Chapter One: Wil CHAPTER ONE WIL
Dawn stained the eastern sky above Thrush’s Green shell pink, dew spangled the village’s clipped lawns and immaculate front gardens, and across the cobblestoned main road, Wilhelmina Price could see Jenny Bright’s soul leaving her body.
The first thin, smokelike tendrils had just begun to drift from Jenny’s eyes and mouth and nose, obscuring her features from a distance. She stood speaking with Mrs. Grey, the postmistress, entirely unaware of the process occurring within her, oblivious to the fate only Wilhelmina could detect. Within a day or two, Jenny Bright would be dead. Within hours, it would look, to Wil, as if she walked within a cloud of fog, blanketed in the shroud of her own departing soul.
How human spirits sensed when death was in the offing, Wil couldn’t say. She only knew that they did.
Catching sight of Wil, Jenny pointedly turned aside. She was pretty in a faded, careworn fashion and had been a friend of Wil’s mother. Wil tried not to let the snub sting and carried on down the road. Her deathsense had earned her no friends among the villagers—they viewed her at best as an unknown who ought to be kept at arm’s length, and at worst as an object of suspicion and scorn. Wil knew better than to stop or speak to Jenny now, for if she did, the hollow guilt gnawing at her insides might get the better of her. She might try to offer a warning, and it never went well when she did. Three times now, she’d tried to say something, anything, that might ward off an impending death. It had never done any good, in every case casting a terrible shadow over the doomed party’s last day and stirring up ill feelings and bitterness toward Wil in those they left behind. Wil half believed the deaths she foresaw were a matter of destiny—that once a soul began its departure, it could not be halted. She’d certainly never succeeded in arresting one as it drifted off to the haunted halfway place some spirits inhabited.
Even late spring in Thrush’s Green was not enough to dissipate the gloom that foreseeing Jenny Bright’s fate had cast over Wil. She walked onward, out of the village proper and down a quiet country lane, before slipping through a gap in the hedgerow. Beyond it lay a beech wood, where Wil waded through a sea of ferny undergrowth, the air a glory of shifting golden-green light. The woods that fringed the village’s old millpond were redolent with birdsong and warm breezes, the ground soft beneath Wil’s sensible galoshes, and she thought how unlikely it all seemed. How impossible, even, that within earshot of this lovely place, her own mother had met her end and Wil’s uneasy bond with the dead and dying had begun, brought about in some inexplicable way by her mother’s passing.
Letting out a slow breath, she squared her shoulders and tried to shake off her melancholy. Today, at least, was for the living.
As if to confirm the sentiment, the clarion song of a train whistle rang out, signaling the earliest stop at Thrush’s Halt. Reaching the edge of a clearing carpeted with fading bluebells, Wil spread a blanket over the damp ground and settled herself to wait. She smoothed her handed-down, made-over skirt, ran careless fingers through her mop of sunny curls, and attempted to calm the nervous wings fluttering to life in her stomach. It was foolish to be anxious over this, and yet she was, every time. She always thought, deep down, that perhaps he wouldn’t come. Perhaps he’d finally realized how very unlikely their long friendship was and decided to leave it behind, along with the rest of childhood’s outgrown objects and pastimes.
“Hello,” a surprised voice said from the edge of the clearing. “You’ve gone and cut off your hair. The new fashion rather suits you.”
Relief flooded Wil, sweet as spring rain. Scrambling up, she hurried to meet the boy striding toward her, the pair of them stopping before each other at the clearing’s heart. The new arrival looked entirely incongruous in the woods, dressed in a school jacket and tie, and he peered owlishly at Wil from behind a pair of thick spectacles. But his gray eyes were kind, and his earnest face more familiar than her own reflection.
“Welcome back,” Wil said, unable to hide how pleased she was to see him. Not that it mattered—he knew her well enough to catch when she was biting back a smile, anyhow. “How was term?”
Edison Summerfield shrugged. “Oh, you know. Bit of this, bit of that. I’d say I’m happy to be home, but we both know I’m only ever particularly happy to see you.”
For a moment they stood in silence, a little space between them, taking a measure of each other. Wil was struck by the thought that Ed seemed vaguely worried, an impression that only grew more acute as a slight frown crossed his face. But then it was gone, and he dropped his valise and went to her. Wil stepped unhesitatingly into Edison’s arms, and they held each other tight, as if their closeness might erase the past months of separation.
“It’s very lonely when you’re gone,” Wil confessed, her voice muffled against his jacket. “I miss you.”
