Mysteries of Thorn Manor by Margaret Rogerson
Animated topiaries and a magical gale blow outside Thorn Manor. Nathaniel Thorn didn’t have another nightmare last night so it wasn’t the audacious sorcerer's fault. This time. Besides, Elisabeth would have noticed because she spent the night in his bedroom again. That must have something to do with the wards. Beyond the cacophony a crowd has gathered, and among them, reporters calling to Elisabeth and Nathaniel. They want to know if Nathaniel has lost control of his magic, or if his demon is back, or if this craziness will impact him hosting the Midwinter Ball. Let’s just close the door on all that.
Nathaniel declares he quite enjoys the maelstrom, but Elisabeth, ever the practical one, points out they are being trapped inside the house, and even though it is quite lovely, part of the roof just flew off. Nathaniel, ever the anti-social optimist, says they have provisions enough for a while so everything will be fine. Yeah, no. Elisabeth draws her sword Demonslayer and charges out the door. She’s back moments later being chased by thorny vines shouting “Their heads grow back!” while she slashes at them. Of course they do. Mercy enters the foyer then and at least has the presence of mind to trap the dismembered thrashing vine in an overturned dustbin. Nathaniel fake despairs that this will take weeks to sort out which is when Elisabeth remembers one of the reporters mentioning a Midwinter Ball.
Elisabeth rounds on Nathaniel who explains that the Midwinter Ball is a tortuous event for stuffy sorcerers, but Silas, from the hall, clarifies that it’s a social occasion. Isn’t that what Nathaniel said? Silas could be mistaken for a ghost as he is a pale fraction of his former self, but he is quite real. He explains the tradition of the ball and Nathaniel’s shiftiness proves Elisabeth’s supposition correct, Nathaniel is meant to host this year.
As they eat dinner, they consider what could have triggered the wards to react in the last twenty-four hours. Elisabeth was in the study working all day and Nathanial was at the Magisterium and didn’t get back until dark. At this, Nathaniel and Elisabeth exchange a meaningful look. Elisabeth has slept in Nathaniel's room before while she tended him from his injuries, but this time, they did a little kissing before going to sleep. It can’t be that.
After her bath, Elisabeth dresses in her nightgown, picks up Demonslayer and heads down the hall to Nathaniel’s bedroom. Nathaniel is sitting on the edge of the bed thoughtfully looking outside. While Elisabeth is worried their sleeping together caused this, Nathaniel thinks not, they aren’t doing anything they haven’t done before. Well, just in case, Elisabeth firmly places a pillow between them.
Elisabeth wakes during the night and notices Nathaniel’s face very close, so obviously they start kissing. In a lucid moment, Elisabeth realizes the pillow between them is gone and the wind outside rises dangerously so they decide they need to check the attic. Nathaniel grabs his cane and Elisabeth grabs Demonslayer.
The attic is like a museum: shrouded furniture, giant tarnished mirrors, a child's rocking horse, traveling chests, old-fashioned coats and dresses, a box of creepy-looking dolls, a suit of medieval armor on a stand, and an entire carriage. Nathaniel tells Elisabeth to look around but warns that almost everything in the attic is cursed. The armor Elisabeth spots intrigues her the most, it looks about the right size for her… “it’s cursed!” Nathaniel cries. Sigh. Continuing to look around, Elisabeth spots a goblin and draws Demonslayer. Oh, it’s not a goblin, it’s only a portrait of Aunt Clothilde. Silas moved the portrait here, so Nathaniel suspects they have a history.
Trooping back downstairs, they pass a perturbed looking Mercy before the smell of fresh baking attracts them all to the kitchen. Silas serves fresh scones, preserves and peppermint tea. They all wish Silas would rest and gather his strength rather than keep working as a servant for the Thorn family, but Silas caught on quickly and thwarted their efforts. Elisabeth does ask Silas if he can help with the wards, and graciously, Silas agrees and leaves to fetch something.
