The town of Opum Oppidulum is home to the freezing Lake Beluarum and its rumored monster. On an island at the center of the lake is an asylum; no one has ever escaped it. So how will Rex, whose father, Ambrose Grammaticus, has been imprisoned there under false pretenses, prove that Ambrose is not insane? And if Rex can free his father, will his evil stepmother drive them both to madness?
Higgins' fans will devour this deliciously scary tale, a "polyquel" to her previous books, all of which can be read singly or together. But not in the dark . . .
About the Author
F.E. Higgins is the author of The Black Book of Secrets, The Bone Magician and The Eyeball Collector. As a child, she once saw a ghostly apparition, and ever since then, she has been fascinated by the macabre. Born in London, F.E. Higgins now lives in a haunted house that dates back to the fifteenth century, in a small village in rural Kent, England.
Read an Excerpt
A Room with a View
With a heavy heart Rex made his way up to the schoolroom at the top of the house. As he passed along the narrow corridors and climbed the stairs, his steps falling in time with the ten chimes of the clock, he paused on the half-landings of the mazelike house. He was reminded at every turn of his absent father. Ambrose had built the house from the ground up, and his character and talent were to be found in every nook and cranny and arch and window. Framed scrolls and certificates on the walls testified to the genius of Ambrose Grammaticus, to his imagination, his skills, and his creativity. Rex's father had won almost every prize in the field of engineering. He was hailed as a hero here in Opum Oppidulum, his hometown, and far beyond. And beside the scrolls were sketches and paintings and ink drawings of the buildings he had designed, and articles from the Hebdomadal celebrating years of his success.
Rex entered the schoolroom deep in thought. Much as he loved this house, this was his least favorite room. He was good with numbers, but he was not a natural language scholar. His father insisted that to be truly creative he needed a rounded education, not just technical skills, so he had engaged the tutor. But Rex struggled with the classics; it had taken him a whole week to translate a simple story of a slave into Latin.
To make the schoolroom more palatable, Rex had filled it with his own creations; delicate models of every shape and size and manifestation. Birds and creatures and vehicles. Many of them only existed within these walls; it would be decades, centuries even, before they would be seen on city streets. They hung on thin threads from the ceiling and rested on the mantel over the fireplace and balanced precariously on the edges of the bookshelves, taking up every available surface. Rex had designed and built them all, with his father's guidance, and they reminded him that there had once been better times.
The tutor had not yet arrived, and from habit, Rex went to the window and looked out. From up here, the fourth floor, he could see the snow on the mountain peaks that surrounded the Devil's Porridge Bowl, a huge natural dip in the Moiraean Mountains, the center of which was filled by the dark waters of Lake Beluarum. Rex liked to say its name, to roll it around his tongue: "Bel-warr-oom." It was Latin in origin; he thought it meant "the lake of beastly creatures," but he could not be certain.
The town of Opum Oppidulum, where Rex had lived his whole life, sat tightly packed on the upper edge of the steep pebbled shore of Lake Beluarum. No one knew for certain how deep the lake was, but around the time of the full moon, there was a noticeable rise in the water level — Madman's Tide they called it — and in winter it could be quite stormy, almost like a sea. None swam in its waters either; they were too cold and, of course, every local child was warned of the monster that lurked beneath the glassy surface, just waiting to swallow up anyone who might be fool enough to enter the lake.
Rex reached up to open the window, and his cuff slipped down to reveal the crescent-shaped scar on his wrist. It was fading but he could feel it. In the cold it would tighten and ache and remind him again of that dreadful night. ... Things seemed to happen very quickly after Acantha struck his father with the water jug. Mr. Cadmus Chapelizod turned up as if from nowhere, with two red-badged gray-uniformed men. Only moments behind him was Mr. Alvar Stradigund, the family solicitor. Chapelizod immediately took control of the situation. With the help of his assistants, he quickly and expertly strapped Ambrose into some sort of medical shirt, which prevented his using his arms. Then the burly helpers lifted him onto a stretcher and secured him with more straps.
Mr. Stradigund led Rex from the room and they sat in the hall. "Let's have a look at that wrist," he said gently, and took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and began to wrap it around the wound. "Don't worry, Rex," he said as he tied the corners. "Chapelizod will take care of your father. He's an expert in these matters."
"What matters?" asked Rex. He knew Mr. Stradigund well; the old man was often at the house, even more so since the marriage.
Stradigund looked at him with sad, knowing eyes. "Madness," he said. Before Rex could reply the door opened and Chapelizod and his men marched past with Ambrose, still unconscious, out to the waiting carriage on the street. Rex tried to stand but he felt odd; his heart was racing and his head was spinning. Mr. Stradigund supported him by his good hand.
"You know what to do, men," called Mr. Chapelizod from the top of the steps, and seconds later the carriage took off. The sound of galloping hooves faded quickly in the night. Chapelizod shut the door and nodded to Stradigund who stood up.
"Where are they taking him?" asked Rex in a panic.
