She'd been looking out of the window for a long time, not exactly at anything as such, just looking, watching the wind in the trees and the birds making their way home to roost for the night. She sometimes envied their simple lives, their deeply feathered nests, their lack of complications.
As the light started to fade, she took one last glance at the landscape, wiped away the fog where her hot breath had clouded the rapidly cooling glass and left the room. The children's voices echoed through the corridors as she walked towards their nursery, well, it was still called the nursery according at least to the brass plaque screwed to the door, they called it their playroom of course - They were both of that age when they considered themselves to be approaching adulthood, and this showed in the sometimes raucous style of their play. Despite the fact that the room was decorated with jolly, but ultimately empty eyed, jungle animals rendered in a selection of pastel colours and still contained a wooden rocking horse and a selection of rag-dolls that had once kept Emily so enthralled. Scattered around the room were a platoon of carefully painted wooden soldiers that had joined Richard on numerous adventures in the past, but were now relegated to duty as bowling pins or impromptu missiles.
She paused as she stood outside the door and waited for the noise to settle slightly to the point where they would be a chance that they would be able to hear her gentle knocking. A sudden silence from the room indicated that they had, she opened the door slowly and walked into the room.
'It's supper time children, Cook says that there are sardines, or the leftovers of yesterday's boiled ham and potatoes. Which would you prefer?'
They both looked at her with gentle, easy faces, then Emily cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered into her brother's ear, he nodded solemnly and looked up again.
'Both my sister and I would like the sardines please, with some bread and butter if there is enough?'
She curtsied and left the room, closing the door carefully behind her. Almost immediately the sounds of play resumed and she allowed herself half a smile, the laughter of happy children was one of the reasons that she took the job. They were always laughing, always happy, although oddly, in the short time that she'd been working at the Manor she had never heard Emily's voice, she always talked though her brother, the poor girl was painfully shy.
The driving wind and rain started when she was halfway down the servant's spiral stairway. Huge, round drops falling heavily against the leaded lights of the frosted windows gave the enclosed stairwell a morose chill and created a draught that threatened to blow out her already stuttering candle. She quickened her downward pace and before long she had reached the warmth and relative safety of the Manor's large kitchen.
The only light in the room came from the open oven door of the huge range itself, the dimly lit surfaces surrounding her were adorned with the skittering shadows of carving knives and other devices whose uses were a complete mystery to her. She was only nineteen herself and had gone 'into service' as a child, she had never really learned to cook, all of her meals had been prepared by her mother, or by the cook in whatever house she had been working in at the time.
'Have they decided?'
She let out a small scream as the Cook seamed to coalesce out of the very darkness behind her.
'Calm yourself girl, there's enough to worry about on a night like this without adding me to your troubles. Did they want the fish?' She watched as the pale girl nodded her head.' Aye, they usually want the fish when we've got it.'
'They asked for bread and butter too, if we have enough.'
'If we have enough? I bake fresh bread every day! and the buttter's from Jed's cows on the bottom field, there's always butter! How do you think I keep my youthful figure?' The Cook pirouetted slowly, in the style of a ballet dancer, despite having the bearing of a woman who would have no trouble sheltering an entire brass band beneath her voluminous skirts. She disappeared back into the darkness towards the pantry and came back with four plump sardines which she expertly gutted, seasoned, and placed into one of the smaller ovens. She then cut four slices of bread, each over an inch thick, and spread them with a deep layer of fresh golden butter.
'Isn't that rather a lot for them? Won't it give them indigestion at this time of night? Especially with their condition?'
'Their condition? Oh, I see,' The Cook laughed, and sat down on a rough wooden stool to wait for them to cook. 'No, over the years we've found that it's best to keep them well fed when the weather's poor. They don't like the lightning you see, it can set them off. Talking of setting them off,' She patted the pockets of her apron and brought out a piece of weathered, folder paper, sealed with a large blob of red wax, 'The housekeeper gave me this for you to give to them, it's a letter from their Father, he's out in Africa you know. You might want to give it to them when you collect the empty plates. It can sometimes...'
'Set them off?'
The Cook nodded slowly and stared into the flames of the open oven, 'He tells them stories of what he's doing,' She turned and looked towards the young nurse, 'Did you know that he's never seen them? He left the day after they were born, on the day his wife died. Terrible business.'
'I'd heard that she's died in childbirth, I understand that there were complications, with the twins being joined, two bodies sharing the one pair of legs and so on. I supposed that they had to cut her open to get them out.'
'That's what the Doctor will tell you if you ask him, and that's the story that they told the papers.' She pulled her stool closer, 'But one of the maids, she's left now though, used to tell a different story. She was there at the birth and when the poor mites appeared there was panic, no one knew if her ladyship would take to them or whatnot. But give her her due, she did and once the doctor had tidied her up and settled her down she did her best to feed them herself. They both tried to drink at the same time but it just wouldn't work and she was in some real discomfort with the stitches and everything, and the babies were starving hungry.' A cloud of doubt passed across her face as if she was trying to decide whether to go on. 'The next morning the house was in uproar, His Lordship had gone to see them and found the babies happily feeding themselves... Her Ladyship was cold and gone by this point.'
The Nurse felt a lump rise in her throat, 'But surely her milk wouldn't flow if she had...'
The Cook continued to stare into the flames, 'They weren't drinking, they were eating.' She groaned as she stood up and wandered to the oven and took out the pan of fish. 'These look about done, I'll put them all on one plate, be easier for you to carry it with your candle.'
She loaded a tray with the food, the candle and the letter, then started to climb the stairs towards the playroom. She couldn't believe the tale that the Cook had told her, it was all some silly story that they probably told in the village pub to add a bit of history. Something that tourists might find out about and pay a penny to hear the gory details of.
Knowing all this didn't stop the discomfort shooting through her when she got to the door, and the sudden cessation of noise when she knocked was more chilling than it was charming. The children were sat in the middle of the floor, in their nightclothes, with a small table that they had prepared themselves in front of them.
'Here are your sardines, there was ample bread and butter.' She put down the tray and backed towards the door. Emily breathed in deeply as if the baked sardines had the most delicious scent that she had ever encountered. Richard's eyes were glittering in anticipation and she could swear that there were small beads of saliva escaping his smiling lips.
She curtsied once more and left the room. As soon as the door clicked closed, she remembered the letter, she had forgotten to remove it from the tray. If anything that the Cook had said was true, she could be sure that it would be the part about a letter from their Father setting them off. Without a second thought she opened the door and went to rescue the errant piece of paper.
She froze when she saw the children, They had both forgone the normal eating utensils and were rapidly stuffing fish and bread into their mouths by the handful. When they heard her gasp they looked straight at her with cold black eyes like sharks, there was no white, none of the beautiful cornflower blue that they both shared, only black. Half chewed food fell from Richard's open mouth as he started to scream, but the almost whole sardine that Emily was trying to swallow was held back by her mouthful of cruelly spiked teeth, plucked straight from some nightmarish deep-sea fish.
The last thing that she thought as the twins vaulted the table towards her was 'Ah, that's why she doesn't talk.'