Silas returns with a grimoire, and it’s not friendly. Elisabeth sees that the gilt lettering shows that it is volume eleven and she realizes it is a class four before it explodes in a frenzy. Silas tells her it has gone feral living on the servants' floor having escaped the muniment room which was closed in 1792 after it went out of fashion to have one. The grimoire contains all the changes and wards attached to Thorn Manor so it should prove helpful. Nathaniel asks where the muniment room is and then he and Elisabeth go off to find it.
As Nathanial and Elisabeth search near the bust of Erasmus Thorn for the door, Nathaniel explains what Silas meant by the muniment room being closed. When a sorcerer no longer has need of a room, they close it off and essentially banish it as many of the rooms are created by sorcery. Rumor has it there is a ballroom somewhere. Elisabeth wants to go look for the rooms and wonders if Thorn Manor is actually alive like the Royal Library. Suddenly Elisabeth sees the door from the corner of her eye. Thank goodness for her resistance to magic.
Inside the room looks like a cramped version of the Royal Library catalog room except this one has feral grimoires running wild and fighting. In the corner it looks like one had been eaten. Nathaniel casts a spell to freeze the grimoires so they can scour the room. There are so many books to look through and Elisabeth is loving it. As they work, Elisabeth asks about Silas. He seems a little off with Mercy or put out at having someone assist him. Nathaniel ordered Silas not to kill Mercy, who overheard the order, so is understandably a little on edge. There was once a rumor of a footman who kept leaving finger marks on the silver, but his disappearance could be any of a million reasons. Then Elisabeth asks if Silas has ever disobeyed an order. Only once, when Nathaniel was twelve. Nathaniel was a petulant child and ordered Silas to leave him alone, but Silas found loopholes until he eventually broke the order to look after Nathaniel.
Suddenly, Nathaniel realizes he should be able to control the grimoires with some minor blood magic. It works! All but one are sorted and stored, and the remaining one, which is covered with mold and smells strongly of curdled milk, was written by Clothilde Thorn. Elisabeth takes the grimoire for treatment. Eventually, her careful ministrations work and Elisabeth is able to see the title, Volume twenty-six, however no matter the coaxing, the grimoire stays stubbornly shut. It is clear that the creator, Aunt Clothilde, is a strong willed person. Her tapestry they keep trying and failing to get rid of is evidence of that.
Elisabeth suggests that Katrien may be able to help, however getting in touch with Katrien seems impossible. Nathaniel’s patience snaps with the house when his and Elisabeth’s faces get a little too close and a clump of wet snow lands in the fireplace covering them in smoke. Ugh… That’s it! Nathaniel fetches the magic mirror whose twin was used so violently against them. Its power has been severely weakened, but it should be enough to get in touch with Katrien.
Elisabeth exhales across the mirror to Katrien’s room. Katrien is there with Parsifal, who she orders to be quiet and not listen and covers with a blanket. Katrien is well aware of the misfiring wards because the Library Director has been taking them on field trips to observe, but Elisabeth explains about the grimoire. Katrien suggests using an object it is familiar with and which was in close contact with Aunt Clothilde. They try the scrying mirror and Clothilde’s portrait but neither work, so Nathaniel asks Silas if Clothilde has a bedroom hidden in the house somewhere. Silas won’t say, he is personally offended by Clothilde’s wardrobe, describing it as a stain upon the house filled with the most unfashionable garments. When Silas leaves the room, Nathaniel and Elisabeth burst out laughing.
Over the next few days, Elisabeth wanders the hallways of Thorn Manor, staring at the walls until they give up their secret rooms. No matter the rooms she finds, Elisabeth likes to return to one she calls the Ostrich Room. It’s warm and welcoming. Silas finds her in the room and it seems he is very familiar with it and cared for the room's creator.
