104: The Decision at the Foyer

Edmund crept though the dark hallways of Moulde Hall, munching on a slice of stale bread as he backtracked his way to the foyer and freedom. The storm still raged outside, thunder cracking loudly through the mansion.

With each step he reminded himself that running away from their parents was a common thing that orphans did. It was a rite of passage, almost, wasn’t it? He’d return to the orphanage, and they’d all be happy to see him… well, not happy, maybe, but they’d at least notice he was back.

Maybe.

The foyer was completely dark, with only the faintest moonlight peering in through the dusty windows to light the room. Edmund slowly began to walk towards the door, his heart growing bolder with every step. He had almost screwed up his courage to open the door, when the clock struck midnight.

The clock chime was deep, and sorrowful, and followed almost immediately by the deep echoing clang that seeped through the walls of Moulde Hall, shivering deep in Edmund’s bowels.

In the speckled moonlight the clock’s bone trim was illuminated, so it looked like a skeleton. Edmund’s stomach churned in memory of the first night he spent in the foyer, curled up on one of the couches. He stared, thinking about the clock at Mrs. Mapleberry’s.

He looked up at the statues that framed the Foyer, each one pointing or staring. He remembered thinking in his half-woken state that they were parents come to the orphanage.

He looked at the doors, and remembered how small he felt when he had first walked up to them.

Everything was bigger here, Edmund reflected. The iron fence was higher, the yard was larger, there were more trees, more rooms, and more space. The clock was taller, wider, and rang with a deeper tone. Even the lightning seemed brighter and the thunder louder. Before, Edmund had never bothered to think much about anything that lay outside the orphanage gates, and now he was thinking about families, and the founding of Brackenburg, and relatives he’d never heard of. Did he really want to go back? Could he go back?

At the orphanage, they’d forget he was there. Here, they remembered; they didn’t care, but they remembered. At the orphanage he would have to deal with Mrs. Mapleberry, who had seemed so eager to see him leave. Here…

He had come this far, he couldn’t go back to his room now.

Gently, Edmund pushed on the door. It opened with a loud creak, barely masked by the raging storm. The sheets of rain were still falling hard, the thick drops causing bits of the gravel drive to pop up into the air with the force of their descent.

There, in the middle of the road, sitting on a wrought-iron chair in the dark rain, an ivory pipe shaped like a skull stuck in her mouth, was Matron.

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102: Edmund Rebels

Edmund was just halfway though his second poem when there was a knock on his door. When Edmund didn’t answer, the door opened and Ung squeezed his way inside.

“I have come to help you dress for dinner, young master,” Ung said, moving to the closet.

“I’m not hungry,” Edmund said. Was it dinner time already? How long had he lain on his bed? How long had he been struggling to come up with a single line for his poems? He hadn’t even noticed the trembling of Moulde Hall striking the hour.

“Forgive my boldness,” Ung rumbled, opening the closet door and pulling out a massive shirt, “but Matron has made it quite clear that she expects you to be present in the dining hall, properly dressed, at seven sharp.”

“I’m not going,” Edmund said. “Express my apologies, or whatever you do, because I’m not having dinner with anyone.” For a moment, Ung didn’t move.

“A good soldier follows orders,” Ung said, still as stone.

“Well I’m not a soldier,” Edmund said, “and I won’t listen to her orders. I’m not going to eat dinner with anyone today, and that’s final.”

“Matron suggested you might disobey her wishes,” Ung said. “She was quite emphatic about what I was to do should you chose to do so.”

Edmund didn’t say anything. Ung stared at him for almost a full minute. Then, slowly, he replaced the shirt and closed the closet doors. With a sigh he slowly walked to the door, and pulled the small key out from the inside of the door.

“I had assured her that you seemed a clever young lad, and would therefore do no such thing.”

The door closed behind Ung, and the small click of the key in the lock echoed through the room.

Edmund jumped off of his bed, and pulled on the door handle, hearing the lock rattle in defiant stubbornness. He shook the door by the handle, his fury at Ung, Matron, and the entire situation  bubbled over in his chest. He pounded on the door in frustration, but it stood firm and unyielding.

That was it, Edmund realized as he let his aching fist drop to his side. He simply wasn’t going to allow this woman to lock him in his room–to control his life like this any more, mother or not. Somehow, he was going to escape.

