Friday, 23 August 2019

Gothic Tale


Trapped in the Portrait




“Here we are, miss. This is Blackmuir Manor,” announced the coachman, halting the carriage in front of a gloomy-looking house with moss clinging to the stone façade and gargoyles leering from their perches at the edges of the roof.
Annika looked through the coach window. “What a dismal place!”
The coachman nodded. “Yes, miss, Mr. Blackmuir lives very cut off from the city.”
“Oh well; this is going to be my home from now on, so I had better get used to it.” Annika alighted from the carriage and reached for the brass knocker of the front door. The coachman meanwhile dragged her trunk to where she was standing.
“Look after yourself, miss. You will need to in this forlorn place.” He turned and was about to go back to the carriage, when Annika, alarmed, spoke again.
“What do you mean by that?” Her lean face peeked from behind the hood of her cape.
“I expect you'll find out soon enough, miss,” replied the coachman over his shoulder. He looked up at the bleak sky. “I must get back to Inverness before the darkness settles. Nobody likes to be around Blackmuir Manor after dark.” Without another word, he shuffled quickly to the carriage, climbed aboard into his seat and, with a crack of his whip, was off.
Funny man. I wish he had elaborated more instead of sounding so ominous, thought Annika. Oh well; these highlanders have always been superstitious.
Suddenly the door opened. “Miss Annika? Come in. It is an honour to have you as our guest,” said a tall, square-shouldered butler whose eyebrows met in the middle to form a dark crease of apparent disapproval.
“My name is Barnabas,” added the butler, attempting to smile, but only managing a grimace. “I'll see to your trunk now.”
“Thank you, Barnabas.” Annika, entering with her valise in hand, looked around and shivered. “Don’t you keep a fire on?”
The butler followed her in with the trunk. “There is one in Mr. Robert’s library. I will take you there so you can get acquainted with your uncle.”
“I shall be delighted,” said Annika, even though she didn’t feel anything close to delighted when she looked around her and noticed the dark and heavy Queen Anne furniture, the uninviting stone walls and the uncurtained lattice windows against which the wind moaned pitifully.
Barnabas took Annika upstairs through an unending corridor flanked by solemn portraits of sinister-looking Blackmuir ancestors who gave her the impression they were eyeing her as she passed. After walking the entire length of the corridor, Barnabas stopped in front of a double door. He tapped. “Come in,” said a male voice.
“Your niece Miss Annika Blackmuir has just arrived, sir.” Barnabas bowed to his master, who stood with his back to them, looking through the window.
“I am glad to be here, Uncle Robert,” said Annika, trying to sound as glad as she could under the circumstances. Her uncle slowly turned and faced her. Annika thought he looked abnormally tall, gaunt and forbidding, even more so because he was dressed in black clothes from head to toe. Even his cravat, seemingly to add additional gloom to his attire, was black.
“How do you do, Uncle?”
Robert Blackmuir stretched a bony hand to Annika. It felt cold to the touch. “So, we finally meet. Let me look at you, Annika Blackmuir.”
He took Annika by the hand and led her to the fireplace, where a fire roared and crackled. While he scrutinized Annika’s face she had the impression that her uncle’s beady blue eyes were unpleasantly cold and made an odd contrast with his jet-black hair and side whiskers. “You look like your mother, the Norwegian my brother married,” he finally said, not caring to disguise the contempt in his voice after inspecting Annika’s golden locks and deep, dark blue eyes on her pleasant face, a little pale perhaps, but very expressive.
“My father loved her, Uncle. Mama came from a very distinguished family in Oslo,” she added, deeply hurt by his tone.
Her uncle smiled, showing a row of very sharp teeth between his bloodless lips. To Annika the smile looked more like a sneer. She decided that it would be better if her uncle didn’t smile at all.
“No doubt, my dear. I am sure your mother came from renowned Viking nobility.” He directed Annika to a leather armchair by the fire. “But please sit down; you must be tired.” Annika sunk into the armchair, and her uncle sat in the chair opposite to hers.
“When I received your letter about my dear brother’s death, I was very sad. Even though we hadn’t seen each other in nineteen years, I've always been fond of Douglas. My poor elder brother and I had a very good relationship before he left Scotland and settled in Norway.”
“Indeed, Uncle,” said Annika, thinking about all her father used to say against his treacherous and selfish younger brother. She remembered her father used to say that his parents sometimes rued the day they had adopted Robert, because he turned out to be outright nasty and ungrateful after everything they had done for the brooding child from the foundling home. But she decided to be circumspect and not mention any of those disparaging comments. Besides, she thought that maybe Robert resented the fact that he was not Mr and Mrs Blackmuirs' natural son and preferred not to think about it.
“I am very sad you are now an orphan. I sympathize with you, since I myself was an orphan once, a long time ago. But don’t worry, my dear; I intend to be a very magnanimous guardian to you. You shall lack nothing at Blackmuir Manor, except for female company, I am afraid. Barnabas and I live rather far from Inverness, but you can visit the city once a week if you want.”
“Thank you, Uncle.”
Her uncle waved a dismissive hand. “This is the least I can do for you, my dear. Remember that you are Blackmuir’s Manor sole heiress, and therefore I must help you to manage your estate until you are of age. Let me see: you are eighteen years old now, I suppose?”
