Valley of Nightmares
Valley of Nightmares
Taran House is steeped in legend, remote and compelling as the reclusive owner’s motives for bringing Lilly to the valley. All she knows is she is to be governess to Gethin Taran’s niece, Ceri. And at night, eerie lights swirl and dance on the mountainside.
Although Lilly has never met Ceri, she knows the eight-year-old well. They meet in nightmares haunted by a sinister figure they both call The Hunter. The arrival of a mysterious black dog, and chilling howls echoing from the slopes, heighten Lilly’s fears.
Enthralled by Gethin, bound to orphaned Ceri, entranced by the unloved old house, Lilly must fight to keep her balance—and her young charge safe. But even as Lilly and Gethin succumb to sizzling passion, danger stalks just beyond the edge of the shadows.
Copyright © 2015 Jane Godman
All rights reserved
Several hours later, the road narrowed, leaving behind gaunt moorland to climb among screes and high lakes. This was the birthplace of searing poetry and hideous phantoms. The car window was open, and the air was heavy with the smell of pine, rich earth and wild garlic. Twilight was leaching the last traces of day from the sky when the bleak outline of the higher mountains came into view. One, darker and more forbidding than the others, drew my eye.
“Mount Taran,” Gethin informed me as I viewed the rugged summit with some misgiving. It was certainly breathtaking, but the sensations it aroused within me could scarcely be described as pleasurable. “Named for the demon lord of the underworld huntsmen who lived on its magnificent slopes. The large crags you see lower down toward the valley floor are said to be the debris left after the storms of their violent pursuits had abated. Taran’s legacy is the sound of thunder, which is a regular occurrence in this particular corner of Wales.”
“Sounds like a regular charmer.”
“You are too severe,” he told me with mock sternness. “There is a feature that you can’t see from this angle, which resembles a giant chair overlooking a lake. Taran was a great poet and philosopher who liked to sit on his chair—or, in Welsh, cadair—and compose while studying the stars. Cadair Taran is very close to the house, which you will see as we round the next bend. When you live in Wales, you become accustomed to the weather, the music and the legends.”
Taran House was set low in the valley so that my first glimpse of it was from above as the road wound a meandering path down the mountainside. The light was almost completely gone, and all I had was a vague impression of a rambling property of pale stone. Light flickered in only two of the many windows. An owl hooted a welcome, or a caution—I could not decide which—as I gazed across the valley toward the hulking dark menace of the peaks. The house was encircled. A quiver of dread trickled down my spine.
The feeling intensified when I stepped from the car and looked up at the facade of Taran House. My duplicitous mind’s eye had conjured up an image of an idyllic country scene. Of gently rolling emerald fields, dotted here and there with fluffy white sheep, and a cosy russet-hued house, possibly even with a thatched roof. This serene ideal splintered into a thousand pieces. It was banished in a heartbeat, never to return. My fickle, overripe imagination had certainly not prepared me for the dirty-yellow Victorian monstrosity before me. Lengthening shadows deserted the surrounding woodland and came to taunt me by leaping around the building’s grotesque form.
From where I stood now, Taran House appeared squat and square, but the view from the road had allowed me glimpses of wings fanning out in a T-shape with a central clock tower presiding over the whole aspect. I glimpsed loose guttering, missing shingles and gaping shutters. Rank weeds and dispirited nettles straggled halfheartedly through the gravel of the drive. Lopsided stone lions flanked the entrance—forever poised to pounce on the unwary—cracked faces frozen in identical snarls. One of them was missing a tail and the other had no ears. A lone lamp trembled with reluctant welcome just inside the canopied portico. Gethin gestured for me to precede him up the steps, warning me to take care not to slip on the moss that had claimed their surface.
But there had once been beauty here. Decades earlier, the entrance hall must have been magnificent. A stained-glass skylight set within mosaic-patterned borders drew my attention upward and away, at first, from the staggering state of disrepair. Once-beautiful oak panelling was scarred and dull, telling tales of lax housekeeping and uncaring ownership. The wide central staircase curved up to a galleried landing that ran along all four sides of the hall, but in the gloom, I could not make out any features above my own height. Greedy candlelight hoarded its own precious secrets. Under our feet, expensive rugs curled up their edges in disgust, their long-ago brightness fading now into sad, patterned obscurity. Randomly placed sofas and dainty side tables told tales of another, more elegant, time. There were darker patches on the walls where pictures had hung; the few that remained in place were dour portraits or tired and pallid landscapes. The dust, waste and sheer overwhelming melancholy made me want to cry out in protest. It also made me want to turn on my heel, run out of there and not stop until good old London town and the bright silver thread of the Thames were once more in my sights.