He would wait in his room until Ung let him out. He would then grab a bit of food from the pantry, and after everyone had gone to sleep, he would sneak out of his room, head back to the foyer, and then outside. From there, he could find his way back to Mrs. Mapleberry’s. If he couldn’t make it before daybreak, he’d find a gutter or alley to sleep in.

It wasn’t the cleanest of plans, but it would free him from this strange world of painful expectations, hateful cousins, and strange rules that he simply didn’t understand.

Whatever else, Edmund was resolved; he wanted to be an orphan again.

74: Waiting for the Family

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Image: Uncredited, furniturevictorian.com

At seven sharp, just as the sound of the foyer clock was fading from the walls, Edmund was sitting alone in the Dining Hall at the head of the table, staring at his place setting.

With his attention not being pulled between eating and watching Matron, he could see the subtle differences, now. The utensils were not, as he suspected last night, different sizes for different people. There were five spoons, four knives, and seven forks, along with three plates, four bowls, and six glasses, all of different shape, size, and design.

One of the forks had a sharp curved tine, while another had small barbs at the tips. One of the spoons had a faintly serrated edge, while another had tiny divots pressed into the bowl. The smallest knife was only a little bigger than a single tine of the largest fork, and the largest spoon was almost as big as the small water bowl. The six glasses were all different heights, widths, and shapes, though only one was filled with water while the others sat empty.

As Edmund stared at the bizarre silverware, the servant’s door opened to reveal Ung wheeling in a large cart with a big soup tureen and a large silver ladle with an ivory grip carved into the shape of a skeleton. With a loud squeak, he began to push the ornate metal cart towards the head of the table. Edmund watched as Ung carefully filled his bowl with a large ladle full of soup. It was green, thick, and creamy, and was completely devoid of anything floating in it. It smelled a bit like grass, and a bit like mushroom.

In the orphanage, Mrs. Mapleberry had been very adamant about proper eating etiquette. She had been adamant that everyone had to be present and sitting at the table before anyone could take a bite. Sometimes, everyone got very hungry indeed while they waited for the older orphans to wrangle the younger ones into their seats. Now, sitting alone at the massive table, Edmund was torn between waiting for anyone else to arrive and sampling the curious concoction in front of him.

He waited for almost a quarter of an hour. He didn’t dare ask the motionless Ung where Matron’s cousins were, much less if it was safe to eat without them. He tried to ignore the faint creaks and rattling grit that echoed from deep in the Mansion. Once he was positive he could hear a door slam shut somewhere in the distance. Ung simply stared, quiet and stoic

Finally, Edmund took a tentative sip of his soup and was disappointed to learn it tasted almost exactly the same as it smelled. He looked up at Ung to see if he could catch a look of approval or reproach. There was nothing; Ung was as still and stoic as a marble statue.

Edmund had a few more sips of soup and put his spoon down. It seemed safe to stop there; even Matron wouldn’t be able to tell that he had eaten anything before the guests arrived. Sitting back in his chair, Edmund continued to wait.

64: Eavesdropping

Edmund was about to return to his exploration when he heard Matron’s voice. Drawing his attention to the nearby door, Edmund crept closer and pressed his eye against the keyhole.

Sure enough, Matron was inside the room. She was seated in a black-leather chair, and was facing someone else who had their back to the door. Edmund couldn’t see anything else that was useful, so he pressed his ear to the keyhole instead.

“So that’s that,” said Matron. There was no mistaking her withered and weather-beaten voice, even though the door. “He’s backed down.”

“I’m afraid,” came the thin reedy voice of Mr. Shobbinton, “I cannot confirm nor deny any motives of my clients, even if they had been expressed to me, which, of course…”

“They haven’t,” Matron finished. “Good. At least he’s learning. What have you learned about my problem?”

“Which one?” Mr. Shobbinton asked dryly as the sound of shuffling paper met Edmund’s ear through the thin door.

“The boy,” Matron snapped.

For a moment there was silence, and then Mr. Shobbinton spoke again.

“It appears that the deed is quite explicit, as are the treaties you directed me to. Not only will the young master need to remain your next of kin, but also remain a resident of Moulde Hall.” There was a grumbling noise, followed by the loud thud of something striking the ground in frustration. Edmund felt the blood drain from his face.