“Poor old thing. Have they been awful to you?”
“No,” Wil said. “It’s not that. Mostly no one speaks to me at all.”
“I’ve got an entirely different problem,” Ed said wryly. “I can’t get people to stop speaking to me. You’re socially maladjusted, Summerfield. You ought to be making connections, public school is for friendships that last a lifetime. Someday I shall shock them all and tell them no one at school’s to my taste, and that the best friend I’ve got is our butler’s granddaughter.”
Wil pulled away and fixed him with a stern look. “You wouldn’t.”
“No.” He offered her a rueful half smile by way of a peace offering. “I never would. It might make things difficult for you and your grandfather, and we can’t have that.”
“Well, come and show me what you’ve brought me,” Wil demanded, retreating to her blanket beneath the spreading branches of a venerable beech.
Retrieving his valise, Edison joined her and handed over a stack of nearly a dozen books. “You’ve got last term’s Latin and Greek, an Old Norse primer, all of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, and geometry, because it was a nightmare and if I had to learn it, then you do too.”
“Perfection,” Wil said with a happy sigh, beginning to leaf through Edison’s dog-eared Latin text.
“There’s lots of Horace in there,” he told her. “You’ll like it. And here—I’ve brought what you’re owed.”
Ed dropped a fat envelope onto the pages of the Latin text, which Wil opened at once. Inside were banknotes, which she counted shrewdly.
“You do know I count those for you before leaving school?” Edison said, sounding vaguely put out. “I’d make it my problem if anyone was trying to cheat you.”
“I know you don’t like cheating,” Wil teased lightly. “But you have to admit, I’ve made a pretty penny off your schoolfellows—odious little rich boys passing off term papers I’ve written as their own.”
For several years Wil had, much to Edison’s chagrin, been running a tidy racket assisting Ed’s peers in their less-than-aboveboard academic endeavors. Via letter, she posed as a Summerfield cousin at Cambridge looking to make some extra money. She took perverse pleasure in perfectly fulfilling the role of the cash-strapped Mortimer Summerfield, and though Ed had always made it clear that he disapproved of Wil’s moonlighting, he also lacked the fortitude or determination to stop her once she’d truly set her mind on something.
Edison pulled a disgruntled face. “Firstly, none of the sort of people who hire you to do their work are my friends. Secondly, it’s frightening how convinced you have everyone that you’re some profligate but gifted toff reading classics at Trinity College. I don’t know how you can keep the details straight—you don’t even write these things down.”
“It’s all up here,” Wil said knowingly, tapping her forehead.
“And thirdly,” Edison went on, “I happen to be an odious little rich boy, so I’ll thank you not to paint us with such a broad brush.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Wil said, setting the envelope aside and returning to her Latin. “You know you’re the exception that proves the rule.”
“Well, if we’re having a day of exceptions…”
Ed spread himself out across the blanket and gave Wil a hopeful look. Rolling her eyes, she lifted the book she had gone back to poring over, leaving space for him to rest his head on her lap.
“Honestly,” she said, without glancing away from the page. “You ought to have outgrown this when we were seven.”
“Why? You’re comfortable.” Edison sounded offended. “You’re the only comfortable person I know. Everyone else is like… a thistle, wrapped in satin. You’re just you, which is much better.”
Wil chose to ignore him, as she always did when he bordered on becoming maudlin. It made her anxious, nearly as much as the thought that someday she might wait for Edison and find he’d decided not to come.
“Were you even paying attention when you translated this stanza?” she chided. “You’ve written ‘field’ when it ought to be ‘fold.’ They’re opposite things entirely.”
“They’re both farm-related,” Ed shot back. “How am I supposed to know about farm things? I haven’t done an hour of honest labor in my life, though I shouldn’t mind trying if I got the chance.”
“We’ll trade, shall we?” Wil said. “You can write papers for your peers by night, then darn my grandfather’s socks and do the washing and pull turnips by day, and I’ll enjoy a leisurely existence at the Grange.”
Ed’s good humor evaporated, his voice growing dark and preoccupied. “You wouldn’t like Wither Grange. It suffocates you. Wil?”
Wilhelmina’s heart sank. A small piece of her had been waiting for this moment all along. For the strangled hope behind her name, as Edison spoke it like a question.
“I… could we try to talk to Peter?”
