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The Braden Banshee


The Braden Banshee
by Kristen Brand

The first thing Mrs. Katherine Braden did upon entering our sitting room was faint dead away. Her card had been sent up merely seconds before, and I’d barely had time to wonder her purpose before she collapsed in the doorway. After a moment in which my mother and I stared in shock, we rushed to her aid. With the help of the housekeeper, we situated her upon a couch, and I fetched smelling salts. A brief whiff, and her eyes fluttered open.

“Oh!” she cried. “Oh, I beg your pardon.” She sat up and smoothed the overskirt of her black silk mourning dress. “I’ve been so overwrought these past few days that I fear it has all caught up with me.”

I studied the woman. The mourning attire was not surprising, as most of my clients came after the death of a loved one. Mrs. Braden was notable only for the beauty and costliness of the garment, as well as a particularly fabulous feather-adorned hat. She was a handsome woman, my opposite in many ways. Tall and slim where I was short and plump, she had a dark complexion in contrast to my paleness and blond locks. She glanced between my mother and myself uncertainly before settling on me.

“Miss Rosenfeld? Miss Ella Rosenfeld? I must beg you to accompany me to Illinois at once.”

My mother reached between our chairs and put her hand on mine as if to restrain me from leaving. “I’m afraid that’s out of the question.”

I gave Mama a pointed look before turning back to Mrs. Braden. “My apologies, but I don’t usually travel so far for a séance.”

Mrs. Braden leaned forward and clasped her gloved hands together pleadingly. “I don’t need you to perform a séance. I need you to banish a banshee.”

I looked at Mrs. Braden more closely, my interest piqued.

“Banshee?” Mama asked.

“A mythological Irish spirit,” I answered, having read about them. “Or a faerie, by some accounts. Pray tell me all the details, Mrs. Braden.”

“The Braden Banshee,” she said. “There are stories of her haunting my husband’s family for generations, wailing to herald their deaths. I always thought they were just stories, but two weeks ago, we started hearing it outside in the night.” She shivered. “An awful, unearthly shriek. It filled me with dread to hear it. I—I can’t truly explain how abominable it was. My husband said it was merely the wind, and I was being silly, but… Three days ago, he died.”

Mama drew a sharp intake of breath. “My condolences.”

“How did he die?” I asked, then winced as my mother gave me an appropriately chastising look.

“A fall.” Mrs. Braden’s voice was low and sore. “Off the balcony. The ice this time of year is treacherous.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said. “But I don’t understand what you expect me to do. The death the banshee foretold has already taken place.”

“But she’s not finished.” Mrs. Braden choked back a sob. “Last night, I heard the wailing again. You must understand I’m not afraid for myself. I’m not a Braden by blood, but my daughter—my daughter, Ada. I fear for her, Miss Rosenfeld. I took the first airship this morning to come find you. You must come back with me. I’ll pay any price you ask. Please.”

I was prepared to pack my bags that very instant. I glanced at my mother to see if Mrs. Braden’s story had changed her mind. Judging by her tight mouth and the fierce glare she returned, it had not.

“Mrs. Braden, would you excuse my mother and myself for a moment?”

We left her in the sitting room and closed the door behind us. The hallway was short and cramped, floral wallpaper covered by a collection of old paintings, and creaking wooden stairs led to our bedrooms on the second floor. Our lodgings were humble, and we were fortunate to have a housekeeper. Money had been tight since my father’s passing.

“She needs my help,” I said simply.

Mama crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “Yes. She needs your help with a ghost that has murdered a man. It’s far too dangerous, never mind the distance you’d need to travel.”

“It’s not necessarily dangerous. Banishing it may turn out to be a simple matter. I won’t know until I investigate.”

Mama shook her head, her graying curls quivering. “I forbid it. I can tolerate the séances, but I can’t bear it when you do exorcisms. Have you forgotten Thornburgh Manor?”

How could I forget? The mere name clenched my lungs and turned my breath shallow. “That ghost was a special case,” I said stiffly.

“This banshee may be a special case, as well.”

“Then I should abandon Mrs. Braden and her daughter to their fate?”

Mama rubbed her face. “That is not what I mean.”

I sensed opportunity and pressed my attack. “Then let me go and at least appraise the situation. If it’s truly too dangerous, I’ll leave.”

Mama pursed her lips, thinking it over.

“Judging by Mrs. Braden’s attire, she can compensate me quite handsomely,” I added in an innocent tone. “We could use the money for the wedding.”

