Jen found, including the one in the library, seven concealed openings in all.  It took her another day’s exploration to locate the other three.  They were hidden in cupboards, behind panels and pictures.  One was a trapdoor that she very nearly fell into as she’d twisted a carved head on a newel post.  This one was particularly interesting as it concealed a stairway that descended into blackness, yet when closed, was undetectable, the cracks cunningly concealed in the lines of the wooden floor.  It didn’t even sound hollow when Jen experimented by jumping up and down on it after she’d closed it again.

She went and grabbed a bite to eat from the kitchen at the end of the day, taking it outside to the kitchen garden to enjoy the evening air.  There was a freshness to it that was very welcome after spending so much time in rooms where the air was stuffy and stale from long disuse.  It wasn’t long before she had company.  The magpies were loafing around on the walls of the garden as she came out and, quickly noticing that she had food, they surrounded her, giving her penetrating looks and swearing.  She broke some of her sandwich up and scattered it around for them.  Six of them immediately set to, devouring the crumbs and pieces of cheese and ham with alacrity.  One, however, remained sitting on the end of the bench she’d sat on, regarding her steadily. “Minotaur”, it said, cocking a bright eye.

“Oh – it’s you, is it?” said Jen, and offered it a piece of ham from one of her sandwiches.  Delicately taking it from her fingers, it swallowed the ham in a couple of gulps.  Then it tipped its head towards her and raised the feathers on the crown of its head.

“Oh, and now you want some fuss, do you?” she laughed, moving along the bench to give it a scratch.

“Well, since you’re offering, I wouldn’t say no,” said a quiet voice behind her.

All of the magpies fled in alarm at the unexpected intrusion, chattering as they went.  Jen jumped violently and turned around.

“Rick!” she gasped, reproachfully.

“Sorry,” he said, looking a little sheepish.  “I didn’t mean to make you jump.  Or frighten your friends away – it looked as though you’d sung them down from out of the trees” he added.

“Hah – not me.  It was the prospect of food that did that.”  She frowned.  “What is it with your family?” she continued.  “Your brother keeps sneaking up on me, too!”

Now it was Rick’s turn to frown.  “He does?”

“Yes, he does!  And now you’re at it, too.”  She waved a finger at him.  “Well, you can stop it – right now!  My poor heart can’t take it.  And I shan’t be held responsible if I turn around and lamp one on the next person that does it!” she concluded, with some heat.

Rick took a step back in shock from her unexpected vehemence.  “Er, are you ok, Jen?” he asked, slightly alarmed.

“I’m fine!  Or I would be if people didn’t keep sneaking up on me” she grumbled.

Rick was contrite.  “I’m really sorry, Jen – I didn’t mean to, honestly.  It’s just the stables are back there and you had your back to me…and…” he stammered.

Jen felt mean.  “No, no – I’m sorry for being tetchy.”  She pulled a face.  “Can we start again?”

Rick nodded.  Jen took a deep breath, smiled, and in her most ridiculously polite voice said, “Well, hello, Richard, what a very pleasant surprise!  And how are you today?  Is there anything I can help you with?”

Rick laughed.  “Hi, Jen” he said.

Jen feigned being indignant.  “Is that all I get?  After that beautifully crafted and mellifluous greeting?  All I get is ‘Hi, Jen’?”

He grinned.  “Yep.”

“Huh.  Dunno why I bothered,” she grumbled.  Then she smiled.  “Anyway, I meant it – how are you and what can I do for you?”

“Fine, thanks, and nothing…  I just came to say hi.  So, um…hi…”  He suddenly flushed and became very interested in his toes.  “Uh…  Actually, I’m not very good at this.” He admitted, sheepish once again.

“What?”

“The small-talk thing.  Haven’t practiced for a bit…”

Jen took pity on him.

