Pics + Things
Fell Hall, Derbyshire, 1821
Miranda is eleven...
Miranda woke to see her sister’s angry face above her, glaring down at her with light blue eyes that Miranda always thought looked like the sky. She had spent much time gazing up at the endless pale blue from the gardens of Fell Hall, her home. Miranda thought her sister’s eyes pretty, and envied them, but, being her sister, she took them for granted.
‘What’s wrong?’ she sighed, staring up at Victoria, who had gone a peculiar shade of red.
‘Pray tell me why there is a winged mouse standing on my dressing table in the place of my silver hairbrush!’ Victoria yelled.
‘I thought your hair looked untidy. No wonder, if you tried to brush it with a winged mouse!’ muttered Miranda cheekily, eyeing the furious flush spreading over her sister’s normally pale cheeks.
‘Turn it back, you little varmint!’ shouted Victoria, grabbing Miranda’s wrists as she struggled, tangled in the bedclothes. She sighed and rolled over, slipping her feet into her silvery slippers. They were made from cobwebs, and held together by magic, but that didn’t bother Miranda a bit. She liked them because they were Silence Slippers, and masked every sound she made whilst wearing them. Ideal for sneaking around, really.
Miranda started hurrying towards Victoria’s bedchambers in the East Wing, which was the opposite side of the house to her bedroom (at Victoria’s insistence), with her sister right behind her, still pinning her arms behind her back. On their way they passed a few servants, including Eliza, the new maid, who was sweeping the floor. Her eyes went round as she took in the scene.
‘Miss Victoria, do you need to be holdin’ Miss Miranda’s arms be’ind her back like that? She ain’t done nothin’ wrong, ‘as she?’ she asked hesitantly. Miranda liked how Eliza always stood up for her when she saw Victoria being mean to her.
‘She certainly has done something wrong! She has completely ruined a priceless family heirloom by transforming it into a winged rodent, no less!’ Victoria bristled, exaggerating as usual.
Miranda hadn’t ruined the hairbrush, she could easily turn it back. Eliza’s shocked eyes brought a hot surge of anger to her skin. All she had done was enliven the image of the Fell emblem on the back of the brush-the mouse in the roses. With the addition of the wings. The wings must have come because Miranda had been wondering why the Fell emblem couldn’t include one of those dragons everyone said were living somewhere in Fell Hall, so she could give Victoria a real fright.
It had been a relatively difficult spell, actually. For it she had needed part of the image, which meant having to sneak into Victoria’s bedroom-wearing the Silence Slippers, of course-at midnight, stealing a clump of brown hair from the brush, and trying not to giggle as she thought of Victoria’s face when she saw a mouse on her dressing table.
Miranda moodily blew a lock of hair from her face, walked the last few steps to Victoria’s room, and nudged the door open with her toe. Luckily, it wasn’t a heavy ornate door set with a stained glass window like the ones in the older part of the house, but a light wooden one with an iron door handle. A few years ago, Victoria had glamoured the handle to look like solid gold, but the spell had mostly worn off now, so you had dull grey and the occasional glitter of gold.
Victoria released her hands, which fell to her sides. Miranda inspected the red patches on her wrists, feeling the familiar rush of magic race to her fingertips. Miranda loved doing spells of any kind-even reversing flying rodents to please angry sisters.
She looked about for the mouse, absently noting the gold framed portraits, cherry embroidered rug and curtains, exotic orange silk eiderdown, old dolls’ house, pretty dressing table and big oak wardrobe that furnished her sister’s large room. It had been a while since Miranda had been in there, apart from last night, and then it had all been shrouded in darkness anyway.
She glanced out of the French windows. Victoria’s room overlooked the gardens, and a small balcony jutted out from the enormous stone building around it. It was spring, and tiny white lambs stood out, pale flecks on the picturesque green hills. Miranda could see fields of flowers, and the oak tree she had had a treehouse in when she was little. Nowdays, she liked to curl up and read on a little wooden swing tied to the strongest branch of the oak.
Her mind snapped back into action when Victoria prodded her sharply in the back. She scoured the floor for signs of the mouse. Hearing a squeak, Miranda squatted down to look beneath the bed. There was the mouse.
