136: The Birth of Moulde Hall

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For the next few days, Edmund spent almost every spare hour he had in the Library.

His breakfasts were solitary, which gave him a chance to plan and think about what he still needed to learn, and his luncheons were often spent in the library, enacting his plans.

Any information about the Moulde family was obviously helpful, of course, but he also found himself confused by strange adult words and phrases that his cousins seemed to constantly use. The Nine Founding Families also seemed a good subject to study, as did the city of Brackenburg itself.

In the library, he started his studies on history and heraldry, seeing what he could learn about The Nine Families and the city they had all helped to found. The books were not very helpful; they were thick and full of words that he didn’t understand. Even the grammar seemed to be in some foreign structure he didn’t recognize. Eventually, he tossed these books aside, and searched for information on the other subject he felt woefully ignorant about: the Mouldes themselves, and the massive building in which they lived.

Edmund had been fortunate enough to locate a massive black book called The History of Moulde Hall some time after he had begun picking his way through the almanacs. It was full of interesting information about the building Edmund was becoming more and more comfortable with, and a much easier and simpler explanation of the city than the thick books he had looked in before.

Moulde Hall had been built nearly twenty generations ago by Prince Mascinate Moulde, a German heir to the throne who had been kicked out of the country for sparking some rebellion to overthrow his father, the king.

Supposedly, he had built the hall to provide a barracks and central focus for his army, so he could rebuild his strength and return to Germany to reclaim his rightful place as king. It wasn’t until a footnote on page 375 that it was revealed that the Prince had been defeated, imprisoned, and messily decapitated one week after he returned to his homeland.

After his death, Moulde Hall was then taken over by his surviving mistress, Orpha, and from there given to surviving offspring after surviving offspring, periodically to in-laws, but always to a Moulde, and always–always–after a long and bitter struggle with relatives.

The town of Brackenburg was formed after the Mouldes along with eight other families including the Bonnes became involved in a decades long struggle over a vein of coal found under Haggard Hill. Coal had become a very valuable commodity, and fortunes were born on the coal trade.

Sadly, since each family was either rich, powerful, or royal, there was no legal authority that all nine were willing to agree to. With no acceptable claim to the land, each family created their own mining and refining operation, hiring miners, blacksmiths, farmers, tailors, innkeepers, barkeeps, and the like, until the city of Brackenburg emerged as a diverse conglomeration of the nine families’ entrepreneurship.

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23: Moulde Hall

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The Moulde family mansion sat on the top of Haggard Hill, in the fancy part of Brackenburg. Haggard Hill itself comprised four square city blocks on the northern side of the city. Edmund had only ever seen a few hopeful parents come from the north; they were thick, pudgy folk with lots of jewelry, heavy black coats, and no soot on their faces.

The estate was ten acres of hill surrounded by a large wrought-iron fence topped with sharp points and bedecked with horrible faces glowering out from over the tops of shields. The land was a deep gray-green, covered with old trees, tired grass, and a sagging old gazebo with pealing white paint. Tall and foreboding hedges made of thorns and sharp leaves sat behind the fences, and the gate itself was black and heavy, framed by the statues of two large ravens, terrible beaks sharp and open as if to pluck out the eyes of anyone who offended their gaze. The sign over the gate cautioned ‘Moulde Estate’ in a sharp and spidery lettering.

The mansion itself was huge; at least five stories tall. It was painted a deep purple that was fading into gray with age, with a bright green trim that, when compared to the rest of the building, practically glowed. There were two tall towers that stuck out of the roof like castle turrets, each with a tall flagpole on top though neither pole held a flag. The carriage pulled to a halt outside the gate and shook gently as the driver disembarked to open the large gate.

“Is that yours?” Edmund asked, breaking the silence that had stifled the carriage for the whole trip as politely as he could manage. The silence quickly returned as Edmund turned to Matron, only to see her face sour and a look of disdain curling around her nostrils. A long slow creak filtered through the dark wood as the iron gate opened.

