Chapter 1: Self-discovery
"You deserved it."
"I'm telling mother on you."
A freckled boy ran toward the dining room as fast he could, nearly bumping his pale forehead into the mighty wooden table that centered the room. He desperately clung to the woman sitting at it, snot running down his grim nose.
"Mother! That horrible Petra is hitting Orla and I again!"
"Augustus, I will hear none of it," she dismissed, waving her pampered hand toward the door. "Do not associate with Miss Petra. She has been bad news the day I took her in."
Augustus frowned, wiping his chin and scratching his blonde locks angrily. He stamped his feet in a fit of childish frustration. Shortly after standing there and sulking, a similar looking girl entered the room, tear stricken, bloated cheeks puffed with annoyance.
"Mama, I hate her! She's pulling my hair!"
"I did not!"
Another girl entered the room, almost pushing the two blonde children on to their behinds. Albeit her fiery nature, the little girl was oddly small in comparison with the other two children - who were both clearly the same age. In appearance, the two siblings held a striking resemblance to their mother: blanch blonde hair and skin, freckles, and dark eyes. The little one blinked her hazel hues furiously, her fists balled as though she were ready to take on a fight. To anyone who didn't know her it would seem rather ridiculous concerning this child, as her height and structure reminded one of a pixie.
"Aunt Grimsley, they twist the truth. Augustus was throwing bread at me and laughing while I was trying to read. When I shouted at him, Orla insulted my father and I hit them both! They started it all! Please believe me."
"I do not believe wicked children."
"I am not a wicked child, Aunt Grimsley, they're liars!"
"That's enough, I'm sending for the maid," she gave the eldest child, Augustus, a cold look. He knew exactly what it meant.
Quickly, he ran out of the room. Several tense seconds passed, Aunt Grimsley sat there miserably as her daughter, Orla, stood in between, still spurting crocodile tears. Finally, Augustus returned, followed by a tall woman with dark hair in the usual attire for servants - a dark blue dress and an apron.
"What is it, Mrs Grimsley?"
"Ah, Carla. Petra is acting up again. Take her to the back room upstairs and don't let her out until supper."
"Understood, Ma'am." Carla curtsied. She strode over to the small girl, pushing past her honey locks and gripping her ear sharply. Petra let out a yell of pain as she was dragged out of the room and up the two flights of stairs. When they reached the back room, Carla lightly pushed the frail thing inside, nearly grazing her nose on the large, canopy double bed. It hurt her to act so unkind to such a defenceless child. Knowing, at home, she had a baby of her own and it never felt right to lock her up or deprive her of dinner.
"Miss Petra, you must stop getting into trouble," she whispered harshly. "I cannot keep up with these shenanigans you pull! Any more and you'll be sent back to the orphanage. You don't want that, do you?"
Petra shook her head.
"Exactly. Listen here... I understand she treats you quite unfairly, but you owe a lot to Mrs Grimsley. She is your father's sister, after all. Family. She didn't have to take you in as one of her own, but she did, and you're abusing that privilege."
"This is not a privileged; it's a nightmare and I hate it."
"You watch your mouth or I won't be bringing you any more gingerbread after bedtime when the Mrs sends you away without a meal."
Petra's head dropped sadly. Carla was assertive, but the most motherly type figure she ever had. Her mother died when she was small - too small to remember her. She loved her father dearly, but he too passed away not long ago. Often, Petra dreamt of the days when her father would take her hand and buy her sweets. He would hold her when she fell and scraped her knee, and he would read her bed time stories. The most important thing her father did for her, was that he made her feel loved more than anyone or anything in the world.
When he died, it felt like a hole had been torn in the universe. More specifically, her heart. Mr Bruno Ral's estranged sister, Mrs Hilda Ral-Grimsley, was asked in her brother's Will that should Petra become an orphan then he would request for her to be placed under the care of the Grimsleys. It was stated that Mrs Grimsley must treat her as her own daughter.
Petra pointed accusingly at the bed behind her.
"My father died in that bed! There are ghosts in this room!"
"Don't be so silly, Miss Petra."
With that, Carla shut the door, locking the little redhead inside.
"Petra! Petra, wake up! Your aunt calls for you,"
Two pale, heavy lids opened slowly to reveal the bright red, rough carpet beneath her. She had fallen asleep on the floor, too afraid to sleep near her father's death bed. When Augustus and Orla were punished, it was rare, and they were never sent to their own father's death bed a few doors down. It was as if her aunt knew that it would torment her to be placed in such a room, feeling like an wild fox, trapped in a cage, poked with sticks.
The door opened with a creak and Carla entered, shaking her head disapprovingly at the sleeping little girl, curled on the floor. She gently picked her up by the arm, hurrying her back down to the dining room where Mrs Grimsley spent most of her time.
