Jen woke the next morning in a strange bed, sunlight streaming on to her face through the open window.  She blearily attempted to focus and make some sort of sense of the unfamiliar surroundings.  The sheets were fresh and crisp, and smelled sweet, but she was immediately aware that she wasn’t, and didn’t.  Dark beams held up the undulating white ceiling, and the painted, uneven walls were a warm and welcoming shade of terracotta.  There was a patchwork quilt folded down over the foot of the bed and clothes, boots and books here and there amongst brightly coloured rugs on the polished wooden floor.  She lay back on the pillows and waited for her brain to come back from the realms of sleep and work out where she was.  The sounds of horses and whistling blowing in through the open window brought realization with it.  She sat up and stared around at what was undoubtedly Rick’s bedroom.  “How the hell did I end up here?” was her first thought.  Hot on its heels was, “And why am I only wearing my underwear and t-shirt?”  All she could remember was feeling dog tired and thinking she must get to bed, but enjoying Rick’s company too much to move.  Then nothing except a sense of warmth and safety.

She rose and pulled the rest of her clothes on which she found in a neat pile on a chair, and then went through the door.  It opened on to a long, low room, part of which was partitioned off into a kitchen area by a counter and cupboards.  She made for the door at the other end of the room, which she assumed was the bathroom.

When she came out, she noticed a piece of folded paper propped up against the kettle in the kitchen area.  It had her name written on it.  She picked it up, unfolded it and read:

 

Sorry if you were a bit confused when you woke up.  You were so tired last night that you fell asleep in the tack room.  I didn’t want to disturb you – you looked done in and so peaceful.   I put you in my bed, as it was nearer.  I hope you don’t mind.  Help yourself to breakfast and I’ll see you in a bit.

Rick.

P. S. Don’t worry – I slept on the sofa.

 

Jen looked around and sure enough, there was a pile of bedding on the sofa. She smiled and went to investigate the contents of the fridge.

Having made tea and toast, Jen sat tensely on one of the kitchen stools with her elbows leaning on the counter looking out into the room, feeling a bit weird at being alone and making herself at home in someone else’s space.  And it was very definitely Rick’s space.  His quiet presence permeated the whole place.  However, she decided it felt warm and welcoming, and relaxed a little.  She wondered what time it was. It still felt pretty early, and there was still a bluish tinge to the air outside the windows.  Then she heard footsteps coming up the stairway that ran up the outside of the building.  She straightened on her stool as the door opened and Rick walked in.

He stopped when he saw her, and some of his former shyness returned.  “Morning” he muttered, his eyes sliding from her face, where they’d rested for a brief moment, before  landing on the floor somewhere between them.

“Morning” she replied brightly, determined not to let any awkwardness creep back in between them.  “Thanks for lending me your bed – it was very sweet of you.”

“Well, you looked done in…”  He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.  The silence between them was not as easy as it had been yesterday, but Jen decided to ignore it.

“Have you eaten, yet?” she asked.

He looked up.  “Not yet – fed the horses first.”

“Well then,” said Jen, briskly, “Sit yourself down my boy – it’s breakfast time.”  She began to bustle around the kitchen.

“No, it’s fine – I can do that,” protested Rick, starting forwards.

Jen turned a stern look on him.  “You do as you’re told, young man.  You fed me wonderfully well last night, and I want to return the favour.  Now sit!” She pointed imperiously to a stool.  Rick meekly sat.

Jen quickly made toast, eggs, bacon and a fresh pot of tea.  She did some for herself, too, as she was still hungry, despite the enormous quantities of stew she seemed to have eaten last night and the toast she’d already had.

As they sat eating, the silence became more like it had been previously.  Companionable, rather than slightly uncomfortable.  Finally, Jen asked “So what’s on your agenda for today?”

“Exercise the horses, clean some tack, mend some more tack, hose down the yard.  You?”

