Home > A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(3)

A Curse So Dark and Lonely (A Curse So Dark and Lonely #1)(3)
Author: Brigid Kemmerer

As I round a curve in the hallway, I’m met by a massive, sweeping, sunlit staircase that descends into a grand entranceway. The space is the size of my high school gymnasium, with a dark slate floor, massive stained glass windows, and a pair of iron doors. Tapestries hang from the walls, threaded with purples and greens and reds, shot through with strands of gold and silver that sparkle in the light. Tables sit along the side, laid out with cakes and pastries and dozens of champagne glasses. Half a dozen gilded white chairs wait in the corner, musical instruments sitting ready.

The place looks prepped for a wedding. Or a party. But definitely not a kidnapping.

I’m so confused—but at least I’ve found a door.

A sudden beeping pierces the silence.

Jake’s timer.

I dig the phone out of my pocket, staring at the flashing zeroes. My throat closes up. I don’t know if he made it out.

I need to get myself together. I’m standing in the open and tears won’t give me anything but a wet face. Once I find somewhere safe, I can call 911.

I grip the banister and rush down the steps. My left leg is clumsy and about to give way, but I mentally threaten to cut it off if it doesn’t get me out of here. It listens.

As I pass the corner, the instruments lift from the chairs in unison.

I startle and duck right, ready for one to come flying at me—but then, without warning, the instruments begin to play. Symphonic music fills the hall, a rich song filled with flutes and trumpets and violins.

This has to be a trick. An optical illusion. Like at a theme park, somehow triggered by my motion.

I reach out and grab a flute, expecting it to be fixed in place with thin wires or subtle plastic.

But it’s not. My hand closes on the metal like I’m picking it up from a shelf. The steel is vibrating as if someone is playing. There’s no weight to it—no batteries. No speaker. Nothing.

When I move it close to my ear, the sound is coming from inside the tube.

I take a step back and fling it away from me.

The flute snaps right back into place, levitating above the chair as though an invisible musician stood there holding it. The keys depress and release.

I swallow hard. This is a dream. I’m drugged. Something.

I’m wasting time. I need to get out of here.

I hurry for the door, prepared for it to be locked—but it’s not. I stumble out onto a marble platform, and warm air swirls around me. Stone walls stretch to either side, and steps lead down to a cobblestone path. Acres of trimmed grass stretch as far as I can see, dappled by randomly spaced trees. Flower beds. A massive fountain spraying water into the air. In the distance is a dense forest, thick with vibrant greenery.

No paved road that I can see.

The door swings closed behind me, clanking into place, choking the music into silence. There’s no railing here, so I ease down the steps and onto the cobblestones. The building towers over me, large cream-colored bricks spaced by blocks of marble and stone.

This isn’t a museum. It’s a castle. A big one.

And still, no people. No one anywhere—and I can see for acres. The silence is all-consuming. No cars. No buzzing power lines. No airplanes.

I jerk the phone out of my pocket and start punching in the numbers 911.

The phone beeps at me in protest. No service.

I shake it, like that’s somehow going to help. Everything across the top is grayed out.

No cell towers. No Wi-Fi. No Bluetooth.

A whimper escapes my chest.

Those instruments were playing themselves.

I can’t reason that out. It’s too tangled up with my very real worry for my brother.

A new thought hits me, piling more worry on top. If something happened to Jake, no one is there to help Mom. I imagine her lying in bed, coughing wetly from the cancer that crowds her lungs. Needing food. Medicine. Needing someone to bring her to the bathroom.

Without warning, my eyes blur. I swipe at my cheeks and force my legs to run. Sweat collects inside my sweatshirt.

Wait. Sweat. It’s warm.

It was freezing in DC.

All that sweat goes cold.

Panic later. I need to move.

A large outbuilding sits directly behind the castle, just beyond a sprawling courtyard lined with more cobblestones. Flowers bloom everywhere, spilling down wooden trellises, bursting from massive planters, blooming along hedges and in gardens. Still no people.

My muscles are tight and fatigued, and sweat runs a line down the side of my face. I pray for this to be some kind of garage, because I’m going to need an alternate form of transportation soon. I can’t keep running forever. I flatten against the far wall of the castle, breathing hard, waiting. Listening.