“Well, dear,” she said, adopting her best schoolmarm voice, “What one should do in these situations is this.”  She patted the bench beside her.  “Come and take a seat, and either answer the question put to one in full, or give a brief answer, such as you have already, then ask a question of one’s own.  This will allow one’s interlocutor to speak at length about their wellbeing, daily activities, or whatever it is that you have posed the question regarding.  The advantage of the second option is that most people – present company excepted, of course,” she interjected, impishly, “do rather enjoy talking about themselves, and all one need do then is listen, occasionally encouraging them, and have little need to add to the conversation oneself.”

Rick smiled slightly as he came to sit on the bench.  “So,” he asked.  “How was your day?”

“Well done!  Now comes the hard part, where you have to listen to the dull details of some other bugger’s life.”

Rick laughed.  “Seriously, though – I haven’t seen you around for a couple of days.  Has Ambrose let you back in the library?”

“Ha!  Fat chance!  It’s still locked, so I suppose he’s still doing whatever he’s doing.”

“Actually, he’s not.”

“What?”

“I saw him drive away yesterday, and his car’s not back in the garage yet, so neither is he.”

“And he’s left me locked out and hanging around like a spare part!” fumed Jen.

“He probably never even gave it a thought.  He’s so used to being a law unto himself.  Has been since he was old enough to understand his position as the heir apparent.  He used to boss me about a lot when we were kids.  I avoided him as much as possible.  Still do – he still likes to throw his weight around and it’s unbearable.  That’s why I live in the stables.  Then at least I only have to see him when he’s off for a ride or going hunting.”

“So why do you stay?”

Rick shrugged.  “I like it here, when he’s not around.  And it’s my home, too.  I love the horses – wouldn’t like to think of anyone else looking after them.”

“Well,” said Jen, “As long as you’re happy, that’s the main thing.”
“I am,” he said, with a contented smile.

Jen smiled back.  Then, “Hey – your sneaking up on me put it completely out of my head, but guess what?”

“What?”

“I’ve been busy in the last couple of days.  Since I didn’t have anything else to do, I decided to have a poke around.  I found some more concealed rooms!”

Rick’s eyes widened.  “Really?”

“Yeah – seven of them, including the one in the library.  And they’ve all got the minotaur connection.”

“Eh?”

She told him about her midnight excursion with Dave, the dreams she’d had, and Dave’s ‘subliminal thingamajig’ theory.  “Which is why I thought I’d have a look around – to see if there was anything in it.  I think there might be, given how many I found.”

“Was there anything in them, though?”

“I don’t know.  I thought I’d find as many as I could first, then explore them all at once.  I also thought it might be a good idea to tell someone else about it, In case I got stuck.”  A look of concern suddenly spread across her face as she remembered who she was talking to.  “Erm…  You don’t mind, do you?”

He frowned.  “Mind?  Why should I mind?”

“Well…  It’s your house, isn’t it?  Your home, I mean… Your family’s…”

“It’s Ambrose’s house,” he said, levelly.  “And it was never really my home.  Just somewhere I lived when I was growing up.  Home is where I live now.”

“Right” said Jen, “Right…  Sorry.  I wasn’t sure…  I mean…  Sorry” she finished, lamely.

“It’s ok.”

They sat in a slightly uncomfortable silence for a while.  Then Rick said, “So…  Who were you going to take with you?”

“Well, I was going to ask Dave to come with me, since he helped me get into the first one.”

“Oh.”  Rick looked slightly disappointed.

“Will you come too, though?  You know the house well, after all.”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course!” she said.  “Like I said, you know the house well, and it would be… well… I’d like it if you were there, too” she finished.

Rick smiled.  “Love to.  Come on then.”

“What, now?”

“No time like the present.  We’ll go and get the lanky gardener and some torches and have a look-see.”  He rose and took her hand, hauling her to her feet, dragging her off in the direction of Dave’s sheds.

 

When they got there, Dave was mixing up some foul concoction on the little stove in the corner of the main shed.  The door was wide open and he had a wet cloth wrapped around his nose and mouth.

“Ugh, Dave, what the hell have you got in there?” asked Jen, by way of announcing their presence.  Her eyes watered as she got a face full of the fumes.