I was aware of Gethin watching me closely. My face has always been a fairly accurate mirror of my emotions. He gave a humourless laugh. “My twin brother, Bryn, and I lived here with our parents when we were young. Believe me, it looked very different then. It used to be a real family home—” He broke off, as if a memory troubled him. “My father died when we were ten. My mother was quite highly strung and had never really felt at home here in the valley. She could not bear to stay without him, so we packed up and went to live in London. We did come back for occasional visits, so it was kept in a reasonable condition, although the larger, more expensive jobs began to get overlooked. My brother was exactly three minutes older than me, and so, when our mother passed away some twelve years ago, it was he who inherited the house.” A faraway look flitted across his face. “We had many a fierce row about it. I wanted him to restore it, but he had already figured out how to take what he wanted from Taran House.” He stopped abruptly and then, changing his theme, continued, “He went into the Foreign Office and I… Well, I was busy forging my own path. It saddens me to see the old place now. Ceri has inherited my brother’s money, but it is tied up in trust until she comes of age.” His tone became brisk again. “Of course, there is no electric lighting or gas for heating. There are a few gas lamps, but the bill for candles and coal would make your eyes bulge. We do not even have a telephone, although there is one at the post office in the village.”
A door at the far end of the hall opened as he was speaking, and a woman emerged from it. She stood very still, her posture unyielding and discouraging. I don’t consider myself a particularly intuitive person, but I’m fairly sure she wasn’t pleased to see me.
“Ah, Mrs. Price. This is Miss Divine, who has taken the post of governess to Miss Ceridwyn. Mrs. Price is the housekeeper. She has been responsible for caretaking Taran House in my absence, and she has also looked after my niece over the last few months.”
She moved forward, and I held out my hand with my brightest smile. With absolutely no expression on her face in response, Mrs. Price extended her fingertips. I have never before, or since, encountered such a cold, lifeless handshake. When it was over, I had to resist the impulse to wipe my hand on my skirt. She had a face like a slapped trout, with slightly bulging eyes and full, wet lips. Her skin was the colour of uncooked pastry and her salt-and-pepper hair had been dragged back into a desultory bun. The old-fashioned dress she wore must once have been black, but it was now rusty with age. Over that she had donned an apron that had seen better days. It also had a number of interesting stains of indeterminate origin down its front. The neglect shown to the house was reflected back at me in her appearance. Mrs. Price was the most unprepossessing person I had met in a very long time, and until today, I had worked in a burlesque club! I could see that she was regarding me with similar dismay.
“I think the guided tour can wait until morning.” Gethin seemed oblivious to the fact that we were sizing each other up like a pair of hostile tomcats. “I expect Gwladys has already gone home?”
Mrs. Price nodded an affirmative. Gethin had explained to me, when outlining the household arrangements, that Gwladys was the girl who came down from the village each day to help the housekeeper. Help her do what, I wondered, as my hand encountered the dusty surface of the stair rail. “Could you organise some sandwiches and tea for supper, please, Mrs. Price, while I take Miss Divine to meet her pupil?”
Gethin picked up a branch of candles, and as we mounted the stairs, he explained that, at present, only part of the house was habitable. I dreaded to think what sort of state the other parts might be in. Indicating a door at the end of the left-hand gallery, he pointed out what was to be my room. Next to it, another narrower flight of stairs led to the nursery, a suite of rooms comprising Ceri’s bedroom, the schoolroom and a playroom. These rooms were at the top of the house, on the same level as, but completely separate from, the attics.
We made our way up to the nursery, where I halted on the doorstep, frozen into immobility. A little girl was sitting cross-legged on a rug before the fireguard, reading a book, but she jumped up quickly as she became aware of our presence. My gaze took in the fact that she was small for her age, with elfin features, huge, troubled eyes and a mop of dusky curls. A bony finger of recognition prodded insistently at the small of my back sending shock waves up and down my spine. I already knew Ceridwyn Taran well. She was the girl I met in my nightmares.