A MESSAGE IN THE DARK
There was no explanation for the unusual happenings in the house. The house seemed to listen to them.
When they entered the dining room, Socrates was the only person in the room; a plate of steaming food sat in front of him, and he was licking his fingers. “Oh, just sneaked a little smackeral. Sorry for my rudeness.”
“Excuse me,” Jynx said, “but you have a big blob of yellow paint on your, um, beard.” She pointed her pinky.
Socrates laughed. “Jynx, thanks, but unfortunately, it’s not paint; it’s scrambled egg.”
The room was quiet for a few seconds, and then Jynx couldn’t help but laugh, and Socrates and Ethan joined in.
Mrs. Gooch appeared. “Ain’t this the berries? I haven’t heard this much laughter in this house in years!”
While Jynx told Mrs. Gooch the joke, Ethan was think- ing how weird it was for Socrates to be eating eggs for dinner.
Mrs. Gooch waddled out of the room, chuckling and drying a pot.
A minute later, she returned with a plate of fried chicken, cornbread, and macaroni and cheese, then set it on the table between them.
“Now eat—the both of you,” she said, smiling. As she left the room, she muttered, “At least I can cook dinner food at dinner time for a change.”
Socrates was enjoying his eggs, bacon, grits, and toast with jam and coffee. They had never seen anyone enjoy food as much as their uncle. As he ate, he made weird humming noises and tapped his sneakers on the dining room rug, as if he were dancing a jig.
Finally, Socrates took a break from eating and asked them about normal things—school, friends, what music they liked, and what they wanted for Christmas. Before they knew it, it was nine o’clock. Jynx was yawning—this was the time she was normally getting ready for bed.
Ethan decided to ask about the house. “Socs, have you ever noticed the lights flickering and doors shutting them- selves in this house?”
“Well, of course! I live here, don’t I? Some people believe houses have souls. I know I do. If that’s true, then it’s only natural that a house could let you know how it feels.”
Confused by Socrates’s answer, Ethan decided to ask him something that he was dying to know. “Socs, um, I was wondering—”
“What happened to my leg, eh?” Socrates said, interrupt- ing him. “Long ago in my youth, I was defeated in a kind of duel, one may call it—the outcome could have been much worse. By the way, dueling is against the law,” he added quickly.
“A duel—that’s so cool!” Realizing he could’ve said the wrong thing, Ethan said, “Oh, Socs, I’m sorry.”
“Perfectly okay to ask; it’s the only way we learn. Anyway, I’m bushed. Good night all! Oh geez, I almost forgot. Jynx, would you like to be, you know, tucked in?”
“Uncle Socrates, thank you very much, but I don’t need to be tucked in anymore. I’m ten years old, you know,” she replied, smiling.
“My mistake—a bunch of apologies. I have to confess I’m relieved. The only stories I know would probably give you nightmares. Oh well, good night, y’all.” With that, he picked up his cane and slowly left the room.
In spite of what she told Socrates, Jynx asked Ethan to hang out with her in her room before going to bed. After Ethan finally got back to his room, he couldn’t fall asleep. He felt bad for asking Socrates about his leg, especially since he had been so nice. Socrates had already talked more to him in one day than his parents ever had. It seemed that his parents cared more about their careers than him and Jynx. Feeling a cold draft, Ethan tucked the quilt under his chin and thought he’d try an experiment. “It’s cold. Still, I guess this is a great house.”
With a whoosh, a fire was suddenly burning in the fireplace. “Gramarye, you’re awesome. Maybe you really are alive!” he said, delighted.
He watched the fire until he could barely keep his eyes open. The comfort of the warm bed, the fire, the thought of his school exams being over, and the excitement of the evening all combined to lull Ethan into a deep sleep.
Early the next morning, a high-pitched scream jolted the house awake. Ethan, groggy, tumbled out of bed. The scream came from Jynx’s room, and he rushed to open her door. There he saw what looked like a large black dog at the foot of her bed.
All he could see of Jynx were her eyes peering over the blanket she held to her face.
“Jynx, go back to sleep. It’s just a dog,” said Ethan, wiping the sleep from his eyes. He turned to leave, but stopped. “Hold on! That’s not a dog; it’s a cat! The biggest cat I’ve ever seen!” He stepped back into her room. The cat was the size of a Labrador retriever and jet black, except for a pink tongue—which was sliding around the claws of an immense front paw. The animal had unnaturally green eyes and was lying at the foot of Jynx’s bed.
