The entrance to The Pile was guarded by two winged lions. They crouched on either side of the old stone archway and bared their fangs above the wood-and-iron gate. Time and immobility had diminished none of their lethal power. Their muscles still rippled under their stone exteriors, and their sightless eyes seemed to glimmer with latent malice. In Coombe-under-Wold, the village in the valley known locally as Cleft-under-Crag, it was whispered that darkness animated the creatures on every night save one, when the moon was new and its brightness concealed. But common sense told me that Guardians of the Gate are not governed by celestial bodies. It is not daylight but eyesight that binds them, Gorgon-like, to their columns. They would not hesitate to abandon their posts in broad daylight as soon as one’s back was turned and the spell broken.
If it had not been for me, the chauffeur would never have made it back to the car alive. The man had boldly gone to confront the heavy gate. After a fierce onslaught, a sudden thrust had subdued the lock and cleaved the gate in two. Now, as both sides fell back with an ominous clang, a murder of crows shot out of the trees that lined the drive and fled, screaming, into the twilight. But the green-liveried, black-booted knight took no heed of these ill omens. At the first flush of victory, he presumptuously turned his back on the Guardians and strolled back to his four-wheeled steed. It was all I could do to hold the fell creatures in their places, glaring at first the one and then the other until the fool was safely back inside the quivering vehicle.
The man shifted the engine back into gear and the car lurched forward. I wiped fog off the window with my mittened hand. If I was about to die, I was determined not to miss anything.
The closer we got to the gate, the more impossible it became to watch both Guardians at the same time. They loomed larger and larger until the car was right under their noses. In awe, I gazed up at the left-hand Guardian. Its brows were creased and its nostrils were flared. The stone around its nose was drawn back into a snarl that revealed sharp white canines and a mercilessly pointed tongue. I shrank back against the leather seat, but I could feel the monster’s empty eyes following me until the car was out of sight.
“Nearly there, miss.”
I met the chauffeur’s gaze in the rearview mirror. His recklessness had almost cost us our lives, and we were not out of the woods yet—not metaphorically—not even literally. His gaze flickered and fell.
I turned my attention to the window, where branches seemed to be sprouting out of my reflection in the glass. My head disappeared and reappeared with each flash of slate-blue sky. Suddenly, the tip of a spire twinkled above the tress, followed by a series of flashes lower down: the sinking sun sending a last SOS through upper story windows. The drive dipped around a curve and the front of the manor came into view.
It was an old, sprawling edifice situated in a shallow combe. Its lopsided walls gave the appearance of movement, as if the manor were running to reclaim its outbuildings, which the wind, whistling down through the wold, had blown before it. I would not have been surprised if the entire place had flown toward me, arms outstretched and shawl askew, like the White Queen in Through the Looking-Glass.
The chauffeur stopped the car and stepped out. As he opened my door, a gust of wind shrieked down through the wold and nearly tore the handle from his hand.
“It’s only the wind, miss,” he reassured me.
Grownups never have anything interesting to contribute, I reflected, as I stepped onto the gravel drive. Their tragedy is that they outgrow the only things worth bothering about.
A grey-garbed figure appeared above us on the front steps.