“Yes, Uncle. I turned eighteen last December.”
“Very good. So this means that you have three years to go before you reach your twenty-first year, at which time you'll be able to do as you please with the property and surrounding lands. You will see that I have been keeping a good house for you all these years, my dear niece.” He sneered again. Annika shivered. She couldn’t wait to end this unpleasant interview and be shown her room.
“My father always said you were a wonderful administrator.”
Mr. Robert lifted one of his thin, dark eyebrows. “Oh? What else did my dear brother Douglas say about me?”
Annika reddened. She couldn’t remember anything very complimentary her father had told her about his brother on the few occasions he mentioned Scotland and Blackmuir Manor. “He… he said you were very hard-working and quite duty-bound,” she stammered, feeling her cheeks getting hotter and hotter as she spoke. “He also said you had a very good sense of tradition.”
Mr. Robert nodded. “Douglas spoke the truth. I am very proud of our heritage and of this ancient manor, which dates from the 14th century—at least the west wing does.”
“I hope I will like it here,” was all Annika could say.
“I will do everything in my power to make you feel at home.” He stood up. “Now, come with me, and I'll show you to your room.”
“Thank you.” Annika, picking up her valise again, followed her uncle through the portrait-studded corridor. He finally stopped at a door carved with flowers. “This will be your room. It belonged to my mother.” He opened the door. Annika saw that Barnabas had brought her trunk to the room.
“Dinner will be served in the dining hall at six o'clock. But don’t worry: Barnabas will come to fetch you. You will have to make do without a lady’s maid—we are sorely lacking in female staff, I am afraid.”
“Don’t worry about dinner tonight, Uncle. I am so tired from my trip, I prefer to retire without anything to eat, if you don’t mind,” said Annika, dreading the thought of having dinner alone with only her uncle for company at, no doubt, a very long and probably very dark, heavy table in keeping with the style of furniture throughout the manor.
“As you wish. We shall meet tomorrow at breakfast time, then. Pleasant dreams to you.” So saying, Robert Blackmuir bowed to his niece and made his way soundlessly out the door and down the corridor like a drifting mist.
He is even creepier than Papa used to tell me, thought Annika, remembering her father sometimes used to call his brother “a changeling.” It will be hard to get used to him; but I must try. He is my only living relative now.
After she had unpacked her trunk and transferred her belongings into the wardrobe and carved dresser, she surveyed her new room. All the furniture was very dark and heavy, solemn like the portraits in the corridor. Her four-poster bed looked like a tall ship because of the flight of steps leading to the mattress. To add more gloom to the bed, it was draped in very heavy velvet curtains of a faded crimson. Annika pictured herself climbing the stairs and perching at the top of her bed, ready to set sail through Loch Ness.
“Let me see the view,” she exclaimed. When Annika reached the tall latticed windows she looked down. To her surprise, her windows gave to a cemetery, where mossy grave stones mingled with trees of intertwined branches contorted into ghostly shapes. “So this is going to be my view from now on. How I miss the stunning sea view of the fjords I had from my old room! The weather was not very cheerful, but compared to this I was in Paradise.” Luckily both windows had curtains, so Annika drew the curtains shut and tried to forget that there was a cemetery just outside.
This room could do with some more light.” To that end, Annika lit all the candles in the room as well as an oil lamp on a table. “Much better. Oh, I hadn’t noticed that lovely painting!”
She approached a huge oil painting hanging from an intricate gilded frame decorated with flowers and leaves. It depicted a girl of about eighteen dressed completely in white, in trompe l’oeil style. Her hair was so blonde it was practically white, and she peered out from the painting with a pair of green eyes so expressive that Annika had the strange impression the girl was alive on the other side of the painting. “She has an elfish face,” decided Annika after scrutinizing the girl’s face with her table lamp. The girl’s lips were slighted curled, but she was not exactly smiling. “I would say she has a naughty face as well.” For a second Annika had the impression the girl’s eyes twinkled under the flame of the lamp, but of course that was the effect of the trompe l’oeil painting. The girl’s hands rested on an inner frame painted into the portrait. The artist had done that to give the impression that the girl was leaning slightly out of the portrait, and he had succeeded admirably. Annika was glad for the painting because it added some cheerfulness to her desolate room. She pulled up a chair and sat in front of the portrait for a long time, admiring it until her eyes closed of their own accord.
After Annika had changed her travelling clothes for a nightgown, she passed again in front of the portrait, and her eyes were immediately drawn to it. Turning her back on it, Annika waited a moment, then turned quickly around as if to surprise the girl in the portrait, but she was, as she should be, motionless inside her painting. This creepy manor is giving me fanciful notions. I have to pull myself together and get some sleep now. Annika blew out the lamp and climbed the stairs to her bed, not forgetting to draw the curtains around it. She was ready to set sail into the night in her bed-ship.