The black leopard made the strangest sound he had ever heard—a very low and rapid hum. Then the cat started kneading the blanket, as if it were making bread. The hum grew into a loud purr that rivaled any sports car.
“Aw, she’s making bread.” Wearing a robe covered in bunnies, Fergus entered the room while beaming with pride. “She likes you, Ms. Jynx.” Fergus walked over and started scratching behind the cat’s ears. “Badger, you old rascal, you shouldn’t sneak up on someone like that.” He then started scratching under her chin. Badger craned her thick neck and appeared to be smiling.
Socrates hurried into the room. “Jynx, sorry about the wee shock; it’s actually my fault. I forgot to leave the door to the solar cracked for her before I went to bed.”
Thwack! A stout broom came from nowhere and landed on the rump of the big cat.
“Badger, you big lummox! Get off that clean comforter! I swannee! Look at you—bringin’ in the great outdoors! Now you get outside—get!” Mrs. Gooch shouted at the now slinking black shape.
The cat hugged the floor as she slunk out of the room. “Jynx, it’s okay. She’s just a big baby—more bark than bite.
Well, maybe not just like that, but you get the picture,” Mrs. Gooch said. “Mr. Maupin, you should know better. I spent a good part of a day on them bedspreads, and now I’ve lost some of my beauty sleep. Now, all of you, back to bed— now!” The housekeeper left the room.
“That’s the biggest cat I’ve ever seen,” Jynx said. “Leopard,” her uncle replied calmly. “Badger’s a rather
rare leopard at that. It’s awfully sticky to explain how she came to be here, but she’s very friendly, and I assure you she won’t hurt you. Ethan, I think Badger may have found you outside last night; always does like playing tag.”
“Playing tag? She was hunting me. What if she’d caught me?” Ethan said. He wondered if Socrates could read minds.
“Of course she was playing. Badger could have easily mauled you if she’d wanted to.”
Their uncle’s explanation did little to ease Ethan’s fears. After everyone had returned to their rooms, Jynx and Ethan sat in silence.
“Jynx, I don’t know about this place. Every time I think it’s all right, something freaky happens,” he said.
“Can’t we call Mother and Father to come and get us?” Jynx asked.
“You know Phoebe and Reginald won’t give up Paris for us. Anyway, Socs did say nothing would hurt us.”
“Ethan, that’s it! First, no TV, then a grumpy old house, and now a huge leopard. I’ll go crazy. I’m going to try to go back to sleep and see if I can dream about something good.”
“Good night. Maybe things will look better in the morning,” he said, going to his room.
The next morning Jynx woke her brother up—her blond hair piled like a bird’s nest.
“Ethan, hurry up! No one woke us up; I’m hungry and I smell food. I don’t want to go downstairs by myself.”
Breakfast was incredible. Mrs. Gooch had made a huge meal for them. Ethan’s favorite was the pancakes. At home, they had whatever their mother’s nutritionist made—dishes with kale or seaweed smoothies, which Ethan thought were disgusting. Things are definitely looking better this morning, he thought, sprinkling powdered sugar on his second helping of pancakes.
Badger floated into the room and headed over to Jynx, patiently staring at her. Very slowly, Jynx picked up a sausage and offered it to the leopard. The big cat ate it in one gulp and then lay down beside Jynx’s chair. Her chair vibrated with Badger’s contented purring.
Jynx said, “You know, Badger really likes me.”
“She’d like me too if I fed her sausages,” Ethan said, laughing.
For the first time in a very long time, the children had nothing to do. No dance class, football practice, piano lesson, or sessions with a tutor. Jynx attended a private day school, but Ethan was at his father’s old boarding school, Brinkley.
Brinkley was one of the few private schools in the country that boarded younger students. He had started there when he was in the fifth grade. They didn’t make good food either.
“Let’s check out the house,” Ethan said.
At the second-floor landing, one hallway went to the right, and another went to the left. While Ethan was deciding which hallway to take, Jynx bolted to the right, so he followed her into a large and empty room.