“It’s all mine,” she muttered darkly after a few moments of uncomfortable stillness. Edmund turned back to the window as the carriage began to move slowly, only to stop again once the gate had been passed. “Every road, tree, and building you saw was mine.”

Edmund was astonished, though not shocked. It made sense that someone who owned Brackenburg would own such a huge house. He began to wonder what it would be like, living with the person who owned the city, when he remembered the speech that hung on the orphanage wall.

“What about the Mayor?” he asked as the creak of the gate sounded again as it closed.

“Feh,” spat Matron. “‘Public services.’ All of the land was purchased from my family years ago for ‘the good of the city.’ They’re all a squalid and unpleasant group of renters. This land belonged to my family long before Mayors were even invented.”

Edmund looked back at the house. So she didn’t own the city anymore. Well, perhaps it was for the best. Edmund wouldn’t know what to do with a parent that owned everything.

22: The Ride Through Brakenburg

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The ride from the orphanage was long, quiet, and astounding.

The dim sun faded behind the dark clouds when they reached the edge of Brackenburg. The carriage shook as the large horse pulled its burden along the dusty road that slowly became graveled, and then cobbled as they entered Brackenburg proper. The sound of the iron horseshoes clopping on the stone echoed in the carriage like a clock, rhythmic and somehow soothing. Edmund pressed his nose to the carriage’s windows, peering through the thin gray film of soot that collected in the corners of the glass like burnt frost.

At first it was difficult to see anything but dark shadows flickering in the distance, outlined by the dim glow of the faintly pulsing yellowed gaslights that lined the streets. Gradually, however, he began to see the shapes in the milky darkness and the forms of men, women, and children moving about on the cobblestone streets.

Shops and houses passed by the window as dark clothed men in top hats quickly strode past, their heads bowed. Women gripped tightly onto children’s hands as they stared straight ahead, lips tight. Men were sometimes arguing, sometimes shaking hands in the street. He saw a man and a woman kiss and then part, tears cleaning bright streaks of pink down the woman’s cheeks. A fat man was whistling as he swung his cane back across his arm, nearly clipping a young boy on the head. Several dirty children were playing in the street, and Edmund thought he recognized two of them from the orphanage. A street vendor shouted out his wares, selling fruit and vegetables from under a thin blanket. A few people seemed to notice the carriage and stared as it passed them. Edmund tried waving hello, but they must not have been able to see inside as no one waved back.

Around the shifting populous, the buildings of Brackenburg rose like brick topiary. Squat black buildings crouched like bitter gargoyles, dour and imposing. Twisted iron chimneys poked up like dark toadstools from the black slate roofs, leaking sooty smoke into the sky. Dim yellow light filtered through milky windows, small beacons of warmth in the middle of the shadowy city.

As the carriage moved through Brackenburg, the buildings grew taller and thinner. Doors became so slim they would never be able to allow entrance to someone like Mrs. Mapleberry. Swinging cranes stretched out like gallows from the tops of buildings, and here and there a small tree peaked through the dim light.

After a while, everything outside the carriage began to look the same, so Edmund sat back and waited until they reached their destination.

3: The Orphanage Tax

It wasn’t that Mrs. Mapleberry lacked for money; Orphaning was a lucrative business these days. Adopting was the patriotic duty of the working class, a prestigious badge of honor for the middle class, and a trendy fad for the affluent. At least four times a week, prospective parents would arrive and walk along the outside of the fence or stand in the hallway or dining room next to Mrs. Mapleberry like statues, watching, selecting the children they wanted to purchase.

Sometimes they would ask to speak with one child, sometimes several, but almost never with Edmund. For some reason, prospective mothers and fathers consistently passed him by after seeing his pale skin and black matted hair. His dark sunken eyes and small mouth seemed to unsettle them, and they always seemed to think he should blink more often than he did.

The other children didn’t seem to have the same problem. Almost seven or eight beds in the sleeping hall were emptied of their former inhabitants every week, and filled again with new street-toughs, urchins, and other newcomers by the next. There always seemed new orphans to adopt, and with no shortage of orphans there was no shortage of income.

