A time slip fantasy YA novel - our first interactive novel writing project
Yorkshire, England, 1784
‘Keep still, Stanley, for the love of God!’
The horse quietened immediately, aware of the uncharacteristic note of alarm in his master’s voice. With his heart beating furiously, Robert Duke, hand on bridle, glanced around at the silent courtyard. The sun lay dormant in the east and the moon was now a faint sliver in the early morning sky. Soon the birds would begin to sing. It was imperative that he got away quietly and unseen. He looked anxiously up towards his wife’s room tucked in the west wing of the house and noted with relief that her lamp remained unlit. The other windows too, were still shadowed with sleep and only the kitchen, deep in the basement, betrayed signs of movement and light.
Deftly, Duke swung himself onto Stanley’s back, took up the reins and coaxed the horse forward. The horse turned and made his way slowly and quietly towards the tall gates at the end of the drive. These gave onto the road that led to the City of York, but Duke, instead of taking this road, nudged Stanley towards the open fields.
The horse broke into a gallop. He knew where he was going. Before his master had married Esther, with the fair hair and a mouth that rarely smiled, they had travelled this way many times to see another lady, one with dark hair and warmer eyes. Her name was Hannah. Yet the last time they had seen Hannah something in her had changed. Her eyes had become clouded, sad, her expression mournful. This had troubled Stanley for he had liked the smell of Hannah; her gentle voice soothed him, and his master too seemed to have a sense of peace about him whenever he was beside her.
Stanley breathed in the sweetness of grass and cornflower and felt the wind tear through his mane as he galloped across the wide fields on the way to Hannah’s home. As they neared Hannah’s cottage, Stanley began to sense something was wrong. His master sensed it too for he suddenly jerked on the reins. A hot bolt of pain shot through Stanley’s mouth, causing him to rear up and neigh shrilly in protest.
Hannah’s small house was deserted.
The door had been torn from its frame. It hung precariously on one hinge. Overturned baskets of herbs, potions and healing balms were scattered across the grass. Through the lopsided door, the horse could see broken shapes; the furniture had been hacked to pieces and the small table where Hannah had sat many times, smiling and peeling beans for their supper, was split in two. Stanley raised his head and snickered loudly.
This was bad.
He felt fear run through him. There was fear, too, in the house; he knew the cold smell of it. And of something else, sickly sweet, once warm, but now grown cold and hard.
‘Steady boy,’ Duke commanded him and Stanley felt the firm grip of his master’s legs around him.
Duke threw himself off his horse. He ran to the door. He scanned the darkened room; saw the crumpled bed, the upturned chairs, and the blood on the walls. So the rumours were true. They had taken her.
For one long moment Duke stood there, frozen, imagining Hannah, small and dark, being dragged away, begging them to leave her be, crying, perhaps crying out for him? He should have come sooner. He should have known the last time he was here- how many months ago? – six, eight, - that the madness had come upon her again. He could have helped her then, but no, he had chosen not to, returning instead to his comfortable life, his business affairs, and a marriage that was as cold as the Arctic seas. He had failed her. ‘They have taken her and I am lost,’ he said, even though there was no one to hear.
Stanley tossed his head in agitation, “what to do?’ But Duke, unlike Hannah, did not have the gift of horse speak and Stanley’s thoughts drifted away on the wind.
The horse pawed the ground impatiently. Duke glanced up at Stanley; the answer came to him suddenly. He must find Hannah, rebuild her house, and never leave again. ‘Stanley, we’re going to York,’ he said quietly. But the horse had already turned and was heading swiftly back to the road that would lead them into the city.
The Asylum rose out of the hills, a bleak monolith of grey stone set against the moss of the Yorkshire dales. Duke approached the building from the rear, making his way to the front entrance with caution. He had not fully prepared for this and would have to call upon his position as land owner and merchant to gain entry. Such calls upon his status repulsed him greatly; today, for the sake of Hannah, he would lay such principles aside.
Above the heavy oak door the portal bore the Coat of Arms of the City of York. Duke lifted the great iron knocker and let it fall heavily.
He turned to Stanley, ‘Steady boy. I won’t be long.’
‘I need to come with you. I know where she is.’
Duke tied Stanley to a tethering post and waited.
‘I fear the worst.’
The door swung open. The man who stood there was gaunt, bent like a thorn twig, his skin grey and bloodless.
He gave Duke a yellow-toothed smile.
‘What’s wanting?’ he croaked.