An incredible sight caught Ethan’s eye. Through the rear window, he could see the hedge—the same hedge he had seen the afternoon before, but now he was looking down on rows and rows of hedges. The rows formed intricate and uneven paths, with some ending abruptly. He realized he was looking at an overgrown maze the size of a football field! In the middle of the maze was a large domed building—octagonal in shape with large columns in the front.
“Jynx, wait! Look! That’s awesome!”
“You’re funny I’m not falling for that one.” Jynx was now almost in the hallway.
“Jynx, I’m being serious. It’s a huge maze, and there’s a building in the middle.”
“Ethan, I look and then you say made you look! Not this time.”
He could hear her footsteps going down the staircase.
Ethan stood at the window and stared at the maze. Under the overcast sky, a winter fog lay thick in the paths, making it almost look like a hazy dark-green field. A strange feeling came over him. He was struggling to breathe, and he began to feel light-headed. He was rooted to the spot, as if a giant hand was pushing down on him like a chess piece. To his amazement, an intense white light shot from the dark building in the center.
And then he heard a whisper: “Seek the light to reveal the shrouded treasure. For the sake of the trust.”
Ethan’s head then cleared, and he felt released. He sat on the floor, exhausted. He was scared, and his first thought was to call his parents, but a feeling of calm suddenly came over him. Ethan didn’t know why. He wasn’t scared any- more, and he felt confidence welling up inside him. He would do it! He would get in the maze and solve the mystery of the light.
When Ethan reached the bottom of the central staircase, he saw Jynx talking to Mrs. Gooch. Do I tell Jynx about the voice? he wondered.
“Ethan, you just won’t believe it,” Jynx said between breaths. “Mrs. Gooch and I are going to fix a car today!”
Mrs. Gooch raised her eyebrows then said to Ethan, “Just so y’all know, your uncle’s taken the truck into town today. Lunch is at the regular time.”
Ethan watched his little sister skip down the hall with Mrs. Gooch; the black cat strutted behind with its tail curling high in the air.
Ethan put on his boots and coat, and headed out the door into the drab morning.
Cold, crisp air stung his nostrils as he headed toward the backyard. As he was about to jump over a low hedge, a razor-sharp voice cut through the air: “Go ’round that garden, you miscreant—I don’t work my fingers to the bone for a young punk like you to break my shrubs!”
He froze with fear. It was Scafell Crag. Ethan turned slowly around, and to his relief, Crag was walking away.
Why was Crag so mean to him?
Ethan walked around the garden and made his way to the high yew hedge. He started looking for an opening on the left side at a high wall made of mortared field stones, then slowly worked his way along the hedge.
This backyard is like a fort, he thought.
He tried looking through the hedge to see the path on the other side, but it was too thickly grown together. Laying his head on the frosty ground, he tried to look under it, but again, the dark branches had grown into a strong web, allowing only tiny glimpses of the darker green world on the other side. Finally, he reached the graveyard wall.
Disappointed in not finding the entrance to the maze, he trudged back to the house. He didn’t see the battered raven perched on the gable overhang, the bird’s one eye watching him closely.
Since he hadn’t explored the library, he thought he’d go there next.
Ethan didn’t like books. Actually, it wasn’t that he didn’t like books; he just didn’t like to read. The reason was that his parents were always making him read boring books— in particular, books written by a child psychiatrist named Gerhard Nuerta. The books promised to make the reader a success in life. What really bothered him was that his parents didn’t read. The only books in the house were antique leather books bought just for decoration. For his parents, image was everything.
As he entered the room, Ethan decided that Gramarye’s library would make Phoebe and Reginald Moseby very jealous. Books of every size and color filled the shelves. He noticed stacks of books in corners and on tables. Ancient-looking portraits of grumpy people hung on the walls, giving the impression that no one was ever happy at the time they were painted. A small tapestry hung on one wall, depicting a woman with hundreds of words flowing from her mouth. The words appeared to be in different languages.
Ethan was hoping to find some playing cards or games— anything to take his mind off not having internet access or TV. He searched the library with no luck, but he had missed a long, low cabinet against one wall and decided to check it out. Unfortunately, it was full of jars with different kinds of powder in them.
Standing up in front of the cabinet, he saw an odd painting hanging on the wall. A bizarre-looking old man was pointing to a tiny painting inside the larger painting. The man looked angry, but was somehow smiling. Stranger still, he had no eyes.