The next morning at breakfast, Nathaniel throws his bacon before crying “of course, the tapestry.” Elisabeth finishes Nathaniel’s breakfast and grabs Demonslayer before following him to Aunt Clothilde’s offensive tapestry. Nathaniel says it’s obvious that her bedroom must be behind it. It isn’t. Well, not for Nathaniel, Elisabeth has better luck. The bedroom is creepy in a frilly, lacy way with magical pink candles, books on etiquette and deportment, and leaflets with outraged moral treatises about the role of women. A hulking baroque wardrobe occupies one wall and Nathaniel opens it the old-fashioned way. The contents are… unique and nightmarish.
As they look at a particularly extravagant example of Clothilde’s fashion choices, they are attacked by her dressing gown and chased from the room by a tide of clothes. Elisabeth uses Demonslayer on the couture army but it isn’t enough. Mercy, wielding a mop, helps Elisabeth fight the garments and they fall back to the foyer. Nathaniel then casts a spell and a flock of birds from the green room’s wallpaper descend upon the Clothilde’s clothes. They need to lure out the dressing gown as it must be the anchor for the others. Elisabeth knows just how to draw it out and she reaches for Nathanial and kisses him. It works and Elisabeth is able to use Demonslayer on it.
With the army of unmentionables defeated, Elisabeth fetches Clothilde’s grimoire. It seems that the house wants Nathaniel to declare his intentions, so now, Nathaniel is locked in his study, the sounds and smell of magic emanating from it. Nathaniel is offended that his house does not think he is properly committed! It seems the manor will only be appeased by a show of formal courtship, which is an old sorcerer family tradition that hasn't been practiced in years. The only aid Elisabeth has been able to find looks to be one of Aunt Clothilde’s purchases, A Lady’s Guide to Sorcerous Traditions by Dame Prudence Winthrop. The grimoire opens to the relevant section, the Lovers’ Pact, and marks its place with a silk ribbon bookmark. The Lovers’ Pact requires a sorcerer to carry out three impossible tasks to win his lady’s love. Elisabeth needs to set her first task.
That night, Elisabeth stays in her own bedroom, but can’t sleep thinking about the result of the impossible tasks: true love, marriage, a life together. Is this what she wants? Leaving her stifling room, Elisabeth runs into Silas in the hall. He’s not dressed in his servant garb, but a suit, and smells like winter. It comes as no surprise that Silas would be able to get past the wards. Elisabeth takes Silas’ hand and asks about Nathaniel’s mother. Silas then takes Elisabeth to the dining room and through a hidden door to the ballroom which was closed eighteen years ago. Silas then teaches Elisabeth to dance.
The next morning, Elisabeth is woken by Nathaniel delivering breakfast, his first impossible task. As Elisabeth tentatively tries the food, which actually looks good, the house delivers a single red rose in approval. Nathaniel requests his next task by lunch so Elisabeth wanders the house for inspiration and finds more new rooms. She also finds Silas’s room, neat and tidy, covered with detailed charcoal drawings of people and places from across the centuries, many showing Nathaniel doing everyday things. The picture on the easel though is of Elisabeth looking like an avenging saint, her expression one of hope, courage and resolve. This gives Elisabeth an idea.
The second impossible task given after lunch, Elisabeth is told to stay in Nathaniel’s study so she works on one of the worn grimoires, Austermeer’s Complete Fairy Tales. It flutters open to The Orphan Prince. The grimoire is trying to tell her something. Elisabeth only sees Nathaniel at dinner for a moment as he quickly eats and disappears again, but the smell of magic and peculiar sounds coming from the attic let her know he is still alive.
The next morning Nathaniel delivers the next impossible task, the suit of armor from the attic, de-cursed and adjusted to fit Elisabeth perfectly. From downstairs, Mercy calls that the front door is opening again, so the house must approve of the second task. Elisabeth can’t wait to try on the armor and practice and uses it to face the wandering topiaries outside. She loves the armor and clanks around in it all day.