That did it. Although my betrothed’s finances were in considerably better shape than ours, my mother had taken his offer to pay for the trousseau as an insult. “It’s the bride’s family’s duty,” she’d huffed when I’d pointed out the illogic. “That’s simply how it’s done.” She was also determined to offer him at least a small dowry. I’d long since given up arguing, and now her pride could finally be turned in my favor.

“Oh, very well,” she said with a sigh. “Let us inform Mrs. Braden that we’ll accompany her.”

“We?” I repeated.

“You don’t think you’re going unescorted?” She raised her brow. “You can hardly be trusted to judge when the situation has become too dangerous.”

I opened my mouth to protest but then thought better of it. I had permission to go, and there was no need to jeopardize that. I could compromise.

It was worth it for the chance to see a banshee.

* * *

With an eight-hour airship ride to Chicago and another three hours in a carriage to reach Mrs. Braden’s residence outside the city, it was the next day when we arrived. Mrs. Braden had grown close-tongued and agitated throughout the trip, and I imagined she feared returning home to find her daughter had passed in the night. When the carriage drew near, she leaned out the window for a better look, flinging back the curtains and letting in a gust of frigid air.

It was early April, but winter still clung to the land this far north. No snow remained on the ground, yet the grass was brown and dead. The trees had not regained their leaves, and we passed woods that were collections of bare, twisting limbs, dotted here and there by an evergreen. It made for a dreary landscape, and our first look at the Braden residence didn’t seem much more welcoming.

The mansion sat atop a barren hill overlooking Lake Michigan. It was a grand old manor with a porch wrapping around the first floor and a balcony on the second, yet there was something dismal and deathly about it. Perhaps it was the knowledge of the banshee and Mr. Braden’s passing that colored my perceptions. Or perhaps it was the lifeless gray color of the place, and the way missing roof tiles and weathered walls hinted it had fallen into slight disrepair.

As the carriage wound up the hill, I parted the curtains ever so slightly to look out over the lake. Though no snow lingered on the earth, it covered the frozen water for as far as the eye could see. I’d imagined the effect would be smooth and glittering, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The wind had whipped the snow and ice into messy hills, and near the shore, slush blended with the sand in a yellowish, unpleasant color.

The carriage stopped in front of the mansion, and the shock of cold when I stepped out was painful. The wind from the lake cut brutally through my cloak, and I hurried to cross the distance to the door. Safely inside, I shivered, but even after the butler had closed the door behind us, the wind beat against the outside walls with a howl. It occurred to me for the first time to doubt Mrs. Braden’s story. In this cold, dismal house with the constant wail of the wind, could she have dreamed up the banshee?

“Sallie.” Mrs. Braden rushed to a lady’s maid with freckles and mousy brown hair. “Is Ada alright?”

“She’s perfectly well,” the maid replied with a warm smile.

Mrs. Braden’s relief bowed her head, and she turned back to us with more cheer than I had yet seen in her. “Mrs. Rosenfeld, Miss Rosenfeld, welcome. Let me show you to your rooms so you can rest. Would dinner at seven be agreeable?”

It was, and though the outside of the house was somewhat dilapidated, the guest rooms were clean and decorated in modern style. I hadn’t intended to fall asleep, but my brief rest on the bed didn’t end until my mother woke me to prepare for dinner. I changed from my traveling dress to an evening gown of mauve satin trimmed with lace and ribbons. Though I’d blessedly been permitted to wear color again a month earlier, Mama would remain in full mourning for father for almost another year. Still, she looked stately in black bombazine, her hair arranged quite elegantly.

We were escorted to the dining room, and Mrs. Braden introduced her family.

“My mother-in-law, Mrs. Muriel Braden née Dougherty.”

The withered old woman gave us a disdainful look with her dark, beady eyes and said a formal, “How do you do?” Mrs. Katherine Braden seemed relieved to quickly move on to the next introduction.

“And my daughter, Ada.”

The child resembled her mother, her black hair plaited in two long braids. She curtsied shyly, and we all took our seats as a first course of soup was served. My mother made polite but banal inquiries about the house and surrounding area, to which Mrs. Braden answered, seeming happy to avoid talk of banshees for the moment. Ada kept her eyes mostly on her soup but peeked up at me occasionally, and I made sure to smile when I caught her gaze.

“You’re the medium, then?”

Mrs. Muriel Braden’s barked question interrupted the discussion between her daughter-in-law and my mother. Mrs. Katherine Braden winced.

“I am,” I said.

