The scullery maid had first heard the rustle in the blue light of dawn. Tables scrubbed and floors swilled, Emma had been on her knees on the cold, grainy flagstones lighting the kitchen stove for the day. The sound had been softer than a tickle, no louder than a whisper. It had come from the fireplace, its grate shadowed and cold.
The girl had gone towards the sound, glancing up at the whitewashed ceiling as she did so. Above her slept the household – the lord, the lady, their children, the cooks, the maids, the footmen, the valets, the housekeepers, the butlers. The higher you rose the later you slept, which was why the scullery maid’s footsteps echoed in the kitchen whilst the wind from the pines rattled the windowpanes.
It was possible that the wind had blown some creature off-course and down the chimney flue. Possible, but it had never happened in the decade Emma had been working at the great house. The bird was big judging from the panicked noises now coming from behind the brickwork as the girl approached. Corvid big. Messenger crow big.
Emma couldn’t be sure short of climbing up the blackened flue, but this is how her sect had told her it would happen – a message carried by wing in the gloam. Now was not the time for indecision; she must act quickly. A rummage in her shift brought her what she sought – the crushed seeds of the strychnine tree in a greaseproof paper pouch.
Who knew what the occupants of the house had done to nudge the death-hand of fate? Treason? Loyalty to the wrong person? One act of inbreeding too far? Who knew? The machinations of her superiors, her real superiors, were not her concern – perhaps the noble blood of England simply needed letting periodically. Hers was not to question why. Hers was to ensure they die. There were Emmas in every great house in England, scrubbing, washing, waiting for their own fluttering in the chimney. Perhaps every Emma had received a bird this morning, perhaps only one. Was this the beginning of a revolution or the result of a petty familial feud? The scullery maid did not know. She only knew that the sect’s roots curled around the very bedrock of Albion.
The girl’s hand was steady as she stirred the porridge oats into the pot and swung it over the still-smouldering logs. Everyone liked porridge, from the stableboy to the little masters and mistresses in their lacy nightwear. Rough-hewn wooden bowl or fine bone china, starving belly or well-fed stomach, the viscous oats sat the same in each. Emma sat like that for a while, swinging the pot out from the fire every once in a while to stir the thickening broth. It was only when skinned bubbles stretch and yawn across the surface that she adds honey, taken from the apiary only yesterday.
Floorboards creaked above. It was time to fly. Emma’s absence would be cursed of course, but only in as much as any useful kitchen implement’s loss is cursed. Household management will go on without her as the occupants wake. Meanwhile, Emma will take to the road until, one dank morning she will arrive at a great house where she has heard of a vacancy for a scullery maid. Patience is rewarded in the sect, and she will assimilate, inveigle, work, and wait.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.