So the last session ended with the birds escaping from a room in the private wing, and the orphans – as well as a woebegone Miles Candlewyke Jr. – wondering what to do about it.
As one of the staff comes out to call the orphans in for dinner, they duck away behind a small outcropping of trees. Only to become aware of a cockatiel looking down at them from a high branch. Carl works his creepy magic and the big white bird drops down onto his shoulder, following which the orphans formulate a plan to recapture the rest of the birds.
Naseem sneaks into the kitchens and talks at one of the sou chefs until they give him a bag of seeds and nuts. Ezekial takes off his jacket and carefully wraps it around the cockatiel, to hold it safely tight, and Adelaide carries it back into the house with Miles Jr and Olivia.
The plan runs into difficulties, however, when the Candlewyke scion refuses to let Adelaide take the bird into the Manor’s private wing; he’s been told in no uncertain terms by his father that the wing is Not For Orphans. So Adelaide talks him into taking the bird back to its room himself, but during the awkward handover it becomes agitated and bites a sizeable chunk out of Miles Jr’s thumb. He shrieks and lets go of the cockatiel, which flies off up the stairs…
Outside, Naseem returns to the other orphans with his sack of birdseed, and he and Carl start making preparations for an expedition – over the wall of the Candlewyke estate and out into the big bad forest beyond. They shimmy up the closest tree to the wall and tie off a rope, before tossing the other end over the glass-studded top of the wall. Carefully they make their way across and down…
At this point Ezekiel notices an old, whiskery man with a big walking stick and an eye patch watching them from a nearby flowerbed. At first he’s worried the man will try and stop them, but after watching the two boys go over the wall the old guy just goes back to pruning the roses.
Members of the household staff find Olivia and Adelaide trying to stem Miles’ bleeding; they dispatch the girls to their dorm to change for lunch and Miles to Matron Skene, the manor’s nurse, for patching-up.
Another of the staff finds Ezekiel and Nathaniel, out by the wall, and after a bit of scolding sends them in for lunch as well. Ezekiel distracts her, and in an uncharacteristic moment of generosity Nathaniel scrambles up the tree and yells out into the forest: ‘LUNCHTIME!’
Out in the forest, Naseem asks Carl “Did you hear something?” The other boy frowns and shakes his head, and the two of them continue in their search for Dr Candlewyke’s escaped collection of brightly-coloured birds.
On the way back in for lunch, Ezekiel notices the grizzled old man raking leaves on the lawn and wanders over to make sure he’s not going to tell on them. The old man – groundskeeper Grooner – expresses his deep ambivalence on the matter of tree-climbing and estate-escaping, and leaves Ezekiel much reassured; apart from one small issue. “What’s out there in the forest?” the boy asks. Grooner shrugs. “Trees,” he says. “Squirrels, maybe a few birds. And some traps I laid for game.”
Luckily Naseem’s sharp eyes catch the tripwire in the undergrowth a moment before Carl blunders into it, and other than that narrow escape they manage to avoid most of Grooner’s surprises.
In the dining hall, Adelaide, Olivia, Nathaniel and Ezekiel are served Sunday lunch… with a military theme. A Beef Wellington fortress with marzipan rather than pastry, and platoons of toasted marmite soldiers laying siege. A moat of gravy. The roast potato siege towers, on investigation, turn out to be quartered and roasted lemons, with all the tartness somehow removed. As for the Yorkshire puddings, Guiseppe’s somehow managed to whip it into this light and airy froth – formed into abstract shapes which nonetheless seem to evoke cavalry on manoeuvres. At the far end of the table there’s a tiny working mangonel, with a sizeable supply of minted pea ammunition.
And the orphans are not allowed to play with any of it. They sit and watch while a couple of young women of the household staff serve them slices of battlement and besieger. There’s far more food than they could ever eat, and their plates are piled high. Nathaniel, Ezekiel and Adelaide start to regret all the goodies Guiseppe fed them after breakfast, while the other orphans were doing their chores…
Out in the forest, Naseem spots a flash of colour high in a nearby tree. Bright red, long-necked, large of beak… it must be one of Dr Candlewyke’s escaped collection. He tries to call it down, or tempt it with handfuls of seed, but to no avail. Carl works his creepy magic, and coaxes the bird down… but it’s huge, about the size of a goose. And there were about a score of the animals, in various shapes and sizes. How are they going to get them all back?