“Peel back every document you can find, Mr. Shobbinton,” Matron’s voice cut through the door. “Root out every loophole you can find and scrape every corner you turn. The boy cannot stay, and that’s final!”

“I assure you I already have,” Mr. Shobbinton sounded insulted. “I have explored the possibilities of Summer homes, the long-lost-relative clauses, and any number of mysterious vanishing precedents. The laws are quite clear: The boy must claim Moulde Hall as his primary residence, under all circumstances.”

There was a pause, and then Matron spoke again, her voice soft.

“Then we must create a new precedent. Begin at once.”

“I shall do my best, allowing for my other duties, of course.” Mr. Shobbinton said, soothingly. “But I reiterate, you must begin resigning yourself to the truth of it–if you wish to maintain your control over the situation, the young master must stay.”

The sound of footsteps approaching the door prodded Edmund into movement. He pulled himself up and moved as quickly and as quietly as he could around a nearby pillar, and waited while he heard the door open and close, followed by the calm strides of Mr. Shobbinton fading down the hallway. There was a pause, and then the door opened and closed again, Matron’s footsteps following Mr. Shobbinton’s.

Edmund sank to the ground, his heart tight.

He wouldn’t be the first, he realized. Children returned to the orphanage all the time.

He could escape the endless twisting maze of huge hallways and empty rooms. He could leave behind the strange clothes and stern disgust of Matron, the snide patronizing of her cousins, and return to the familiar, if chaffing, smile of Mrs. Mapleberry.

In his mind’s eye he saw the orphanage door open wide, threatening to pull him back to the same old walls and rafters, the weevils and creaking floors calling to him.

Edmund bolted upright and continued to explore, a storm raging both outside the mansion and inside his chest as well.

36: Clearing the Table

Finally he was finished, and he stood up to gather his dishes. Things may have changed a great deal for him recently, but Mrs. Mapleberry had been very clear on what his Duties As A Young Lad were. He reached out his hand for his empty bowl and grabbed it at the same instant that a massive hand gripped the opposite side. Edmund looked up into the thick face of Ung, his broad mouth not quite scowling but definitely not smiling. They stared at each other a moment, holding the bowl between them.

“I have to clear my dishes,” Edmund said, feeling the need to explain himself. For a moment, Ung seemed almost surprised. There was a pause as his brows furrowed and he looked to Edmund as though he was trying to remember how to speak. Finally, Ung shook his head.

“That is my job, young master,” he said, his deep voice rolling out of his mouth like distant thunder. “I am your butler.”

“I thought you were Matron’s butler.” Edmund said, feeling less and less certain about his Duties.

“I’m the Moulde’s butler,” Ung said slowly. “Therefore, I am your butler too. I will take care of your place setting while you retire to the sitting room, the game room, or wherever else you wish to go now that you have finished your supper.”

Numbly, Edmund slowly let go of the bowl. For eight years he had been cleaning his own dishes after he was finished. This new life, as confusing and bizarre as it seemed, had still looked manageable because he knew his place. Even in this dark and horrible mansion, he was a Young Lad. He knew what was expected of him, and how to do it.

Now, the largest man he had ever seen was telling him that doing his own dishes wasn’t his job anymore.

Edmund’s thoughts were interrupted by the feeling of a hot splash of water on his hand. He glanced down, and saw a single drop of warm water sliding down his finger. Quickly wiping his face, Edmund turned away from Ung and pushed through the dining room door into the hallway.

After eight years in the orphanage, it felt like supper wasn’t properly finished until he had cleared his dishes. He had wanted to explore a little after supper, perhaps find a tree to look at outside, or maybe just spend time in his room. Instead he was stuck with a perpetually finished meal, unable to end his repast properly and continue with his evening. He saw himself trapped on the edge of a precipice, wobbling and wavering, but neither falling nor pulling back from the edge.

The hallway outside the Dining room stretched off into the depths of Moulde Hall, flanked by the rusted shells of knights and ancient crumbling pottery. In that moment, he wanted nothing more than to return to the relative safety of his room, to calm himself down with his books or his poetry.

Edmund felt his throat tighten as he looked back and forth down the long tunneling passage. In the next moment, he realized he had no idea how to get there.

20: The Pen

After a moment, the strange woman’s narrow gaze snapped to Mrs. Mapleberry’s.

