There comes a time in any young lady’s life when she will be faced with an inescapable truth: that she must embark upon an adventure now, or else she will never have one. The window between adolescence and marriage - in which a young woman might travel, and see the world, and in short be free to do exactly as she pleases – is an unfortunately narrow one; the opportunity to explore must, therefore, be seized with enthusiasm as soon as it arrives.
It was in pursuit of just such an adventure that Miss Sypha Belnades found herself, on a blustery and overcast day just shy of her twenty-second birthday in the autumn of 1875, tramping up a hill on the ---shire border towards Tepes Hall. She hadn’t anticipated having to walk, but the coach which dropped her off had refused to take her further than the village in the valley below – a rather grey, miserable sort of place whose hollow-eyes denizens had viewed her with more wariness than seemed warranted by a neatly-dressed young lady with a generally pleasant disposition.
Certainly, she didn’t think there was anything sufficiently untoward about her appearance that would warrant the glares she had attracted as she passed through the low-set grey stone cottages of the village. Her shoes were a little old and rather big, but neat enough and recently polished, her bag was perhaps a little oversized, but otherwise perfectly plain and ordinary in appearance, and she was sensibly outfitted in a grey wool dress, which was neat and functional and altogether a most unremarkable item of clothing, if a little old-fashioned. It had been – as many of her nicer dresses were - a hand-me-down from an older cousin, but it was clean and unmarked and overall in perfectly respectable shape. It certainly wasn’t unusual enough to be attracting such unwelcoming stares, surely? So what could… oh. Hmm. She patted self-consciously at her hair; in the city the drastic cut had hardly raised eyebrows, but out here in the middle of nowhere… maybe that was it. Maybe they didn’t like her hair. Well, more fool them; it was terribly practical to keep it short like this, and personally she thought it rather dashing. Still, daring fashions are never as easily worn in the country as in the city, and this particular village was very firmly in the country. Indeed, it was not even on any through-route by which carriages might reasonably pass to and from more populous areas. The coach she had taken had been the only one headed this way for some days; she had been very lucky to catch it, all things considered. So she took the wary stares with as much good grace as she could summon up after a very long and not especially comfortable ride over some absurdly bumpy roads, and simply smiled at the wan-faced villagers as she passed though. She had, after all, still something of a journey to make before she reached her final destination at Tepes Hall itself.
From the outskirts of the village, she caught her first sight of the Hall, silhouetted against the late-afternoon sky atop the hill above the town – a grand, imposing shadow that loomed above the trees like a sleeping giant. The building was… arresting-looking, to put it politely. To put it impolitely, it looked like a mess. There were strange little turrets and rambling gables that tore up into the skyline at all manner of frankly bizarre angles and heights and – were those battlements? On a manor house? Good Lord.
Sypha shook her head slowly. This sort of architecture, she reflected, can only occur when people with a lot of money but very little taste (and even less understanding of gravity) inherit a house and decide they want to ‘make their mark’. Still, there were a lot of chimneys – all, of course, in different styles and at different heights - visible above the treeline, which could only be a good thing. One can forgive a great deal of architectural silliness in a manor if it is, at least, warm.
For the first few minutes of Sypha’s walk the Hall dominated the skyline, black and sharp as a jagged row of teeth on the hill above the village - but as soon as she entered the forest the whole ludicrous pile vanished, hidden by the trees, and she was left to follow the twisting path through the undergrowth and hope that it would lead her to her destination before sunset.
Sypha sighed, and set a brisk pace into the woods. The weather was just beginning to turn, leaves tinged brown at the edges, and she would rather not be out in the dark when the chill really started to set in. The day was dreary enough, and the trees so closely pressed together, that inside the forest it seemed almost dark enough to be twilight already. And it was cold, too, a sort of creeping chill that snuck into the seams of Sypha’s sensible grey dress and curled itself up against her skin, making her shiver just ever so slightly and quicken her pace. She wasn’t one to be easily unsettled, but she also wasn’t used to being alone in places she didn’t know, and there was something about this forest that made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. It was too quiet. Surely there should have been a few birds singing, or little voles scurrying around in the undergrowth, or… well, something, anyway.
She shook her head, briskly. It wasn’t like her to indulge in such silliness. The birds and the creatures of the forest were simply sensibly enough to keep quiet when humans passed through – and no doubt they could hear her coming a mile away with her stomping great boots. She looked down at them fondly. They were, she had to say, a very excellent pair of shoes. As is the case with all truly good boots, they were of uncertain origin and it was unclear what colour, exactly, they were supposed to be; certainly, they were black now, but whether that had always been the case she couldn’t say. They looked unprepossessing, it was true, but they had big, thick soles with nails in them, and were excellent for kicking things - something that Sypha had done a lot of in her younger years. It was important for a young girl to own a pair of boots that she could really kick things with – a big rock, a rotten log, a door… an annoying boy who wouldn’t leave her alone…
Sypha grinned to herself. Those birds were right to keep clear. She could probably kick them out of the sky, if she really put her mind to it.
