The Roaring Of The Labyrinth
Astonishment Hall, a country estate in the Pennines full of extraordinary exhibitions, is truly a place of wonder. But when a valuable exhibit is stolen, it is only the first in a series of unpleasant and seemingly unconnected events. A bell tower is burnt to the ground, trapping a young boy inside, an outbreak of thefts plagues the valley, and a man is violently murdered and left to the crows and the snow.
When his own investigations come to a dead end, the owner of Astonishment Hall sends to London for help. And so Whilbert Stroop journeys north to find the answers to both his own search for a missing glass-worker, and the perplexing events at Astonishment Hall. Before long, Stroop finds himself embroiled in one man’s terrifying and warped desire for vengeance against ancient wrongs, and another man’s fight for survival.
“Guardians of the Key...A first novel from Clio Gray and an astonishingly assured one...”
“Clio Gray is an uncommonly interesting writer. One wonders, expectantly, what she will do next...”
That blasted boy, as Ipsing called him, was playing with the hedgehog he had just bought from a peddlar for the penny he had found under a heap of muck outside the wool bleacher’s. He had been looking for beetles. He liked the way they shone and glittered in their black and purple shields, the rainbows playing over their dark backs. He liked that they were stiff and unbending, just like him. He had a whole pocketful of them and now that he had the hedgehog, he was taking the beetles out of his pocket one by one, sliding his finger through the little gap between the buttonholes, holding the rest of it shut so the others couldn’t get out. He put one down in front of the hedgehog and watched it hobbling quickly after the beetle which scuttled straight for the cracks in the warped wood of the belfry floor. The boy with his hedgehog had climbed up the steps to the platform housing the framework supporting the bell which hung high and grey above him. It was an upside-down bell, operated by a tread-wheel, secured in an oaken hammock which moved with the bell as it swung, sent its message up and out, exaggerated and heightened by the hollow of the tower above and below. Around its framework ran a wide metal gutter which held the oil and straw to be burnt when the beacon had to be lit. Its fires could be seen for miles and miles through the wall-slits which forced the light out into slats, split it into sharp bands like a sunrise seen through dust-ridden clouds.
The boy picked up a little stick. He was going to teach his hedgehog how to jump. Had seen it done in the market the year before, thought he might earn himself a few pennies with his new show, maybe make his mother proud of him. She was dead of course, but still he wanted that she be proud of him, knew she was looking down and what a disappointment he had been to her with his stick-straight back and his inability to be useful because of it. The hedgehog moved much faster than he had supposed, but it didn’t take long to learn that if it let the boy stroke its spines, it would get a swift reward. They both paused when they heard the latch lift on the door downstairs. The boy moved awkwardly, tried to hunch himself round to see who it might be. The hedgehog snuffled off into the stack of tinder stowed at the base of the wall. The boy could hear as the man puffed and grunted, started to heave his bundle up the stone steps. The boy could smell the sweat that was wetting the thin shirt of the man’s back, his coat tied around his waist. The boy could see the man edging up backwards, step by step, hauling on the straps of canvas which held the bundle together. When the stranger got to the top step he rocked back onto the platform, sitting on his heels, groaning with the effort. He wiped his face free of the over-abundant sweat, got his bundle up beside him and turned to look around. He saw the boy, said nothing, took his time to get his breath which didn’t come easy, and the boy looked on that unfamiliar face with his watery blue eyes. And the man watched the boy, his face a grime of grey.
The boy blinked once, then the man moved forwards and had him by the collar and moments later was hauling the boy down the stone steps, his shanks and ankles bruising against every rise. The boy said nothing as the man pushed him into the small downstairs room which was once used as a dungeon for drying-out the village drunks. He clanged the door shut, turned the key in the lock.
“Stay quiet, and I’ll let you out by and by,” said the man. His voice was hoarse, like he had stooped and stoked fires all his life or worked too long in a foundry. The boy cowered in a corner, the beetles running out from his pocket as he backed against the wall, no longer holding it shut. He could hear the man going back up the steps, heard the sound of something brushing against the wooden floor above his head. Looking up, he saw splinters of movement through the floorboards, saw the man’s feet criss-crossing the little room, heard the scratch and rustle of him opening his bundle, smelt the sting of sulphur in his nose, though he didn’t know that was what it was. And then came the crackle of fire as the man set the beacon burning. He had scattered the tinder heap all across the floor, had covered it with the oil-soaked straw he had dragged his long way across the valley and round the village and up the hill to the belfry and up the belfry steps. The smoke started sinking through the floorboards, made the stiff boy in his corner start to cough. The man’s heavy boots came clumping down the stone of the steps. He fiddled with the lock, took out the big iron key and threw it through the bars of the prison door. “Wait a few minutes till you let yourself out. I’m to be well gone and I’ll know if I see you coming out too soon and then I’ll string you up by the neck like a sausage.”
The stranger rattled the door to scare the boy a little more, though he needn’t have. The boy had already peed his pants and couldn’t move, stuck to the corner of the dungeon as if its two arms would protect him, pressing his back into the moss-ridden walls, the roughness of the old brick scarring crinkles into the worn leather of his jerkin. He heard the man leave, tried to count but didn’t know how to, got down on his knees and fanned out his fingers to find the key. It was dark now the outer door was closed, but the beacon was burning on the platform above him and gave him a little comfort with its light. At last he found the big iron key and clutched it safe in his hand, started to tap the minutes away with his boots though he had never been taught his numbers and scarcely knew a minute from an hour. He was coughing a bit, his eyes stinging, but still he banged his foot against the floor to pretend the time. What neither he nor the man knew was that there was no lock on the inside of the door, and that the bars were too close together to let a man, or even a boy, thread through his hand. The boy worried about the hedgehog in the conflagration upstairs, but then the boards over his head began to burn. The man had spread the fire right out across the belfry floor and not just in the gutters which were designed for the purpose. The treadle-rope was burning, warming the air, sending a shiver of movement up into the big bell which began to hum with the heat. Down in the dungeon, the boy began to wail as bits of cinder fell through burning holes and singed at his skin and his hair. The old oaken framework which held the bell upside-down began to creak and hiss, bleeding and bullying at the long-dried resin, flames flickering up and down its length. The boy held the iron key hard in his hand and fumbled for the bars of the door, tried to put his small, stiff hands through the too-small spaces. But the key would never be put back in its lock, and the boy baked like a cockle in its shell left too long upon the hearth, the ash falling from above to smoke and smother him as the fire caught, whipped by an evening wind which gusted through the beacon slats. The embers came down through the worm-holes of the floorboards. The bell-frame broke and fell, its heavy weight bursting halfway through the boy’s ceiling, sending piles of burning tinder down into the dungeon, the glimmer of light on the carapace of beetle-backs and the awful heat, the big iron key beginning to melt in the stiff boy’s hand, and the blink and blink of him dying badly and alone as the bell left its mooring, sent the crack and break and brittle of his bones across the cindered floor. Outside, the rain which had promised itself earlier to Ipsing Sansibar’s jacket, failed to arrive, and downriver by the pier, he was keeling up his boat when he saw the unexpected flare of the beacon on the hill.
He listened for the bell, expecting alarm but did not hear it, for its brim was hard down upon the boy and his beetles and its tongue was lost in the harsh roaring of the fire.