This story is based on my experiences in my grandparents’ house in Europe. It is a delightful old place, brimming with secrets and rooms and countryside smells.
Annie had always thought herself lucky. She contemplated this as she gazed out over the expansive green meadows, bursting with flowers of every possible shape, size and colour, and the roaming sheep that dotted the hillside like fluffy white balls of cotton wool. The old windmill creaked and groaned contentedly in the distance, and the beaten path that led into the small town nestled between the mountains’ snow-capped peaks, swathed in a pale blue mist, and bathed in the fresh spring sunshine, was crowded with wandering chickens, pecking and scratching at the dirt, their lustrous caramel feathers gleaming.
She heard the jingling and clopping of the pony-and-trap and jumped to her feet, eager to greet her aunt as she returned from the market, her basket loaded with plump red apples, juicy oranges and fresh leaves of lettuce and kale. Tess, her aunt’s sweet, mild-tempered palomino pony, trotted eagerly to receive a sugar lump from her little mistress, her whiskery lips gently brushing Annie’s palm.
Annie planted a kiss on her aunt’s weathered cheek and offered to take the fruit basket. She skipped down to the cottage, with its familiar whitewashed walls and wreaths of roses twining around the doorframe, the basket swinging merrily in the crook of her arm. As she placed it on the table and began unloading it, her burly uncle walked in, his heavy boots clumping on the floorboards, a pair of limp pheasants dangling from his clenched fist. “Tell auntie Betty that we’ll be having potato and pheasant pie for supper today, Annie girl!” he announced, laughing heartily and rumpling her auburn hair. He then called out of the open window to her aunt, who was returning to the cottage, having let Tess loose in the paddock outside and stopped to collect a couple of still-warm eggs.
They sat down that night to a delicious meal of creamy pie and boiled eggs. The potato was crispy on the tongue, the pie soothing and luscious. As Annie put away her plate and began to get ready for bed, there was a piercing rat-a-tat-tat at the door. Her aunt froze. Her face was illuminated by the wavering candlelight as she exchanged an uncertain look with her husband. “Who could it be?” she whispered, her eyes roving anxiously over his face. “I don’t know.” He replied, his expression grave. “I’m not expecting anyone.”
“Ted,” she answered, lowering her voice so that it wouldn’t carry. “You don’t think it could be Raiders, do you?”
He nodded grimly, acknowledging her fears. “Stay here with Annie.” He pushed her backwards into the bedroom and closed the door. Annie watched her aunt, her eyes wide, as Betty peered through a crack in the door.
“Hey chaps.” She heard Ted address the people at the door and heard the low murmur of voices as they responded. “Whoa!” she heard him say, and her knuckles turned white from clutching at the frame so tensely. “There’s no need for tha-”
There was a sudden blur of shining silver, a spraying arc of scarlet, and Ted crumpled backwards on the front porch, his chequered shirt stained with crimson, his arm flopping uselessly over his waist.
Then she heard the ominous footfalls and spotted the long shadow of a man as he crossed over the threshold and into the house. She locked the door with a bang and wheeled around to face Annie, whose face was white as a sheet. “Is uncle-” she whispered.
Betty felt her response catch in her throat. She could hear the terrifying thumps as the man slowly and deliberately knocked on the door.
She fumbled with a chain around her neck and undid the clasp of a delicate silver necklace with a sparkling sapphire pendant. She pressed it into her niece’s palm and closed her shaking fingers around it. “Take this. Get Tess and ride as far from here as you can. You’re twelve. You can do it. Go!” she unlatched the window and Annie paused, one leg draped over the sill. “Go!” her aunt repeated, fighting back tears. There was a splintering crash as the door burst open, Annie slipped from the window and the man burst into the room, a knife clutched in his hand. As Annie rode away into the night, tears blurring her vision, her hair lashing her face, she heard her aunt’s long, continuous scream of terror.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it was cut short, and she vanished into the trees.