Authors: Helen Stringer
For my parents, who always believed
Belladonna sneaked a look over her shoulder to the back of the classroom where Steve and his friends usually clustered. He was far away, gazing out of the window and down at the football field below. The cloud-cloaked sun was low in the sky, throwing the trees at the end of the field into stark relief and making the frost on the grass sparkle.
“Am I talking to myself?” Madame Huggins suddenly had that dangerous sarcasm in her voice, the tone that generally went before a detention, or worseâa trip to Miss Parker's office. Not that Steve was a stranger to either penalty.
Silence settled on the classroom like a heavy blanket, but still Steve was oblivious.
Jimmy Wright shoved a bony elbow into his ribs and Steve jumped back to life, first shooting an angry stare at Jimmy, then gradually becoming aware of the silence in the classroom. He slowly turned his head to look at Madame Huggins. She had drawn herself to her full height, a difficult feat for someone so resoundingly round.
“Good morning,” she said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Titters from the rest of the class.
“Did you have a good rest?”
Steve just stared at her, sullen indifference writ large on his face.
“Now, give me an example of a genitive charge.”
Steve stared and then cocked his head to one side and shifted in his seat.
“In Latin?” he said finally.
“No, in Greek. Of course in Latin! This is a Latin class, you stupid boy!”
Madame Huggins's face had turned entirely red, except for the very tip of her nose, which was as white as snow. Belladonna began to suspect that she might explode, but instead she took a deep breath.
“Look,” she said, her voice strangely calm, “you don't know how lucky you are. Most schools dropped Latin from the curriculum years ago. But it's a great foundation, it really is.”
Belladonna bit her lip: Dr. Ashe had said the same thing the first time they'd seen him on the Other Side and that hadn't ended well at all, what with the Hound, poisonous Night Ravens, and the imprisonment of all the ghosts. She glanced back at Steve again to see if he registered the same memory, but he was busy staring at Madame Huggins, his face a mask of obstinance.
“Alright,” said Madame Huggins finally, “let's see if you have even managed to grasp the basics. A genitive chargeâin English.”
“He nearly died of boredom.”
Madame Huggins opened her mouth to pour scorn and then stopped. A barely suppressed giggle ran around the classroom.
“UmÂ â¦ yes,” she said, clearly amazed. “Yes, that's right. But if you know that, then why didn'tâ”
But she was destined never to know what made Steve Evans so impossible in class when he was clearly one of the brightest students in it. The bell rang for the end of the lesson and the end of the day. Steve scooped up his backpack and was out of the door in a flash and on his way down to football practice with the rest of his cronies.
Belladonna packed up her Latin grammar, her exercise book, and her pencils. She glanced at Madame Huggins as she stuffed them into her pink backpack. The old lady had slumped into her chair behind the desk, exhausted by the sheer effort involved in trying to get a bunch of twelve-year-olds to take any interest in Latin. Belladonna smiled as she passed by, but Madame Huggins didn't notice; she just stared toward the back wall of the class.
Belladonna walked through the empty corridors of Dullworth's, her steps echoing on the old wooden floors and the crisp tile of the entrance hall. It was amazing how quickly several hundred students could vacate a building when they were really motivated. Of course, not everyone had goneâthere were always the after-hours classes. Tonight it was orchestra practice, and the sound of chairs being dragged across the parquet floor of the assembly room was soon followed by the whining, huffing cacophony of twenty erstwhile musicians attempting to tune up. Belladonna winced as she hurriedly retrieved her coat from the cloakroom, stepped out into the late afternoon gloom, and headed home.
She hadn't gone very far before it was completely dark. She kicked at a stone lying in her path and pondered the misery that was February. It may be the shortest month of the year, but it always felt like the longest. By February she always felt as if winter would never end, days would always be short, and the sun would never shine again. It didn't get light until close to nine in the morning and by three it started to fade, all without the actual sun putting in a single appearance, just the endless lowering, lead-gray sky.
At which point in her reverie, the skies opened and a freezing rain began to descend.
“Oh, great,” muttered Belladonna, pulling her hood up, “that's just great.”
By the time she got home, her fingers and nose were almost blue with the cold, her feet were soaked, and her black hair was hanging in dripping strings down the sides of her face.
“I'm home,” she said, hanging her coat up on its hook in the hall.
“Oh, my heavens!” said her mother, materializing near the sitting-room door. “You're soaked to the skin! Get those wet shoes off and get in front of the fire. Dinner will be in five minutes.”
Belladonna pulled her shoes off and left them at the bottom of the stairs before wandering into the sitting room, where her father was sitting, or more accurately hovering, an inch or so above his easy chair, watching the television. He took one look at her and let go with a single guffaw.
