The Beast of Ashwood Manor by Jordan Lee

people, and I had to be the most out of place one of them all. Not that I pitied myself by any means, but when I arrived in the busy town a year ago, I imagined my life much differently: full of excitement and new friends.

But that was then, and this was now.

Town life supposedly came with greater opportunities than anything I could find in a small village like the one I was raised in, but I hadn’t really found them yet. The hustle and bustle of Tolburg was more than what I was used to after living in the countryside for so long, but after a year of living here, I also found the town life to be bland. It didn’t help that I still looked like a farm boy.

“Chase any pigs around today?” Mr. Porter, the butcher, laughed as I walked by.

I gave him a tight smile, as always, and stood before the fruit stall, twiddling with the moon charm around my neck as I looked over the apples.

A woman in a heavy looking dress walked by, and I couldn’t help but notice how nice it looked. Dark colors were all the fashion these days, rich hues of burgundy and black-and-white striped shirts beneath dark-colored vests and trousers. I hadn’t yet earned enough money to buy myself anything more suitable than what I had on: faded brown trousers, worn boots, and a rather outdated vest over my cream-colored shirt.

“You getting anything or not?” the man behind the produce stall barked at me.

I snapped to attention and glanced over the display of red, yellow, and green apples. Greta, the tavern’s cook, would want the yellow apples for pies. At least, that’s what I hoped.

Yellow is what she told me to get, wasn’t it? I can’t remember.

I’d always seen my mother bake pies with yellow apples and assumed the same with Greta.

After packing a basketful, I paid for them and left. Along the path to the tavern, I spotted a small whitish rock—‍a wonderful addition to my collection. I picked it up and pocketed it before coming into the warm, spacious kitchen of Leigh’s Tavern. I placed the basket down and set to work peeling the fruit.

Greta came up and peered at me. When she eyed the apples, she smacked me with her rag, making me flinch. “I said Granny Smith!” she barked. “When are you going to listen to what I tell you to do?”

“I wasn’t sure if I heard you right,” I replied. “Gold Delicious is usually the best for pies.”

“Says who?” Greta placed her hands on her hips and looked up at me, her round nose pink and her plump cheeks flushed. “Next time I tell you Granny Smith, you’d better get them, or I’ll make you leave the kitchen with no leftovers!”

The memory of my mother and I going at least a month without much food washed over me, and I could feel my stomach rumbling already at the mere thought.

I don’t want to go hungry ever again. I don’t think I could bear it.

“Yes ma’am.” I turned away with a sinking feeling in my chest at making a mistake. If only I’d listened more carefully to Greta, paid attention to her more closely.

I kneaded the dough for the pie faster, but once it was rolled out, Greta took over the rest. She gave orders to the other girls in the kitchen, and one of them giggled when Greta walked out.

“She’s in an extra foul mood today,” Julia said, tossing her blonde hair over her shoulder.

Bella snorted, rolling her brown eyes. “Probably because she caught her husband being handsy with the new barmaid last night.”

I listened in silence, as I always did. Julia and Bella were the best at gossiping. If you needed to know something, they were the ones to find to get the juicy details. Affairs, drunks, lies, or dabbling in witchery, if the word sparked, they spread the rumor.

I steered clear of them as best I could. While I was still fairly new in their eyes, there were many things I didn’t want them to know about me. They’d tried to pry many times, but I never once told them where I came from, who my mother is, or that I prefer men over women. Eventually, they’d find out the latter, but for now, it didn’t have to be known.

“Bella, I forgot the cherries!” Julia looked over at me and then down at my dark-red hands as I mixed them. “Cale, are those . . .‍?”

“They’re not ready yet,” I said, wiping my cheek on my sleeve.

“I didn’t know you were still mixing them. I forgot to put them in the mixed berry pie.”

“Sorry, I had a late start today.” I added a bit more sugar in—some grains sticking to my hand—and stirred as quickly as I could. “Greta was already on me about the apples.”

Bella looked in the brick oven. “The apple pies still have a while. Just open the berry pie and add the cherries before she gets back.”

I brought the bowl over as Julia pulled back the strips of dough, and I mixed in most of the cherries and watched as Bella spread the concoction out.

Sometimes, I wondered if I would be doing this for the rest of my life, making food in a kitchen and being forced to listen to people gossiping and barking orders. I would probably die a lonely man with no friends because of how inept I am, though I’m sure my mother would at least come to my funeral, should I die before her.

