The following excerpt comes from The Mourning Ring, available now through Amazon.com.
Sixteen-year-old Charlotte Brontë sat in the cramped, stuffy coach and cursed the pitted road that led to Haworth. Nestled in West Yorkshire, the village was a day’s ride from the Roe Head School. Beside Charlotte sat an old man in a squashed beaver hat who reeked of sweat and tobacco. A pair of young ladies with stiffly posed limbs perched on the bench across from her. They had nearly identical doll-like features. Charlotte felt boorish in comparison.
Her brother Branwell said she had a face only an artist would appreciate. Her features were symmetrical and well-proportioned. Her mouth was small and budlike, but her lips were pale. She would always be childlike in stature, and her brown hair lacked the volume and luster which was fashionable.
What was the point of being part-fairy if one couldn’t benefit from otherworldly beauty? It wasn’t fair.
When the coach pulled to a stop at the crossroad about a mile from the village, Charlotte clambered over the other passengers. Once her boots hit the hard-packed dirt, she drew in a lungful of fresh air, like a swimmer resurfacing. The coachman handed down Charlotte’s small trunk, barely sparing her a glance before flicking his whip across the horses’ flanks and driving away.
Charlotte stood, watching the coach grow smaller. She extended her arms above her head and stretched for the first time in hours. Then she grabbed the handle of her trunk and began dragging it toward the village. The dirt road turned to a setted stone lane as the ground climbed steeply beneath Charlotte’s tired feet.
The Pennines which divided England into east and west like the spine of an immense, sleeping dragon, made the terrain steep and rocky. Charlotte perspired through her bonnet and muslin gown as the June sun beat down on her back. The weak breeze failed to relieve her discomfort.
Not for the first time, Charlotte wished her father was a country gentleman, or a city merchant, instead of a poor village parson. Perhaps then her family could afford their own coach and she wouldn’t be forced to drag her belongings home like a traveling vagabond.
Her best friend Ellen Nussey’s father was a merchant in York and the family owned a coach and two horses.
It had only been a few days since they had parted, but Charlotte missed Ellen desperately. They had been near inseparable since Charlotte began her studies at the Roe Head School the year before. They enjoyed the same books and detested the same dull-witted girls. Though the Nussey family was better-off than most, Ellen was never selfish or mean.
The Nussey’s had a home in York, but they spent most of the summer months at a seaside resort in Blackpool. Charlotte envied her friend and pitied herself, swatting at a gnat that buzzed around her face. She might have gone to Blackpool (at Ellen’s invitation) if her father had agreed to the arrangement. But Charlotte was needed back at the parsonage to look after her siblings.
Besides, her father reminded her, it would have been unfair to take such an extravagant vacation and leave her younger siblings behind.
Charlotte loved her sisters and brother, but she would have traded them in an instant to escape the perpetual dampness in Haworth, even for a day. Summers in the village were slow and hot. The air blowing over the bogs smelled thickly of decay.
As she trudged over the crest of the hill, panting slightly, the storefronts, public houses, and flats that lined both sides of the narrow street came into view. Their stone faces were blackened with soot and mold. The street was fairly quiet in the afternoon heat. Two familiar shapes stepped out of the shadows of The Black Bull tavern and hurried toward Charlotte.
One was tall and dark-haired, wearing a white linen shirt tucked into a pair of boy’s trousers that were too short for her long limbs. The other shape was smaller, with honey-brown hair spilling out from beneath her bonnet.
Charlotte’s younger sisters, Emily and Anne, came to a halt before barreling through Charlotte. They embraced her in a tangle of limbs, talking quickly over each other.
“Welcome home, Charlotte!” Anne cried.
“We’ve been waiting for nearly an hour. You didn’t use to walk so slowly,” Emily said.
Charlotte smiled and returned her sisters’ embraces. As they stepped back, Charlotte studied them from head-to-toe.
Emily had grown over three inches since Christmas. She would be as tall as their father by the time she turned fourteen. Emily still had some softness in the curves of her face, but her limbs were long and thin. Charlotte suspected Emily wore their brother’s clothes because her dresses were too small. It was something their father would likely overlook. Charlotte made a note to take stock of Emily’s wardrobe and let down her hems, if needed.
Anne’s small, gloved hand was cool against Charlotte’s palm. Though she was only twelve, and the baby of the family, Anne had a stoic, serious demeanor. Aunt Elizabeth said she had an old soul. Anne smiled at Charlotte, her delicate upturned nose and violet eyes reminding Charlotte of the fairy blood that ran through their veins.
Emily took one of the handles of Charlotte’s trunk, leaving Charlotte to grasp the other, and together they carried it between them down the street.
“Papa will be glad to have you home again,” Anne said.