She stared at it in fascination. It wasn’t a sweet little white mouse, like the ones that plagued the lower floors-possibly due to a failed spell from a few years ago-, but rather, big, and furry, and brown. It was how Miranda had always imagined the Fell mouse. The most startling thing about the mouse, however, was its wings. She had assumed they would be furry, and like the rest of the mouse, perhaps with pink undersides like its ears, but no.
She could see two scaly silver dragon’s wings protruding from the mouse’s silky back. They shone in the weak morning light, and had little talons on the tips. It looked eerie, and wrong. Miranda could almost understand why Victoria was so cross with her for turning her prized silver hairbrush into this thing.
‘Get rid of it!’ spat Victoria. ‘Wings? Silver wings? Really, Miri?’
‘They’re silver, obviously, um...because your brush was silver-or perhaps I was thinking of Argent, the fabled silver dragon...’ Miranda trailed off, stretching out her fingers. A faint silverish fog enveloped the strange little creature on the rug. It scampered forward anxiously. Miranda muttered under her breath:
‘This furry mouse, these silver wings,
Let them be,
A brush so fine, so polished,
In it I can see,
A little girl, a Fell, a witch,
Miranda Fell I be,
Turn it back to what it was,
In it I see me!’
It wasn’t a great rhyme, but it would have to do. Obviously, the spellbook she had got the ‘enlivening image’ spell from hadn’t given any guidance on reverse chants-but why would a spellbook be useful like that anyway?
One day, Miranda promised herself. One day I’ll write a spellbook that gives guidance and examples on everything. No more guessing or experiments.
Slowly, the mouse started transforming. The wings shrivelled and shrunk, and the mouse grew smaller, until it was just a painted image on the back of a brush that had somehow appeared without Miranda noticing.
‘There.’ she said, handing the hairbrush to Victoria, who scowled, and shuddered as it made contact with her skin.
As Miranda turned to leave, she realised her feet were stuck to the ground. Really stuck. She couldn’t move them at all. She sighed. Victoria’s magic was strong, when she bothered to use it.
Ever since she was seven, and Victoria ten, she had had to endure things like this a lot. What made it worse was that at the start, she couldn’t fight back. She had a vague memory of being frozen and locked in a cupboard for several hours, until her mother found her, after a particularly violent fight, in which she had given Victoria many bruises.
Luckily, Miranda’s magic had shown itself the very next year, and she was able to start defending herself, and even fling a few spells of her own at her sister. Eight was quite early for magic to be coming out-it normally waited until you were at least nine, maybe even ten, like Victoria-and Miranda sometimes wondered if the reason her magic had shown itself was because she had so badly wanted to get back at Victoria.
Miranda glanced at her sister, who was sitting at her dressing table, humming as she brushed her hair-only her hair wasn’t normally as long as that, was it? Or as glossy? Normally, it was mud brown and as straight as a rod, but today it was curly, and had the auburn tints that Victoria always swore were in her hair, in it. Miranda blinked. Victoria was glamouring again.
She tried to ease out of the spell so she could escape without the humiliation of having to beg her sister to free her, but it was a very strong spell. Her sister’s powers must be growing-surely the last binding had been weaker than this?
Silently, Miranda cursed.
Victoria turned around, smirked as she saw Miranda struggling to free herself, and asked pleasantly, ‘Are you still here?’
As soon as I get out of this, I’m going straight to the library and casting the dirtiest curse I can find on her.
‘Obviously.’ said Miranda, discreetly feeling the air around her ankles. It felt like rope was coiled all over her legs, looping around her calves and pulled taught.
‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get, you know.’ said Victoria, smoothing down her tresses of hair.
‘Can you let me go back to my room.’ said Miranda with gritted teeth, phrasing it as a sentence, rather than a question. She distracted herself from her humiliation by mentally considering Victoria’s glamour.
Hmmm...To a stranger, she would look beautiful, but to someone who knows her-the real her-she looks wrong. It’s a very strong spell, because I can’t hear or smell anything unusual-or can I? Does Vicky use lavender perfume? I smell lavender, and it’s not Aunt Hepzibah, because her rooms are on the other side of the house...Wait a minute! Victoria uses rose perfume! In that flower shaped bottle Mother and Father got her for Christmas! There is a smell!