When Greta came back into the kitchen, she was ready to snap back on us. “Get those pies out in ten minutes,” she told the girls. Her eyes narrowed on me. “By the way, Cale, I forgot a letter came for you yesterday.” She pulled the small envelope from her pocket and held it in front of me.

As I reached for it, she snapped it back. “I expect you to finish your duties here first.”

“I’ll leave it in my pocket,” I said.

Making a sour face, she gave it to me and turned for the pantry.

I glowered at her back before looking down at the letter, despite already knowing its sender. The cream-hued letter had my name etched in elegant black ink. In the corner was a design of flowers. Not just any flower, but tulips, my mother’s favorite.

“Who’s the letter from, Cale?” Bella teased, smiling impishly. “Have you got an admirer?”

I shook my head. “Not exactly.”

“Let us see!” Julia started. She plucked the envelope from my hand before I had time to protest. “Oh, there are flowers in the corner. Look, Bella, our little Cale does have an admirer.” She scrunched her shoulders up in excitement.

I tried to snatch it back, but Bella grabbed it first. “Oh, do open it, Cale, so we can see who it’s from. I know a few girls who fancy you.”

“No one’s reading anything until these pies are done!” Greta slammed her rolling pin on the table of half‍-‍cut vegetables, making us all jump.

Bella threw the letter back at me, but it fell, and I grabbed it up, thankful no one had opened it. As much as I tried to stay calm, this made my blood rush, and I huffed steam out my nose as I turned back around to the table to cut vegetables‍—‍rather aggressively at that.

“Don’t get so mad, Cale, we’re only teasing you,” Julia said. “Goodness.”

Julia and Bella laughed behind their hands as they went back to their work, and I kept my eyes on the cutting board, grinding my teeth to keep from saying anything in return. All it ever got me was flak from Greta, and the last thing I needed was her sending me out of the kitchen with no food. But the letter was heavy in my pocket‍—‍adding to the weight that was already sinking me lower and lower with every passing minute.

After I was finished in the kitchen, I made my way up to my room, which was little more than a storage closet. In fact, it had been the storage closet at one time. I considered myself lucky; allowing me a job at the biggest tavern in Tolburg came with a place to stay, even if that space was only big enough for a cot.

I glanced over my folded clothes on the shelf above the bed, my eyes roaming over all the colorful rocks sitting between them and on the sides. I slipped the white rock from earlier out of my pocket and placed it on the shelf beside the others waiting to be painted. I’d had to put up another shelf just to accommodate more.

Seeing my paints nearly gone, I sighed.

I’ll have to make more colors soon and buy the ones I can’t make.

I changed out of my stained kitchen clothes and pulled on a clean button-up shirt and trousers. Then I pulled my suspenders up and sat at the foot of my bed. I took out my letter and stared at it. It was crumpled now, the ink smudged from wiping my wet hands on my pants.

My hands shook as I opened it, but I wasn’t really sure what I expected. As someone who can’t read good, letters always intimidated me. Luckily, my mother knew just how awful my reading skills were and kept it short.

Cale,It has been 4 months since I saw you. I expect you home by the Spring Tide.

I sighed, reading it over several times until I understood everything. The things that stood out were the number four and Spring Tide, and I gathered from these words that she was upset that I hadn’t come and seen her for four months and that she wanted me home for the Spring Tide festival. My mother partook in it every year, selling charms or candles infused with sage, thyme, and lavender that might help clear out spirits from one’s house during spring cleaning.

The letter hadn’t reached me in time for me to partake in the weeklong activities leading up to the festival, and since Greta didn’t give me the letter until today, I wasn’t sure if I would make it. My stomach did flips at the thought of not going, not only because I would feel bad not going to see my mother, but because she would be angry if I didn’t come home.

Plopping back on the bed, I put the letter aside and looked at it. I didn’t want to go back home. There were too many faces I didn’t want to see. Faces that had teased and tormented me, faces that had hurt me. Tolburg was my life now, even if it was just as lonely here. At least nobody knew about my mother, and nobody knew I was good for nothing besides being some kitchen knave or farm boy. Here, I was just a common face in a sea of people.

But I knew I would end up caving in and going back home to Briar Glen, at least for a visit. I would only stay long enough for the festival, though I dreaded the thought of my mother wanting me there even longer.

In the morning, after packing my suitcase with two pairs of clothes and a few rocks and my paint set, I went to Greta to inform her of my sudden summons to home.

