Chapter One

Roger Linwood’s fingertips scuttered gingerly over the uneven wall of the ruined church steeple, finally finding purchase on an inch-wide lip of stone. He eased back, letting his weight flow through his body, down to his toes, and into the ancient Plantagenet masonry. He was a part of it, and it was a part of him, this structure that was already ancient in the time of his grandfather’s grandfather. Roger let his breath out in a steady stream of air, then felt for the next toehold.

Only Alan, Roger’s older brother, had ever conquered the ruined church steeple, but that was a long time ago. They’d been children then, and now Roger was a man, made lean and fit by the rigours of the Great War. His grip was firm and his balance was cat-like. The next time he reached up, his fingertips curled over the sill of the belfry window. With a surge of triumph, Roger felt his strength snap back from his toes into his arms, and he practically shot himself into the belfry. There, he raised his arms over his head like a champion prizefighter, let out a whoop of primal joy, then turned to look down on the world beneath him.

"It’s going to be just as dangerous coming down as it was going up, isn’t it?"

The speaker was a dark-haired young fashion-plate perched on a displaced block of weathered limestone, as incongruous among the ruins as a martini in the village pub. Her name was Iris Morgan, and she was trying very hard to look bored with the proceedings. Roger knew quite well that she’d been biting her knuckles in anxiety throughout the duration of his climb.

"I don’t know what you mean," Roger called back, grinning. "A child could have made the climb. My brother Alan was ten when he first did it."

"Yes, well, that was Alan, and you are you." Iris stood and paced across the ground under the steeple. "Aren’t there stairs on the inside, Roger? There must be an easier way down."

There was, in fact, a trap door in the belfry floor, but it was firmly locked. Roger said, "I could always jump, if you like."

"Do it and I’ll never speak to you again. Oh, do get down from there! Before it gets too dark to see."

"At least give me time to enjoy the view, Iris. I’ve never had the pleasure until now."

It was closing in on dusk, and the setting sun tinted the world with hints of gold. Around the steeple, the old church was a maze of ruined stone. Doubtless, there had been a churchyard once, but the headstones lay broken and lost now amid the gnarled roots of the churchyard yews. The village of Linwood Hollow spread out a respectful distance away, with houses in the same rough stone Roger had just scaled, and slate roofs sheltered by the same twisted yews crowding up in all directions.

It was a different world from what lay beyond. Linwood Hollow was entirely nestled within a bowl-like depression -- a crater, really. The winds sweeping the heather and scrub of the surrounding moors swept right overhead, leaving the village to stew in the still, stale air. The crater’s ridge encircled the village, a sharply defined line between earth and sky, somewhat higher than where one expected the horizon to be and broken only by the square, ugly shape of Linwood Hall.

There’d been a castle there, once, or a mediaeval fortress of some sort: a ruin claimed by the first Linwood in the reign of James I and expanded inwards rather than outwards. Subsequent generations reinforced those thick, ancient outer walls and filled in the gaps, so that the final product was a cuboid shape devoid of poetry, with a squat little tower projecting from some off-centre portion of the roof. Roger wondered, irrationally, if he could be seen from there, and suppressed the urge to wave.

No, Linwood Hall would win no architectural prizes, but Roger loved it and thought it the most beautiful house on earth.