Carl has a plan. Drawing on the life of the big red bird snuggling so adoringly against his chest, he takes on a certain… birdiness. His calls are… convincing. Very convincing. Too convincing. When Naseem looks up, there isn’t a single inch of empty branch around them. All the birds of the forest (and quite a few more exotic examples) are perched overhead… watching. A thousand beady black eyes. Five hundred beaks. Called, ready, waiting.
In the dining hall, the orphans are struggling with the temptation to play with their food. All of them but Olivia are struggling with their overfull stomachs, too… and starting to feel distinctly uncomfortable. And at some point, Adelaide’s Friend tells her that there’s a big white bird watching her from the top of a nearby picture frame. The escaped cockatiel! She nudges Olivia, who nudges Nathaniel, who nudges Ezekiel, who clumsily knocks a gravy boat – an actual boat, floating on the castle’s gravy moat – as he turns to look. The boat breaches the wall of the moat, and gravy starts to (sludgily) pour across the tabletop. The serving staff panic, and divide their attention between stemming the tide and scolding the hapless Ezekiel.
With the staff distracted, Nathaniel seizes his chance and slips away from the table. With a selection of foodstuffs wrapped in a napkin he tries to call the bird to him… but he’s no Carl. It squawks loudly and launches away from its perch, dipping across the table and vanishing out the door in the manor beyond… but not before messing heavily down the side of the cooling beef fortress. And seconds later, Miles Jr returns from the infirmary with his hand heavily bandaged; he takes a seat, and the servers carve him a slice of castle…
Beneath a thousand watchful, unforgiving avian eyes, Naseem slowly (so slowly) reaches into the sack of birdseed. The birds all move as one, heads snapping to follow the movement. Carefully (so carefully), he nudges Carl and begins to back away, back towards the wall of the estate, sprinkling birdseed in their wake to sate the hungry horde. Inch by inch, they lead the birds back to the manor… but how to get over the wall?
In the dining hall, Ezekiel takes pity on Miles Jr and stops him just before he takes a big bite of Beef Fortress avec Bird Droppings. The Candlewyke boy is incredibly grateful, and the two of them hit it off even more when Miles realises Ezekiel is a sporting type.
They chat for a while about cricket and rugby, while Nathaniel is scolded by the servers for getting down before finishing his dinner. He can’t, of course, because he’s stuffed full of treats from earlier – but he manages to charm them, and they grumblingly relent. He asks if it’s possible to see the library, and is directed to Dr Sotheby who keeps the key in his office – so he sets out for upstairs.
Ezekiel and Adelaide manage to slip most of their food to Miles Jr, who seems to have a bottomless stomach and happily eats it all up. Ezekiel once again manages to knock something over – this time a water jug – and the servers, convinced he’s doing it on purpose, send him up to Dr Sotheby’s office for disciplining.
In the woods just outside the wall of the estate, the massive flock are beginning to get antsy – Carl’s getting a serious headache from projecting love and reassurance vibes at so many creatures, and Naseem is running out of birdseed. Moving around the estate, looking for some way in, they find a carefully concealed hunter’s hide overlooking the manor grounds, servants quarters and house… and ohmigod the wall is lower here, and crumbling. Neither boy has a thought to spare for the hide – they scramble over the disintegrating wall make a break for it across the lawn. The birds launch themselves off their branches in pursuit, darkening the sky…[The hide in the woods, suspiciously overlooking the grounds (and the manor itself), was supposed to be a hook for a long-running mystery plot. Unfortunately I made a right hash of selling it to Carl and Naseem's players, who were focused on their avian issues anyway, and they breezed right past it. Which leaves me a couple of options: jettison the sub-plot entirely, or have it progress quietly in the background. I was tempted to just dump it, but on reflection perhaps this isn't a total disaster.
I've always disliked settings where it feels like everything's just standing still, waiting for the PCs to trigger the plot hook and throw everything into motion; if the drama continues to build in the background, getting messier and messier until the orphans can't help but notice, it'll help build the impression of a dynamic, less PC-centred world. Unless I cock that up as well, of course. ]
The birds are fast. Faster than a couple of orphans. But the house is so close… and there’s the broken window. Carl is trailing… he can feel the flap of their wings, feel the beaks begin to bite… And Naseem hurls the last of the birdseed in through the broken window. The boys dive down against the wall of the house… and the hungry angry birds pour in through the window en masse. There’s barely room for them all, and they turn on one another in a frenzy of beaks and claws and feathers.
Carl grabs the abandoned cricket bat off the lawn and flails wildly at any bird which tries to get back out, while Naseem runs to the groundskeeper’s tumbledown shed. Grooner is elsewhere, and the door is unlocked – the boy scavenges up a hammer and nails, and several sturdy planks, and staggers back… between the two of them they manage to board up the window, trapping several hundred birds – rare and common alike – inside the aviary. High five!
