Lauren stared at her father as if she were looking at a ghost. Well, in a way, she was. As Sir John's piercing eyes peered into her for the first time in years, she felt fear and the smallest bit of loathing come rushing back to her. She moved instinctually as Sir John took another step down the staircase.
''And lo,'' he said in his baritone voice. ''After all these years, there she is at last -my little lost sheep. I hope you're not expecting me to carry you on my shoulders.''
That remark made Lauren smile the smallest bit, and a half smile formed on her face. She held on to the banister of the stairs as she lifted herself up.
''You seem well.''
''I am well,'' Sir John said, releasing an unpleasant smile. Seeing it set Lauren even more on edge.
''You know, seeing you like this, for a moment I thought your mother had come back to me.''
A certain sadness came over both Lauren's and Sir John's eyes as he said this. When Lauren was a child, she was often told she looked just like her mother, and she could only imagine the pain it must have inflicted for her father to see her all grown up like this. Sir John stared at her, and lifted a hand to stroke a few escaped tendrils of hair on the side of Lauren's face.
''I've often wondered what you looked like -just as beautiful as your mother.'' He removed his hand from her face and winked at her. ''Just glorious.'' Lauren said nothing. She stared at him blankly as he made his way down the remainder of the stairs. Lauren kept a safe distance behind him, lifting the bottom of her dress as she descended over each step. She also couldn't help but notice that the room seemed smaller somehow now -smaller, and , well, darker. Also, she couldn't help but see how Lobo was still looking at her like a hungry lion who had been starved for months.
''Lobo, stay,'' Sir John warned. As he had descended the stairs, Lobo tried to follow, if for nothing else than to keep an eye on this new woman. He obeyed, but his glare of death was still on Lauren.
By now, Sir John had led Lauren to the doorway outside the kitchen, next to all of his..trophies. Lauren took a second look at them, noting how each and every one of them just looked so - sad. Her thought was broken however by her father's voice.
''Come about your sister, have you?''
She stared at him for a second. What else would I be here for, she thought, a holiday? She passed in front of Lobo carefully and quietly, while he continued to growl at her.
''Lobo,'' Sir John again warned.
Once past him, Lauren answered. ''Yes. Mr. - Conliffe had recently sent me a letter saying Beth had disappeared, and he paid me a visit after my performance of Hamlet. So, I'm here to offer my help.''
Sir John stood in the doorway of the kitchen, preventing Lauren from going any further. A rather disappointed look was on his face.
''A splendid idea Lauren, splendid, but unfortunately, just like you, it's come too late. Your sister's body was found yesterday.''
Sir John's words hit her like a ton of bricks. Her worst fear had come true. She had prayed all the way here that she wouldn't hear this; now that she did, she didn't know what to feel, or rather what to feel first. Shock, disappointment, grief, anger, loss, all rolled into one in the form of a lump in Lauren's throat, and she tried her level best not to cry at that very moment, though some mist in her eyes did escape.
''What? W-where?'' she stuttered.
''In a ditch by the priory road,'' Sir John stated, rather nonchalantly, actually. He said it almost like he was saying it for the hundredth time, and the words had lost their meaning. Perhaps they had. Lauren hand flew to her mouth and she closed her eyes tightly, while her father continued.
''She looked just awful when we found her, her body had been torn to pieces.'' Suddenly, he looked up at Lauren, a somewhat more cheerful look on his face.
''I assume you have something to wear to the funeral.'' He said this in an attempt to poke fun at Lauren's dress, which was already raven black. Lauren however, was not amused, and instead focused on an older gentleman as he emerged from the kitchen.
He had olive skin, a long grey beard, and a turban atop his head. His face was care-worn, but a soft smile was still in his eyes. Surely this could not be Singh? The man she had always wished was her real father?
''Sir John, your tea is ready.'' He made a bow of his head towards him, and when he looked back up, his eyes met Lauren's, who was ever so slightly smiling at him. He looked at her with a great affection and tenderness -surely this girl was familiar to him. The little girl he had cared for so many years ago, the little girl he had nicknamed little raven for her black hair and dark eyes, the little girl who, along with her sister, he considered daughters -the little girl he had once called - Small Lady.
Sir John saw the recognition in both of their eyes and smiled a wicked smile.
''Ah, so I take it you remember my daughter, Lauren,'' he said. Singh took a look at Sir John, then back at Lauren, twenty-five years older, all grown up.
