Cobwebs hung from the iron gates, their threads linking in spirals and glistening in the morning dew. Trapped and flickering its wings, a fly shuddered and buzzed on the thin silk.
“It looks impressive, I know,” Mr Gnat said proudly.
The stout man had been talking the entire time: at the house, in the carriage, and here, now, outside the orphanage gates.
Impressive in size it may be, Thyme thought at the man’s words, but the building itself, well, there was only one thought that came to mind about it: terrifying.
Thyme could feel his sister edging closer to him. Her hand was pressed in his, and had been since their arrival. She wouldn’t allow him to be many paces apart from her and outside this formidable building, Thyme realised how alone they now were. The orphanage was a place to be trapped in, trapped and perhaps never set free.
The fly stopped buzzing.
Mr Gnat began to walk closer to the gates and, turning, he beckoned the children to follow. “Look, here. You see that, beneath the hanging tree. All those swings and slides and see-saws, you can play on all of those.” He straightened himself up again expecting to find the children next to him. When he realised they weren’t, he gave a gruff cough and leaned his head to one side. “It’s impressive, I know, but you mustn’t fear such a grand building with such opportunity, you should embrace it. Now come closer.”
Thyme took a step forward and, feeling resistance from his sister, he gave her hand a quick tug. They moved the few paces it took to be able to peer through the gates as Mr Gnat had asked.
A few yards away from them stood a tree that despite looking as though it should stand tall really did have hanging branches. Beneath it, a play area cowered in comparison to the building beside it. Swings and slides, and a plank of steel with no handles held up in balance on what, from the distance, appeared to be a rotting tree stump. The play area looked alone and was suffering, too. As though, without children to play on it, which was surely the case, the toys were gradually giving up on life and rusting away in defeat.
“You’ll make lots of friends here,” Mr Gnat said, after a few moments of silence. He rubbed his gloved hands together and then brought them to his head, smoothing down the stray few hairs that still dwelled upon it.
“Where are all the children?” Thyme asked, unable to keep his curiosity behind closed lips.
No more of a reply came and Mr Gnat shuffled uncomfortably on his feet until a quiet, “It really is an impressive building,” slipped out in protest.
The orphanage and its grounds were enormous. The surrounding trees were crawling up beside it to catch its spire before it climbed into the sky. Thyme had avoided focusing wholly on the building, unwilling to take in its grandeur, and allowing it to make him feel afraid. Now that silence had fallen upon them and they stood shivering in the December cold, he steeled himself and took in the astounding sight that was Ironbridge Orphanage.
The iron gates were but an echo of the sternness the building sounded. Each window was barred with thick metal that drove horizontally and then vertically into their wooden frames. Despite this, Thyme wouldn’t allow himself to feel pity for the children behind those bars, after all, he was soon to be one of those children.
“Never pity oneself,” his father’s voice resounded in his ears. “No good comes from pity. Change comes from a strong heart and a sharp mind.” He felt his shoulders stiffen as he stood taller, as though his father was right there behind him, holding him up, preparing him for what was to come.
A creak came from down the long winding path and Thyme’s attention was drawn to a door on the side of the orphanage.
Two men stepped out from it, shadowed by a grey dog that looked as though it walked on stilts. It dashed in front of them, alone in its eagerness to be in the chill outdoors. After bounding in front for a few paces, a sharp whistle was given and it darted back to walk beside them.
They stopped for a moment and then the taller, scrawnier looking man shook out a bangle of keys. At this, his companion, built of a shorter frame with even less weight to him, bowed his head and began to follow him towards the gate.
“Ah!” said Mr Gnat, “Here comes Durn to welcome the guests of honour!” He beamed down at Thyme and Lucy, his chubby face lifting up as his mouth strained to hold a convincing smile. It strained even further at the edges as his eyes settled on the dog, “Keep away from that beast, children. She’s had sheep the size of you, Lucy.”
Many of Mr Gnat’s comments had meant little to Thyme, they’d been whispers lost in the wind as they waited. This comment settled uncomfortably in his mind. The dog reminded him of his father’s, and just as he’d wondered about the whereabouts of his parents, he and his sister had felt the loss of Captain. Lucy’s hand had loosened from his grip at the sight of the dog, but now, after Mr Gnat’s remarks, it was once more pushed clammily against his.