Duke spoke authoritatively. ‘I am here to order the release of a woman by the name of Hannah Joyce.’
The man at the door frowned.
‘And who might you be then?’
Duke swallowed his anger.
‘My name is Duke, Robert Duke, and I am a close friend of Miss Joyce. I am here to return her to the care of a family that loves her.’
The man smirked, suppressing a laugh behind his hand.
‘Well then Mr. Dukes, Sir, p’raps you don’t know that it was her very own family as had her committed ‘ere. Her being, as you might say, a very sick woman.’
He tapped a grey finger against the side of his head and made as if to close the door, but Duke read his intentions and slammed his leg against the jamb.
‘I demand to see Miss Joyce!’
Before the man could answer, another voice spoke from the darkness of the hall.
‘Let Mr. Duke in, Jones.’
Jones stood aside with some reluctance and allowed Duke to enter. From out of the shadows a man came forward. He was a large man, not as tall as Duke but his stature was broader and fuller. Dressed in a red jacket and breeches and holding a rider’s whip, he outstretched a large hand and clasped Duke by his.
‘I saw your arrival from my study window. That’s a fine-looking horse you have there Mr Duke.’
He turned to Jones and snapped,
‘Take Mr Duke’s horse and stable him man. And ensure he has water to drink.’
Jones ducked his head several times, avoiding both men’s eyes.
‘Yes sir,’ he muttered sullenly.
Duke studied the man. He looked to be around the age of forty; thick-set, heavy jawed. From beneath beetling brows stared two eyes of ice blue.
‘Forgive me, I have not introduced myself. My name is Edgerton. My uncle, Lord Edgerton, has put me in charge here. He is the owner and benefactor of this asylum.’
Duke knew Lord Edgerton. He sat in Parliament, owning much of the land in Yorkshire and parts of Lancashire. The man was vain, a persecutor of the poor and a religious bigot. It was also true that he held the ear of King George.
Duke regarded the nephew coldly.
‘Does your uncle make a habit of arresting young women and holding them here against their will Mr. Edgerton?’
Edgerton’s eyes seemed to flicker for a moment,
‘Everyone here is held against his or her will, Mr. Duke. It is in the nature of the place.’ He hesitated and looked away briefly before meeting Duke’s eyes again.
‘My uncle has kindly taken it upon himself to establish this Asylum for the mentally afflicted. The insane are not capable of exercising their will. We have to decide what is best for them.’
Duke took a step towards Edgerton.
‘And who, pray, determines who is insane and who is not?’
‘I am no doctor Mr. Duke, but even I recognise the ranting and delusions of a deranged soul.’
‘You declare by your own admission that you are not a doctor. Yet you claim the right to incarcerate people here against their will!’ Edgerton stared at Duke. Duke saw Edgerton’s hand clench suddenly and begin to draw back.
‘I warn you my good sir,’ he said evenly, ‘not to take it upon yourself to strike me. I may not embrace violence but I have good connections both here in York and elsewhere. I can guarantee you that I will use them wisely if you lay as much as a single finger upon me.’
Edgerton held his gaze, baring his teeth in an icy smile.
‘Sir, I have no intention of striking you. I merely wonder by what right you come here demanding Hannah Joyce’s release. You are neither her husband or her brother, or indeed any relation that I am aware of.’
Duke felt the anger rise in his throat. He glared at the impertinent Edgerton, yet knew if he was to progress with this encounter, he had to offer him some part of the truth.
‘Miss Joyce, like me, is a member of the Society of Friends. We are Quakers Mr. Edgerton. Quakers refer to each other as Friends. Now take me to where you are holding her so that I may return her to her home where she will be taken good care of.’
Edgerton hesitated. He knew all about Quakers. He knew his uncle hated them. They were a strange order, with heretical ideas about God. They refused to recognise the authority of the established church and they refused to fight for King and Country, claiming all war was inherently against the word of God. They prayed together in damp halls without the guidance either of priest or bishop. Their justification for such heresy was that God was available equally to every man and woman. They postulated via badly written scrolls in towns and villages that the clergy were not a direct channel to God, but mere men like themselves. They were stubborn and unmoveable in their beliefs. Edgerton would have to think carefully. Duke would not be easily appeased.
‘Mr. Duke, I fear we have become enemies when really there are no grounds. Miss Joyce, your friend, was brought to these premises Tuesday last with a delusional mind and we are keeping her for her own protection.’