''How could I not remember her? The sweetest little girl in all the land. '' He placed both his hands together and bowed his head, which Lauren returned. He then came toward her with hands outstretched, giving her a look as if to say, ''May I?'' Her responding look said, ''you may.'' At that, Singh crossed to her, placing a hand on each side of her face.
''Lady Lauren?'' he said, almost as if he couldn't believe it was true. ''My small lady?''
Lauren smiled and placed her hands about her hips, feigning independence.
''Not so small anymore, thank you kindly!''
They both laughed, and Singh picked her up, swinging her around in a circle, making Lauren giggle.
Sir John caught sight of this. His oldest daughter, now his only living child, bonding more closely with a man who was not her father than with him. A tiny tear stood in his eye as he made his way to the kitchen to fetch his tea, calling Lobo after him.
''So I see,'' Singh said happily. ''Not small at all. It's good that you are here.''
''Yes, well I wish I could say it's good to be back here,'' Lauren said, her smile fading. She caught Sir John just as he was escaping from her vantage point.
Growing serious, she turned back to her father's faithful manservant. '' Has Mr. Conliffe been notified?''
''Yes,'' Singh said, growing just as serious. ''He's come to stay with us for a time. Right now, he's out riding with the horses.''
''Splendid,'' Lauren muttered to herself. She thought to herself, surely this is a test of endurance from God.
Singh bowed his head in respect once more to her, and offered to take his leave so she could get settled in, but first asked if there was anything she needed.
''Yes,'' she said, somewhat hesitantly. ''Please, where are they keeping Beth's body?''
A half an hour's trip later, Lauren found herself with the local butcher, escorted by Singh. He had been instructed by Sir John to keep Bethany's body in the freezer until the funeral. She straightened her dress and sighed as she stepped out of the family carriage. This was definitely not the way she had planned to see her sister again. With a tortured look on her face, she made her way to the entrance of the freezer, with Singh right behind her. When she discovered his shadow though, Lauren turned on her heel, smiling at Singh, and placing a warm hand on his shoulder.
''Singh, please, could you stand off a little? I just need a moment alone with Beth.''
Reluctantly, he agreed. ''As you wish, Lady Lauren. But please- take this with you.'' Lauren looked down at Singh's hand to see he was offering her a handkerchief -his own handkerchief. Gladly she took it, whispering her thanks as she continued on alone.
The butcher seemed rather ho-hum about having a dead body in his freezer, especially one of a young woman. However, he was not without a heart. Although Sir John had been instructed to bury the belongings she had on her with her, the butcher gave them to Lauren without a second thought.
''Seems a shame,'' he said, a heavy Irish accent in his voice. Lauren tipped her head and thanked him, now lifting Singh's handkerchief to her nose. Her focus shifted into the corner of the room, where a massive white sheet was covering a figure.
Lauren pointed. ''Is this her?'' The butcher simply nodded his head. As she took a step closer, the butcher gently placed a hand on her arm.
''I wouldn't - uh -,'' he started, staring at the body. ''I mean, it's not something a young lady like you needs to see.''
A dark look came across Lauren's face -one that expressed a certain immunity to the dark things life has to give.
''Believe me, '' she said, a strict monotone in her voice. ''I've seen a lot of things in my life. I'll be fine, but thank you.'' She looked at the butcher's hand as he removed it from her arm, and gave her a look as if to say, 'As you wish.'
Lauren walked to the table with Bethany's body on it, swallowing hard. She wondered for one shining moment if she should have taken the butcher's advice. But no, she had to see Bethany one last time, if for nothing else than to have some closure in knowing she was indeed dead.
After hesitating a little, she steadied her hand and lifted the top of the sheet covering Bethany's face. Oh, how she wished she hadn't. The right side of her face was marred with claw marks, deep and gushing, running over to the left side. The skin on the left side of her face was practically non-existent, it was pretty much just down to the bone. Much of her upper body was been scratch and wounded as well, with much of the skin torn off completely and down to the bone as well. The most shocking thing, was Bethany's mouth -it had been left wide open, like she had died screaming. Overall, her body was so broken and bloodied, one could hardly tell it was once a person.
Lauren gasped, dropping the handkerchief, and backing herself into the nearest wall. Her bottom lip shook with fear as she studied the horrendous sight.
''Beth,'' she whispered. Lauren knew her sister's body had been destroyed, but never in her wildest imaginings did she think it would look like this. Claw marks torn through her dress, body parts mauled, dislocated, and shredded, a look of complete horror on her face. No indeed, this was not the way she had imagined seeing her sister again. 'Oh my God,' Lauren thought, 'What happened to you?'