#

During the night, Annika felt a strange energy, like an electric current, running up and down her body. As it continued she had the sensation that she was trapped inside her body, so she strove to leave its confines until, remarkably, she was actually able to. She then realized she was floating above her sleeping body in the bed. “What is happening to me? Am I outside my own body?” she exclaimed, frightened and confused.
“Don’t worry; your body is safe. Your soul has temporarily left your body,” said a young female voice. Annika looked around and saw the girl in the portrait standing outside the portrait.
“I must be dreaming,” said Annika.
“So you are. Come, I must speak to you!” There was a tone of urgency in the girl’s voice which made Annika float in her direction and descend to her side.
“How did you leave the portrait? Are you alive?” asked Annika, bewildered.
“Yes and no,” was the whimsical answer. The girl in the painting shook her head, sending waves of long white hair everywhere. She placed her hand on Annika's. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t have much time, and I must warn you about something important.”
Annika looked down at the hand on hers. Her flesh felt real. In that strange place and at that strange hour of the night Annika decided to suspend her disbelief and go along with whatever the girl had to say. “All right. I am listening,” she simply said.
The girl, tightening her grip, whispered into her ear, “Your uncle is evil. Tomorrow, if he proposes marriage to you, do not accept it, or you are going to regret it bitterly.”
“I would never think of such thing! He gives me the creeps,” said Annika, shivering.
“You have a good sixth sense. Listen to it. Now I must go. But remember, whatever happens, always refuse him,” warned the girl.
Before Annika could say anything more, the girl floated back into her portrait and assumed the same pose as before as if nothing had happened. Annika felt a strong pull and immediately descended back into her body on the bed.
When the pale rays of a lazy sun hit the edges of the velvet curtains Annika woke up feeling disturbed and tired from her out-of-body experience. “I am not at all refreshed,” she said, yawning. She wondered if she had had a dream or if everything that had happened was true. She hurried out of bed to stand in front of the portrait. Gazing at it, she saw that the girl inside it hadn’t shifted an inch. Everything was as it should be. Annika decided it had been a nightmare, and dressed herself. When she was adding the final pins to her hair she heard Barnabas’ voice on the other side of the door. “Breakfast is served, miss.”
Annika opened her door. “I trust you slept well, miss.”
She followed the butler in silence as they made their way down to the heavily wainscoted dining room, where she took her seat opposite her uncle. Her uncle nodded at her but didn’t say anything.
“Oatmeal, miss?” asked Barnabas.
“Yes, please.” Barnabas placed a porcelain bowl full of steaming oatmeal in front of her. Annika was hungry and took a grateful spoonful of it. But when she tasted the oatmeal she nearly gagged on it. The oatmeal was salted. She drank some tea to help ease it down her throat.
“Maybe the oatmeal is not salty enough?” asked Barnabas. He took the salt shaker from the middle of the table. “Shall I add more salt?”
Annika shook her head. “No, thank you, Barnabas. It is fine the way it is.” And, thinking that “once in Rome do as the Romans do,” she bravely ate the remainder of the oatmeal, washing it down with three cups of tea in all.
While the breakfast lasted, Robert Blackmuir ate his oatmeal and drank his tea in silence without looking up at Annika as if she wasn't there. When he finished, he stood up.
“I shall be waiting for you in my library. Please meet me there.”
Annika saw the tall, slim figure of her uncle depart, and shivered. Whatever he wanted to say, she knew beforehand that the interview would not be a pleasant one.
“Excuse me, Uncle,” said Annika when she reached the library door, which had been left open. She stood at the threshold and waited for Robert Blackmuir to invite her inside.
“Come in!” answered her uncle in a commanding voice. She entered. He was seated in the same chair before the fire from the day before. He gestured to the other chair, and she sat down.
“Well, niece, I hope you are getting used to Blackmuir Manor.”
“Yes, Uncle, it is an impressive place,” answered Annika, wondering what he was leading up to.
“I hope, having now seen Blackmuir Manor, that you will agree that it has been well cared for.” His thin lips curled up into an unpleasant sneer that was perhaps intended as a smile.
“Yes, indeed,” said Annika, who felt uncomfortable under her uncle’s bird-of-prey gaze.
“It will, of course, not be long before you are mistress of this place. The three years will pass quickly, and it will be a joyous day for you. I would, however, be remiss if I did not speak my mind.” He paused. “May I speak my mind?”
“Of course.”
“I am, frankly speaking, concerned about my future. After eighteen years of expending time and effort into caring for this manor, I will have nothing to show for it. Don’t you think this is quite unfair, my dear niece?” Robert’s pale blue eyes seemed to glitter like ice on a frozen millpond.
Annika hastened to reassure her uncle that things would remain the same. “You don’t need to worry about anything, Uncle. When I am mistress of Blackmuir Manor, you'll be able to continue living here as if nothing had happened. I am not going to ask you to leave your ancestral home, if this is what is worrying you.”
He shook his head. “Ah, you say this now, but when you are married your husband may have other plans for me.” He threw her a long look full of meaning from under his lashes. “Besides, I am not even your natural uncle. I am, in a way, nothing but a stranger to you.”
Annika swallowed. She didn’t know what to say to appease her uncle. “You are my uncle, a Blackmuir like I am, and this is what counts. As for marriage, I don’t think this will happen for a long time, if it ever,” she finally said.
“Oh, but it will happen. Surely it will. It is the natural course of things.” Robert stood up to take a cigar from a box on top of the mantelpiece. Sitting down again, he crossed his legs and struck a match to his cigar. The grey smoke curled softly around him, enveloping him in an aromatic fog. Annika waited. Growing increasingly apprehensive in his presence, her heart began to beat faster.
“I have a proposal for you,” he finally said.
Annika tried to look him in the eyes, but the expression on his face was so unpleasant that it forced her to lower her gaze and stare at the intricate patterns on the Persian carpet instead.
“I propose that you consent to be my wife. Then we will both be the owners of Blackmuir Manor, and you will have a steady, reliable husband who has already proven he can take good care of your estate. As I am not your blood relative, our marriage will be legal in the eyes of the law. Think carefully about my proposal. I am a much better candidate than a thick-headed beau who might ruin your inheritance and gamble the manor away.”
Annika had the impression the room was swimming in front of her. She clutched the armrests of her chair to steady herself, closed her eyes and tried to reason. But the only thing that came to her mind was the warning of the girl in the portrait.
She suddenly opened her eyes. “I am afraid I have to refuse your proposal, Uncle. I have decided not to marry. The life of an old maid suits me best,” she said in a shaky voice.
Her uncle’s lips curled with disdain. “But you are in no position to refuse me. Remember that I am your guardian, and therefore I can do whatever I want to you. And please remember that Blackmuir Manor is located five miles from the nearest city.”
“And so?” asked Annika.
“You are trapped here and under my power, dear niece. It would be wise of you to agree to my proposal.”
“A-and if I don’t?”
“Barnabas will lock you in your room, where you'll remain until you have a change of heart.” He stood up and crushed the butt of his cigar in an ashtray on the mantelpiece. “Well?”
Annika stood up and faced her uncle. “I'll never agree to marry you. There's nothing you can say that will persuade me.”
“We'll see about that. Barnabas will take you back to your room now. When you are ready to cooperate, write a note to me saying so and slip it under the door. When Barnabas sees it, he will take you to me.”
Barnabas, appearing in the doorway just then, was ordered to escort Annika back to her room.
After Barnabas had locked her in her room, Annika, trying not to give in to despair, contemplated her predicament. She went to the window in hopes of escaping that way, but saw that her room was too high up. Jumping to the ground might well result in a broken leg or even a broken neck. Annika paced the room. Suddenly she had the impression that the girl in the portrait had winked at her. “Is it possible?” She approached the portrait. The girl in the portrait winked again.
“It she real?” exclaimed Annika.
“Oh, yes, I am quite real,” answered the girl in the portrait. Annika noticed that she had the same half-sweet, half-melancholy voice from before.
“But… how?”
“It is a long story. Why don’t you take a seat while I tell you my story?” offered the girl.
Annika pulled out the Queen Anne chair from behind the desk and placed it in front of the portrait. She sat down.
“Feeling comfortable?” asked the girl.
“Yes, thank you.”
“Good. By the way, my name is Gullveig.”
“I suppose you already know my name,” said Annika.
“Yes, you are Annika and you are locked in this room because you refused to marry your uncle. Good that you remembered my advice,” said Gullveig, resting her elbows on her frame as though it were a window sill.
“But how?… or when?… or what?...” Annika sighed. She was so bewildered she didn’t know how to start.
“How did I get trapped inside the portrait? I'll get to that. Lean back and listen to my story now. Don’t worry about anything. I am a friend, not a fiend.”