Then you will not object to me seeing her for I have no wish to harm her.’
‘Netherless, visitors do make inmates worse. It fuels their delusions. It would be kinder to leave Miss Joyce alone, Mr. Duke.’
‘Don’t talk to me about kindness Edgerton,’ Duke said slowly trying to contain his rage. ‘I saw the results of your men’s kindness in the damage they inflicted upon Miss Joyce’s home. It is there for any one who cares to look; in the broken door, the smashed furniture, her possessions trod into the ground like discarded rubbish.’ He stepped closer remembering the blood he had seen spattered on her walls. ‘Doubtless I shall see more evidence of it when I meet her face to face.’
Edgerton opened his mouth in reply but Duke would not be delayed further. There was a door at the back of the hall. Ignoring Edgerton’s protests, he strode towards it and swiftly turned the handle.
He immediately found himself in a study, opulently painted in yellow and cream. By the window stood a desk carved from the finest mahogany and upon it, a fashionable statuette imported from the east. A fire blazed in a marble hearth and a rug of the finest wool covered the oak floor. Duke scanned the room looking for another door.
There had to be an entrance to the Asylum from this room.
He found it in the furthest corner. It was locked. He shook it hard, tried using his shoulder to break it open. It would not move. In desperation he looked for something in the room he could use; a poker, the statuette, anything that was heavy enough to crash his way through. There was nothing. Sweat broke out on his forehead. Time was against him. At any moment Edgerton would come through the door with half a dozen men in tow. Then he would be dragged away, possibly imprisoned, and Hannah would be lost to him.
Outside in the hallway he could hear scuffling and the suppressed murmurings of voices, and he knew in his heart that Edgerton had already gathered reinforcements. He tried to force the door open again with his foot, but it would not yield. It was then that he heard the sound of galloping and Jones’s voice call, “I can’t hold him sir; he’s just too strong!”
Duke looked up as the study door crashed off its frame and Stanley cantered into the room. Horse and master faced each other.
“Stanley!” Duke cried. Stanley watched his master with wide eyes, neighing loudly and shaking his head from side to side. He trotted over to where his master stood and nuzzled his ear and then, with no warning, he swung his body around knocking Duke sharply off his feet. Duke glanced up just as Stanley reared and smashed his front legs against the locked door with all of his weight. The door splintered and fell with a crash. Stanley galloped through the opening leaving Duke to follow.
Outside Duke heard Edgerton scream at Jones “Get the guards man! Hurry, before they get through!”
The corridor was dark and damp, sharing none of the opulence of the neighbouring room. Duke kept sight of Stanley, who appeared to know where he was going, his white body a semblance of light in the dimness of the asylum. Duke felt his way through the narrow passage, ducking his head to avoid colliding with the low ceiling. The place stunk not only of damp, but urine. The sharpness of it clung to the back of his throat and he fought the urge to retch. He had to find Hannah immediately; Duke knew it would only be a few moments before Edgerton came after him. He would be thrown in prison for trespass. Although even a prison cell would not come close to the hellishness of this place.
Suddenly the narrowness of the passage opened into a wider chamber. Duke gasped in horror at what he saw.
Lined against the walls were rows of cells. Inside, women were shackled in irons. There were eight, ten, maybe twelve women huddled together, some lying down as if they were trying to find warmth in the wet hay that covered the floor. Others stood staring out through the bars, their eyes wide and vacant. The walls were dank with mould and the air sang with the stench of human faeces. Duke searched frantically for Hannah, knowing she was here, kept like an animal chained to the floor and dying slowly in filth and cold.
He called her name, his voice shaking.
‘Hannah, can you hear me. Hannah it is I, Robert. I have come for you.’
Someone laughed. He spun around. A woman dressed in brown rags leaned into the bars of a cell, grinning foolishly at him, her teeth black and broken,
‘Who do you want my love?’
‘Hannah, Hannah Joyce. Do you know her?’
The woman closed her eyes and then opened one to peer at Duke.
‘What do you want?’ she screamed at him, ‘I told you not to do it!’
Duke leapt back in shock. The woman was raging at him, shaking her fist and rattling the bars. Others began to whimper and soon the air was rent with desolate shrieking and weeping. Duke turned on his heel to quickly move away. Another voice spoke evenly yet firmly above the din.
‘Hannah is on the next floor sir. I think your horse may have already found her.’
Duke turned around. In the corner of a cell crouched a young woman who could have been no more than sixteen years of age.