"Somewhere he'll be safe," said Mr. Stradigund. "I'll let you know as soon as I find anything out, I promise." Then he left Rex with Acantha, and he and Chapelizod went off to Ambrose's study.
Acantha looked at Rex. "You should be in bed," was all she said, and followed the men. In a daze, too confused to argue, Rex turned toward the stairs. As he passed the study, he glanced in to see Mr. Stradigund seated behind his father's desk with a quill in hand. Mr. Chapelizod handed him a document of some sort. Stradigund looked up and saw Rex and smiled, oddly, but then Acantha, with a face like stone, closed the door and he heard the key in the lock.
As if in a dream Rex went up to his room. He lay on the bed, but he didn't sleep until the early hours. He couldn't understand what had happened, but he was certain Mr. Stradigund would sort it out. He had promised, hadn't he? A solicitor didn't break promises. Eventually weariness got the better of him and his heavy lids closed. But the face that haunted him that night wasn't that of his tortured father; it was Acantha's. He had seen the look on her face as Ambrose lost his mind, a look that he was never able to put into words. But he knew.
She had wanted this to happen.
* * *
Alvar Stradigund had come to the house almost every day at first. He and Mr. Chapelizod and Acantha met in Ambrose's study and spoke in low voices.
Rex hung around anxiously, waiting for Stradigund to emerge. "Any news of my father?" he would ask.
And Stradigund patted him on the shoulder and smiled in a distant way, his worn face creasing up like soft paper, and said, "He is doing well, Rex. Soon he will be home."
Rex still believed him; and as long as he did, he could endure Acantha, for he was certain that when his father returned, she would have to go. She treated him with open contempt now, as if he were a noisome irritant, a fly ripe for swatting. But the Madman's Tide had come and gone three times since that bloody supper and a fourth was rising. Stradigund came less and less often, and if Rex tried to talk to Mr. Chapelizod, he would not answer his questions. Rex's hope was turning to suspicion and fear.
Close to tears, Rex gazed out across the lake. The mist had lifted, and he could see straight across to Droprock Island. Legend had it that it was just that: a large boulder carelessly dropped by a passing giant. The island was small and steep. It had no beaches, and there was nowhere to land a boat except one small natural rocky pier on this side. The rest of the island was unassailable, being sheer cliff. On its highest point, exposed to the ravages of the weather, Rex could see Cadmus Chapelizod's grim domain: the Opum Oppidulum Asylum for the Peculiar and Bizarre.
The somber gray edifice had been there for centuries, but recently for Rex it had taken on a whole new significance. Day and night it was a constant reminder to him of his father; for since his moment of madness at the supper table, Ambrose Oswald Grammaticus had been confined within the cheerless walls of that very same asylum.
So near and yet so far, thought Rex. He liked to think that the light he could see flickering high up in the asylum at night might be his father's light. He put his hand up to shade his eyes from the low sun. Was there something in the water? Perhaps it was his imagination, but a huge dark shape seemed to be moving slowly across the lake, just under the surface. His heart jumped. There was something! He was sure of it now. A shadow, a giant shadow ...
"Good morning, Rex."
Rex started at the sound of his tutor's voice, and he turned to see the young man of no more than five and twenty years enter the room.
"Good morning, Robert," he replied. Acantha had insisted that Rex call him "Sir" and that in turn the tutor address Rex as "Master Rex," but in the privacy of the schoolroom, each dropped the formalities and used first names.
Robert held a pile of books under one arm and paper and quills under the other. "How are you today?" he asked and then shook his head slightly. "Still looking out of the window, I see." He came over to join him. "Droprock Asylum," he said, "built over three hundred years ago for the poor and confused of Opum Oppidulum. Did you know, because the island is so small and rocky, there's nowhere to bury the dead so they constructed a maze of tunnels beneath the asylum, the famous labyrinthine catacombs where all the bodies are laid? Apparently there's an underground lake too."
Rex smiled wryly. The shadow was gone — if it had ever been there; perhaps it was just a cloud — and the asylum stared back at him, its dark windows like soulless eyes. His heart burned to think that his father was over there, unable to leave, but there was nothing he could do.
"Mr. Stradigund only says that Father is doing well, but he will not say when he is to return."
"Rex," said Robert, and there was hesitation in his voice. "You know that I have the greatest respect for your father...."
"But I fear that he will not be back for some time yet." Robert closed the window. The autumn air was chilling. He looked at Rex with worried eyes. "I know nothing for certain, but there is talk among the servants that your father is very ill, much worse than anyone thought, and that Mr. Chapelizod has no plans to release him."
Rex turned sharply and went to sit down at his desk. He brought his fist down on the wooden surface. "It's just not fair," he muttered. "It's not right. You weren't there, Robert. You didn't see what happened. You didn't see how Acantha did nothing! It's all her fault, I know it. But with Father in the asylum how can I prove it?"
Robert looked worried. "Rex," he cautioned, "I know you are not on the best terms with Acantha, but as long as your father is on Droprock Island, you must play a careful game. Acantha holds all the cards. And, with Stradigund and Chapelizod working for her, she is very powerful."