Ed sat up. His brown hair, which would have been slicked down respectably that morning, was mussed and untidy. It made him look younger, like an echo of the child Wil had befriended in the woods years ago. The uncertainty in his voice lit his eyes as well, and it cut at her. She wondered if he’d be as devoted to her memory as he was to his brother’s, if anything were to happen to her. She hoped he would—hoped so hard, it stole her breath. But sometimes she wasn’t sure. There’d been a new distance between them for the past year or so. Wil couldn’t say just when it had begun or what had caused it, but it haunted her, sure as any ghost.
“We can try,” she said softly. “But I don’t see why things would be different this time. The truth is, Ed, some souls just don’t linger, and even with those who do, most of them don’t want to speak.”
Edison looked down, suddenly absorbed in tugging at a loose thread on his jacket sleeve. “No, I know. But I want to try anyway.”
Setting her books aside, Wil shifted until she was facing him, both of them cross-legged on the blanket.
“Hands,” she told him, and Ed held them out to her. The motion had become like habit—for three years, Edison had been doggedly trying to reach his elder brother, Peter Summerfield, who’d died in the hellscape of France during the Great War. Wil found Ed’s loyalty both touching and commendable—she’d never met Peter, who was eighteen years their senior, but there must have been something remarkable in him to inspire such staunch devotion from Edison. Their efforts to reach Peter had never succeeded, and the failure rankled, a sole thorn between Wil and her one cherished friend. It hurt Wil because she wanted to give Ed what he so badly desired. It hurt Ed, she suspected, because despite his easy nature, he was unused to being denied a thing he really wished for.
And so he kept on pushing at the thorn.
In concert, the two shut their eyes. Wil took a series of steadying breaths, turning inward and dropping like a stone, down into that place inside her that sensed dying souls and the dead.
When she opened her eyes, Edison was gone.
Or rather, he was still there. Still sitting opposite her body, but in another place. She herself was the one who’d left, stepping out of her own skin into a shadowy other realm. This piece of it looked like the mill wood clearing, but faded, drained of color, all grays and blacks and dead browns. The trees were leafless, the ground bare, and not a breath of wind stirred the naked branches above. At the edge of the clearing, pervading the entire wood, a sort of fog swirled. Wil was practiced enough at this undertaking to know that it was no true mist but a multitude of half-formed spirits, most of whom would care little about her incursion into their realm. Wordless whispers rose from them, and she called out.
“I’m looking for Peter Summerfield. He lived here once, before his death. Has anybody seen him?”
The whispers grew louder, sharper, as the restless spirits considered her question. It would come to nothing, Wil knew. After a few moments the voices would die down, the mist would fade, and she’d find herself inexorably slipping back into her own body, a disappointment to Edison yet again.
Only this time things were different.
A cloud of mist separated itself from the rest of the fog at the clearing’s edge. As it drifted toward Wil, she had an impression of something that might once have been human at its heart, and yet not entirely human, either. The insubstantial limbs were too long, the face devoid of features save a gaping, misshapen mouth. It flickered in and out of being, taking form, then dissipating into mist, then swirling back together. Pulled to Wil as a moth to flame, the figure drew closer.
With her heart in her throat, she beckoned to it and let herself slip back into the province of the living, pulling the spirit with her like a lodestone.
In the mill wood clearing, Wil opened her eyes. The colors of the living world always seemed painfully bright to her after spending a brief time in the land of the dead. Ordinarily she couldn’t stay more than a minute or two—it was as if a tide tugged at her, some relentless force that drew her back to her own world. But Wil was able to slip through the crack between places just long enough that she could, sometimes, if the spirit was ready, lead something back with her.
Today something had been ready. Anticipation blazed through Wil like fire. Finally she’d managed the one thing Ed had always wanted.
The column of mist stirred between Edison and Wil, caught within the circle of their joined hands. Here, away from its own place, the soul at the mist’s heart seemed a many-jointed and grotesque thing, mouth gaping, long, spidery fingers reaching out for Ed and Wil, only to pass harmlessly through them. Edison had seen Wil summon souls before, yet he still went pale at the sight of this one.
“It’s only a spirit,” Wil reassured him quickly. “The dead can’t hurt you.”
Swallowing visibly, Ed nodded.
“Peter,” he began, his voice shaking. “I wanted to—”
But whatever he’d meant to say remained unsaid. The mist convulsed, and the being within it turned to Wil.
“Wilhelmina,” the soul called out, in a hollow and despairing woman’s voice. “Little lamb. Take care.”