She carried on with her spirits raised, her thoughts drifting toward dinner as her stomach rumbled slightly. From the village below, the Hall had looked to be only a handful of miles away, but the path was a little more winding than she had expected it to be - and although she had been walking for some time, she could see no sign of anything other than more trees up ahead. Perhaps she had misjudged the distance – certainly, the hill was steeper than she had anticipated, and she was beginning to regret having brought quite so many of her belongings with her. Her bag was many things, but it was certainly not light. Probably, she reflected glumly, her grandfather had been right when he said she had packed too many books. Still, it couldn’t be much further until-
A sudden flash of movement at of the very edge of her vision made her jump, and she whipped round to glare into the undergrowth, heart thundering in her chest. Dusk was well and truly beginning to set in now, and the gloom between the trees had become deep enough that she had to squint to try and get a look at whatever it was that had gone rushing by. Sypha frowned, narrowing her eyes into the darkness. She had been so sure she’d seen something pelting by in among the underbrush – something pale, tall, four legged… she sighed, and shifted her bag on her shoulder. Probably a deer. It had been very quiet, whatever it was.
She walked on for perhaps a minute or so more when another movement in the undergrowth made her jump, this time accompanied by a low, rumbling growl. She froze. Alright. Definitely not a deer.
She turned around slowly, squinting into the brambles and clutching her bag against her side. Whatever it was that had growled didn’t make any further noise, and she was almost at the point of deciding that she had simply had a very long day and was beginning to imagine things when there was a rustle in the bushes behind her, and another low, menacing growl. She froze. Another growl, closer this time. Was it behind her, or in front? Either whatever it was could move very fast indeed, or there was more than one of it…
And then, with a vicious snarl that made Sypha’s skin crawl, the brambles in front of her parted - and she and took a sharp step back as a very large and decidedly unfriendly-looking dog emerged onto the path before her, crouched low and with its teeth bared.
“Shit,” said Sypha, and then, “I mean, uh, oh dear,” because she had remembered her manners, and then, “I mean, shit,” because she had remembered that manners were not particularly important when nobody was listening and she was possibly about to be devoured by an enormous and very angry dog.
Another loud growl sounded from the bushes behind her, and her heart sank as she glanced over her shoulder and caught sight of a second dog of a similar size and, if possible, even more threatening aspect slinking out of the undergrowth toward her.
She shifted her stance slightly, trying to keep both dogs in her line of sight. “Alright, calm down there… good… girls?”
The dogs growled.
The dogs continued to growl. One of them had a long string of drool beginning to drip from between its glittering teeth.
“Good… good dogs,” said Sypha, sounding distinctly unconvinced even to her own ears. The dogs continued to growl as she shoved the flap of her bag open and tried as clandestinely as possible to rummage around inside and reach for her letter-opener. It wasn’t exactly sharp, but it might be enough to at least scare them off and give her some space to… what? Run? Climb a tree?
She took a careful step back as the dogs began to circle, and the slightly larger of the pair snarled at her. She froze, staring it down. Neither of them moved. After a long, tense moment, she resumed rummaging through her bag – and this time it was the second dog who snapped, lurching forward with its teeth bared. Sypha jerked back and screamed, dropping her bag and throwing her arms up to cover her face as the beast came snarling toward her and-
And then a loud, shrill whistle sounded from deeper in the forest, and both dogs froze, their ears pricking up. Sypha lowered her arms a fraction, eyes wide. After a moment there was a second whistle, more insistent than the first. The dogs abruptly wheeled around as though they had forgotten about Sypha entirely, both focused intently in the direction of the noise. Very slowly, Sypha reached down and picked up her bag before taking a cautious step back. The dogs barely seemed to notice.
A loud, imperious voice echoed through the woods. “Pompey! Crassus! God damn it, where the hell are- Pompey! Crassus!”
The dogs whined in unison, glancing round at Sypha, who froze, and then toward the voice, and then back at Sypha again. One of them licked its lips. Sypha took another slow step away, and it snarled at her.
“Heel!” said the voice, closer than before, and now Sypha could hear the muffled sound of hooves and rustling of leaves - and then, suddenly enough that it almost made her jump, a tall white horse came careening out of the darkness and onto the path, snorting indignantly as its rider steered it directly through the best part of a small bush.
“There you are, you blasted pair of- oh,” said the rider, freezing halfway through the act of brushing first a tree branch, and then a cascade of delicate blonde hair, out of his eyes. He paused, blinking his long lashes at Sypha with a bemused frown, “I say, who are you?”
“I-“ said Sypha, trying to reconcile the mundanity of the question with the alarming events of the past few minutes and coming up distinctly short, “I- are- what?”