Inside of the dining room, the atmosphere seemed eerie and tense. It was the same feeling when she was brought in to be told her father was deathly ill. Her heart ached in her chest for a moment, but that was when she noticed that they had a visitor.
"Mr Ackerman, this is the one." Petra's aunt stood, pointing her long nail.
The gentleman stood sternly in the corner of the room dressed in all black. His hands were neatly folded behind his back, as though he were hiding something. Petra shied away from him behind Carla as his small, sunken grey eyes stared at her. His brow was large and low; his jaw, thick, square and rimmed with a chin strap of a beard which met with his side burns. Petra was surprised at how old he looked - the amount of wrinkles on his skin was barely hidden by the shadowed trilby he wore on his head. When he spoke, the gravelly noise made the young girl cringe.
"She's not very tall."
"Do not be fooled," Mrs Grimsley gestured to the older man, the pair of them walking closer to Petra. "She is as evil as they come. Carla, leave us a moment and take the children with you."
Carla hurried out with Augustus and Orla, shutting the three inside of the dining room. The crackling of the fire in the background nerved Petra even more.
"Girl," Mr Ackerman addressed vigorously. "Do you know who I am?"
"My name is Kenny Ackerman. State your name, girl."
"Petra Ral, sir."
"How old are you, Miss Ral?"
"And are you a naughty girl?"
Petra shook her head, causing her aunt's face to burst into flames.
"Do you know what happens to naughty girls, Miss Ral?"
"They go to Hell, sir."
"And what must we do to avoid going to Hell?"
"Stay in good health and do not die."
"Oh, my!" Mrs Grimsley turned away, her hand placed dramatically over her mouth, clearly embarrassed by her niece's answer. Kenny Ackerman seemed calm, though his thin mouth twitched at her response. In reply, his voice became a lot harsher. He pointed to the ground in front of him.
"Come hither." When she delayed, he became angry. "Now, girl! Miss Ral, do you read your bible?"
"Not every day, sir."
"Shocking. Disturbing. Children should be reading daily."
"I do read, sir."
"Devilish stories, most probably. Do you enjoy the bible?"
"No. I think it is boring."
Mrs Grimsley made the dramatic gasp again, as Mr Ackerman shook his head, turning away for a moment.
"I have a son," he began. "He is much older than you - a good ten years perhaps. When he was a boy I made him recite the bible to me. After his mother died he was to name and sing of the three Goddesses morning and night. If he didn't, he was beaten with a belt and sent to bed without food. Now he is a working man. An independent man. Children should be shaped by their elders correctly, and I hear from your benefactress that you hit her children, is that so?"
"Hitting is very unladylike, Miss Ral. Women should grow to be angelic and well-mannered. You will never marry, Petra. Because you are shaped to be unlovable."
"I am not unlovable because my father said so."
"Your father was a fool!" screamed Mrs Grimsley.
"He was not!" Petra spat back. "You're a fool! You're a horrible witch!"
"Quiet, girl!" Mr Ackerman hollered, scaring Petra half to death. Mrs Grimsley almost fainted at the insult thrown at her, dramatically fanning herself down. "You are obviously possessed by the devil with such a tongue in that rotten mouth. Mrs Grimsley, I agree to your request. I will clear a place for her at my school at once."
"Thank you so very kindly, Mr Ackerman. She needs to be saved. Did you hear that, Petra? Mr Ackerman is taking you away. You're going to a boarding school far from here."
"I'm glad! I hate you, and I hate it here!"
"Such a bricky, vile girl." Mr Ackerman sneered. He charged toward the tiny girl, gripping her upper arm roughly. Petra flinched in retaliation, the sharp, shooting pains travelling up to her shoulder as he squeezed her limb, once again being dragged against her will out of the dining room.
Her aunt had turned away hysterically, holding her hands against her reddening cheeks, still burnt with anger toward the red haired child. Mr Ackerman pulled them into the gardens where the cisp, chill air was apparent. It froze her toes painfully, and Petra mentally scolded herself for not wearing socks with the thin ballet shoes she had on. In front of her was a horse and carriage, presumably to take her away to Mr Ackerman's supposed school. Inside, she was battling her emotions. A part of her was excited for the adventure and longed to be away from the poisonous people she was made to call her family. But on the other half, Mr Ackerman frightened her to the bone, and she wasn't much fond of religious studies.
She had no family left.
Her father was dead, and she refused to consider those people inside Grimsley manor-house her blood relation any longer. No one was going to miss her. Carla had her own husband at home and her own baby boy. She would not cry for the petite girl. What was there left to do except take upon the invitation willingly?
And that, she did.