“Oh – hello, you two.  Don’t come too close!” he warned, “It’s wasp killer.”

“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Rick.  “That would kill an elephant!”

“Nah – it’ll be fine when it cools down.  Still pretty deadly if you’re yellow and black, go ‘Bzzz’, and raid my bloody beehives, though.”

“Do they?” said Jen, curiously and from a safe distance.  “I thought they ate fruit and things.”

“They do – but they also like honey and grubs.”

“Hmmm.  Well anyway, what are you doing when you’ve finished cooking up your strange brew?”

“Why?  What’s up?”

“Jen found some more secret rooms,” said Rick.

“Really?  Cool!  Hold on…” he took the foul concoction off the hob and set it aside to cool, then bounded out of the shed.

They retired well out of range of the noxious fumes and went to sit on some crates.

Dave said, “So, how come your lordship didn’t know about ‘em?” as they sat down.

Rick ignored the honorific with practiced ease.  Jen suspected he’d probably been doing so for a long time, realising as she did that this was the best way to defuse Dave’s teasing.

“Nobody ever mentioned them.  Lord Asterion barely spoke to me most of the time, and why would mum have known?”

“But Merry knows.  About the one in the library, I mean.  How come she never told you about that one, at least?”

“How should I know?” said Rick, crossly.  “Probably because the issue of how to beget the next heir was never really relevant to me.  Frankly, I’m rather glad it didn’t.  I mean, I love her dearly, but you know what she can be like.”  He added the last with discomfort in his voice.  The other two chuckled.

“True enough,” said Jen.  “Anyway,” she continued, turning to Dave, “We were going to go and have a good look at them – wondered if you fancied tagging along?”

“You betcha!” said Dave, eagerly rubbing his hands together.  “But what about George, and Timmy the dog?”

Rick looked puzzled.  “Who?”

“Didn’t you read The Famous Five when you were a kid?”

Rick shook his head.

Jen rolled her eyes. “Four kids and a dog exploring old tunnels and finding treasure and stuff,” she explained.  Turning to Dave, she added, “And if you’re going to take the piss, you can go back to your wasp poison.”

Dave made a face.  “No thanks.  It needs to cool now, anyway.  Please let me come too, I’ll be good, I promise” he added, fluttering his eyelashes, wringing his hands and looking pleadingly at the others.

Jen turned to Rick with a sigh.  “What do you think?  Can you stand it?”

“I’ll do my best” he replied, with a martyred expression.

“Great!” said Dave.  “I’ll grab some torches – and some ginger beer!”

“Dave!” said Jen, warningly.

He grinned and retreated into his smelly shed.

“God!  How do you stand it?” said Jen to Rick.

“He’s alright,” said Rick, with a faint smile.  “If you ignore it for long enough, it goes away.  Then you get the real Dave.  He’s a good guy.”

“Irritating, though.”

“Sometimes.  But like I said, you have to ignore it.”

“Ignore what?” said Dave, once again bounding out of his shed, this time with torches.

“You, apparently” said Jen.

“Hey!” he said indignantly, to Rick.  “I hope you haven’t been blackening my character.”

“Dave my friend, you do a far better job of that than I ever could.”

Dave looked faintly pleased at that.

 

The evening had deepened whilst they had been talking and, as they made their way towards the house, they saw car headlights scything through the twilight.  All three stopped stock still, and Rick said, “Damn!  Ambrose is back.”

Jen cursed.  “I guess that means we won’t be doing any exploring tonight, then.  I don’t fancy trying to look into secret rooms when he’s around.”

“Me neither” agreed Dave.

“Given what happened last time, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that we’d all be banished until Ambrose had had a good look himself,” said Rick.  “He never was very good at sharing,” he added, half to himself.

“Here he comes,” hissed Jen.  “Hide!”

They all dashed behind some nearby bushes as Lord Harrington-Harrington exited his car, watching him walk swiftly across the drive and disappear into the house.