#

“I was born in this very room, in the year 1567. My name is Gullveig Blackmuir, and I am one of your ancestors. A distant ancestor, of course, but we are of the same bloodline. Sounds fantastic?”
“Well, I must agree that this type of thing doesn’t happen every day. You are, after all, a painting in a portrait,” Annika reminded her.
“Ah, but at that time I was on your side of the portrait.”
“I see...” said Annika, not without some doubt.
“I was very happy while my father was alive, but when he died my grandfather wanted me to marry a rich young nobleman who had money and title but little else. He was a gambler, a womanizer and a very violent master toward his servants. And there was more to it. I learnt from one of his frightened servants that he was a practitioner of black magic and was thinking of giving my soul to his dark master as an offering as soon as we were wed. I refused him, but my grandfather insisted until I felt compelled to run away from Blackmuir. I told my grandfather who my fiancé really was, but he didn’t believe me. Or maybe he did, but he simply didn’t care. He just wanted to get me a rich husband because then two powerful families would be united. One night, with the help of a loyal servant, I gathered some possessions, saddled a horse and left in the direction of the dark woods that covered the grounds surrounding the property. I rode my horse until I reached the hut of a wise woman who was said to possess magical powers. I told her my story. She took pity on me and looked into her crystal ball. When she did, she saw a troop of riders coming to her hut led by my fiancé. Through his black magic he had discovered my whereabouts and was coming to get me. I became quite desperate and realized that there was nowhere to hide. But the wise woman had a very special power. She said she could hide me in a place where nobody would ever find me, but that I would never again be able to tread in the world that I knew. So she suspended Time and Space for me, opened a rent in the fabric of existence and sent me into this portrait. This is where I have been living ever since.”
“This is horrible!” Annika shivered when she thought about spending the rest of eternity inside a portrait.
Gullveig tilted her head and raised one of her silvery eyebrows. “Actually, it is quite pleasant here on the other side.” She moved a little to one side and stretched her hand behind her. Annika could now see a cottage, a river and a forest stretching into the depths of the portrait.
“And there is much more behind the forest. This fairy realm of mine has been expanding throughout the years I have been here. I don’t miss the outside world now. My realm is much more exciting than the world in which you live.”
“So you mean that you are not forever trapped on your side? Can you visit the other side if you wish?”
“Yes, I can if I want to. But I must always come back to my portrait after a certain amount of time, since I don’t have much of a substantial presence in your world any more.”
“But at least you are alive on the other side.”
“Yes and no. It gets a bit complicated. I was able to cheat death because I cheated Time and Space. As time went by, my Time and Space where suppressed and I was able to survive much beyond a normal human’s lifespan. No Time, no Space, therefore no death, since death only occurs in the universe of Time and Space. And I was able to go beyond all that. This is why I say that I cheated death.”
“Oh, this talk is getting awfully metaphysical now!” Annika shook her head and stood up to look at all the scenery in the portrait that stretched as far as her eye could see. Gullveig stood back even more to allow Annika to have a good view. “It looks like a window now.”
“Yes, this is, for all intents and purposes, a window into my world. You are not alone, Annika. I am your friend and I shall help you through your predicament, rest assured,” said Gullveig. She then stretched her hand out of the portrait. Annika shook it. Once again Gullveig’s hand felt warm and substantial.
“Miss, your meal will be served,” said Barnabas from outside the door. Annika turned at the sound of Barnabas' voice. When she looked back at the portrait, Gullveig was once again where she should be.