The Mayor of Brackenburg was quite adamant, however, that any true orphanage had to be poor, dilapidated, and a miserable place for children; otherwise, why would the children need to be adopted? So, most of the money vanished as quickly as it came, returning to Brackenburg through a large Orphanage tax.

Yet for some reason that Edmund couldn’t quite understand, the Mayor’s speech — the one he had given on that rainy day so many years ago — had been hung in the common room. It had been printed in all the newspapers the following day, and Mrs. Mapleberry had cut it out and framed it, hanging it with pride, as though it were some stuffed animal head.

The speech spoke of industry and progress. It spoke of a towering infrastructure of machines, of steam and oil. It spoke of a city full of hope and duty, of strength and unity. It spoke of a place which would provide a beacon to the entire world, full of light and smoke and fire and steam. A place that would guide humanity to a new and better future. It spoke of a brave new world, and the brave young people that would inhabit it.

Edmund had decided to take the mayor’s word for it. He had never ventured beyond the small wooden fence and into Brackenburg proper to see this great and prosperous city that the Mayor so admired. Mrs. Mapleberry didn’t allow it for one thing. For all the wonderful things that the Mayor seemed to see in the city, Mrs. Mapleberry saw a host of dangers for a young and unsupervised child.

Of course, that didn’t stop some of the older boys and girls from sneaking over the fence late at night, and scampering down the long cobbled road to the city’s edge, but Edmund never went with them.

They never asked him to follow, anyway.

1: The Macabre Tale of Edmund Moulde

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Edmund was an orphan from birth, as was fashionable at the time.

His earliest memories were of a solitary and dreary life in Mrs. Mapleberry’s Home For Wayward Lads and Ladies, a sagging orphanage perched on top of Downs Hill on the outskirts of the smog-blanketed city of Brackenburg.

It was a crowded life with orphans being so plentiful. Brackenburg had been hit hard during the last war, leaving many homes vacant and many children parent-less. More importantly, at least to the Mayor, there were also fewer men and women to perform the necessary farm and factory labor to keep the city alive.

In response, the mayor began to devote his time and energy to subsidizing the experimental inventions that he thought would propel his beloved city into the twentieth century. This seemed to work, and soon a large black sooty cloud of industry began to grow over the Brackenburg skyline.

Sadly, as industry prospered there was a marked increase in industrial accidents as well, which led to even more orphans and vacant homes that began to dot Brackenburg like festering sores, while the black clouds of soot that hung over the city continued to grow larger.

Finally, as abandoned houses, decrepit mansions, and haunted lots sprouted up like weeds, the Mayor decided to donate them to the numerous orphanages that were becoming so necessary.

“A small price to pay for progress,” the mayor had said, closing his speech with a shake of his head in sympathy. “In these havens — these sanctuaries — our children will be cared for and grow up knowing that their parents died either to make this country safe in war, or to make this city great in industry. Either way, it is because of their sacrifice that Brackenburg is one of the greatest and most prosperous cities in the world.”

It had been the proudest moment in Mrs. Mapleberry’s life, standing on the rickety makeshift stage in the pouring rain, not an arms length away from the Mayor himself. Granted, she had been selected along with twenty two other proprietors of orphanages to stand with the Mayor, but she was next to him none-the-less. She couldn’t help but feel uniquely prized as he distributed deeds to the properties like Father Christmas.

After the speech was finished, Mrs. Mapleberry began the unsteady journey down the makeshift stairs to solid ground. She hadn’t gone more than five steps, however, when a pale thin babe was thrust into her arms by an unseen stranger from the swarming mass of citizenry.

Had she been inclined to think faster she might have been able to catch the arm of the mysterious figure, or at least catch a glimpse, as no one could have moved through the thick throng of onlookers with any speed. But she had been smothered with civic pride and a personal sense of duty by the Mayor’s speech, and looking at the child, who looked back at her with thick black eyes, filled her with a sense of purpose.

And so, instead of thinking twice about the mysterious benefactor, she went straight to her new home; the only building on Downs Hill.