Lady Marguerite Southwell, the Dowager Countess of Dunsmore, peeled back the heavy velvet curtain of her bedchamber window and looked out on the gloomy town of Lower Nettlefold. The sun was coming up, bronzed fingertips reaching toward a clear Autumn day. A burnished light began to drench the distant hills and fields, but no warm glow rested on the town at the bottom of the hill. The sun seemed to avoid it entirely. Nestled by the banks of the Nettlerush River, it paled in comparison to its twin, Upper Nettlefold. They were more like distant siblings, and this the prodigal child. Where Upper Nettlefold felt cheerful and welcoming, this town sat squalid in its own misery. A heaviness hung over the settlement. Oftentimes, Marguerite thought it was all of her own imagining— that she saw the town in a way that did not exist, but one had only to walk the grim streets and breathe in the always-bitter air to know that it was not a figment of her imagination. Living in the shadow of a burned-out husk, haunted by the ghosts who had once resided there, how could the town be anything other than grim? Each morning, upon awakening, Marguerite convinced herself she could still smell the acrid tang of ash and flames. She could certainly still hear the screams and shouts of those trapped within. Although she kept to the only wing that had survived, she too felt the presence of the remaining ruins that adorned the hill beside her abode; the crumbled structure that had once been the thriving epicentre of the household. Those ruins were intrinsic, now, to the very existence of Lower Nettlefold. The tragic fate of the Southwell family rested in the hearts of every inhabitant. Every Southwell who might have worn the mantle of the Earldom of Dunsmore had died in the fire.
Marguerite herself was all that remained; an old woman with no family to keep her warm in the winter of her life. There were no more sons or daughters, nephews or nieces, cousins, uncles, or aunts, to claim the title, be they Earl or Countess. Even the small ones, her beloved grandchildren, had perished. The eldest, Marguerite, who was her namesake, and the dear twins, Charlotte and Arthur. The Dunsmore House blaze had claimed them without mercy, as it had done her darling son, Charles, her adored daughter-in-law, Rebecca, and even her errant, wayward daughter, Felicity. The behaviour of the latter had undoubtedly been the catalyst for the fire, but Marguerite could not find it in her heart to blame a ghost. What did it matter who was to blame, when the outcome had remained the same? What haunted Marguerite most of all was the fact that nobody had managed to uncover the bodies of the three children. Buried under so much unstable rubble, it had been deemed unsafe to attempt a recovery. Over the years, she had employed men to attempt the task, but it had always come to naught. The children could not be found.
Not only that, but she feared that moving the rubble too much might crush whatever remained; she did not know what state they might have ended up in, after the blaze had been doused. Charles and his wife, Rebecca, had been found and buried in the appropriate manner, as had Felicity. Her death had broken a thousand hearts across the country, and though she had often been the subject of scandal, the papers had treated her loss with a kindly tone. The staff who had lost their lives had also been recovered from the ruins of Dunsmore House, and there had been much mourning in the town. Those staff members who had survived the fire disbanded to Upper Nettlefold, retreated further afield, or stayed in Lower Nettlefold under a grey cloud of sad reminiscence. It was this melancholy that continued to seep into the veins of the town, the infection trickling down the hill from the remains of the crumbled house. A service had been given for the lost Southwell children, but Marguerite could not shake the hollow feeling it had brought her. It lingered still, twenty years later. All she wanted to do was bury her grandchildren properly, but that right had been denied her. And so, she mourned them each day, keeping their memory alive.
Though many tried to persuade her, she would not rebuild or refurbish the practically derelict house, despite having the wealth to do so. The Dunsmore fortune had not been touched, and she was not about to lay a finger on it. Mr. Heslop, the old butler, had lived through the fire and remained at her side still. A few maids and servants came and went, but Mr. Heslop was the sole constant. She would not have anyone else around her for long. He was the only person she could trust, with her being the keeper of such wealth. Rumours abounded that there was buried gold in a secret cellar beneath the rubble, and many suspected that was why she stayed at the house and did not seek to fix a thing or let anyone near the building. They called her ‘the Dragon of Dunsmore’.
She’d heard it whispered behind her back, but she did not care for the idle gossip of bored villagers. They could believe what they wanted to believe, for she knew the truth. Everyone thought she remained so that nobody could get their hands on the family gold or fortune, but it was far simpler than that. She stayed to be near those she had lost. That did not stop glory hunters coming from far and wide to try their luck, digging in the rubble in the dead of night. Over the past two decades, such endeavours had resulted in several deaths, which had led many to believe that the house was cursed, if not outright haunted. Marguerite herself was a believer in such things, though she did not fear the ghosts as others did. She welcomed them, longing for them to speak with her or make themselves known. Thus far, they had not. She felt a chill in certain corridors, and her skin prickled if she wandered in the ruins too long, but there had been no visible spectres to ease the wounds of her shattered heart.
Those visions came only in the darkness of her restless slumber. Even then, their visits were all too brief. Ten years prior, Marguerite had thought it wise to put an advertisement in several newspapers, asking for information on living members of the Southwell family— distant relatives who may not have made themselves known. Any relation, along the line of the family tree. Desperation had driven her hand, but it had turned up nothing but charlatans, tricksters, and trophy hunters. They had all landed at her door and she had been forced to turn each one away, after suffering the indignity of their supposed claim. Not a single one had sought anything but money, and not a single one had possessed even the faintest tie to her family. Since then, she had kept herself shut off from the rest of the world, preferring solitude to the whispers of the town. Now and again, another charlatan would arrive to try their luck, but she had long-since ceased to entertain an audience with anyone. She had become a living spectre in her own home; a ghost that people spoke of, but never saw.
Every time she peered out of her window and looked down at the town below, she knew they were all waiting for her to die. She could sense them, clustering around the bottom of the hill like rabid wolves at her door, waiting for their opportunity to seize whatever they could. Well, they would just have to go on waiting, she thought. There was still breath in her lungs and life in her heart. A few creaks and groans weighed on her bones, but she was still sprightly for her age and had the tenacity and stubbornness of spirit to go on living for as long as humanly possible. Indeed, she planned to outlive every single money-grabber. Until her grandchildren could be laid to rest, she refused to leave them. The Dragon of Dunsmore would stay coiled around the past, until she could finally bring herself to reconcile with the present. If that day never came, then Death would be the only one who might tear her away