Nathaniel knocks on the door of Dr Sotheby’s office and is permitted in. Sotheby is busy with some paperwork, but smiles warmly at the orphan’s request. “The key’s in that bureau, over there.” Nathaniel follows the Doctor’s pointing finger and opens up the bureau, which contains several labelled keys hanging on pegs… and a stack of neatly labelled files. Olivia. Adelaide. Naseem. Ezekiel. Carl. His own file, which is much fatter than the rest. And below those, six other files. He doesn’t recognise the names, but they’ve each been carefully struck through…
Just as Naseem and Carl are celebrating their narrow escape, they’re grabbed by the ear by one of the household staff. “Where on earth have you boys been? We’ve been looking all over! Dinner will be cold, and let that be a lesson to you…!” They’re propelled inside, to the dining hall, and served a plateful of congealed Sunday lunch. Even stone cold, though, Guiseppe’s food is delicious.
Nathaniel only wants to be a Good Boy. The approval of adults is all he’s ever wanted. But to make them like him, he needs to know what they’re saying about him. He needs that file. And he tries to take it, hoping Dr Sotheby’s attention is focused on his work.
Not focused enough. “Boy. Bring that back here, expediently. And hand over the key to the library, too. Thieves and miscreants don’t get to enjoy the rewards of good, right-thinking citizens.” Sotheby sighs. “I had hoped you were the exception, Nathaniel,” he says. “The sole and lonely virtuous child among this cohort. And once again, inevitably, I am disappointed. Remove yourself to your dormitory, if you please, and remain within to ponder your misdeeds. Do not emerge until I give you leave to do so. Avaunt!”
Nathaniel scuttles out, passing Ezekiel. The big black kid looks surly, and he’s none too pleased at being punished for something he couldn’t do anything about. When Dr Sotheby asks why he’s been sent to the office, he shrugs angrily… and things only escalate from there.
In the face of a tongue-lashing, and on the verge of flipping out, Ezekiel storms out of the office and runs down the corridor to the library… not noticing Nathaniel, who’s been skulking around the corner, eavesdropping. Dr Sotheby follows him, still demanding answers, and Nathaniel takes the opportunity to slip back into the Doctor’s office and skim through his file. It's a psychological profile, and doesn't make for pretty reading; the word 'lickspittle' is used. Twice.
The library doors are locked, of course. Ezekiel is trapped, and his temper is rising. He starts to freak out… and Dr Sotheby has a sudden attack of common sense. “Okay, let’s be grown-ups here,” he says, stepping back hastily as the hulking manchild turns with fire in his eyes. “You should take five minutes – take half an hour – to come back to your senses. Then return and we’ll discuss this like responsible adults… are we in accord?” He retreats to his office without waiting for an answer… and bolts the door.
Naseem, Miles, Olivia and Adelaide are outside again, with Miles Jr trying to convince them another round of cricket is in order. They’re… unkeen, but the weight of Miles’ enthusiasm is like a tidal wave. But they’re saved – in a manner of speaking – by the arrival of a big black car. The car is big, but the man inside it makes it look tiny. Olivia can’t quite figure out how he managed to fit into the driver’s seat… “Who’s that?” Naseem says. Miles looks scared. “That’s Constable Taggart…” he whispers. “What’s he doing here?”
Up in the dorm, Nathaniel is twiddling his thumbs and wondering how to get himself back into Dr Sotheby’s good graces when he remembers the weird puzzle ball he stashed in his bedside table drawer. But when he opens up the drawer… the ball is gone. Where it sat, there’s a weird religious pamphlet there instead. The Gatehouse. He flicks through the cheap rag, and a crudely printed image catches his eye. It shows a king or high priest or something, lording it over his court… in one hand he holds a sword, and in the other an sceptre… and atop the sceptre is an orb which suddenly looks very familiar. [To my amusement, none of the boys (in their passing visits to the dormitory) bothered to check on the wall mummy they'd tried to hide behind furniture in one of the spare rooms. They might've been surprised to find... well, maybe that ought to stay secret for the moment. Don't want to spoil anything...]
The car pulls up outside the front of the manor, and Constable Taggart manages to unfold himself from the driving seat. Mrs Silverdale is coming out to meet him, a sharp expression on her face. “How can I help ye, constable?”
The PC clears his throat, a great mountainous rumble. “I’ve come for them orphans,” he says.
Dum dum DUH!
Next week: An Inspector Calls.