Using a magnifying glass he’d found next to a dictionary, Ethan could see a sword, scabbard, shield, and spear. He couldn’t figure out the last object. The paint was smudged. Could Socrates have made a painting like that? he wondered, looking for the artist’s signature. His eyes stopped on a small brass plate screwed to the picture’s frame. It read BLEISE THE CHRONICLER. The painting was unsigned.
The wind was blowing hard outside, flinging leaves against the large windows. It was getting close to midday. The ominous gray sky seemed to hang thickly above the ground. As he crossed the room to turn on the light, he saw what he thought was a massive black crow perched on the limb outside the window. Ethan jumped when it suddenly croaked loudly. Regaining his composure, he turned toward the lamp, but it was already on.
Used to the peculiar house by now and not really frightened of the lamp turning on by itself, he continued looking around the library. On a table sat a stuffed bird under a glass dome, and a complicated-looking brass machine that he couldn’t get to work. Over a sofa hung a brilliantly detailed painting of a savage owl violently ripping apart a dog. A closer look revealed the poor animal to be a young fox.
Ethan was checking out a creepy human skull when, out of the corner of his eye, just outside the window, he saw a shock of white-blond hair disappear behind a bush. The head started moving away. Ethan ran to the window and saw a short, overweight boy running across the backyard. Determined to find out what the boy was doing, he rushed to the mudroom door.
The other boy seemed to accelerate when he heard the porch door slam, but Ethan was fast. As a tailback on his school’s football team, everyone marveled at how fast he could run, as well as his skill at ducking and weaving his way through a defense. The other boy had had a head start, however, and Ethan was struggling to catch up to him.
The boy who’d been spying on him had reached the left-side corner of the backyard and started climbing a thick patch of ivy growing on the stone wall. Seconds later, Ethan saw two boots flop over the top of the wall, and then he heard a sound, like a heavy bag of dirt hitting the ground on the other side.
Ethan easily scaled the wall. The boy had made it across a clearing and was heading straight into a pine forest.
The boy was nowhere to be seen, and Ethan struggled to find an entrance into the woods. Locating an opening in the dense undergrowth, he plunged inside. Ahead in the gloom, he saw the back of a blond head melding into the rapidly growing darkness of the forest. Undaunted, Ethan ran faster, the cold air burning his lungs.
Dim light filtered down through the branches while a thin mist hung in the air, blurring the twisted tree trunks and low branches. He followed the narrow path that meandered through mounds and gullies. The eerie forest was silent.
Most people would have stopped and turned around, rather than venture deeper into this ominous world, but not Ethan. He was determined to find out who this boy was and why he was looking in Socrates’s window.
The gurgling croak of a crow bounced off the forest floor. It was quickly growing darker, and as Ethan slowed down, an icy fog engulfed him. Now Ethan couldn’t see anything— not even his hand in front of his face. Fearing he would lose the path if he kept going, he did the only thing he could do: he stopped, sitting on one of the large black roots that twisted away from an ancient tree. He would wait for the fog to lift. What if a wolf or a bear is silently hunting me right now? he worried. Ethan didn’t even know what wild animals lived in Virginia. There could be anything out there. Even a person—even Crag! The wind rustled the boughs above him, and he thought he heard a twig snap. He sat still and listened, but heard nothing. The fog started to lift and he was relieved; now he could at least get out of this forest. A noise sent a chill through him—it was the sound of a slow gasping. As the fog continued to lift, he turned his head toward it and could just make out the shadowy shape of someone or something hunched over in a small hollow nearby. It stood up and turned toward him—and on seeing Ethan, turned and ran. In the peculiar light, Ethan couldn’t tell if it was running away or directly at him. He heard a crash and then a muffled, “Geez!”
It was the boy he had been chasing, and he was in trouble. Rounding a tree trunk, Ethan saw the large black hole. Peering over the edge, he could just make out the boy tangled in branches and pine boughs at the bottom. Ethan stared at him, and for a few seconds, they just looked at each other, not sure what to do.
“Can you help me out?” the boy asked in a strong Southern drawl.
“Why?” Ethan answered, dusting himself off. “Why were you spying on me back there?”
“I wasn’t spying on you.”
“What do you call looking in the library window?” Ethan asked.