“Well, hopefully I’ll be able to go back into the library and get on with the reason I’m here.  It’s driving me mad not being able to get in there.  I was really on a roll before I discovered that bloody room.” she finished, moodily.   An image of the stained lump of stone flitted through her mind, and she shivered slightly.  Then she remembered something.  “Um.  Thinking about it, I’d probably better go and see Merry, too.  We promised we’d tell her what was in the room.  She’s a lovely old girl”.

“She is that,” agreed Rick with a fond smile.

“A bit… forthright, though.” Added Jen, remembering this sweet little old lady holding forth on dynastic mechanics.

Rick chuckled “She’s that, too. I got used to it a long time ago – it’s just her, but it drives Ambrose mad.  Used to embarrass the hell out of Lord Asterion, apparently.  Granddad though, Lord Aberforth, loved it.  Used to make him laugh like hell.  Mind you, he was an earthy sort, too.”  He smiled at the memory.

“Miss him?”

“Yes.”  The smile turned sad.  “He never looked at me and saw a spare part.  Just me.  He doted on my mum, too.  I’m sure that helped.  As well as putting Lord Asterion’s back up.  To him, I think, she was just a vessel for his heir.  I think that was always in the back of his mind, even when he thought he was in love with her.”  The smile had gone from his face, to be replaced with that faint bitterness mixed with sorrow.  Jen could see the brooding beginning to return, so tried to head it off.  She groped for something to say.

“Still, at least you had your mum.  For a while at least.  And your grandma and granddad.  They all loved you, didn’t they?  And you loved them too, didn’t you?”

The bitterness began to recede a little.  The ghost of a smile began to wash over his face.  Then it receded again.

“Doesn’t make up for the way he treated mum though.”

“No,” said Jen, gently, “No it doesn’t.  But she’s beyond worrying or caring about that now, isn’t she?”

He was silent for a while, and then he sighed.  “I suppose you’re right,” he conceded.

“Of course I am,” Jen said in that same gentle tone.  “Now come on, Rick – brooding on it isn’t going to make it any better, is it? It will just poison the memories and taint the present and future. And it won’t change a thing, will it?”

He shook his head.

Softly, “So leave it alone, Rick”.

Silence fell again.  Jen tried to look into his face, which had lowered during the exchange.

“Rick?”  She laid her hand on his where it lay on the counter top and squeezed very gently, putting as much sympathy into it as she could.

Imperceptibly, Rick nodded.

Jen squeezed his hand again, as reassuringly as she could.  Then, still in a gentle voice, she said, “Come on, horse whisperer, things to do for both of us.”

Rick looked up, then.  “Thanks” he said, simply.

She gave his hand a final squeeze, smiled, and said “No problem.  I’d better go now, though.  See you later”

On her way from the stable block, she passed Martin the groom, the source of the whistling she’d heard earlier.  He’d obviously recovered from whatever had laid him low, and she gave him a cheery wave as she passed.

 

Jen intended to go and see Merry, but first, she went in search of Dave.

As she walked, she realised that she felt surprisingly good, considering yesterday’s unaccustomed exercise.  There were a few twinges here and there, but nothing like she’d expected.  She bounced along the paths happily until she tracked Dave down.  He was in a secluded corner, turning the compost heaps.

“Morning!” she caroled, startling him.

“Oh god, Jen!  Don’t sneak up on me like that!” he exclaimed, clutching his chest.

“Oops, sorry!”

“You will be!” he growled, menacing her with his fork.

“Oy!  Get that near me and you’ll know about it, sunshine!” she warned.

“Ooo!  Feisty this morning, aren’t we?  What’s got into you, then?”

Jen tried to stop a look that said, “I spent the night in Rick’s bed but he was on the sofa and I feel fantastic despite all the work I did yesterday, actually” from crossing her face.  She didn’t quite succeed.

“Nothing.” She said, in what she hoped was an airy and innocent manner.  That didn’t quite succeed, either.  Dave was sharp.

“What have you been up to, then?” he enquired, with suspicion and mischievous interest.