Crouching behind the bushes, Jen began to giggle.

“What?” demanded Dave.

More giggles “It’s like a bad mystery novel around here!”

Dave began to giggle then, too.  Rick just looked slightly embarrassed.

When her giggles had subsided, Jen said, “Well – he was in a hurry, wasn’t he?  I wonder why?”

“Probably off to the library again,” said Dave.

“Huh, probably” grumbled Jen.  “”I’m never going to get back in there.”

Their plans thwarted, they made their way back towards Dave’s shed.

Well, what now?” asked Jen as they sat on the crates once again (the fumes of the wasp killer were still too strong to go anywhere near the shed).

“We’ll just wait until he’s gone again,” said Rick.  “He’s not usually here for more than a few days at a time.  We’ll just have to be patient.”

“Bollocks to patience!” said Dave.  “I say we go and have a look tonight.”

“Oh Dave!  We can’t go creeping around the house in the dead of night like cat burglars.  Rick’s right – we’ll just have to wait for a few days.”

Dave looked mutinous, so Rick said, “Come on, Dave, you know what he’s like – if he catches you where he thinks you’re not supposed to be he’s likely to fire you.”

“Yeah, but that’s all part of the fun!” said Dave, with a grin.

Jen sighed.  “Look, Dave, just try to control your instincts for a few days and everything will be fine.  Please?”

“Yeah, ok” agreed Dave in defeat.

 

Jen dreamed of the minotaur again, that night.

 

…walking down a tunnel, which opened out on to a large circular chamber with six other openings around the wall. the walls were made of massive stone blocks, and the air was cool and dry. she was slightly surprised by this, as the chamber was deep under the ground. she could feel the weight of the earth pressing down above her head on to the vaulted ceiling above. the room was lit with flickering of smoky torches mounted in iron brackets spaced evenly around the walls. the torchlight was glittering and dancing on the stained surface of another massive block of stone, which stood in the centre of the room. she stared at the stone, feeling her emotions to be strangely deadened, yet with a foreboding deep within her. as she stared, wondering why she was here, a flickering and shimmering began to intrude itself at the corners of her vision, rapidly moving into her direct line of sight and concentrating on the stone.  the shimmering became stronger, and she began to detect fleeting glimpses of shapes within. slowly, slowly, the shimmers began to coalesce into the shape of the body of a young woman with long, dark hair.  her skin was chalky white, her lips blue, and her eyes were closed. the air next to the altar was also shimmering and, equally slowly, began to form the towering figure of the minotaur. he was staring down at the figure of the girl with sorrow, pity and rage etched in every line of his beautiful body and pouring out of his liquid eyes. he raised his heavy head, looking her squarely in the eye. she had been moving unconsciously towards the tableau of the girl and the minotaur, but his gaze stopped her in her tracks and nailed her to the floor. come no closer he warned. I do not want this, but now it is here I am compelled to take it. turn away. the pleading in his voice felt at odds with the powerful urge to turn around as, without moving, she turned her back on the scene, facing the way she had come. there were noises behind her, then, of rending, chewing, sucking and crunching. she cringed and sank to her knees, covering her ears, desperate to hear no more, fearing that she would continue to hear them in the vaults of her mind for the rest of her days. she was glad, then of the deadening of her emotions; it was the only thing that prevented her running from the room, screaming. she felt the minotaur’s obscure yet desperate need for her to stay as she felt his revulsion at what he was forced to do. eventually the noises ceased and the deep, deep voice said I am sorry. she found she could now turn around, so she rose to her feet and did so. there were fresh dark stains on the stone, and the minotaur’s face, arms and torso were smeared with blood. why? she asked. because I am compelled he answered, sadly. I must take these things that are given and consume them. she asked who gives them? he replied many, but not for many years.  then the star and his progeny tightened my bonds and resumed my torment. he began to weep, silently. she couldn’t bear it. she ran forward to comfort him, tripping on an uneven piece of floor, landing with a jolt in her own bed…

 