Her sister cocked her head, her suspiciously chestnut coloured hair flowing down her back in little waves. Miranda knew exactly what she meant. ‘Please.’
I’ll turn her into a frog, like those fairy tales.
I’ll turn her hair to snakes, like Medusa.
I’ll make her sink through the floor so she’ll fall all the way down to the kitchens.
Miranda’s feet were knocked from the floor with an invisible force so strong she fell to her knees. She got up, her shoulders slumped, and started backing out of the room.
‘Call Elizabeth on your way out. I need someone to lace up my corsets and fix my hair.’ Victoria announced in a bored voice, turning back to the mirror.
Her hair certainly needs fixing, Miranda thought grimly, calling loudly for Elizabeth. Perhaps I’ll cut it off. But then she could make it grow again by clicking her fingers, and I’d only get into trouble. Oh, it’s so irritating!
Elizabeth was Victoria’s maid. She had fair hair, a rather big nose and a silly expression. Vicky loved having a private maid to fuss around her at all times, but Miranda dreaded her thirteenth birthday, when she would get a lady’s maid of her own. Why would she want someone always prying into her private affairs? Unless it was someone like Eliza, who she felt sure would not tell a soul what she was up to-even if it was against the rules.
Miranda raced back towards the West Wing, where she could get dressed in private-no lady’s maid doing up her corsets, thank you-before breakfast. Then she would spend the next few hours looking up curses that could be wielded by an eleven year old in the library, until her magic lesson at eleven o’clock in the second workroom.
When Miranda’s magic had first started to show itself, in the means of odd sparks and globs of spells staining the Indian carpets, there had been talk of her being apprenticed to Sir William Wetherby, but Miranda hated that idea so much that she took to flinging half-formed spells around with her eyes screwed shut every time it was brought up. Fell Hall was her home, and she didn’t want to leave it. Eventually the idea was dropped, after a total of twenty-seven small statues exploded, and half of a priceless tapestry was sent to another realm. As a result, the Fells were no longer at peace with the Wetherbys. They never invited each other to celebrations, and took to sending each other minor curses and lists of spells their children had mastered.
Victoria and Miranda were the only Fell children at present. The Fells’ peak had been around a hundred years ago, when the house had held dozens, everyone related to each other, and guests had danced until midnight in the ballroom, waltzing around in vibrant dress...Miranda’s mother used to tell her stories, and every so often, she would see a reflection of those glittering balls in a mirror, or see ten vaguely-similar looking children playing games in the pond in the courtyard. The house remembered, and it remembered wistfully.
Since those days, the Fells had gone into decline. Miranda and Victoria were the only children, unless other magical families came to stay, as they did very occasionally-though not the Wetherbys. There were a few almost-grown-up cousins, who visited every summer, but on the whole, the house was very empty. Not even half of the many rooms were used. There was only Victoria, Miranda, their parents, Aunt Hepzibah and Uncle Albert, and around fourteen servants.
Officially, Miranda was apprenticed to Uncle Albert, but really it was Aunt Hepzibah who took most of her lessons, as Uncle Albert was an invalid. Victoria was also apprenticed to ‘Uncle Albert,’ but her lessons were at a different time, because she was learning more advanced things, being three years older than Miranda.
Miranda liked Aunt Hepzibah. She was kind, and patient, and-here was the important thing-she seemed to like Miranda more than Victoria (though she never said so. That would be most improper. Obviously.) Plain, (apparently) pig-headed Miranda. Over pretty, petite Victoria.
If Aunt Hepzibah caught Miranda daydreaming during lessons, she would shake her head and say, ‘Miranda! Dear, you’re never going to be a great magician if you don’t pay attention when learning about basic elemental spirits! Here, I’ll let you off just this once, but if I catch you daydreaming again, you’ll have fifty lines of I must listen to Aunt Hepzibah. And no magic to speed up the writing!’ The thing was, Aunt Hepzibah never actually carried out this threat. She let Miranda off again and again.