“I wasn’t spying on you. I wanted to see what was in the library. Mr. Crag left to go into town, and the coast was clear.”
Ethan asked, “Wait, you wanted to see the library? Why would you want to do that?”
“Uh, can you help me out of this trap first? Then I’ll tell you,” replied the boy, glancing warily around the hole. He added quickly, “I’ve got one condition—you have to give me your word as a gentleman that you will not accost me.”
“Accost you? I don’t even know what that means. Who talks like that?”
“I read. Look, can you help me out?”
Ethan started to look for something he could use. “You haven’t promised,” the other boy said.
“Oh, sorry. I promise,” Ethan replied, not sure what to make of this other kid.
Ethan found a thick branch and lowered it down into the hole. The other boy struggled to climb out, and when he finally emerged from the hole, he flopped onto his back and, breathing hard, let out a loud phew! “Now, with whom have I been conversing?” he asked.
“What’s your name?”
“Oh . . . I’m Ethan Moseby.”
“My name’s Amos Sprunt.” Ethan couldn’t help but snicker.
Amos smiled at him. “It is an unusual name. The Sprunts have been in Virginia for over a century, and thanks to your promise, we should continue to do so. Remember, you promised not to beat the crap out of me.”
Ethan looked at the blond boy sitting on the ground; Amos’s belly hung out from the bottom of his sweater. Ethan imagined that Amos got picked on at school. He felt sorry for him.
“Why were you sneaking around? No one wants to see a library,” Ethan said.
Amos hesitated and then said, “Well, okay, I was spying, but not on you. I was spying on Mr. Maupin.”
“Because Mr. Maupin just happens to be the most fascinating and mysterious celebrity in this county—maybe in the whole state. Not much is really known about him, except for the whole artist thing.” Amos stood and pulled dead leaves off his sweater.
As they walked out of the black woods, Amos started telling Ethan about Socrates Maupin, whose reclusive nature made him especially intriguing to Deadmoor locals. Ethan knew his uncle was a famous artist, but Amos shared rumors that Socrates was really a retired international spy who avoided his enemies by living on his isolated estate; art was simply the older man’s cover. His limp and his need for a cane were the result of a shoot-out in the old Soviet Union. The fact that no one knew where he was from drove the local folks crazy. His servants would never talk about him, and many gossiped that Crag had a connection with Socrates Maupin’s past.
Ethan wondered if there could there be some truth to the rumors. Scafell Crag could definitely kill someone. But he didn’t buy that his Uncle Socrates was a spy—he was just too nice.
“There’s not much to do around here,” Amos said. “My parents are hippies and don’t believe in constraints and curfews, so I’m lucky I have tons of freedom. Deadmoor’s close by, so I go to the library and read for fun. A lot of Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Ever read those?”
“No, I’m not much of a reader. Just junk my parents make me read and stuff at school—you know, textbooks.”
Amos nodded his head. “I have to admit, some textbooks bore even me.”
But Amos kept rattling on about his favorite books and characters until they came to the road. Ethan wasn’t paying attention.
Instead, he was looking at the tall hedge on the other side of the wall, the outside of the maze. Once more he felt light-headed. “Amos, I gotta go. I feel kinda funny. Make sure you watch out for Scafell Crag.”
“Thanks for the warning, but I’ve been able to elude him for a long time. Hey, you want to hang out tomorrow?” Amos asked eagerly.
Ethan was confused. He knew he didn’t want to go near the maze, but the only thing he could think about was find- ing its entrance. And he’d had that weird feeling again, like when he heard the voice whisper. He couldn’t tell anyone about this. They’d think he was going crazy. “No . . . no thanks. I really do have to go.”
“Oh, okay,” Amos said quietly, looking down at his boots. Slowly, he turned to walk back into the pitch-black forest. Ethan watched as he appeared to be swallowed up by the darkness. Forcing his feet to move, he made his way through the chill air, back to the comfort of his uncle’s mansion.
Owen R. Minter was inspired to write The Shrouded Sword, a fantasy story filled with ancient magic and time travel, after creating a drawing based on Arthurian legend. The Shrouded Sword is the first book in the Gramarye Cycle series. When he’s not writing, Owen makes paintings with a leaf blower, reads, and enjoys coaching Special Olympics Athletics.
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