She was rather prickly about me leaving and said nothing at first as she rolled out biscuits. Then she said, “I hope you left your room free of food so the mice don’t get in.”

“It’s spotless,” I told her.

Greta nodded and looked back at Bella. “You and Julia will pull extra work until I find someone else to fill in.”

Bella’s shoulders shrank, and she picked up her speed in the kitchen.

“I expect you back here in a week,” Greta told me.

“I’ll do my best to—”

“A week, Cale.” She glared at me, and I went tight-lipped.

Nodding, I said, “A week.” Honestly, I was glad I’d be able to come back to a job at all.

I left Tolburg with nothing more than my suitcase and light cloak. Despite not wanting to go home, I was happy to have a break from the tavern kitchen. Working there was beginning to wear me down, and I swear, my hands always smell like food—onions mostly, and the smell always makes me hungry.

As I followed the main dirt road out of town, I passed several people walking or driving carts in and out of Tolburg, and there were both faces I recognized and some that were new.

When I saw Thad Birch, an assistant to the town herbalist, I smiled and nodded at him. “Hello,” I said.

Thad only glanced at me as I went, as if trying to figure out who I was, before looking away.

It felt as if my whole body sank into the ground. The people of Tolburg weren’t a very friendly sort, but how could they be after working in the steam factories or the coal mines every day? I might as well be invisible to them. I was rather used to it, but it didn’t make me feel any better. If people weren’t ignoring me, they were teasing me, and I couldn’t figure out why. Was it because I liked to paint and talk about rocks? Maybe I needed to take that out of the conversations I had with people . . . Or maybe it was because of my clothes?

I glanced down at my plain clothes. They were my best, and even then, the trousers were the same ones I wore yesterday, and my red vest was so worn, the fabric balled up. A button was missing on my shirt, though no one could see that underneath my vest, and my boots were rather scuffed, no matter how hard I’d tried cleaning them yesterday.

Sighing, I looked ahead as dark clouds billowed overhead. I was at least four miles out of Tolburg by now. I would have to spend the night in a tavern on the road, but if the rain came before nightfall, I would have to seek shelter near a tree or brace for the storm.

When thunder rumbled and the rain started, I pulled my hood up over my head. The Lucky Dog was at least another five miles down the road—a fitting name for anyone like me coming to it out of the rain. It was only afternoon, but it was chilly, and I needed to find someplace to wait out the weather.

When I came to the crossroads, I saw the signpost that pointed straight towards the tavern, but it was still a good distance away. I looked around for a good tree to shelter under, and my gaze landed on a path to my left—the path that led into Ashwood, the forest that nobody went into.

The road that way was overgrown with weeds since it wasn’t traveled often, if at all, but for some reason, I felt drawn to it. Why shouldn’t I go there? The canopy of thick trees looked much better to shelter under than out here in the open.

I’d heard tales about Ashwood, of strange animals that had been seen in there, or fae folk that lured children in to kill them or turn them into goblins. There was even a rumor going on about a wolfman, and I laughed, trying to imagine what such a thing looked like.

All folly. I know those things were only made up to keep children away from such dangerous forests. I fell for it myself when I was younger.

The only thing that was mysterious about Ashwood was that supposedly a lord had once lived there and left because of how haunted it was. But it was daytime, and I wasn’t afraid of ghosts. I was also incredibly hungry and needed someplace to eat what little I’d brought.

Clinging to my suitcase, I rushed along the overgrown path. Once I dipped beneath the canopy of the trees, the rain wasn’t as aggressive, but I was still drenched.

The sky darkened the farther I went. The main road was no longer within my sight, but I was sure if I pressed on that I would find a suitable place to rest.

Not far into the forest, a building came into view. I rushed towards it, my heart glowing at the thought of a warm, dry place. But when I reached it, I stumbled to a stop.

Set within a grove of cherry trees, a crumbling stone wall surrounded a dilapidated building. It looked like a manor, only dark and abandoned, with broken windows and shingles. Parts of a fountain lay strewn across the grass, and the stones that made up the path before the door were loose and broken. The only colorful things were the pink blooming trees that surrounded it.

I held back when I noticed how eerie it looked, but when lightning struck nearby, nearly scaring me out of my skin, I ran for the building.

The door opened easily, thank goodness. Inside, broken glass and ceramic pottery pieces littered the floor. There were a few drips from the ceiling, and a few plants grew in the corner, but overall, it was dry.