Her magic lesson would last for around an hour, and then it would be time for lunch. At one o’clock Miranda would take a walk in the gardens, or retreat to her rooms and lay the curse on Victoria, and practice a few spells. Then at three o’clock it would be time for lessons in the drawing room.
From when Victoria was six to when she was eight, she had had a governess, Miss Feather-until their mother’s diamond brooch went missing. Miss Feather’s rooms were searched, and found to be full of little, valuable things: silver teaspoons, squares of delicate embroidery, small china ornaments-and their mother’s diamond brooch.
Miss Feather was sent away, and the Fells didn’t want to take their chances with another governess, so lessons were now taught by the family.
Miranda had half an hour’s reading, writing and arithmetic with Aunt Hepzibah, French with her mother for half an hour, ten minute’s Latin with her father, and embroidery and crochet alternatively with Aunt Hepzibah for twenty minutes, on every day except for Sundays.
That would bring her up to afternoon tea at half past four, after which Miranda occasionally had a deportment or dancing lesson with Aunt Hepzibah in the Great Hall (the part that gave Fell Hall its name, as their ancestor, Richard Fell, had only built the hall, the chapel next to it, and the limestone cellars beneath it. The rest was added in over the centuries). Usually, however, the family, or at least Miranda and Victoria, played ‘parlour games’ until dinner at six o’clock sharp.
That was time for dinner, after which everyone would go back to their rooms, and blow out their candles at half past eight exactly.
That was how it was, most days, everyday, sometimes, all the time. Miranda wished for adventure every day, that the dragons would wake up, or that Fell Hall would be besieged by the greedy Wetherbys, or that she would discover a spellbook full of the most incredible spells-spells for flying, spells for conjuring up friendly people to speak to, spells for setting a certain sister’s hair on fire...It would make life a great deal more interesting, knowing that things like that could be just around the corner-and it would show everyone that Miranda could be brave and clever, if only she was given the chance.
Miranda reached the West Wing at last, and hurriedly threw on undergarments, a plain petticoat, stockings, and a knee length sky-blue dress with only a tiny amount of floral embroidery-a couple of white lilies adorned the hem, but that was all. It would do, for today. She wasn’t doing anything special.
Her plans were dashed when she ran into her mother on the stairs. She was swishing along in a long French-style gown made of rustling pink silk. It was so fancy that Miranda was immediately suspicious.
‘Miranda! Don’t run!’ her mother said reproachfully. ‘I certainly hope you won’t be behaving like that at court later!’
Miranda gaped, horrified. ‘Nobody told me we were going to court!’
She hated going to court. It wasn’t the adventure it should have been. Instead, it was long hours of sitting in a large, grand room, listening to people making boring speeches, and having ‘proper manners’ for once.
Also, the Wetherbys would probably be there too, seeing as a few of them were ennobled, and Miranda was scared that the Fells would look shoddy compared to them. They wouldn’t be able to look them in the eye, either, because Laurel Wetherby, who was only ten, had mastered glamours three weeks ago, if the gloating letter was to be believed, and yet Miranda, who was eleven, was limited to streaks of hair turning alarmingly ginger, and frocks growing a few inches downwards.
‘Close your mouth! Of course we’re going! The Prince and Princess of Wales have had a baby, Miranda! We need to go and bless their child-Sophia, I believe she is to be christened-or else it would look disrespectful, and respect to the king is not something we can afford to lose. Now, go and get changed into the clothes I’ve had Jane lay out for you.’
Angrily, Miranda stomped away, and slammed her door. She examined the outfit on the bed, and her shoulders slumped.
It was pale pink, and had a very full skirt. Miranda groaned. It was made of silk, but had floaty net sleeves beneath the puffs. There were Talish frills everywhere, and little pink rosebuds were dotted around the frock. One rose, on her left sleeve, had a tiny, furry brown mouse clinging to the petals. Miranda stroked it thoughtfully, thinking about the winged mouse she had enlivened in Victoria’s bedroom that morning. Instead of the deep pink fur-lined velvet cape, also decorated with rosebuds, she slung on her peacock shawl, and marched off to the terrace. Perhaps the peacocks would make her feel better. Suddenly...
‘Aaarghhh!’ The scream echoed around the house.
By Beatrix Your stories