“Nothing!” said Jen indignantly; knowing how much teasing she would be in for if Dave found out where she’d spent the night – however innocently.  It would be too good an opportunity for him to pass up, she knew.  Quickly, she changed the subject, or so she thought.  “Did you take the key back yet?”

“Yeah.  Yesterday evening, actually.  I couldn’t find you anywhere, and I knew the old girl would be itching to hear what we’d found in the room, so I went on my own.”

Jen immediately felt guilty about forgetting her promise.  She said as much to Dave.

“Oh, don’t worry about it.  I think she was disappointed not to see you, but she said she thought you were probably busy as she’d seen you in the stables with Rick.”

“Yes, I meant to go after, but I forgot.” Jen said, beginning to feel uncomfortable.  For the life of her, she couldn’t work out why.  Perhaps it was the effect of Dave towering over her like a malevolent beanpole saying with a broad grin, “Forgot, eh?  What were you doing with the stable boy to make you forget, then?”

Jen sighed with exasperation at herself for feeling uncomfortable, and at Dave for making her feel so.  “Mucking out, actually” she snapped.  “And no,” she added, as he opened his mouth to speak, “There was nothing muckier than horse muck involved.”  She gave him as level a look as she could manage, daring him to start teasing her.

“Actually,” said Dave, affecting an innocent air, “I was just going to ask if you’d had a nice time.”

“Huh!  I’ll just bet you were,” she grumbled.

“Did you?”

“Did I what?”

“Have a nice time?”

“Fine” she said, shortly.

“I just wanted to be sure you were filling your days in a profitable and pleasant manner during your exile”

“Um.  Speaking of which, I’d better go and find out if I’m allowed back in yet.”

“Good luck” said Dave.  “Have fun,” he added as she turned and began to walk away.  Jen waved vaguely over her shoulder in acknowledgement of this.

 

Sure enough, when she tried the library door, it was still locked.  Jen’s shoulders slumped and she shuffled off in the direction of the kitchen garden at a loose end, feeling completely useless.  When she reached it, she sat on a bench and felt sorry for herself for a bit.  She eventually realised, though, the reason she felt sorry for herself was that she was bored, and probably needed to find something at least vaguely constructive to do with her time.  There was no way that she was going to go and offer help to Dave in the garden, as it would only give him a golden opportunity to pull her leg about where she’d spent yesterday.  She’d enjoyed herself very much, despite how hard the work was, and she wasn’t in the mood to have to defend herself.  Visiting Merry would probably be worse than spending time with Dave, given the turn their last conversation had taken – she really didn’t feel up to that, either.  She doubted that Rick would need any help since Martin was back, and she’d probably only be in the way there.  Mags, as always, had the running of the house firmly under control, and was anyway probably off in some far distant part of the house and it would take half a day to find her.

She moodily swung her feet, unused to being at a loose end, her mind wandering, trying to dredge up something for her to do.  She began to think of the secret room again, then to remember the conversation she’d had with Dave about the dream of the minotaur, wondering if Dave was right, and there really was some sort of ‘subliminal thingamajig’ in the house somewhere – perhaps a carving or a picture – that induced the dreams, besides the carving in the library.  Jen decided that, as she seemingly had few alternative options, she might as well go and explore the house and see what she could find.

As she rose from the bench, she heard a flurry of wings behind her and turned to see a couple of the local magpies settle on the back of the bench and begin to eye her hopefully.  “Sorry, guys – nothing for you, I’m afraid” she told them, a bit sadly.  She’d enjoyed feeding them  yesterday, but suspected Mags had already done it today, as they didn’t look all that hungry, and there were only two of them.

“Bollocks” said the one on the left.

“Arse” said the one on the right.

Jen laughed, and then looked up to see two more had settled on the garden wall.  The old rhyme began to swirl round in her head.

