Chapter 1: Hide-and-Seek
Alice ran as fast as she could, up the hill, away from the stump where Mary was counting aloud, with her hands covering her eyes. William, meanwhile, scrambled into the undergrowth along the side of the forest track and, at a distance from him, a flash of white marked where Spot was bounding away from the block, his tail wagging as he tried not to bark with excitement.
It was a bright spring day with a breeze blowing. It shook the branches of the trees and made them sway and move above Alice's head, clattering and swishing. Reaching the cover of a clump of gorse bushes, she paused, gasping for breath, and looked around her. The first green buds had opened along the hedgerows and primroses, wild daffodils and violets pushed up through the moss and dead leaves that covered the bank on which she crouched.
Across the valley, through a gap in the forest, she could just see the top of the dovecote in the kitchen garden and beyond it, the roof and chimneys of Golden House. The familiarity of the view made her feel at home. Although this was only her second visit to the place, she already knew the lay of the land. There was something comforting about recognizing landmarks, she thought. It meant that you couldn't get lost. William was so pompous about having the compass, but really all you needed was to use your eyes.
Down below, Mary's voice rose in volume as she neared "a hundred." Alice pulled back behind the gorse bushes and crouched lower, waiting, with her heart pounding. She hadn't actually wanted to play hide-and-seek, in fact she thought it a complete waste of time, but now that they'd started, she couldn't help getting caught up in the game.
It was the first day of the Easter holidays, or rather, it was the first day of their visit to Golden House. All three children had spent Easter weekend with friends in London and then come on by train, via Bristol, the day before.
Phoebe had been waiting for them at the station and they'd driven back through the early evening haze, reaching the house as the last light finally drained from the sky and darkness settled over the valley.
Jack had been in the kitchen washing his hands at the sink when they'd come in and Spot had appeared from nowhere, rushing toward them, barking and licking and jumping with such enthusiasm that he'd knocked Alice off her feet and then landed on top of her, covering her face with his wet tongue while she happily screamed and protested.
Stephanie, who'd been sleeping in her cot, had been woken by all this commotion and joined in with a strong bellowing so that the whole house, which a moment before had been silent, echoedand reverberated with noise.
"Oh, Lord!" Jack had yelled, covering his ears and laughing. "You're back! I'd forgotten how noisy you brats can be!" and he'd pushed Spot off Alice and yanked her up on to her feet and given her a hug.
Later he'd gone with them up to their rooms at the top of the spiral staircase above the great hall and he'd sat on Mary's bed and talked while they unpacked. He was full of all the work he'd been doing on the house and all the surprises he'd found; "The cellars and the attics and bits of old junk and goodness knows what else," he'd told them excitedly. But they hadn't really been listening to him. They'd wanted to be on their own, to savor the pleasure of being back. They hadn't even wanted to share the moment between themselves. They'd each wished that they were entirely alone so that. they could hug themselves and run to the window and look out or lie on the bed and stare up at the steeply pitched ceilings of their rooms, with the dark wooden beams and cobwebs and white, flaking plasterwork.
Then Phoebe had called them down and they'd had supper round the kitchen table and everyone had started to talk at the same time about what had been happening to them since they were last together. They'd eaten thick bean soup, followed by vegetable stew and baked potatoes stuffed with cheese. After that there was a molasses tart for dessert and Alice had had a second helping and thought for a moment that she was going to burst, but the others, ignored her alarm and so she'd eaten an apple as well. Finally all the excitement of the day and the traveling had got the better of them and the children had crawled back up the stairs to their rooms once more and were tucked up in bed and fast asleep before the clock in the hall chimed nine.
Now, as Alice crouched in hiding, she thought it had been a bit of a disappointment, really. All through the spring term she'd dreamed of Golden House and of the magic and particularly of Spot. There had been no one she could share the memories with Mary was in senior school now and she never saw her, William was away in Yorkshire, and of course, they'd made a Solemn Vow on the last day of the Christmas holiday not to speak about anything that had happened to them while they were at Golden House to anyone but each other.
So the term had come to an end but then, when they were staying with their friends in London, they'd had no chance to talk at all. She'd expected the subject at least to be mentioned when they were on the train yesterday, but the other two had read books and wouldn't be drawn into any conversation about their previous visit to Uncle Jack's house. In fact when Alice had mentioned the Magician, Mary had kicked her on the shin under the table and William had hissed at her to shut up, because people might be listening.
So Alice had sat with her hands under her thighs and swung her legs and hummed a tuneless little song and stared glumly out of the window until they reached Bristol.
While they'd waited for their connection she'd been too busy eating sausages in the station buffet for any conversation. The stockpiling of the sausages was a sensible precaution against Phoebe's vegetarian cooking and she'd planned it well in advance. She thought it was probably the sort of preparation a camel would undertake before making a long journey across the desert -- only she hadn't got a hump and halfway through the third jumbo sausage she had felt a bit sick and left the rest of it on the paper plate.
The little train had been crowded with people so they hadn't even managed to sit together. Alice had got a window seat and stared out at the passing scene. The sausages were stuck like a lump in her stomach and the central heating in the carriage was turned up high. She'd felt hot and a bit depressed. She'd been looking forward to it all so much, but William and Mary seemed to have forgotten everything, which was typical of them and exceedingly boring.
Phoebe had been waiting for them at Druce Coven Halt and once they were in the Land-Rover there had been again no possibility of private conversation. Finally, when they'd reached the house, they'd been with Uncle Jack the whole time until they went up to their rooms. Then Mary did at one point say, almost grudgingly Alice thought, that they should have a conference after supper; but when that-time came, they couldn't any of them keep their eyes open and were almost asleep before they'd each staggered into their beds. Consequently it wasn't until the following morning that they had had any time to themselves.