“Yes, and now that you are home, we can get back to writing,” Emily added.
Writing was serious business for Charlotte and her siblings. Three years ago, a set of toy soldiers had inspired the siblings to create an imaginary realm called Glass Town. The political machinations and romantic trysts between the characters of Glass town’s main country, Angria, had occupied the Brontë children for many long winter nights around the parlor fire.
“It’s been too long since I visited Angria,” Charlotte said.
“Really, Charlotte, it’s been awful without you! Anne and I have been forced into exile!” Emily exclaimed.
“What do you mean?”
Anne spoke up. “Not quite exile, really. But Branwell kept fighting all of our ideas for Angria because–”
“He has become a tyrant! So we have created our own country. We call it Gondal.”
“That sounds very interesting. I look forward to hearing more about it,” Charlotte replied. “Speaking of our brother, where is Branwell?”
Emily huffed and blew a stray lock of hair off her sweaty cheeks. “He was working on Latin with his tutor when we left. He was in a foul mood, too,”
Charlotte wondered if Emily was referring to Branwell or his instructor. Knowing Branwell’s attitude toward Latin, it was probably both.
Unlike Charlotte, who was sent away to the Roe Head School for Young Ladies, fifteen-year-old Branwell was educated by their father and professional tutors from nearby Bradford. He had burned through his fair share of tutors, as well.
Charlotte could picture her brother’s face, as ruddy as the thin reddish hair that ran wild upon his skull, his tongue knotted as he stumbled over Latin conjugations. The round spectacles on his hawkish nose magnified his small, dark eyes when he glared down at his textbook.
“Perhaps I’ll speak with Branwell after his lessons and we can devise an alliance between Angria and Gondal.”
The road, which had leveled out in the village, began to pitch upward again as they approached St. Michael and All Angels Parrish, the church where Charlotte’s father had been appointed perpetual curate twelve years before.
It was a plain structure, nothing like the drawings Charlotte had seen of the minster in York, but it was a testament to the solid, sturdy West Yorkshire parishioners who built it. The single turreted tower housed a bell that rang to celebrate weddings and mourn the dead. The large leaded-glass window at the far end of the nave flooded the altar with light on sunny mornings.
The churchyard behind the parish housed Haworth’s dead. Men, women, and too many nameless children crowded together, filling the empty spaces beneath the mossy ground. Some children might have been afraid to live so close to the dead, but Charlotte and her siblings were comforted by the smells of frankincense, freshly turned earth, and grave mold.
The Brontë’s home sat on the hill above the churchyard. The parsonage was built from the same grey York stone as the church. In winter, everything in Haworth was beige and grey, but when spring arrived the moors surrounding the village came alive with shades of green, lavender, and blue.
Anne opened the front door and disappeared into the house, but Charlotte paused on the threshold. She took a deep breath, filling her nose with ghost-like scents of Tabby’s cooking, spilled ink, and book dust. The stories and characters that had lain dormant in her mind during the school year now stirred and stretched within the confines of her mind.
Emily cleared her throat and pushed the trunk into Charlotte’s hip. With one last glance at the fading afternoon light, Charlotte entered the house, pulling the trunk and Emily along with her.
After dinner, the dining room was transformed from a place of eating to a place for creating. Emily and Anne cleared the plates and silverware; Charlotte moved the pitcher filled with purple statice and pink foxgloves from the center of the table to the mantel. The four siblings took their seats around the small, rectangular table. They wasted no time, or daylight, getting straight to business.
At the head of the table, Charlotte sat stony-faced like a magistrate. A pile of paper scrolls, crumpled parchment pages, and minuscule booklets made from folded brown wrapping paper littered the table in front of her. This collection represented the sacred founding documents of Glass Town: the first description of Angria’s shores and letters from one fictional character to another, all written in tiny childish scribble. She pored over these scraps of paper with a furrowed brow.
“How did this happen?” Her eyes darted from Emily at her left to Anne on her right.
Emily moved her hands from her lap to rest her fists on the table. “Branwell made Northangerland murder the king of Angria and now its chaos in the capital.”
Anne cleared her throat with a dainty cough. “Actually, Northangerland’s spies killed the king, not the Earl himself. But now alliances are too uncertain to move forward with our plans for the women’s university. The country needs a new king.”
“Branwell, what do you have to say for yourself?” Charlotte stared down the table at her brother’s surly expression.
“The old king was a dullard and a homebody. He couldn’t see past the borders of the capital, let alone the country. He had no vision for Angria’s future, or the role it could play in the world of Glass Town.”
“What kind of role?”
“As an empire. Like the Roman Empire at its height. There are other countries to explore and resources to discover in Glass Town. We need a new king, one who is better suited to the role of visionary and conqueror.”