“You have heard of fountain pens, yes?”

“Well…” Mrs. Mapleberry’s smile faded slightly, and a small crease appeared over her eyes. “Yes, of course, but–”

“I’m not one to embrace new things frivolously, but it’s a marvelous new invention, the fountain pen,” the woman said, as if admonishing a small child. Edmund listened with interest as Mrs. Mapleberry looked more and more aghast. “I’m given to understand even the lower classes can afford them now. Can’t you afford even one?”

“Well, frankly, no,” Mrs. Mapleberry sniffed, pulling herself up. “They are still quite expensive compared to a good solid dip pen, and I’m afraid that — being a poor orphanage like we are with the taxes and all — we haven’t quite caught up with the times.”

“Obviously,” the woman dropped the pen back onto the table, and pulled a small thin rod of pure black and a thick glass eyedropper out of nowhere. Edmund stared as the woman’s spindly hands unscrewed the pen and placed the cap next to the inkwell. Carefully, she dipped the eyedropper into the ink and drew a thin dribble of black into the clear glass. With aching slowness, the thin fingers gripped the pen like spider legs resting on a web and gently deposited the ink into the pen without spilling a drop.

When the ink was at last gone from the eyedropper, she slowly re-screwed the cap onto the back of the pen, and with a sharp flick of the wrist snapped it once like a whip. Edmund had to stop himself from jumping back from her sudden movement. By the time he had collected himself, the woman had already brushed the pen quickly across the paper, and dropped it with a light plunk next to the eye dropper and ink-well.

“You may keep the pen and ink in lieu of my payment,” the woman said derisively, as she picked herself up out of her chair. She bent almost in half, her hooked nose squarely pointed at Edmund, and gave a sharp nod. “Get moving, boy. The horse is outside.”

“Really!” Mrs. Mapleberry shifted her great girth as she stepped forward. “I hardly think that a new pen is adequate compensation for adoption! The going rate is twenty per child, and I’ll thank you to provide appropriate payment.”

The woman’s eyes grew dark as she turned to face Mrs. Mapleberry full in the face. There was a pause, and then the old woman gave a small cough.

“Twelve generations ago,” she hissed, “Patron Alphert Moulde, of Moulde Hall, built this house for one of his daughters as a wedding gift. It was passed down through my family until Patron Plinkerton donated it to the city of Brackenburg in 1717 for use as deemed required by the Mayor. You may consider one hundred and ninety years of free rent payment enough.”

Mrs. Mapleberry had turned a stark white, her lips clamped tightly shut. She gave a quick nod as Matron poked Edmund with her umbrella, herding him back out of the room and out of the orphanage.

19: Overheard

Edmund grabbed his bundle of clothes from the ground, and ran back to the Meeting Room, his small hard shoes scraping and clattering against the wooden floor. He had stopped just outside the room to catch his breath, when he heard the woman’s voice from inside.

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Image: Old Woman in the Shadow by Colton “Colt 45″ Apodaca

“Well, I suppose he’ll have to do,” she was muttering quietly, her dry lips clicking as she spoke. “He just needs to be alive and not provoke my rancid cousins… ha! As if they wouldn’t happily chew the legs off a puppy if I brought it home. Well, we’ll see how happy they are once they see I have an heir! Spiteful little brats. I’ll show them…”

Edmund thought about this, and decided he didn’t know what the woman was talking about. It sounded like she was having trouble with her family, which was a surprising idea for Edmund. Having never had a family, he had always relied on what others had said they were like. He always been told families were happy arrangements, with parents who fed the children and children who kept quiet and stayed out of sight. That’s what Mrs. Mapleberry made it sound like, at any rate.

Edmund had been skeptical, of course, since he had also heard the stories told by the children who came back, but Mrs. Mapleberry had assured the orphans that these were rare exceptions.

Of course, this old woman was nothing like the parents he had seen walk into the orphanage before. Perhaps she was an exception too?

Suddenly, the woman’s muttering stopped. Edmund wondered if she had heard him thinking, when he began to hear the sound of heavy footfalls coming down the hall.

“Are you ready, Edmund?” came Mrs. Mapleberry’s voice. Edmund looked up to see Mrs. Mapleberry’s rotund form rolling towards him, her face red and puffing, gripping a small stack of papers in one hand and a small inkwell and pen in the other. Edmund nodded, shifting the bundle under his arm. Mrs. Mapleberry nodded back with a strained smile, took a deep breath, and walked back into the Meeting Room.