“Looks like Richard is with him, too. Good lad, Richard. Tall for his age,” continued Mr Gnat, peering through the bars of the gate, his black eyes slits.
Thyme felt a squeeze on his hand and, glancing down at Lucy, found her dark green eyes looking up at him. Before he could tell her it was going to be okay, a sharp voice came from the other side of the bars. A part of him was grateful for this interruption, meaning he wouldn’t have to lie to his sister, but then he knew that this was the man who was going to take them inside the orphanage: this was the man who held the key, and this was the man who was going to make all those earlier promises into lies.
“Make it here safely then, Gnat?” Durn asked as he took the last two strides towards them.
“The ice has caused little disruption leading up the road. It’s your side the driver usually has trouble with.”
Durn, who didn’t appear to be listening, shook the keys that clinked and clanked against each other.
How many rooms were kept locked in this colossal building, Thyme wondered.
The nostrils on Durn’s long thin nose flared outwards slightly. He looked back to Mr Gnat and with one raised brow said, “Get a better driver,” before swiftly swinging free a key and pushing it into the padlock on the gate.
It rattled unsteadily on its hinges before giving in and swinging inwards as Richard pulled it towards him.
Webs ripped open as the gates separated and Lucy whimpered at the sight of strands wavering in the wind, spiders scattering, their homes destroyed.
“There’s always another spider,” Mr Gnat said, seeing her cling tightly to her brother’s arm.
Durn stepped aside for them to enter, but before Mr Gnat could step through, the caretaker’s hand pushed him back again.
“Do you hear that?”
The two of them paused, Durn tilting his left ear into the air. He forced his way between Thyme and Lucy and walked onto the patch of frozen ground where Mr Gnat’s carriage was waiting. The dog skulked after him, her ears raised high.
Even Richard looked up, but unlike the two men his eyes settled on Thyme. As the sound of thin iron wheels and hooves pounding into the frost covered ground approached, they were desperately trying to tell him something.
A carriage stormed into view, leaning precariously to the right as it rounded a corner too sharply. Hitting the straight of the road, it slammed back down onto all wheels. At an astonishing pace, the driver hammered the reins down hard and showed no sign of relinquishing, as it charged towards them.
“B-black carriage,” Mr Gnat muttered to himself, “B-black horses.”
He walked backwards unsteadily, his eyes not leaving the sight of the oncoming carriage and silhouette of the driver. “B-b-black mask!” he shrieked, as his back slammed against the tall iron fence of the orphanage, the carriage coming to a sudden halt at their feet.
Lucy stumbled into Thyme’s arms. He wrapped them around her as she shook violently. Without a doubt, he knew that it wasn’t warmth she needed. She needed to be far from this place. They both did.
The carriage, which had been driven up to the orphanage gates so dramatically, now remained still. No movement seemed to come from the driver, nor was there any sign of there being anyone inside.
For a few foolish moments Thyme thought that it had been sent for them, that there had been a relative willing to care for them after all, that perhaps they could go home and that maybe they weren’t alone, they were wanted and being sent here had been an awful mistake and nothing more. That their parents had returned and that Captain would be waiting to greet them with slobbering licks.
Then the driver, in a sudden return to life, hopped down from his seat and swung open the carriage door. No one spoke while they waited for whoever was concealed to appear and alleviate all curiosity, but when finally someone did, the group simply continued to stare.
A woman, having been helped down from a small step, was now approaching them. Her hair was a brilliant red and a stark contrast to the blackness that surrounded her. The paleness of her skin only appeared to make the lightness of her green eyes seem brighter as despite being still a few steps away from them, they glinted sharply as she stared at Thyme and his sister.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” the lady said, her voice soft yet enigmatic. “I must have underestimated our arrival time in the telegram I sent.”
“Who are you?” Durn asked, each word accompanied by spittle as he made no attempt at pleasantries. The dog hunkered down at this, her back low but shoulders lifted. Durn placed a hand out over her head and patted at the air, “Calm, Gypsy.”