“What about Captain Parry?” Emily suggested. Captain William Parry was an explorer and part-time privateer. He was also Emily’s favorite character. “He has just returned from his northern expedition with proof of a race of dwarves living in the mountains.”
“Parry belongs on a ship, not a throne,” Branwell replied.
Emily glared at him and opened her mouth to fire a retort, but Charlotte silenced her.
“I presume that you have a better candidate in mind?”
Branwell leaned back in his chair, rocking it up on two legs. “It should be Northangerland. He has the political experience and connections.”
“You forgot to add ‘regicide’ to his list of accomplishments,” Emily sneered. She turned to Anne. “This is exactly why we created Gondal. Parry is a laughable choice, but Northangerland isn’t? Our story ideas will never be considered with the same seriousness while Branwell holds the pen.”
“Nothing has been decided,” Charlotte assured her younger sisters. “I’ve yet to be convinced we cannot work something out that will be agreeable to all of us.” She pinched the bridge of her nose to ease the pressure building behind her eyes. Was proximity to the moorland flora or her squabbling siblings to blame for her frequent headaches in Haworth? Probably both. “However, Emily has a point. We all have favorites who we think would be best suited to the role of king. I’d always imagined the Duke of Zamorna ruling Angria one day.”
There was a loud crack as the legs of Branwell’s chair landed on the floor again. “Zamorna’s young. He doesn’t have half the political or battle experience as Northangerland,” Branwell argued.
It was true. Zamorna was half Northangerland’s age. He hadn’t been married or fathered any children. He’d seen battle, but as a cavalryman, not a foot soldier. However, in terms of charisma and popular opinion, there was no contest between the two men, and Branwell knew it.
Charlotte turned to Anne. Her youngest sister’s features were still and unreadable. Sometimes Charlotte felt a stab of guilt for overlooking Anne, but it was hard to keep an eye on her when Emily and Branwell were always moments away from coming to blows. “What are you thinking, Anne?”
The room fell quiet. Anne studied their faces, her eyes moving around the table from Branwell’s flushed cheeks and unkempt hair, to Emily’s earnest gaze, before stopping on Charlotte.
“Emily and I will choose our own king–or queen–in Gondal. This is about the future of Angria. We have two reasonable Angrian candidates. I think we should vote on the matter.”
Her suggestion was met with nods and noises of agreement around the table. Charlotte felt a surge of warmth and gratitude toward Anne. She resisted the urge to embrace her in a bruising hug. How was it that such a small creature could bring such a sense of peace and order to the world?
“Then let us vote and have the matter settled. I vote for Zamorna,” Charlotte said. She gestured for Emily to cast her vote.
“I’d rather see Zamorna as king than Northangerland,” Emily said. Charlotte knew Emily’s primary motivation was to annoy Branwell, but still she was grateful for her support.
Then it was Branwell’s turn. “Northangerland. And I would like to remind you all that the only reason we are having this conversation is because of an action I took–an action none of you were bold enough to take. I just think that should count for something.”
“Your opinion has been noted,” Charlotte said, fighting to keep her voice neutral.
Truthfully, she was finding it difficult to remain objective. She was already imagining all the amazing opportunities Zamorna would have as king.
All eyes turned to Anne again. She did not leave them waiting in anticipation for long.
“Zamorna,” she blurted, quickly followed by an apology to Branwell.
Charlotte grinned. A thrill of anticipation ran up her spine. “All right. It’s settled then. Zamorna will be sworn in as king. I’ll start writing the scenes tonight.”
The room was thick with tension for a moment. Charlotte cast a glance across the table at Branwell. He had his arms wrapped around himself, pouting down at his lap. If he refused to accept the vote, then they were no better off than when they started.
“Perhaps Northangerland could advise the new king on matters of foreign policy,” Charlotte suggested, extending an uneasy olive branch.
After a few moments, Branwell sighed and unfolded himself.
“Do what you want,” he said, standing and pushing in his chair. “I’ve got lessons to finish anyway.” He left the room. His heavy footsteps climbed the stairs and faded away.
Perhaps she should go after him? Branwell could be very sensitive about his writing. Each time one of his poems was rejected by Blackwood’s Magazine, he fell into a depressed state for days or weeks at a time.
Anne’s hand settled on Charlotte’s right arm.
“He’ll come around,” Anne assured her. “He loves Angria as much as the rest of us.”
Charlotte nodded. Anne was right. None of them could stay away from their fictional world for long. She hadn’t had time or space to write since Christmas, but Charlotte could feel the familiar rush of ideas as she leaned over a blank piece of parchment. Her fingers itched, curling instinctively around her pen.
She forced herself to work slowly. The new changes in Angria were too important to risk leaving out vital details in an incoherent draft. She took a deep, steadying breath and set to work.
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