A Lesson in Thorns (Thornchapel #1)

A Lesson in Thorns (Thornchapel #1)

Sierra Simone

In the faint moonlight, the grass is singing

Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel

There is the empty chapel, only the wind's home.

It has no windows, and the door swings,

Dry bones can harm no one.

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land


They found the roses right away.

The thorns took longer.

First, there was the escape, which wasn’t an escape at all, really. The adults were busy with whatever it was that kept them cloistered and murmuring in the library, and the children were otherwise unsupervised since no one thought any harm could come to them this far into the countryside.

Then there was the maze—which only Auden could navigate with any confidence, this being his house after all—and it only took a single hour to find the center, and in the center, the roses twining around the base of the stone Adonis and Aphrodite, all their blooms white and fragrant and blown.

Fat bees blundered in a drunken crowd. A storm threatened overhead. And only an exploring child would have bothered to crawl under the small fountain at the statue’s base to find the secret inside.

Today there were six exploring children.

And they found the secret inside.

Finally, after a dark and damp journey through the tunnel even Auden hadn’t known about, they came to a gate with a latch rusted right through. St. Sebastian kicked it open.

Becket fretted, and Delphine yelled about the torn spiderweb and the spider that no longer had a home. Rebecca only rolled her eyes and helped St. Sebastian drag the thing open far enough that all six of them could squeeze through.

Proserpina was last because Proserpina was always last. Not because she was disliked or because she was timid, but because she was dreaming on her feet while everyone else was walking.

The gate led to a path so old that it had sunk into the earth. Trees branched and arced overhead, and to the sides were unbroken woods—oak, ash, birch, and beech. Rowan and elder. All leafy and lush and ivy-clad. Between them, blackthorn trees straggled at intervals, their thorns long and cruel, and their branches clumped with the dark pearls of early sloe.

Though it was only just past lunch, the heavy clouds darkened everything to twilight, and the wind tugged insistently on the leaves, making the entire path around them seem restless and alive.

“Auden, where does it go?” Rebecca asked. She and Delphine were both trying to be in the front, but neither of them really knew where they were going, and so their jostling was less violent than normal.

“I don’t know,” Auden said, bouncing a little.

He knew where everything went in London, where his family lived most of the time. Every road led to another road, every car and bus and train had a destination. Every day had a plan, and every plan had a goal, and every goal had a reason.

At Thornchapel, none of this was true.

At Thornchapel, time could slip by unmarked and you could walk places no one had walked in years. Maybe centuries.

This was the first day Auden began to see this, began to see the ways one of his homes was different than the other, even if he couldn’t articulate it. He was old enough to feel it, to feel Thornchapel, even if he couldn’t name what it was he felt, and he was old enough to love it, but not old enough to understand.

And maybe that’s why later he would grow to hate it.

They walked for ten minutes more, maybe twenty, but so far away from the house and with nothing but trees whispering close, it felt much longer. It felt like they were brave, like they were having an adventure, with the bite of genuine fear that any real adventure is required to have. And then the trees opened up to a clearing.

Nearly knee-high grass waved against crooked standing stones, which were barely taller than the grass itself. They were arranged in a narrow row, and at the end—

“The thorn chapel,” somebody murmured. It might have been Becket, but it didn’t matter. They all realized it at the same time.

The chapel was really only recognizable by a remaining chunk of wall, on which a glassless window remained with its distinctive arch. The rest of the walls had crumbled into drifts of stone, barely visible over the layers of moss and grass and roots. Blackthorn trees—more like bushes—pushed up from the ancient rubble. Wild dog roses—just as thorny, just as sprawling—grew everywhere else in hues of almost-white and almost-pink.

It was a church. Only the walls had been replaced with thorns and the floor with grass, and where the altar should have been was a large grassy hummock instead. And everywhere flowers—not only the roses, but wood sorrel and foxglove and violets and meadowsweet in restrained riots of white and purple.

Delphine and Rebecca raced to the front while Becket approached the chapel from the side in awe. St. Sebastian found a stick and started whacking at the flowers to slice off their heads. Proserpina slipped into the stone row—the entrance of which was guarded by two tall menhirs—and began dreaming her way toward the chapel itself.

And Auden stood at the edge of the woods, unable to take a single step closer.

It’s really here.

It wasn’t a quaint name, chosen on a whim. It wasn’t, as he’d once heard his grandfather say, a corruption of a Latin word referencing the thick forest canopy around the house.

There was a chapel.

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