That night a terrible dream disturbs Elisabeth but it’s Nathaniel’s screams that wake her up. Grabbing Demonslayer and salt rounds, Elisabeth makes her way down the hall, wary of the illusion of the hallway created by Nathaniel’s mind. Elisabeth runs into Mercy who is frozen by an illusion of a woman. Elisabeth throws a salt round at the illusion and asks Mercy to make tea since the nightmares seem to stay out of the kitchen. In Nathaniel’s bedroom, Elisabeth finds him crouched on the bed frame looking petrified, Silas trying to comfort Nathaniel. In the corner is a thing, a child, with the face of Maximillion, Nathaniel’s brother, covered in grave dirt. Elisabeth reaches for a salt round before going to Nathaniel and holding him. Nathaniel begs for the third task… so she asks for him to take her ice skating.
Outside the scene has changed into the formal gardens not seen since Nathaniel’s mother was alive. It seems the house wants them to go outside. Nathaniel and Elisabeth head downstairs while Silas fetches their warm coats. Together, Elisabeth and Nathaniel head out into the snow and toward the maze. They find a single white rose in Nathaniel’s mother’s favorite place in the garden and he tells them how she and Maximillian died: a pier collapsed into the water because it was overcrowded. No one would tell him what happened until his father returned from Magister business, but even then he was too grief stricken to speak to his son. In the end, Silas was the one who explained everything. Leaving the rose, they continue on into the maze to the frozen pond at its center.
Using magic, Nathaniel creates silver skates over their shoes. He must have had this planned for weeks, you don’t have a whimsical spell like that memorized! Together they step on to the pond and skate. When they come to a stop, Nathaniel apologizes for not expressing his love in the accepted traditionally verbal fashion, but Elisabeth tells him that he may not say it, but he shows it. She knows he loves her. Damning the house, they kiss passionately, but luckily the Lovers’ Pact has been fulfilled and the old magic dissipates! As they celebrate, a sobering thought occurs to Elisabeth… what day is it? They’ve suffered the whims of the prudish spell on the house for ten days, which means the Midwinter Ball is tomorrow.
Silas has obviously been busy preparing while they were outside. He helps Elisabeth dress and do her hair, then presses a dressmaker's card, Lady Tremayne’s, into her hand, along with a list of instructions for the seamstress. He whisks her through the servants' corridors to a hidden carriage. Collecting Katrien on the way, together they head to the magical dressmaker. After a whirlwind time in Lady Tremayne’s, Elisabeth returns to Thorn Manor, finding Nathaniel using Austermeer’s Complete Fairy Tales to create magical scenes around the ballroom.
Silas comes to inform Nathaniel the guests are already arriving and refuses to strangle Nathaniel with his own cravat. He also informs Elisabeth that it wouldn’t be the thing for a demon to attend the ball, especially as he can’t hide amongst the servants, and speaking of, Silas hands Mercy packages and a dress from the pile Elisabeth brought home, telling her to enjoy herself and take the night off.
Eventually they have to open the doors of Thorn Manor to the line of guests waiting outside. Once the introductions are done, Elisabeth is able to escape to get ready with Silas’s help. Katrien looks amazing in the dress Silas arranged for her, and together they coax Mercy out. Elisabeth struggles to find Nathaniel until a drunk guest loudly addresses him. Together they dance for an hour. Once they part for refreshment, Elisabeth finds him again being accosted by a devilishly handsome man pining for the kiss they shared in Lord Ingram’s linen closet. Nathaniel, looking awkward, tells him he can’t rekindle anything, he’s engaged and Nathaniel magics an engagement ring on Elisabeth’s hand.
As the ball goes on, Silas heads into the cellar. It’s a dark and gloomy place, humming with the magic from the wards. The week before last Silas found it easy enough to wake Clothilde’s magic and is very pleased with the results. Nathaniel clearly needed an intervention otherwise he wouldn’t have done anything for years and Silas is impatient to plan the wedding. He’s already picked out the flowers! Silas heads to the farthest cell which holds a pentagram which has summoned him many times. Using his blood, Silas summons the Great Devourer and gives it Clothilde’s dressing gown.