“Here we are, all ready to sign!” Mrs. Mapleberry said, her voice frighteningly gleeful. “Just put your name right here, and Edmund is all yours!”

Edmund was positive the woman hadn’t moved an inch since he left the room. If he hadn’t heard her talking, he might not have believed she had even breathed. Her eyes followed Mrs. Mapleberry as she hobbled over to the table, placed the ink and paper down, and held the small dip pen out for the woman to sign.

With a sniff, the woman plucked the small pen from Mrs. Mapleberry’s hand and stared at it. Her eyes narrowed, and for a single dreadful second Edmund was positive that she was about to change her mind. She was going to laugh cruelly, tear up the papers, throw the pen away, and leave the orphanage without taking him with her.

18: Packing to Leave

Edmund ran back to the Lads’ bedroom, heading for the trunk next to his bed, his mind still reeling. Where was he going to live? What would his new mother be like? Would there be other children there? Was she married?

The thoughts shuffled around in his brain, vying for attention as he ran, when the shifting of a wooden floorboard under his feet made him stumble, bringing him up short and shaking his mind clear.

Steadying himself, and walking slower, Edmund considered. It was a startling revelation to him how much he suddenly wanted to leave the orphanage. It had never been a possibility in his future before, but now that he had the opportunity, he realized how much he needed to experience more.

His whole life had been the orphanage, hemmed in by a thin wooden fence. He’d never been interested in the outside world — what could be there for him? But now, in the form of an ancient white-haired woman, there was suddenly so much potential!

Edmund reached the bedroom, and his hand had just gripped the trunk next to his bed, when he paused. The trunk wasn’t really his, was it? He had seen children come and go almost daily, and they didn’t always take their trunks. Most of the time they slipped their belongings into trunks that their new parents had brought for them. He considered returning to the old woman and asking if she had brought a trunk for him, but for some reason he knew the answer would be no.

Edmund quickly pulled open the small trunk and began to rummage through it. In no time at all he had a small pile of shirts, pants, socks, and jackets that he could just about carry without dropping.

Yanking the last two shirts and a pair of slacks from the chest, Edmund caught a glimpse of the hidden stack of books that lay under the once carefully folded clothes. Most of them he had saved from the fireplace, and he was certain they would return there if Mrs. Mapleberry found them. He looked back at his pile of clothes.

He could probably only carry two…

The first one was easy. He was working his way through ‘The Symphonic Physicium,’ a relatively new book that tried to explain the principles of something called ‘chemistry,’ or how different liquids might combine into other liquids of a different color, smell, and texture. Edmund didn’t quite understand most it yet, but he had been working on it chapter by chapter.

The second book was harder. His decision came down to either Alam Beet’s ‘Poetry of the Heart,’ or ‘The Epic of King Arthur.’ He loved them both, and re-read favorite passages, poems, and chapters, but they were large and bulky, and carrying both would be awkward. Torn between the two, he realized that really there was no choice. Mrs. Mapleberry would throw out the science books, but she’d keep the stories and poems for some other child to read.

His heart sinking, he closed his eyes and grabbed randomly. He was going to a new life, after all… His new house might have some books too, and with luck it might have its own books of poetry and King Arthur.

He opened his eyes and looked at the thick book in his hands. ‘The Physical and Aetherial Body: a Practicum of Study by Dr. Prissarium Killdot,’ a well worn book full of fascinating insights into the human body and what made it work.

17: Adopted at Last

“Oh excellent!” Mrs. Mapleberry clapped her hands with glee. “I’m so glad you’re happy with him — I’ll get the papers at once. Edmund! Go get your things! Quickly now!” And with that, she was bounding through the door at an incredible speed. Edmund got off the chair and headed for the doorway.

“Boy,” the woman croaked. Edmund turned to see his notebook gripped in her spindly hands. “You forgot this.”

Edmund nodded, and returned to the table to take his book. When he pulled, however, the woman’s grip was immovable. “Do we not say thank you?” she asked, her voice low and dangerous. Edmund swallowed.