Wil’s anticipation became a sickening sense of failure. Not Peter, then. Only her mother, Mabel Price, the first and least helpful of Wil’s ghosts, who’d served as a fretful and inconvenient guardian since the moment of her dying. Mabel spoke in cryptic warnings, forever afraid of things that did not come to pass, and though it felt like a betrayal to Wil, she could not help finding her mother’s sorrow wearing. Now Mabel’s presence and her anxious grief were doubly unwelcome.
“It’s not him,” Edison breathed, defeat underscoring his words.
In abject frustration, Wil tore her hands from Ed’s and pushed herself to her feet, the soul winking out of existence the moment she broke the circle between them. Stalking to the edge of the woods, Wil stared off into the empty spaces between the trees, angry tears burning at the backs of her eyes.
For five years now, the dead had plagued her, and what was the use of any of it? The deathsense that had blossomed in her like a midnight flower never served a purpose—never did what she wanted, never warded off illness or accident or disaster. The day before her mother’s death, Wil had watched Mabel’s soul leaving her, and it had been the first time she’d witnessed such a thing. Mabel’s departing spirit shrouded her in a veil of fog before the fatal moment had even arrived, and Wil said nothing, because she’d been young and afraid and had not yet understood. But when Mabel slipped into the millpond on a moonless night and drowned, only a handful of hours after Wil’s haunted foresight, she’d known.
She’d seen death before it came. She still did.
An image of Jenny Bright, soul departing her body, flashed through Wilhelmina’s mind.
“Wil,” Edison said, from just behind her. “It isn’t your fault.”
“No, it is,” she said bitterly. “I didn’t mean to give you false hope. That was my mother. She’s never come when there was someone else with me before, but I should have known she might, if we tried to speak with Peter here. It’s so close to the millpond, you know, where she…”
Ed was silent as Wil’s voice trailed off.
In her darkest moments, she felt as if everything since had been penance—a punishment for her failure to avert her mother’s death, when she’d been granted a sign to warn that it was coming.
“Can you look at me?” Edison asked.
With some reluctance, Wil turned, looking dolefully up at him through her lashes.
“Here.” Ed fished in his pocket and pulled out something wrapped in a clean handkerchief. “They had muffins for breakfast on the train. I brought you one.”
Wil sniffed. “Is it squashed?”
“Oh, probably,” Ed answered. “I’m sure I sat on it at some point. But it’ll still taste nice, and I haven’t got anything else to cheer you up with.”
Though she didn’t feel especially cheered, Wil took a bite of the muffin to please him, and after finding that it did taste nice, and was only somewhat squashed, proceeded to eat the rest of it. With the failure to summon Peter dampening their spirits, she and Edison packed up the books and blanket and wandered through the woods, until by and by, pieces of Wither Grange grew visible between the trees.
The Grange was a forbidding old place—all weathered gray stone, and halfway to a castle. Wil had been into the kitchen, and the butler’s study reserved for her grandfather’s use, but that was all. The rest was a mystery, though her grandfather, John Shepherd, told her it was an endless labyrinth of drafty, immaculately decorated rooms, stuffed with ancient family heirlooms and expensive objets d’art. It seemed entirely foreign to Wil, who had dim memories of a small tenant farm from when her father was still alive, and who’d lived in a snug rowhouse with her mother and grandfather, then with her grandfather alone, in the decade since.
Before the wood gave way to open country around the Grange, Wil and Ed stopped.
“I’m sorry about Peter,” Wil offered. “I wish I could reach him for you.”
Ed stuffed one hand into his pocket, the other gripping his valise. “I’m sorry too. Perhaps we’ll have better luck next time.”
Wil sighed, weary at the knowledge that he expected there to be a next time. She never asked why it meant so much to Edison to be able to speak with his brother, and he never offered an explanation. That, more than anything else, was the source of her hesitance—Ed was generally forthcoming, and both of them were honest with each other. She hated the idea of asking only to be lied to.
“Next time,” Wil said, forcing a smile.
They stood side by side, looking out at the Grange, and at last Edison nodded.
“Well, here I go. Time to beard the lions in their den. Surgite, and all that.”
The Summerfields’ motto, “Press on,” had always seemed made for him, and Wil waited, watching as he picked his way through the last of the trees.
“Oh, Wil.” Ed stopped and turned just before reaching the edge of the wood. “I do like your hair.”
In spite of herself Wil grinned, and Edison beamed back. They made it a habit to always part on good terms, even if they’d quarreled.
And yet, this time, Wil couldn’t help feeling that the shadow cast between them by her uncanny gifts had grown longer than ever.