Soon after breakfast Mary had suggested going out to explore the forest.
"Don't go too far," Jack had warned them. "The paths are pretty obvious, but it can get a bit confusing after a while."
"We won't get lost," William had assured him. "I've been doing orienteering at school. Have you got a large scale map, Uncle jack?"
But Jack had shaken his head and said he'd been meaning to get one, but hadn't so far got round to it. There was an ordinary map, but it wasn't a big enough scale to be useful in the forest.
"You need one that marks the footpaths and tracks," he told them.
Phoebe said she'd try to get one when she went into town, later in the morning.
"A map really is needed," William had said, "if we're going to explore properly. With a map and a compass you can never get lost."
Alice had sighed at this and bit back a catty remark. William was at his most pompous and she loathed him when he got into one of those moods, but she'd thought it best not to have a row with him straight away; not so soon after they'd arrived.
Phoebe had suggested they might like to go with her when she went shopping.
"The town's quite nice really. There's a castle of sorts. Well, it's more of a tower really. Built by the English to suppress the Welsh. Or maybe it was built by the Welsh to threaten the English. My history is hopeless."
Mary perked up at this, because history was her favorite subject. But this had been the final straw for Alice.
"If Mary's going to start giving a history lesson," she'd announced, unable to contain her irritation a moment longer, "I'm definitely going out," and she'd run to the back door to put on her shoes.
William had agreed with Alice -- once Mary started on history it could last: for hour -- but he didn't say so. Instead he followed her to the door.
"If you get us a map, Phoebe," he'd said, "it'd be really good. You can't orienteer properly without one.
But he took his compass anyway and, when they'd all put on shoes, he'd set off in the lead in a rather bossy way, which infuriated Alice even more and made Mary lag behind as though she was "not being with them" in a rather pointed way.
They'd gone through the kitchen garden, passing the dovecote, and out through a gate in the back wall, which Jack had told them led to where the forest track skirted the back of the estate. Once there, William had paused, deciding which direction to take, and Alice had caught him up, followed shortly after by Mary.
"I don't believe you two," Alice had said, trying not to sound disappointed and sounding cross instead.
"Now what's the matter?" William had asked, concentrating on the compass.
"William!" Alice had exploded, shaking with exasperation. "Surely you haven't forgotten?"
But William had only stared more closely at the compass and Mary had crossed away from them to lean against a fence, with her back to them both.
"I've waited all term for this..." Alice started again, but now she'd been interrupted by the sound of Spot barking at a distance, and a moment later he appeared from the direction of the kitchen garden, tail wagging.
"Oh, Spot," Alice had cried, flinging her arms round the dog's neck. "You remember, don't you? You remember how the Magician made it possible for me to be in you and see through your eyes and smell through your nose? You remember how we raced together across the snow... Please tell me you do, Spot. You know you can. You can talk in my head, can't you? That's what happened. We did, didn't we? Please say we did...."
But Spot had only gazed up at her with pleading eyes and had put his head on one side as though he was trying desperately to understand her words.
This had been more than Alice could bear. If Spot didn't remember, then no one would. That meant no one in the world remembered...except her.
"What is going on?" she'd said to herself and she'd frowned and sat on her haunches and scratched her cheek, always a sign that she was thinking deeply.
But William had turned slowly and looked at her.
"Of course I remember," he'd said in a low doubting voice, then he'd quickly looked away again, concentrating once more on his compass.
"You do?" Alice had cried out, relieved. "I thought I was going crazy. Oh, Will -- why won't you talk about it then?"
"I've thought a lot about it. But...it couldn't have happened," William had said quietly. "I mean it isn't possible."
"It did, though," Mary then joined in. "Somehow it did."
"But, of course it did!" Alice had exclaimed. "What's wrong with you both? Why are you behaving so strangely?" And she knelt on the ground, looking up at them with desperate eyes.
"I'm not," William had replied. "I can't explain. It's just...well, it isn't possible -- magic, I mean. So...if it isn't possible...it didn't happen."
"But we all know it did happen -- all of it." Alice could have hit him, she felt he was being so stupid. "What will you say if it happens now? That you're dreaming it? I'd like to know how we could all three of us have had the same dream then. That seems most odd to me."
"Well, if it does happen again...William had answered, sounding far from comfortable, "then maybe I'll have to believe it -- at least while I'm here. But when I was away -- at school -- it just seemed...so unlikely. Surely you felt that? I couldn't go on thinking about it, because...I didn't believe in it."
"Was it because you were frightened of it?" Mary had asked him.
"No!" he'd replied, sounding irritable.
"I was, last term," Mary had said. "I had to stop remembering it all because it scared me so much. Like..." she'd paused, taking a deep breath, and when she'd next spoken her voice was no more than a whisper, "...when I flew with the owl..."
"But -- wasn't it wonderful, Mary? You must remember that?" Alice had insisted.
"It was the most frightening thing that's ever happened to me," Mary had whispered, and she'd shivered and shaken her head. "Let's play hide-and-seek," she'd said, changing the subject, and no matter how Alice tried, she couldn't get either of them to talk any more about it.
"I think you've been magicked," she'd told them crossly. "I think a spell has been cast on you so that you behave like this...."
"Oh, Alice!" William had wailed, putting his compass into his pocket, "there are no such things as spells," and before Alice had had a chance to protest he'd held up a hand, "I agree with Mary," he'd said, "let's play hide-and-seek!"
Copyright © 1991 by William Corlett