“Thank you,” he said, clearly and crisply, the basics of Mrs. Mapleberry propriety lessons surfacing to rescue him at the last moment. The woman stared at him for half a second longer than she should have, and then released the notebook. Edmund clutched it to his chest and ran out of the room as fast as he could, the old woman’s eyes following him out.

He was stopped almost immediately by the massive form of Mrs. Mapleberry clutching her chest, standing between him and the Lads’ bedroom. He pulled up short as she bent down and gripped Edmund’s shoulders painfully.

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Image: Henry Miller, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

“Do you know who that is?” She said, her voice quivering. Edmund shook his head. “That is the Matron of Moulde Hall! She’s the head of one of the nine founding families! And to think, she’s adopting from my orphanage! I thought she would have adopted from somewhere in the city — she must have come here on recommendation from one of her friends… maybe Lady Perfect? I think she once employed Mrs. Gillicoddy as a cook, and she was in two months ago… Oh no matter! You’re going to be a gentleman, Edmund! A gentleman’s gentleman!”

And with that, she let go of Edmund, and ran off towards her office as fast as her chubby legs could carry her rotund body. Edmund straightened his shirt, and continued his own run towards his things. A gentleman’s gentleman? Edmund had no idea what that meant, but he didn’t care. All he knew was that he was finally going to go outside the fence.

He was leaving the old clock, the rotten bookshelf, and the single sad tree in the yard. Goodbye to the rafters that he had stared at for seven years while trying to sleep. Farewell to the weevils, the bare wooden rafters, the plaster in his food, and Mrs. Mapleberry. The Mayor had said Brackenburg was the greatest city in the world, and finally Edmund was about to see exactly what made it so wonderful.

16: Matron’s Questions

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Image: The Good Lady Ducalyne by Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon, The Strand Magazine, 1896

The woman moved then, her eyes dipping like a bird’s to stare at the pages full of his words. Edmund saw her pupils slowly roll about in their sunken sockets, following the scribbled lines of Edmund’s handwriting. After a long pause she extended a single claw and flipped the page.

Edmund’s heart beat faster. He swallowed his protest as the claw slowly returned to its perch on the handle of the umbrella. She stared for what felt like hours before her eyes shot up to Edmund’s again.

“You wrote this?” She snapped, her voice like brittle twigs. Edmund nodded. Her tone had not made it clear if this was a good or a bad thing. The woman’s mouth twisted further into something like a frown. “How old are you?”

“Eight,” Edmund said.

“And are you neat? Tidy? Can you do what you’re told?”

Mrs. Mapleberry gave a little sigh as she placed her thick hand over her breast in a gesture of matronly pride.

“Oh, Edmund is one of the cleanest Lads–”

“Do be silent, you old watermelon, I’m asking the boy,” the woman snapped like a shot. Mrs. Mapleberry gasped, and fell silent while Edmund thought about the question.

“I don’t have much, so I can’t make a mess,” he said, finally. “I’ve always done what I’ve been asked, but no one has ever asked much of me either.”

“Good,” the woman crackled. “Do you know anything about people? Politics? What’s your opinion on the labor situation in South Dunkin?”

“I don’t know of any labor situation in South Dunkin,” Edmund said, quietly. “I don’t even know where South Dunkin is.”

“It’s to the South,” the woman muttered, icily.

“I don’t pay much attention to politics,” Edmund replied. The woman nodded briskly.

“Good. Do you get into fights at all?” she asked, her teeth seeming to sharpen in the dim light.

“No,” Edmund shifted in his seat, “people don’t pay much attention to me either.”

“But if you got in a fight — if someone wanted to hurt you, what would you do?” she asked, leaning forward almost imperceptibly.

Edmund had seen other children fight before in the orphanage, but he’d never considered being in one himself; the other children had always seemed loathe to touch him. The closest he ever got to a fight was once when a twisting floorboard had tipped a thick older boy into him. The boy had raised his fists at Edmund, who waited, watching the boy with interest, until he dropped his fists and backed away slowly.

“I don’t know,” Edmund answered. “I would either stay and fight or run away and hide. It would depend on how many I’m fighting, and how strong they are.”

“And just how long are you planning on living?” What an odd question, Edmund thought. Parents had never asked him questions like that before. Edmund considered for a moment.

“As long as I can,” he said, finally.

“Good,” the woman nodded, and leaned back in her chair. “Get its things, I’ll take it at once.”