#

After eating her meal in her room, Annika spent the rest of the day thinking about what she should do. She would never accept her uncle’s marriage proposal, but she didn’t want to be locked in her room forever.
“Gullveig!” She looked at the portrait, but Gullveig was not there. Instead, Annika saw the path that led to the cottage, the river behind the cottage and a bridge. On the other side of the river there was a forest. “She is not here when I need her,” mumbled Annika. “But it must be boring to be all the time posing for a portrait if you are not exactly a painting.” Feeling tired, Annika went to bed. But she couldn’t sleep; she had too much on her mind. So she left her bed and decided to read a book in the nearby armchair instead.
Feeling rather cold, Annika left her armchair to open the massive wardrobe and search for a shawl. When she finally found it, she tried to pull it out, but the fringes of the shawl were trapped at the bottom of the wardrobe. Annika entered the wardrobe in order to better position herself to release the fringes of her shawl. As she bent to take hold of it, however, she accidentally touched a lever protruding from the right inner side of the wardrobe. To her surprise, the back of the wardrobe opened like a door, revealing a flight of descending steps.
“Now, now, this is something new. I must find out where the steps lead.” So saying, Annika picked up her lamp on top of her night table and wrapped herself in the shawl. But just before heading down the steps it occurred to her to consult Gullveig about it.
Gullveig wasn’t in the forefront of the portrait. Instead, Annika saw a path flanked with sycamores leading to the cottage she had glimpsed before. There were flowerbeds framing the cottage, and Gullveig was watering the flowers. She turned and waved at Annika. Then she ran through the path, getting bigger as she approached.
“I'm surprised at how much depth there is in your painting,” remarked Annika.
“As I said to you, there is an entire world behind this canvas, and I am always expanding it according to my needs.”
“I had assumed it would be rather boring to be trapped inside your painting. I must review my concepts now.”
“Trapped is a simplistic way to put it. I am trapped, but not like a prisoner in a cell. In fact, my life was much more restricted before I entered the painting. But I suppose you were not looking for me to talk about my accommodation.”
“I found a secret passage behind my wardrobe and would like to ask if you know where it leads,” said Annika.
Gullveig leaned out of the painting. “As a matter of fact, I do. It leads to your uncle’s laboratory.”
“A laboratory? I didn’t know he had a laboratory.”
“It is a secret. It is in the laboratory that he conducts his experiments.”
Annika’s clear blue eyes opened wide. “What kind of experiments can this sinister uncle of mine conduct?”
“Now you are asking too much,” said Gullveig, tilting her head. “Why don’t you go down and have a look for yourself?”
“I was going to do that. But first I wanted to ask you about it. Is there any danger involved?”
Gullveig placed a finger in her mouth. “At the time of the full moon-- such as at this moment-- I don’t think so. Your uncle avoids the new moon when performing his experiments. Otherwise it's anybody's guess as to when he'll decide to be in his laboratory.”
“Well, even if there is only a small chance of his being there right now, I want to know what this laboratory is about. Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Annika. I hope you find something interesting there.”
Annika went down the stairs and reached a spacious room which looked like a stone cellar. The laboratory had strange astrological charts hanging on the walls and shelves full of transparent jars. Annika held her lamp up to one of them. “Douglas Macmillan, born on the 15th of August, 1825” was scratched across the label.
“How strange. It looks like some sort of medicine jar, but it's empty. Or is it?” Thinking that there might be something dark at the bottom, Annika examined it from a different angle and shook the jar. Then she saw it! There, inside the jar was the diminutive shadowy figure of a man that looked as though it had been cut out from a real shadow. She shivered and put it back on the shelf.
“Whatever it is, I like it not.”
Looking elsewhere, her eyes fell upon a circular dais, about three inches thick, on the stone floor. It had the image of a pentacle drawn on it in black ink. Annika stepped onto the pentacle. It creaked under her weight and sank a little. She immediately stepped back.
“I've seen enough. There is something very peculiar about this uncle of mine. I don’t know what it is, but just knowing I'm in the same house with him fills me with dread.”
She went back to her room, placed the lamp on the table and climbed up the stairs to her ship bed, but she had too much on her mind to sleep. At a certain point, she heard howling and wailing coming from outside her window. To her horror, she realized that the caterwauling was not the wind. What she was hearing were human voices, and they sounded like they were in agony.
Annika left her bed on the instant, dressed herself and stepped before the painting. Gullveig was leaning on the frame.
“What is this I hear? There's something dreadful happening!”
“Indeed there is,” agreed Gullveig, crossing her arms in front of her.
“But what is this all about?”
“Your uncle is just like my ex-fiancé. The story repeats itself because some fools will never learn. Mr. Robert Blackmuir consorts with the forces of the devil. And I know where he got his evilness from. It runs in the family.”
Annika’s eyes flashed. “I beg your pardon?” she asked, in an offended tone.
Gullveig waved a dismissive hand. “Don’t be offended. I was not referring to you. Robert Blackmuir is a direct descendant from my evil fiancé. This is why he has this strange desire to tamper with people’s souls.”
Annika’s voice trembled. “So, those jars on his shelf...”
Gullveig nodded. She didn’t look surprised. “I know very well what they are.” She leaned further out over the frame and lowered her voice. “They are the shadows stolen from innocent people by your uncle. He makes offers to his dark master with them.”
“Dark master?” Annika felt her mind reeling.
“The Lord of the Dark Pit.”
“How do you know all this, from your portrait?”
Gullveig's lips curled up into the ghost of a smile. “I have seen it. My portrait has windows to other realms as well. I have been keeping an eye on your uncle’s dark pursuits.”
Annika closed her eyes and tried to picture the inside of the portrait with windows to other realms, but it was too much for her imagination. The only thing that came to her mind very vividly was the shelf full of poor trapped shadows who would meet a terrible end. “Oh, how I wish I could free those poor shadows before they are offered up to this despicable demon!”
Gullveig stretched her hand out from the portrait and patted Annika’s shoulder. “You are very lucky. Today the moon is full. Tonight magic is at its strongest peak, and this means that the shadows are eager to be released because the full moon will guide them to their owners.”
Annika held Gullveig’s hand in a firm grip. “I'll do it! I'll open the jars and free them all!”
“I haven’t seen a determined person like you in ages.” She released Annika’s hand, drove herself to her full height where her head touched the upper frame of the portrait and announced, “I am going with you.”
Annika couldn’t believe her ears. “But how?”
“Being trapped in this portrait is not exactly a literal expression. When it is necessary I am able to materialize on the other side. You've already seen me do it once before.” So saying, she stretched up her body, anchored a foot on the lower frame of the portrait and jumped down to the floor.
“Now you're just like me,” said Annika.
Gullveig arranged the folds of her white dress and re-tied her sash around her waist. “Yes. When I am in your universe, I am again inhabiting Space and Time.”
“Does this mean that you can inhabit our side if you choose to do so?”
Annika shook her head. Her platinum hair fell in cascades over her shoulders and back, reaching her waist. “No, I cannot live indefinitely on your side. I have an expiry date in this world. Even the strongest magic cannot cheat Time and Space. And according to the laws of Time and Space, I should be long dead and gone. I can only cheat time out of your Time and Space frame.”
“But then this means you are dead?”
“Undead would be the more precise term. I am neither dead nor alive, at least in your world. I cheated Time in my world, but in your world, if I stay too long I will have overstayed my welcome.”
Annika looked bewildered. “What exactly do you mean?”
“It means that I will vanish in a mist.” Gullveig spun and her white dress spun with her, having the effect of a curtain of mist enveloping her.
“I don’t quite understand all the subtleties of being undead—I am afraid this is getting too metaphysical for me. Maybe we should go to the laboratory,” suggested Annika, pulling Gullveig by the hand toward where the wardrobe was.
Gullveing followed Annika, and they both entered the wardrobe.