“Well,” she said, pointing at the one on the left, “You can be one for sorrow.  And you”, she pointed to the one on the right, “Can be two for joy.  You two up there can be three and four for a girl and a boy,” she told the ones on the wall.  She looked around, and sure enough, there were five and six for silver and gold, watching her from a nearby apple tree.  She couldn’t see any more, so she said, “Hey, I guess that means I’m going to be rich, then!” with a whimsical smile.  She was just about to walk back towards the house, when a further flurry of wings announced the arrival of another magpie.  It landed on the ground a few feet in front of her and cocked a bright black eye in her direction.

“Hello,” she greeted it softly.  “You must be the secret never to be told.”  Hardly knowing why, she crouched down, very slowly, and then extended her hand towards it.  It regarded her steadily for a few moments, and then, to her complete amazement and total delight, it strutted confidently towards her and hopped up onto her outstretched hand.  Jen, spellbound, brought her hand closer, and then reached out tentatively with her other to stroke the glossy feathers on its neck.  She’d never met such a tame bird, let alone one that was still – supposedly – wild.  It exuded confidence and independence as it stood there, allowing a creature it should have seen as an enemy and persecutor to caress its beautiful plumage. Jen guessed that this must be one of the original pair that Mags had begun feeding, and wondered where its mate was.  She hoped it was around somewhere, as she knew they mated for life and thought it too sad if this one had lost its companion.  It really seemed to be enjoying having its feathers stroked, though, and even tilted its head so she could scratch the top, its eyes half closed in bliss.

As she stopped, worried that she might damage the tiny, perfect feathers on the crown of its head, it fixed her with a shining eye and, very clearly, said “Minotaur”.  Then it spread its wings and flew away, taking the others with it.

 

Jen stood rooted to the ground in shock, watching as they disappeared, calling to one another.  Where the hell had it learned that word?  Surely not from Dave?  She could see him teaching them to swear for the comedy value, but why would he teach it to say that, unless it was specifically to freak her out?  She tried to dismiss this as far fetched, but she wouldn’t put anything past that grinning troublemaker.

 

Jen wandered into the house to begin her search.

But where?

She decided to ignore the servants’ areas, as they were austere and wholly without decoration.  After all, she thought sourly, what could servants possibly want with it?  It would only distract from their duties. She decided to stick to the more ‘public’ areas of the house – the ones that family and guests might be expected to be in.

But how to go about it?  Even eliminating the ‘below stairs’ part of the house left a vast area to look through.  She decided to start with the ground floor and work her way up – at least the rooms were bigger so she’d be able to get her eye in, as the decorations were bound to be larger and more ostentatious.

As she reached the public area of the ground floor, however, she realised that she’d made a slight miscalculation.  She’d been right to assume that the decorations would be larger.  She had, though, neglected to take into account that these rooms would, for the most part, have been built for entertaining, and therefore would be far more elaborate and decorated, in fact, to show off.

Jen started in the ballroom, as it was the biggest.  There was every kind of decoration she could think of in here, and some she hadn’t.  She was met with a riot of colour, shape and medium.  There were carved wood and stone, tapestries, embroideries, paintings, photographs…  Jen sighed, told herself she had little else to do that didn’t involve defending herself from the onslaught of innuendo that was bound to come, and got to work.  Looking for a representation of anything seemed near impossible, but she found that if she sort of relaxed her eyes and mind, and just kept the shape of what she was looking for firmly in her mind, things seemed to leap out at her. She’d found this technique very useful in the past.  Sometimes, she’d want to find a particular passage that she’d read in a book, but couldn’t remember where in the book she’d seen it.  It relied on her visual memory holding the shape of a word or paragraph and dismissing anything that didn’t match it as she flicked through the pages.

She started with the carved wooden panels that ran around the lower portion of the room’s walls.  Unfortunately, most of the things that she found were representations of either human or bovine figures, but it was a start.  There were a lot of bulls’ heads, but if they weren’t attached to bulls’ bodies, they were displayed on platters.  Or simply carved on the walls.  Jen surmised that at some point, this family must have made an awful lot of money from cattle.  There were also many other kinds of animals represented – boar, bears, deer, other things; things that could be hunted or farmed.  But mostly cattle – lots and lots of cattle.