Rex clenched and unclenched his jaw. Rex and Robert spoke freely. There was a friendship between them that went deeper than teacher and pupil, and in these uncertain times Rex considered him the only person in the house he could talk to frankly. Rex suspected now that Robert shared his concerns about Acantha. "What do you mean, working for her?"
Robert lowered his voice. "I only know what I hear, both in the house and beyond its confines. Recently I have heard talk of an old law, Lex Dierum Centarum —"
"Huh," snorted Rex, "more Latin!"
Robert laughed softly. "It means 'the Law of a Hundred Days', and although I am not familiar with it, it seems that it might have some bearing on your father's illness. If you like, I can find out more about it."
Rex grabbed Robert by the sleeve, and for a moment the boy looked almost as mad as his father had on that fateful night. "Oh, please do," he urged. "I am becoming desperate. Acantha hates me and wants to get rid of me. As for Stradigund ... I thought he was a loyal friend to us all ... but I am no longer sure of him either."
"Rex, you must be very careful in whom you place your trust," said Robert, and then his face froze, and he stood up quickly. "Now," he said with authority, "tell me the meaning of the term boustrophedon."
"What?" Rex was confused at the rapid change of subject.
"Now," said Robert meaningfully. "Right now!"
Rex stood and began. "Er, well, it's something to do with plowing. The word bous in Greek means 'cow' and ..."
A sound behind him caused Rex to stop and look over his shoulder. Acantha was standing at the door. Rex looked at her solid figure and red face. She rarely came up here; the stairs were becoming too much for her.
"Robert," she snapped. "I wish to see you after."
Robert smiled obsequiously. "Of course," he said.
With a contemptuous snort, Acantha turned on her flattened heel and left.
Rex stood glumly behind his father's desk in his study. He liked to come here when he was feeling down. The blotter was cleared — Acantha used it now — but pushed to one side, surrounded by rolled-up sketches and diagrams, stood a precise model in miniature of the bridge for the city of Urbs Umida: Ambrose's last project, the one he had been working on before ... well, just before. Rex had helped to construct it. He took a moment to fix a piece that had broken off, and his finger came away covered in dust.
Gloomily Rex crossed the room to a large table whereupon lay a jumble of metal pieces: cogs and wheels, nuts and bolts, and springs and fine wires. This was where he and his father had worked together, not on buildings, but on the smaller moving models they both delighted in: clockwork vehicles on wheels; delicate metal creatures that could walk stiffly on four or six or more legs; upright marching figures only a few inches high. "Toys," Acantha called them with a dismissive wave of her hand. She had not dared to call them that when Ambrose was in the house. Rex sighed heavily. He realized now that if he wanted things to change, he was going to have to do something himself. But what?
The study door opened and Acantha entered the room, visibly grinding her jaw with irritation. Rex's face instantly became a blank slate. He had quickly learned not to show any emotion in front of his stepmother.
"Did you not hear me calling?"
"No," said Rex in the neutral tone he had taken to using when he had occasion to speak to her.
Acantha narrowed her green eyes. She was undoubtedly pretty, with clear skin and a small nose, but Rex suspected she was older than she said, and there was certainly more flesh on her since Ambrose had been taken away. She was living well in his father's absence. But her lips were thin and mean, and always would be, even though she painted them to fill them out. It was all part of the deception.
Was it really only last year that Ambrose had first brought Acantha home? It seemed like an age now since he had been happy. He recalled how she had entered the house, even then with an air of entitlement, and had stood at his father's side. Her face smiled all the time, and she complimented Ambrose on his taste and talent and his son, but from the sidelines Rex saw what his infatuated father hadn't. Acantha was wearing a mask beneath which she was false and insincere, and aroused in him only suspicion. She even smelled odd. But in his father's eyes Acantha could do no wrong. Rex sorely resented the time Ambrose spent with her, time he used to spend with him.
"I hardly see you anymore," Rex had complained rather sulkily one day.
"I'll admit that I am working long hours at the moment," said his father. "You know I have an important project that I must finish, the bridge in Urbs Umida. And, of course, I must spend time with dear Acantha." At the mention of her name, his eyes sparkled. "Please try to understand, Rex, Acantha has brought me great happiness after years of being alone. Do not spoil it for me."
Rex was silenced, realizing that he was being selfish. But he was not ready for what his father said next.
"Soon enough we will all have more time together, for Acantha has accepted my proposal of marriage."
* * *
And so Acantha took her place in the house that Rex and his father had shared for twelve years. One evening, shortly after the marriage, she had come up to Rex's room. She stood in the doorway with her chamber candle.
"I do hope we can be friends, Rex," she said. "I realize that this is a great change for you. But be reassured — I will never try to take the place of your mother."
Excerpted from "The Lunatic's Curse"
Copyright © 2010 F. E. Higgins.
Excerpted by permission of Feiwel and Friends.
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