#

Once in the laboratory, they immediately set to work. Each shadow they released into the air inflated like a balloon and acquired its original shape and shape. When they released the last shadow they looked up and saw all of them circling the ceiling of the laboratory, each surrounded by a faint silver halo. As they flew about, they made patterns on the ceiling and left a silver trail behind them it as if they were shooting stars.
Annika stared at them. “What a marvel they are! But why are they doing this?”
“It is their own way to thank us for releasing them. They are happy once again. Watch. In a moment they'll float through the window and reconnect with their bodies.” Gullveig waved to the shadows, who one by one disappeared through the tall latticed window in the laboratory.
Suddenly the heavy oak door of the laboratory opened and Robert Blackmuir appeared. He entered in time to see the last shadow disappearing through the window.
“I come here to get a book, and look what I find. You released the shadows! You are going to pay for this, niece.” He advanced toward Annika, who, turning on her heels, tried to make for the stairs. But before she could escape, he seized her by the arm.
“You can do whatever you wish to me, but at least the shadows are all free and won’t serve your evil purposes any more.”
Robert laughed. His laugh was so cruel that Annika would have preferred he shout at her. “Poor deluded fool. You don’t know the risk you are running. My dear niece, I want your shadow to make up for those you let go,” he declared, taking Annika to the centre of the laboratory.
“You won’t get it!” Gullveig, who had been hiding behind a shelf, tried to hit Robert on the head with an iron crucible. But Barnabas, who was late in making his appearance, stopped her just in time.
“So, girl in the portrait, you've decided to come into our world, have you?” Robert stroked Gullveig’s long hair. “So much the better; you will be my offer instead. The Lord of the Pit will appreciate a powerful undead being even more.”
“No, leave her alone! Let her go!” shouted Annika.
“And what are you going to give me if I release her?”
“You can have my shadow.”
Gullveig tried to speak, but Barnabas kept his hand clamped over her mouth. She desperately shook her head, warning Annika not to offer her shadow. Barnabus then tied Gullveig to a chair with thick ropes so she couldn’t move and gagged her with his handkerchief.
“You are being very reasonable, niece.” Passing Annika into Barnabus’ capacious hands, Robert opened the drawer in his desk and removed a pair of scissors made of iron. He then cut Annika’s shadow away where it connected with her feet. Cupping his hands, he scooped up the shadow, which was starting to collapse into a mound of what resembled clay. Grabbing an empty jar, he carefully slid the shadow inside and stopped the mouth of the jar with a cork.
“Now your will shall be mine because your shadow is mine, you little fool. It will make a wonderful offer for my Lord. When the deal is done, you shall have no will of your own and then you will marry me of your own accord.” He told Barnabus to release Annika and Gullveig. As soon as they were freed, they ran up the stairs back to Annika’s room.
He stepped to the head of the stairs and shouted up to them. “Go, go both of you. You cannot escape me now, dear niece. Your shadow is in my power. I will keep this precious jar inside my pocket. Listen to me: all you are now is an incomplete being who soon, very soon, will have no free will.”
His words rang in Annika’s ears like the terrifying words of a biblical harbinger of Armaggeddon. All hope seemed to be gone.