She made a complete circuit of the huge room without, unsurprisingly, finding a single representation of a minotaur.  She tried looking at the various sumptuous tapestries and paintings that hung around the walls, this time standing in the middle of the room and turning slowly.  Still nothing, so she decided to try another room.  She moved on to examine various reception rooms, drawing rooms and other rooms that she had no idea what they were for.  These were more difficult, as they contained ornate furniture, ornaments and other things – many of them were shrouded in dust covers.  Despite what Mags had said about the place not needing much upkeep, when Jen moved the covers, not much dust was raised.  She supposed Mags must remove any that had accumulated, and shuddered to think of the work involved.  Jen imagined Mags carefully folding each one inwards and carrying it outside to spread over a line and beat.  Most of them looked too big just to shake out.  Or maybe two people did it – one holding each end…

She was so busy imagining Mags and her deputies shaking out dust covers in a strange and graceful dance that she almost missed it.  She was checking the billiard room – lots of leather armchairs with carved arms, ornate drinks cabinets, cue racks, low tables and the like – which was obviously still used by somebody, as there were no dust covers in evidence, when her eye was caught by the magnificent fireplace.  Her eye had already run over it once, and then she snapped to attention as she looked again.  There it was, standing proudly on the mantelpiece.  It looked like a smaller version if the statue in the concealed room, proud and exquisite in its beauty.  She looked around the room and realised that it had a distinctly Greek flavour to its decoration.  Busts, urns, statues, paintings of scenes from Greek myths were all around.  The fireplace itself was carved with labyrinthine designs.  The mantelpiece was well over six feet high.  Being as small as she was, Jen could barely reach the statue, and she dearly wanted to have a closer look.  By dint of much struggling and swearing, she managed to drag one of the heavy chairs over to the fireplace, up which she climbed and stood on it.  She steadied herself on the mantel with one hand, reached out to take the statue with the other.  It was made of bronze, and very heavy.  She struggled to lift it with one hand – she almost overbalanced as the thing, instead of coming up in her grasp, tilted forwards and slipped from her grasp.  Her stomach tightened and she gasped in horror, closing her eyes and waiting for the inevitable crash as it knocked a lump out of the marble hearth and was itself damaged irreparably.

The crash never came.  Instead, there was a soft thump and a grinding noise.  Jen opened her eyes to find the statue now pointing out into the room – it was attached to the mantle with a concealed hinge.

“What the…?  Oh!” she said, as she looked down and saw that the back of the fireplace had moved aside, and there was a dark space beyond.

Another one?” she exclaimed.  Eagerly, she clambered down from the armchair, and peered into the dark space behind the fireplace.  It was quite a small entrance, and she couldn’t see anything in the dark beyond.  She stopped and thought for a moment.  She remembered what happened last time and didn’t want a repeat performance.  With this in mind, she quickly scrambled back onto the chair back and pushed the statue back upright.  She was rewarded with the grinding sound of the entrance closing again, as she’d hoped it would.  She just about managed to return the chair to its former position, and then sat down in it to think.  Her first reaction, like last time, was to rush off, grab a torch and start investigating immediately.  However, she reasoned that if there were two rooms, there may well be more.  Wouldn’t it be more sensible to find as many more as she could, then look at them all at the same time?  And might it not also be a good idea to tell someone what she was doing, before going into somewhere she might conceivably become trapped if whatever mechanism it was that opened things malfunctioned?  She decided that this was probably the best way to go about things, even if inside of her, her nine year old self was screaming “Get on with the exploring!”

She continued her search.  By the end of the day, she had found two more concealed openings and was getting quite excited.  She desperately wanted to go and tell Dave or Rick, then get on with the exploring.  However, she felt a creeping certainty that there were more to be found, so instead she went to bed early in order to be up at the crack of dawn to track down the other secrets that she felt were there, just waiting to be discovered.