Shivering, I set my suitcase on the floor and pulled off my cloak. “Hello?” I ventured, my voice echoing.

No one answered. The wind was the only thing I could hear.

A staircase sat in the middle of the room. If the storm raged on into the evening, I might just have to stay here, and I decided I would check any rooms upstairs if that were to happen. For now, I pulled the wrapped bread out of my bag, my stomach incredibly hollow after walking for so long, only to drop it right into a puddle on the floor.

“No!” I picked it back up to find it soggy and dirty, and my spirit dampened.

I picked a piece off and grimaced. It would have to be this or nothing.

When I brought it to my nose, I smelled only the mustiness of it at first, but then I smelled something fresher. Looking up, I caught sight of a silver plate of fruit sitting on a rough-looking table.

Is someone else living here?

Coming up to the table, I glanced down at the plate. Plump red grapes curved around a morsel of steaming buttered bread. Big blueberries and strawberries lay around it, as well as a handful of sunflower seeds.

My mouth watered. I had only had an apple this morning for breakfast, as my money was low and I needed to conserve it. And the bread looked much better than the one I had.

But whose is this? I shouldn’t be eating someone else’s food. But my rumbling stomach told me otherwise. I’ll only eat a few.

Picking up the berries, I devoured them. I ate the bread, groaning at its softness, and shoveled the seeds into my mouth.

After eating half the plate, I heard a noise from behind. I whirled around, my heart pounding, but saw nothing. When I turned back to the plate, I noticed the table looked different—it was no longer a dull gray wood that was nearly falling apart, but a rich mahogany.

I looked up, my eyes widening as the room seemed to change. The air grew warm, and beautiful blue rugs splayed out on the carpeted floors. The walls were clean, and the door was intact. The staircase was grand, with rich-blue carpet lining the stairs.

I rubbed my eyes, wondering what was in the food I had just eaten. When I pulled my hands away, I jerked back against the table. Before me were three women moving about the room; two women placed flowers in vases, while another walked up the stairs.

It took a few minutes before someone noticed me standing frozen.

“Oh!” a young woman started. “A new face. Annie, a new face!”

I gripped the table hard and swallowed.

The young woman came up to me, followed by an older blonde lady.

The blond looked me over and raised her brows, and I grimaced, not liking the way she looked at me.

“Won’t Lord Gil be pleased?” the young girl asked, her dark hair pinned into a bun at the nape of her neck.

“That’s for him to decide,” the blonde, Annie, said in a dull voice. “Stand up straight, lad. You’re soaking wet.”

“Oh, I-I’m sorry,” I stammered, straightening my back quickly and stepping away from her, her taller stature still looming over me. “I was caught out in the rain.”

“Does it look like it’s raining?”

Furrowing my brows, I glanced outside the window nearby to see the sun shining. “What? It was just raining. N-none of this was here!”

“It’s all right.” The young girl patted my arm reassuringly, but I recoiled. Who were these people?

“Am I . . . dead?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, no,” Annie remarked.

The other maid with long red hair flocked my way. Looking me up and down, she smiled. “Oh, he is adorable.”

“Lord Gil will want to see him,” said the young brunette woman.

“Of course he will,” Annie intervened, crossing her arms. “He’s a new face.”

The redhead rolled her eyes. “Well, I’m not taking him upstairs to that grump. Mary can.”

“I would love to!”

“Shush!” Annie silenced them both. “I will take care of this.” She looked at me and said, “Come with me.”

When she moved away, I followed behind her, looking around at the wide-open space that made up the foyer of the manor. The walls were dark brown, the floor was wood, and the ceiling was high. It looked like there were two side rooms on either end of the foyer.

When Annie suddenly stopped in front of me, I nearly ran into her.

Grunting, I followed her eyes up the staircase to see a man standing at the top.

“Who’s this?” the man asked, his voice rough like sandpaper.

“A new face, my lord,” Annie said, bowing her head.

The other women bowed their heads too, staying silent.

“I-I’m sorry, sir,” I said. “I didn’t know this place was occupied. I only needed to get out of the storm.”

When the man came slowly down the stairs, I tensed. He was tall, his shoulders broad. His trousers were black, and he wore a dark tattered cloak. As he drew near, his eyes bore into mine. His beard was scruffy, and his short brown hair was disheveled on the top but cut low on the sides. A scar ran across his cheek, going up into his hairline, and there was a place in the middle of his left eyebrow where the hair didn’t grow.

I took a step back. “I-I can leave,” I told him.