When I hear nothing, I head for the building across the courtyard, my left foot dragging and begging for a break. I stumble through the doorway, slipping a little in my damp socks.

Three horses throw up their heads and snort.

Oh wow. Not a garage. A stable.

This is almost better. I don’t know how to hot-wire a car, but I do know how to ride.

Back before our lives fell apart, when Dad had a job and a reputation, I rode horses. It had started as a therapeutic activity after all the cerebral palsy–related surgeries—but it turned into a passion. A freedom, as equine legs lent me strength and power. I worked at the stables in exchange for riding time for years, until we needed to move to the city.

Of everything we’ve had to give up, I miss the horses the most.

Thirty stalls flank each side of the aisle, made of richly stained boards leading halfway to the ceiling, topped with iron bars. Well-kept horses gleam in the sunlight that creeps through the skylights. Bridles hang at regular intervals along the wall, their bits and buckles sparkling, the leather carrying a rich shine. No wisps of hay lie in the aisle, no swarming flies collect on spilled grain. Every inch of these stables is perfection.

A buckskin stretches out his nose to blow puffs at my hand. He’s tied to a ring inside his stall, and he’s already saddled. He didn’t jump when I came sliding into the aisle, and even now regards me calmly. He’s big and solid, with a tan-colored coat and a black mane and tail. A hammered gold sign on the front of his stall reads Ironwill.

I run a hand down the buckskin’s face. “I’ll just call you Will.”

A small closet beside his stall door houses boots and cloaks—and a dagger strung along a belt.

A real weapon. Yes.

I loop it around my waist and cinch it tight. The boots are too big, but they lace up my calves almost to my knees, giving my ankles some extra support.

I ease into the stall and bolt the door closed behind me. Will accepts a bridle readily, despite my shaking hands jerking at his mouth when I have to tighten the buckles.

“Sorry,” I whisper, stroking him on the cheek. “Out of practice.”

Then I hear the footstep, the rough rasp of a boot on stone.

I freeze—then duck to the far side of the horse, dragging him into a shadowed corner of the stall. His reins have gone slick in my palm, but I keep a tight hold so he blocks me here.

Someone clucks to each horse, making his way through the stables. A soft word, a pat on the neck. Another pause, then more footsteps.

Whoever it is, he’s checking the stalls.

A wooden shelf runs along the side of the stall, probably for hay or feed. I fold my body onto it, then shimmy up and get to my hands and knees. It’s an awkward position for mounting, but there’s no way I can do it from the ground. I have to concentrate to maneuver my foot into the stirrup. Sweat courses down my back now, but I grab hold of the saddle.

It takes everything I have not to whimper. This is the world’s most patient animal, because he stands absolutely still as I haul myself onto his back.

But I’m up here. I’m on.

I’m so exhausted I’m ready to cry. No, I am crying. Silent tears roll down my cheeks. I have to get out of here. I have to.

Footsteps, then a soft gasp of surprise. The bolt is thrown. I catch a glimpse of dark hair and see a flash of steel as the man draws a sword. The stall door begins to swing open.

I slam my heels into Will’s flanks, screaming in rage for good measure. The horse is terrified—with reason. I’m terrifying myself. But he springs forward, slamming the door wide, knocking the armed man out of the way.

“Go!” I cry. “Please, Will! Go!” I dig my heels into his sides.

Will leaps across the aisle, finds purchase, and bolts.

Tears blur my vision, but sight won’t help me stay on. I’ve lost both stirrups already, and we’re careening over cobblestones. The fingers of my left hand tangle in Will’s mane, and my other hand has wrapped around his neck. When we hit the grass, the horse is like a pumping oil rig, slamming me up and down with each stride.

A sharp whistle cuts the air behind me, three short chirps of sound.

Will digs in his hooves, skids to a stop, and whirls. I don’t have a chance. I go flying over his shoulder and crash into the turf.

For a moment, I don’t know which way is up. My head spins.

So close. So close.

Those men are coming after me. They’re a blur in the sunlight, whether from tears or a head injury. I need to get to my feet. I need to run.

I manage to get myself upright, but my legs don’t want to work quickly. The blond man is already there, reaching to grab me. The dark-haired swordsman is just behind him.

“No!” A small sound squeaks free of my chest. I stagger away from him and draw the dagger.

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