Jen sat up with a gasp, bathed in cold, sticky sweat, tears streaming down her face.  She sat shivering, staring into the darkness, mind roiling with the nightmare.  She drew the bedclothes around her shoulders, hugging her knees for comfort and wondered where it had all come from.  Up until now, all she’d felt about the house and her time here had been a sort of humdrum, workaday tolerance, interspersed with enjoyable time spent with Mags, Dave and Rick.  But now, in the dark, chased by the images from her nightmare, she could feel the weight of history beginning to press down on her, accompanied by a vague yet menacing shadow.  She decided that to chase away the night terrors, she needed to bring the normal world back.  She wished for a radio or a book, to draw her mind from the clutches of the images from her subconscious, but she had neither.  With the cold sweat drying uncomfortably on her skin, she decided the next best thing she could do was at least to turn the light on and have a shower, as she was not going back to sleep any time soon – not with the shreds of a nightmare still clinging to her.  Her imagination was still peopling the darkness before her with images from that subterranean chamber.  She reached over and groped for the switch on the bedside light; squinting against the glare that stabbed at her enlarged pupils – and screamed.

At the end of the bed stood the stooped, looming figure of the minotaur.

help me, he said, reaching towards her.  Then he vanished.

Jen huddled against the headboard in terror, covers wrapped tight around her in a protective cocoon, staring at the place where the figure had been, shaking and whimpering.  No-one came at the sound of her scream.  She was too isolated in this part of the house for the sound to have carried to concerned or friendly ears.  There was no parent to come in and kiss away her fears.  She felt desolately, utterly alone.

Slowly, though, the terror began to subside, to be replaced by the dull dread she’d begun to feel earlier.  Her breathing began to slow back down, but she could still barely think straight.  In fact, she could barely think at all, her mind was all but blank.

She remained like this, staring at the wall, until the first faint traces of dawn began to appear at her window.  Finally able to relax a little, Jen’s heavy, sore eyelids began, slowly, to close and her head drooped as she, at last, dozed in the dawn’s early and reassuring light, too exhausted by the night terrors to dream.

Jen woke with a start some time later as there came a knock on her door, and Mags’s voice said “Jen?  Jen?” softly on the other side.

Jen gave a small, strangled scream as she woke, at which Mags put her head around the door, frowning in concern, and said, “Jen, dear, are you alright?  Oh!  You look awful!  What on earth’s the matter?  Are you ill?”

Jen shook her head, her hair was a wild mess, her eyes staring and bloodshot and her face streaked with tear tracks, and she was still huddled tight against the headboard.  Mags swiftly came in and folded Jen in her arms, rocking her and making soothing noises.

Jen began to cry quietly again, her head on Mags’s shoulder.  Between sobs, Jen managed to tell Mags that she’d had a nightmare and couldn’t sleep.  “Oh, Mags, I was so scared.  So, so scared,” she said, in a hoarse voice.

“It’s alright, dear,” Mags said comfortingly, “It was only a dream.  It can’t hurt you.”

Jen was so grateful to Mags, who was beginning to leech away the blank dread that had poisoned her mind during the night.

Presently, Mags said, “Now, dear.  I think what you need is a good breakfast and then a good rest.”

Jen started to protest that she was fine, now, but Mags wouldn’t hear of it.

“I won’t be gone long, dear, so you stay where you are, and I’ll be back before you know it.”  She stroked Jen’s hair away from her face.  “All right?”

Jen nodded, then winced as the combined effects of tears and a long, fearful and sleepless night began to make their presence felt. Her head was beginning to pound.

“Good girl.  Food and valerian tea coming up.”

Jen managed to croak “Thanks, Mags” as she disappeared.

Jen wasn’t sure what valerian tea was, but she ate the breakfast that Mags presented her with, and dutifully drank the contents of the cup she was handed afterwards as Mags explained it was to help her rest.  It wasn’t too long after that that she fell deeply and soundly asleep, comforted by Mags sitting and stroking her hair as she slipped under.