#

When Annika and Gullveig arrived in the wardrobe the first thing they did was to pull the lever and block it with hangers so that it couldn't budge. Then they locked the wardrobe door with the key that was in the keyhole and sat down on the steps of Annika’s four-post bed. Annika hugged Gullveig and cried her heart out on her friend’s shoulder. Her body shivered violently while she tried to talk to her friend.
“I no longer have a shadow! The fiend has it! What am I going to do now? ” She made a gesture of despair as she pointed at the empty space by her side where her shadow should be.
Gullveig caressed Annika’s hair, trying to soothe her. “Calm down, Annika. I think I know of a solution to your case,” she said while she wiped her friend’s tears with a handkerchief she conjured up from one of her sleeves. Annika sighed and, making an effort to control herself, stopped crying and waited to hear Gullveig’s idea.
“I don’t know if you'll want to go along with this...” Gullveig looked down and arranged the folds of her dress.
Annika held Gullveig’s hand tight. “Anything you say!”
Gullveig stood up and made Annika stand up as well. “Come with me into the portrait and you will be free of this curse. But if you take this step, you won’t be able to live on this side of the world again,” she warned.
Annika’s eyes flashed with the fire of determination. “What do I care for this world of woes? Make me undead just like you!” she exclaimed, and walked to the portrait, which showed the path of sycamores, the cottage, the river and the forest behind the bridge. The scene inside the portrait had never looked so appealing to Annika. She felt an urge to melt into that world and never be seen again in Blackmuir Manor.
“So shall it be,” said Gullveig, standing by the side of her friend. “I will make the necessary arrangements for your trip. Please bear with me.” So saying, she took a golden piece of chalk from her pocket and drew a glowing circle on the floor around Annika. “Stay inside this circle and look intently at the portrait as if you were already inside it,” she commanded.
Gullveig closed her eyes and walked around the circle, chanting an incantation with her sweet, well-modulated voice that resembled the rush of the wind passing through the rustling leaves of an autumn tree.

This soul is willing
To relinquish the meaning
Of life on this Earth
And plunge with mirth
Into the world of the undead--
Let it now into the portrait be led.

Annika felt suddenly very dizzy and heard a buzzing in her ears. Her whole body felt the same electrical current she felt before when she left her bed, but this time it was overpowering. She was charged with high voltage. Golden dust spiralled from her feet to her hair and enveloped her. She felt suddenly so light, as if her body didn’t have any substance. She was like a butterfly ready to leave its cocoon. In the next moment she was propelled forward, and she realized she was floating over the golden circle. A sensation of absolute freedom took possession of her. When she looked about her in the confusion of her new state, she saw she had crossed into the portrait and was standing in front of the charming cottage. A river meandered through a meadow behind the cottage. Between the cottage and the forest was a wooden bridge in the Japanese style. Beyond the bridge Annika saw acres and acres of oak and sycamore trees. The forest stretched as far as the eye could see and beyond.
Annika looked towards the bridge and saw Gullveig waving at her, crossing the bridge in a hurry.
“Welcome to my realm,” said Gullveig, and made a curtsey in front of Annika.
“How beautiful and vast your world seems,” said Annika, enchanted with her new dwelling place.
Gullveig smiled at her friend. “It is actually endless. Someday we must explore the Fairy Forest together.”
Annika pirouetted around the flower beds. “Being trapped in the portrait doesn’t feel constricting at all.”
“Of course not. There are several worlds in the universe—mine happens to be one of them.”
Stepping toward the cottage, Annika peeked through one of the windows. “I think I am going to like this life a great deal more than the previous one.”
“I'm glad you feel this way. I'm happy to have a friend to share the cottage with me. Come—I will show you your room upstairs.”

#

Back in Blackmuir Manor, Robert Blackmuir had opened the trapdoor hidden in the middle of the laboratory floor by pushing the wooden dais to the side with the help of Barnabas. While he waved a wand in the air with an owl skull on top, he chanted an incantation to summon the Lord of the Dark Pit.

Lord of the Pit, Master of Darkness,
Spread over us your mantle of madness.
Rise from the vortex, accept this shadow
As pure as a lily on a verdant meadow.
Break its will, tear its heart,
Show it the might of your black art.