His eyes darted to the door, then back to me. “Where are you from?” he asked. His demeanor and attire didn’t match the flowery decor or mood of the room at all.

“Tolburg, sir,” I replied softly. “I was on my way to visit my village, and a storm came. The closest tavern was very far off, so I hoped to find shelter under the canopy of the forest. I ran into the woods and saw the building here.”

The man cocked his head. “What’s your name?”

“Cale Dawkins, sir.”

For a moment, only silence passed between us. Then he said, “You found your way here. You shall stay.”

Both relief and fear washed over me. This man was intimidating, but he was also offering me a place to stay for the night. At least, that’s what I thought. But the whole idea of it frightened me. I had no idea if I was dreaming or not, and I suddenly didn’t want to stay any longer.

I cleared my throat. “Thank you, but I think I would be better off outside. It’s not even raining anymore. I’ll just see myself out the door.” I smiled and nodded at him. “Good day.”

He frowned at me, and I turned away before he could say anything else.

“My suitcase,” I said, choking on my words. But as I looked around, it was nowhere to be seen. Rather than look for it, I backed away to the door, glancing at the three maids and their curious faces.

Fumbling with the doorknob, I finally opened it and ran out of the manor, tripping over the threshold and outside, where I found a blue sky with a blazing sun. I was no longer in the woods. The breeze blew, and I caught a whiff of something salty, like the sea, nearby. A wall of hedges circled the place in the distance, and in the middle was a gate. I marched down the stone path, glancing at a perfectly sculpted fountain and bushes cut into the shapes of animals. It was all much different from before.

When I reached the gate, I found it locked. I pulled on it, hoping it would open, but it wouldn’t budge. I looked past the bars, unable to see anything but a path that led into the woods several hundred yards away.

I backed away slowly. My heart pounded as I walked along the wall. There had to be another gate somewhere. I could have followed the wall all the way around the manor, but the perimeter was very wide. I didn’t want to risk going to the back of the house and seeing anyone.

Maybe I can climb the hedge.

With a nod, I placed my foot through the bush, and, finding a hold in the wall beneath it, I hoisted myself up. As I did, I noticed the air smelled like manure. I knew that odor. Perhaps there was a farm nearby I could run to.

“I wouldn’t do that.”

I yelped and jumped down, plastering myself against the hedge. My heart pounding, I took in the man from the manor.

He wore a hood over his head now. In the sunlight, the circles under his eyes were harsh against his pale skin. He looked as if he never ventured outside at all.

“The gate’s locked,” I got out.

“It’s kept locked for a reason,” he said.

“Right. Then how do I get out?”

“You don’t.”

My throat tightened. “You said I could pass the night. Was I not supposed to leave in the morning if I stayed?”

“I said you could stay. Not pass the night here. You found my manor. You ate from it. Now you’re bound.”

“Bound to what?” I clenched my fingers in the bushes behind me.

“The curse. You’ve left your world and entered into this realm. And now there’s no going back unless the curse is lifted.”

I shook my head. “H-how is it lifted?”

He raised his chin and stared at me for so long that I looked away. “It can’t be lifted,” he said. “You’re stuck here, just like the rest of us.”

“There’s always a way out of a curse.”

“Not this.”

I pushed the balls of my palms against my eyes. “This isn’t real. It’s not. Wake up, Cale, wake up. You’re being fooled by a mad lot in Ashwood.” After a moment, I peeked out from my fingers to see him still standing there, and I placed them back over my eyes.

“You should come back inside,” the man said.

“No. I-I need to wake up.” Fear seized hold of me. Looking up, I caught sight of the sky, but it looked off, as if a strange yellow hue glowed about it. Something was very wrong, and I was in the midst of it.

A lump formed in my throat. I paced back and forth, curling my fingers in my hair. “Where . . . am I?”

“Calm down,” said the man.

But I couldn’t. Warnings were going off in my mind about the manor, the people, this man. As he stepped towards me, I moved away. I looked around, breathing quickly, and soon, black spots floated over my eyes.

I shrank to my knees, feeling lightheaded. Then I felt his hands on my arms, picking me up.

“Don’t touch me!” I shouted at him. I struggled against him and managed to hit his nose.

I looked away from him, bracing myself for him to retaliate, but he never did.

“You need to calm down,” he growled. “I am not your enemy.”

I shook my head, refusing to believe him. Something was very wrong in this world I was in. My panic had deprived me of air, and I soon fainted.