The young man wheeled the horse round toward her with a sharp tug of the reins, looking down his long, aquiline nose and sniffing slightly. He was well-dressed, and handsome in a way that was at least two-thirds pretty, although both he and the horse looked as though they’d been for a bit of a rough ride. He had bits of twig clinging to his long, golden hair, and the horse had a thick coat of mud crusted up as far as its hocks. The dogs, for their part, had put their tails between their legs and slunk over to stand on either side of the horse, looking as bashful and meek as they could manage with all those horrible sharp teeth.
“I said,” repeated the man, slowly enough to make it clear that he was being rude about it, “who on earth are you? And what did you do to my dogs?”
“What did I-” Sypha spluttered, glaring first at the man, and then at the dogs, who were both studiously avoiding her eye, “What did I do?! Your dogs are entirely out of control, do you realise that? They looked like they were about to eat me!”
The man bristled at that, glaring imperiously down at Sypha. “My dogs are perfectly well in control. And they don’t eat people. That’s ridiculous.”
“Well, that one certainly looked prepared to take a bite out of me!” she said, pointing at one of the dogs, which had the good grace at least to look a bit ashamed about the whole affair, keeping its head down and making a very convincing appearance of studying a small leaf on the path in front of it. “And they clearly weren’t listening to you at all when you were calling for them, which is frankly dangerous, and-”
“They- I-” he stuttered at that, the tips of his ears going ever so slightly red, “They’re perfectly well trained, it’s- I- they’re just a little… independent. Which is a sign of intelligence, anyhow, so-”
“I don’t care what it’s a sign of!” Sypha snapped, waving an admonishing finger up at the young man on the horse. “They gave me a terrible fright, and they might have bitten me. And even if they didn’t, they were menacing a member of the public, which I don’t doubt is against some sort of law, you know. You ought to keep the pair of them on a leash!”
And with that she turned on her heel and stomped off up the path toward the Hall, ignoring the posh spluttering that the young man was now making behind her. What an idiot. Who on earth would be so foolish as to let dogs of that size go rampaging across the countryside, menacing young ladies and causing a nuisance? The nerve of it.
The sound of hooves on the path jerked Sypha out of her furious train of thought, as the young man came cantering up behind her – and then overtook, and pulled the horse up to a stop directly in front of her, blocking the path.
“I asked you who you are.”
“So you did.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” Sypha said, clutching her bag close to her chest and stepping smartly around the horse so that she could carry on walking. “You’re rude, and I don’t like your dogs.”
“I’m not-” she heard the horse snort, and once again the young man trotted forward to bar the way. “Look, I’m not being-” he sighed, shaking his head, hair tumbling down over the shoulders of his black riding jacket like liquid gold. Sypha, to her great annoyance, couldn’t help but notice that the jacket fitted him extremely well. Bastard. She frowned, turned her nose up, and once more stepped around the horse as the man said, “Look, I’m just saying that you’re on private land. Do you know that?”
She ignored him.
“And the village is the other way.”
She continued to ignore him.
Once again, the horse came trotting up past her and the man pulled it up to a halt sideways across the path, blocking her way. “I’m not trying to annoy you, you know. I just-”
“Well, you’re doing an excellent job of it.”
“You do realise that it’s not very safe for a young woman to be wandering around in these woods after dark? It’s getting late. The sun has almost set.”
Sypha fixed him with her loftiest, sternest glare. “Is that a threat?”
He looked genuinely mortified, at that, and this time it wasn’t just the tips of his ears that went pink – the flush carried down onto his high-carved cheekbones and made itself right at home there. Regrettably, this had the effect of making him look very handsome. “I- no. No! Of course not. I’m not-”
“If you’re not trying to threaten me,” said Sypha, “then why don’t you take your nasty untrained dogs, and your fancy oversized horse, and leave me alone?”
“Well, I- I just… I should keep you company until you’re out of the woods, at least.”
“Why on earth would you do that?
“I-“ he frowned, fiddling with the reins, not quite looking her in the eye. “It’s just- dangerous for, um, a young lady to be on her own, so…”
“Not as dangerous as it is to be in the company of a strange man in the middle of the woods. Especially when he has two vicious dogs with him. Don’t you think?”
“Uh,” said the man, looking distinctly embarrassed.
With a smart shake of the head and a slight spring in her step, Sypha stepped round the horse and carried on up the path, and this time the young man didn’t immediately come trotting forward to overtake her. She bit back the urge to turn around and see his doubtless ridiculous expression – an exit always has more gravitas, after all, if it is done without hesitation. And so she kept her eyes front, and strode off along the path toward the Hall at a brisk pace. She had half-expected to hear the panting of dogs at her heels, or the steady thud of hooves on the soft-packed earth of the forest floor, but nothing of the sort happened. By the time she did chance a quick glance over her shoulder, the man and his dogs were gone. There was nothing behind her at all.
Nothing but the forest, and the gathering dark.