“Ha!” he said. “You look like a drowned rat!”
Belladonna glared at him and sat on the floor in front of the gas fire. The news was on, of course, but it wasn't very interesting. She looked up at her father, who was watching attentively, and wondered why he was so fascinated. It wasn't as if any of it affected himâhe'd been dead for nearly two years.
After dinner, she went up to her room to do her homework, but her heart wasn't in it. She just couldn't bring herself to care about the establishment of the monasteries. Her thoughts kept going back, instead, to Dr. Ashe and his efforts to open a doorway to the Dark Spaces. Sometimes, at night, when everything was at its most silent, she would still wake up, her heart racing with the awful sensation of the thrumming, pounding power that had changed the Dream Door to a door of nightmares. She remembered the smooth, cold surface of the second Nomial, the honey-colored Silex Aequoreus, as she had raised it above her head. And most of all, she remembered the way the Words had made her feel as she defeated the dark emissary of the Empress of the Dark Spaces and reclaimed the Dream Door for the ghosts and for the living. It had seemed like such a great victory, but the uneasy feeling she'd had since then just wouldn't seem to go away.
She shook her head and tried to make herself concentrate. She carefully traced the outlines of a typical medieval monastery and started labeling the various buildings. Then she stopped and glanced out of the window. The rain was beating against the glass like impatient fingers and she could just make out the trees on the road, bending and lashing about in the wind.
She watched it for a while and the reason for her mood slowly dawned on her.
It was because everything was back the way it was. She walked to and from school alone and was still the “weird girl,” the one no one really wanted to talk to. Sophie Warren and her friends still lay in wait and poured scorn on her every chance they got. She was still only an average student and she wasn't showing any signs of “blossoming,” as her mother had promised. And to cap it all off, Steve, the only person who knew her as anything other than the girl whose parents had died, had apparently stopped speaking to her.
Which, of course, was the way things had been before they'd found the door to the Other Side.
She chewed on the end of her pen and looked at the diagram of the abbey. Things must have been so simple then. You just became a monk or a nun and spent the rest of your life reading books and copying them out. And praying. There was a lot of praying, and an unreasonable amount of it seemed to take place in the early hours of the morning. That wouldn't be so great. But stillÂ â¦ they didn't have to worry about exams, and some of them got to work on the farm. Although perhaps that wouldn't be so great either, seeing as there wasn't any farm machinery.
Belladonna sighed. She still didn't know what the Spellbinder really was, even though she was it. There had been others before her, she knew that much. Had they been left in the dark as well? Or had they known exactly what to do and when? It seemed that all she had done was react to something that had happened, and that really didn't strike her as the best way to go about things. It was like her dad with their old carâevery time something went wrong, he would get it fixed, but he never did any maintenance (unlike Peter Davis's Dad, who spent so much time under
family car that Belladonna suspected Peter didn't even know what his own father looked like). The result was that the Johnson family car slowly fell apart. More slowly than if he'd done nothing at all, of course, but it fell apart all the same.
It all gave her the feeling that something was missing, that there really ought to be someone who could explain what she should do. Or perhaps it really would just come to herâmaybe she'd sort of ripen, like an apple in a brown paper bag. Though, if that was the plan, it was a very haphazard one. She sighed again. Everything seemed so complicated and yet dull at the same time. She filled in the names of the kitchen, the dormitory, and the chapter house. But perhaps it was always like that, no matter what time you were born in. The past always seemed simple, the present was always slightly disappointing, and the future was always just a little bit scary.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The next day it was still raining, so she pulled on her boots, at her mother's insistence, shoved her shoes into her grubby pink backpack, and trudged off to school for another dismal day. She hung up her coat and was just taking off her boots when Lucy Fisher suddenly appeared at her elbow. Lucy was probably the only girl in school who was even more shy than Belladonna. She was tiny for her age, and pale as a charnel sprite, with a tangled mop of blond hair surrounding an ethereal face.
“Hey,” she said, “did you hear?”
“Mr. Watson's taking us on a field trip to some old monastery next Tuesday. It's an all-day thing, so you know what that means!”
Belladonna looked at her blankly. Lucy glanced around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned in.
“No Latin,” she whispered, grinning lopsidedly. “Isn't that great?”
Before Belladonna could answer, Lucy was gone, off to spread the good news in her endless, futile efforts to be accepted. Belladonna sighed and hoped against hope that she didn't give the same impression.
Sure enough, when History rolled around, Mr. Watson handed out permission letters to be signed by parents and informed everyone that they had to be at the school by seven in the morning the following Tuesday and to bring sandwiches for lunch because they would be gone all day.