The lady turned to face the driver, who had moved to stand by her side. Finding her watching him however, he shuffled uncomfortably before spluttering out, “I did send the telegram, Lady Craven. Honest, I did.” The way in which he whimpered was unexpected due to his deep voice and tall stature, and had it not been so pitifully spoken it would almost have been humorous.
“Well,” the lady spoke, a smile creeping over her lips, “I suppose it would be best if I first introduced myself. I am Lady Elizabeth Craven, recent widow of Lord Craven. I do not suppose I need to offer any explanation of who my husband was before he so recently passed?”
Durn looked to Mr Gnat, who at the word ‘Lady’ appeared to have roused himself from his previously disturbed state. “Oh yes,” he nodded his head assuredly at Durn, “Lord Craven, such a noble. Not often are we blessed with such a man of high status who can so humbly accept his…”
“Enough,” Durn raised his hand, holding it in front of Mr Gnat as though he wished to strike him, but instead he touched his fingers to his brow and turned back to Lady Craven.
“What brought you here?” he asked, ignoring Mr Gnat who gasped at the lack of honorifics used.
“My goodness, it appears you have been having trouble with the station’s telegraph, and it is such a long story,” Lady Craven said thoughtfully, her eyes dipping to the ground.
“No, we have not, none what so ever.”
“You didn’t receive my telegram last week,” Mr Gnat started, shuffling his feet on the ground, evidently still feeling slighted by Durn’s previous outburst against him. “You said it must have been the machine,” he grumbled.
An inhalation of air, so sharply sucked in, it made a great gush of a sound, came from Durn as he glared furiously at Mr Gnat.
“I forgot it could be a temperamental old fool.”
“Oh what a shame,” Lady Craven said, her unusually bright eyes clouding with disappointment. “All was explained in what was, admittedly, a lengthy, but important, telegram.”
“Yes, well, as Durn has now clarified that ‘old fool’ of a machine is in the habit of acting rather temperamentally.”
Taking a few steps towards him, Lady Craven reached out to wrap her hand around Mr Gnat’s arm. “I think it best we discuss this further indoors, don’t you?”
“Yes, that sounds like a splendid idea, does it not, Durn?”
“No, I do not…” But before Durn could protest, the pair had already begun walking down the path and towards the orphanage.
Uncertain who to follow, Richard hovered on one foot and then toppled back onto the other. Thyme and Lucy, much in the same position, simply watched as Mr Gnat and Lady Craven became smaller as they neared the orphanage door. Durn, who had appeared to be seething from the moment he had first approached the gate, evidently was soon to near boiling point.
“They need a key,” he said, a smile creeping onto his dry and cracked lips, the only signal that a pitiful amount of power still belonged to him, and he was keen to keep it. His mouth was soon furling upwards however as the tell-tale sound of the door being creaked open reached them.
“Sorry, Sir,” Richard said, the boy’s eyes again looking only at the ground.
Thyme, who was unused to such servitude, was half in a mind to grab the boy’s chin, despite him being at least a head taller than himself, and push it upwards. “Unless you’ve dropped a coin,” he wanted to say, “I suggest you take some pride and look forwards when you’re walking and not at the soles of another man’s feet!” But he didn’t dare, and instead, when Durn’s eyes met his, he looked to the ground and admired the careful work of the caretaker’s buckled shoes. Money was coming from somewhere, he thought, and then taking a quick glimpse at Richard realised that it was unfortunate that it wasn’t going to the right places.
Durn lurched forward. Gypsy lifted herself up, her front leg buckling as she did, but she was soon walking at his side. Her head came to above his waist and, despite her momentary stumble, it appeared she had trouble slowing her pace to match his.
“He wasn’t talking to Gyps,” Richard muttered as he skulked past. “He was talking to you.”
Thyme pulled gently on Lucy’s hand and together they obediently began to follow down the gravelled path. He listened as each crunch of ice beneath his feet brought him closer to the building. It conjured such fear in him it seemed alive.
With each footstep he felt he could hear its heart beating and as his eyes wavered, his stomach feeling hollow, he imagined the walls to be shifting outwards and inwards with each of its laboured breaths.