Inside the big leather case in the back of the cupboard was an instrument that he knew well.
It was a guitar. His mother had only ever played it to him, but his small grey eyes had always followed her delicate fingers, tracing each note until he was confident he could play them himself.
“It’s an antique.” His mother had told him, “You must never touch it.”
On his lap now, he could trace each intricate floral sketch. The wood was alive with images of poppies and roses, hellebores and forget-me-nots...
For two weeks now he had been left alone to tend the farm whilst his parents went off on ‘an expedition of archaeological discovery’, but he had spent most of the time inside, hesitating over the guitar case.
For all he cared, the cows could have broken down their fences and run away to greener pastures, far better than the mulch they were being forced to stand in because of the rain’s refusal to stop. For all it mattered to him, the sheep could have gone into panic from hunger and started to eat each other.
This guitar was all that mattered. This was all he wanted.
Tentatively, he hovered his fingers over the guitar strings, heart threatening to break free from his chest from the fear of the thought that his parents might return any moment now...
With a long breath out, he plucked a single string, pressing the tip of his finger down on it slightly further up.
It rang out beautifully.
Carefully, he plucked more, gradually turning the individual sounds into a melody.
He swallowed, pausing and glancing around.
Outside, night was coming, veiled by rain and cloud, and the moaning of the cattle had started to fall away. Any footsteps would have been buried under the roar of the weather.
Was he really brave enough to do this?
Biting his cheek, he started again, and then parted his lips:
“Sing me tales of the Rose Garden and it’s God,
Like mother always did.
The mother who’s been gone for far too long,
And left her child for dead.
Sing to me of anarchy in our times,
Of uprising and rage,
Tell me tales of dreams of making
The Garden a stage...”
There might have been a creaking sound far on the other side of the house, but he was caught up in his song. The strings vibrated beneath his thin, calloused fingers, the strain of the day melting away with every sound, even as his skin complained against the movement of the instrument.
He could feel the sound within him, and he felt very alive.
“Tell me stories of the past and the future,
The truth’s now forgotten.
I want to know what you’re trying to achieve
And how far you’ve gotten.”
He grimaced at the messy lyrics, and closed his lips tightly, continuing to only strum. Mostly, the improvised melody linked beautifully. For the first time since his parents had left him alone, he felt warm and comfortable.
But a dark figure in the doorway made the song come to a halt with an abrupt snap.
A single antique string curled up to the top of the ebony guitar, broken.
Tea laughed nervously, horror creeping through his veins.
His mum was going to be furious… this was important to her…
“Well...” He sighed shakily, “It’s not quite as dead as the sheep...”
The figure in the door was hidden beneath an ivy cloak, but their hands were small and the colour of caramel.
“Such a beautiful instrument.” They spoke with a youthful but stoic female voice that radiated wisdom, “I have not seen such intricate detail etched into an instrument for many years.”
“Are you here to... uh...” He tried for a smirk, but only his nose wrinkled to imitate one. “...kill me?”
“I am here to assist you.” She said. Tea frowned, wondering what kind of assistance this girl was trying to offer. “You have bestowed upon you a link with several other lives. I am here to maintain that.”
The figure offered a hand to him, and Tea saw that her nails were encrusted with coppery dirt - he didn’t want to think what that was.
He gripped the guitar tightly and hesitated to take her hand.
“I have to look after the farm until my parents return...” He tried to sound confident but his voice wavered.
His parents had been on ‘archaeological expeditions’ before, but they always knew their responsibilities to the farm, so would never be away for more than a week.
“Come.” The girl insisted, voice encouraging, “I shall lead you somewhere safe. Your animals have already been taken care of.”
With the mysterious air that clung to the girl, the coppery stuff in her nails, he wasn’t sure he wanted to know what she meant by that... but...
“Ah.” He smirked, taking her hand firmly, “So you killed them.”
She started to lead him out of the house.
“Speak of this meeting to no one.” She firmly told him, “But remember my symbol. Move quickly now.”
They dove into the darkness that was beginning to envelop the surroundings and hurried into the forest. Tea could have sworn that the trees were a mixture of firs here, but wherever he looked he only saw yew trees - at their roots were dead men, slowly rotting into mulch.
He refused to looked, and clung tighter to the guitar and the girl’s hand.
“Do not be afraid. We are being guided.”
“I’m not afraid.” He muttered, “Just slightly concerned that more people will be stupid enough to become food for trees.”
“Good. Tell me,” Underneath her hood, Tea thought he glimpsed a dark-lipped smile. “What is your name?”
He blinked in disbelief. She had saved him, but didn’t know who he was?
Somewhere inside him, he knew now would be the time to turn back, but instead his heart beat faster, excitement urging him on.
“Tea.” He grinned. “What about yours?”
She didn’t respond, but she had flinched when he asked, like the question had been a surprise.
He smiled, feeling more comfortable around her the more she showed him hints of emotion.
Now he wasn’t be dragged, but running alongside her.
He felt the warmth of her hand in the night mist and rain, feeling that it was not so much a vice as a suggestion.
He hurried onwards.
Just as he thought he was completely comfortable, they came to a halt in a dark street of the city - The Garden. Before him, Tea beheld a large, many-windowed grey-stone house, cluttered into a square with many other buildings.
There seemed to be activity inside - squabbling and laughing voices dull by the thundering of rain, and the flickering of candle-light- but no one seemed to be watching the two drenched people outside.
“Here is where I leave you.” As the girl turned to face him again, he saw a wisp of white hair sticking out of her hood. “Protect yourself, Tea, and be wary.”
She took one of his hands in hers’ briefly again, and he felt something cold press against his skin. She closed his fingers around it, and then turned to retreat.
He stared after her until she disappeared into the night mist, and then glanced down.
In his palm was a single, clean snowdrop.