‘Be quick sir. She is dying.’
Duke turned and ran. He saw the flight of wooden stairs leading to the next level of the asylum and raced up them taking two at a time. Yelling Hannah’s name over and over he tore through the cramped corridor of penned and chained women until he found her. The horse was standing next to the cell watching Hannah with careful eyes, his warm breath pluming in the damp air of the asylum. Hannah was lying scrunched up in a corner of a small cell, her legs drawn up to her chest, her hands clenched into fists, her dark hair wet with perspiration. A sharp pain shot through Duke’s chest and his eyes filled with tears. He could barely speak.
‘Hannah can you hear me?’
Nothing. He shook at the bars and kicked them hard. The clatter of vibrating metal echoed around the chamber.
‘Hannah, please my love, speak to me?’ Duke could see her frame rising and falling. He looked around desperately. There was no sign of Edgerton. He shook at the bars once more,
‘Hannah, please, wake up.’
He needed to speak to her, to tell her he would return with a warrant to remove her from this place, to not give up hope. Just then, Stanley raised his head and neighed not once, but three times. His call resonated throughout the corridor and bounced off the walls. Hannah stirred and then sat up. She looked at both Duke and Stanley. Slowly a broken smile spread across her face.
Duke reached out his hand to her and she stood shakily to walk towards him. He was shocked by how thin she had become and by the hollowness of her cheeks. Her eyes, once dark and dancing with life, had dulled and an angry bruise ran along the left side of her jaw. He touched her face.
‘Who has done this to you?’ he whispered.
‘I knew you would come,’ she said. She reached out her hand to Stanley who came towards her, his head lowered. She whispered something into his nose and the horse promptly turned and cantered towards the stairs, his hooves clattering on the stone floor. Duke looked after him.
‘He will slow Edgerton’s men,’ Hannah whispered.
‘I should have come sooner,’ Duke said, ‘Hannah what have they done to you?’
‘It don’t matter. Robert you have to listen to me. There are things you must know.’
‘Hannah, I am going to get you out of here. I will return with a letter from the Commissioner and ensure you are released. They have no right to keep you here...’
‘Hush,’ Hannah interrupted and touched his face.
Duke took her by the hand and caressed her palm running his finger over the narrow silver line that ran from the base of her left thumb to the top of her wrist. Hannah glanced at the birthmark; a surge of strength momentarily restored itself to her, and she dug her fingers into Duke’s hand. ‘Robert you must search for something. If I do not return from this place, there are two things you have to find. One will be easy, but the other is more difficult,’ she said.
‘Hannah, you will be freed,’ but he broke off as Hannah winced in pain, her features contorted as she hunched forward in agony.
‘Hannah, what is it my love, pray tell me?’
‘Robert I do not have long in this world.’
She closed her eyes and focused on steadying her breathing. When the pain had passed, she opened them again and spoke quickly in short sharp rasps.
‘Robert, find the Jewel. It is lost. Until it is found we will continue to suffer. Please.’ She slumped towards him.
Duke looked at Hannah, tightening his grip on her hand. So the madness was still in her. He spoke softly, ‘What Jewel Hannah? I do not understand you.’
‘The Stone, the Keepers Jewel. Robert, the church…don’t allow the church to hide it any longer. Find it. Do whatever you have to.’
She cried out as pain raged through her again.
‘Hannah I promise,’ he cried. ‘I promise to continue our work, the Friends and I, we will always be here; we will return God to all.’
‘No, that is not what I meant.’ She closed her eyes, leant into the bars and became limp. Slowly she slid to the floor. He put his hand to his mouth in disbelief then reached out to touch her forehead. Her face had grown whiter and was clammy to touch. He yelled out into the darkness, ‘we need a doctor, she is sick. Please someone call a doctor!’
He heard a shout and a rattle of many feet running through the corridor and then the thunder of hooves as Stanley reared and sent Edgerton’s men piling down the flight of stairs. Duke released his hand from Hannah’s, ran to the stairs and pulled Stanley out of the way. He looked at six men lying at the foot of the stairs, recognising them immediately by their red uniforms. Edgerton had called the King’s soldiers. Duke yelled at them as they scrambled to their feet and came towards him, their pistols drawn,
‘Can you see the conditions these women are kept in? Can you see the inhumanity of this place?’
One of the men, wearing the insignia of captain, raised his pistol at Duke’s head.
‘In the name of His Majesty the King, you are under arrest.’