The hole in the floor turned into a pitch-black vortex with the resemblance of a shadowy, sinister maelstrom. When the demoniacal chasm stretched to its maximum, Robert opened the jar and dropped Annika’s soul into it. The soul went down the vortex, but suddenly it jumped back. From the depths of the vortex the Dark Lord arose, dusky and terrifying, with green glowing eyes in a pitch-black face where it was not possible to distinguish his features. He stretched his powerful claw in the direction of Robert and grabbed him by the sleeve.
“How dare you offer me a single miserable shadow, cheater? Where are the other fifty shadows you promised me?”
“They...they left. But this one soul is worth all the fifty previous one,” said Robert in a rasping voice, trying to reassure his lord.
The Lord of the Dark Pit shook Robert violently. “No. I think not. I shall take you whole instead, insolent worm-- flesh, blood, and soul. Come with me!”
Robert was swallowed up by the vortex into the pit. After some minutes the vortex disappeared and the pit went back to its original form, a hole in the ground and nothing else. Annika’s shadow floated confusedly around the laboratory and finally attached itself to a wall. Barnabas, who had seen everything, sat on the floor and pulled his hair. The shock of losing his master made him go insane.
During the night in the cottage, Gullveig and Annika saw a falling star from their bedroom window.
“Look, Gullveig! It is so beautiful!” Annika pointed at the star. It left a trail of silvery dust behind its track.
“This is a sign!” exclaimed Gullveig. “It means that the danger is over back at Blackmuir Manor.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your uncle is gone, and gone for good! The Manor is cleansed.”
Gullveig put on her cape and ran down the stairs. “Come, Annika, come with me back to Blackmuir!” she commanded. Annika followed her friend.
They held hands as stepped out of the portrait. When they alighted on the floor they noticed that it was a beautiful and sunny morning.
“Gullveig, look!” Annika pointed at the window. There were cherry-blossom trees in bloom everywhere in the cemetery. “It doesn’t look scary like it was before.”
“The Manor is no longer under the power of the Lord of the Dark Pit. He must have left,” said Gullveig. “Come, let us go to the laboratory to find out what happened.”
They entered the wardrobe, released the lever and climbed down the stairs to the laboratory. This time there was no need for a lamp because the faint daylight that entered the wardrobe enabled them to see where they were going.
When they reached the laboratory the first thing they saw was Barnabas. He had a look of innocence on his face and was playfully bouncing a rubber ball. “He looks like child,” whispered Annika. Gullveig nodded.
Suddenly Barnabas decided to play outside. He opened the massive door that led to the cemetery and left, running wild, throwing and catching his ball with the same pleasure a child would feel.
“Well, I will say I much prefer Barnabas in his new state. He seems much more content now that the gloom has dissipated.” Annika watched Barnabas from the window. Suddenly Gullveig pointed at the centre of the stone floor.
“The pentagram is gone!” Annika walked to the spot and saw that there was no longer a dais on the floor. The pit had vanished, leaving no trace, as if it had never been there. Only the stone floor remained.
Gullveig stepped right into the place where the pit used to be. She closed her eyes. “I can see what happened here with the eyes of my mind. Your uncle was taken as an offer by the Lord of the Dark Pit!”
Annika shook her head. “I should be sorry for him, but I am not. He paved the path of his own destiny.” She turned to one of the walls and shouted, “Gullveig! There's my shadow!”
Gullveig walked to the wall and gently touched the shadow’s hand. It held Gullveig’s hand in its shadowy grip. “You shall be whole again, Annika. I will see that you get your shadow back. Come here.” Annika obeyed her friend.
“Now stand against the wall by the side of your shadow,” directed Gullveig. Annika did as she was told. Gullveig took a golden scissor from her pocket, a golden needle and a golden thread. Under the astonished look of Annika she sewed the shadow back into place with the golden thread.
When she finished, she pulled Annika from the wall and her shadow trailed after her.
“There!” Gullveig knelt down and patted Annika’s shadow. “Now you've got your shadow back.” She stood up and smiled. “My stitches won’t come undone. I am a very good seamstress when it comes to magic.”
Annika danced around the laboratory, observing her own shadow, which danced after her as a shadow is expected to do. From the corner of the eye she looked at Gullveig and noticed that her friend was not there. Annika climbed up the stairs in a hurry and found Gullveig looking at the portrait. “Wait! Why did you leave without saying anything?”
Gullveig turned. Annika noticed the tears on her face. “Goodbye, my friend. Now that you are whole again, you are the mistress of Blackmuir Manor. You don’t need to be trapped in the portrait.” Her voice quivered. “I wish you a long and fulfilling life. Come to the portrait and visit me now and again, and you will be very welcome.”
“But who says that I want to live in this side now that I have experienced the marvels and the wonders of your magical world? I'd much rather live inside the portrait with you!”
Gullveig shook her head. “No, Annika. There will come a day when you won’t be able to go back to your own world. Like me, you will only be able to exist in the portrait. Like me, you will be one of the undead. Live a normal mortal life, my friend, and forget about the other world.” She made a motion to melt into the portrait, but Annika held her by the hem of her dress.
“What do I get out of being in this world? I don’t want to be a lonely heiress, prey to unscrupulous fortune hunters. I don't wish to risk entering into a disastrous marriage, or becoming a bitter old maid who suffers from rheumatism as she awaits death. I want to cheat Time and Space just like you did and live forever, undead inside the portrait. Oh, please, take me with you!” she begged.
“Are you...quite sure?” asked Gullveig.
“I’ve never been so sure of anything in all my life.”
Gullveig’s eyes glimmered with sheer happiness. “I finally have a friend then. A friend who will share my world in a place where Time doesn’t exist and cannot reach us.” She stretched her hand. “Come, Annika; come with me.”
They melted into the portrait and walked the sycamore path hand in hand, warm of heart and light of soul.

#

The empty Manor was eventually sold and many years later the portrait made its way into an antique shop. A little girl named Polly saw the portrait of the two young girls side by side leaning out of the frame and begged her mother to buy it for her. She got her way and it was hung in her bedroom. One day when she had been locked in her bedroom without dinner for not having done her lessons, she looked at the portrait and the two beautiful ladies winked at her. Polly opened her mouth in the shape of an “o” and stood right in front of the portrait. With a circular gesture, Gullveig and Annika created a rainbow across Polly’s room. She jumped with joy when she saw the rainbow running from corner to corner in her room. She looked again at the portrait, and the ladies put their fingers to their lips. Polly understood.
“I can keep a secret,” she said, proud of herself.
Annika and Gullveig smiled at the little girl and then left through the path hand in hand until they reached the cottage. From this day, Polly’s favourite entertainment was to watch the ladies in the portrait. Sometimes they were inside the cottage, other times they were in the forest across the bridge and all Polly could see was two small figures. Polly never knew where they would be or what they would be doing. But whenever she found herself alone with the portrait, it always sprung to life and enabled her to get a glimpse into the life of those two friends who walked their world hand in hand and had cheated Time.