Mrs. Muriel Braden took a bite of the rather excellent fried lake trout in tarragon sauce and chewed. “I’ve heard of you.”

“The newspapers have kindly taken interest in some of my small accomplishments.”

She took a sip of wine and swallowed, taking her time despite having the attention of the entire table. “Hogwash.”

“Muriel—” Mrs. Katherine Braden began, but the old woman waved a hand dismissively.

“Katherine believes in nonsense like ghosts, but she’s always been soft in the head. It’s that Indian blood. Makes her superstitious. I told Solomon not to marry a half-breed, but he never listened.”

Mrs. Katherine Braden had gone stiff, her face drained of color. Mama gaped, and Ada hunched down, trying to make herself smaller. Mrs. Muriel Braden just watched me, waiting for my reaction.

“I shall take your opinion into consideration,” I said sweetly.

The old woman eyed me. “Mind you, I still think there’s something strange about Solomon’s death. One might think Katherine spun the tale of a banshee to stop people from asking questions about the accident.”

Mrs. Katherine Braden’s hand clenched into a white-knuckled fist around her fork, and my mother overcame her shock.

“Mrs. Braden,” she said in the same righteous indignation she used to possess when I failed an etiquette lesson. “There are far more appropriate conversations for the dinner table, don’t you think?”

The old woman harrumphed but lapsed into silence. After a moment’s pause, my mother complimented Mrs. Katherine Braden on the fine white wine in a forceful tone and dragged the conversation back into polite territory.

Mrs. Muriel Braden’s beady eyes watched me for the rest of the meal.

* * *

That night, I wanted to stay awake until I heard the banshee’s cry, but my mother would hear nothing of it.

“We’ve had a long day of traveling. Mrs. Braden, the sound of the banshee is loud enough to wake a person, is it not?”

“Er—yes.” Mrs. Katherine Braden was still tense from dinner, or else she dreaded the coming of night and the banshee. “It’s impossible to sleep through.”

“There you have it,” Mama said to me. “Rest until it wakes you, and then you can go dashing off into the night like a hoodlum.”

Mrs. Braden put her maid and a pageboy at my disposal for when I woke, and they sat ready in chairs in the hallway outside my room. I bid our hostess and my mother goodnight, but when my head hit the pillow, my anticipation was too strong for sleep to overcome. What would the banshee’s cry sound like? What would she look like? Was she a ghost or a faerie creature? If she was a faerie, would I be able to perceive her? I’d only tested my abilities on spirits before. This might be something completely new. Had I taken out my journal so I could write notes? I went to my trunk and placed the book on the nightstand before getting back into bed. What time was it now? It would be helpful if Mrs. Braden had recorded the exact time the banshee wailed each night. With two weeks of data, I might be able to determine a pattern.

I felt as if I had only just fallen asleep when I was woken by the most terrible sound. My eyes flew open, but the rest of my body couldn’t move. How could Mrs. Braden’s late husband and mother-in-law dismiss this howl as the wind? There was a certain similarity, yet this shriek was undeniably female and unearthly. Despite the heating inside the house, it sent a chill through me.

“Miss Rosenfeld!” Mrs. Braden’s maid freckled maid, Sallie, flung open my door. “I beg your pardon, but—the banshee.”

“I hear it.” I flung off the bedcovers. I’d gone to sleep in my traveling dress so as to not lose time changing. I laced up my boots, tied back my hair in a quick bun, and grabbed my journal as I dashed out the door.

“Ella!”

Mama opened her door, wearing a dressing gown over her nightclothes. Standing in the doorway, the flickering light from the lantern the pageboy held made her face appear hollow and old.

“Take care,” she whispered.

“Always.” I gave her a reassuring smile as I followed Sallie and the pageboy down the stairs. Though my dress was warm wool and my thick cloak lined with fur, the moment I stepped outside, I felt naked. The cold was even more painful than I’d expected. The fierce wind tried to rip away my cloak, and I pulled it more tightly around myself. The hood was blown from my head, and to pull it back on, I’d have to let go of the rest of the cloak, so I dismissed it as a lost cause. My small hat did little to warm my scalp, especially as snow was falling.

“Falling” was perhaps not the most accurate word. The wind blew the soft white flakes horizontal or even upward in some cases. They felt wet and bitingly cold when they were blown into my face, and I had to squint to see through them. I’d never cared for the snow or the cold. They always reminded me of Auttenberg Asylum.

“Which way?”

Sallie and the pageboy both held up lanterns. They wore practical fur caps and had scarves wrapped around the lower halves of their faces, obviously more used to this weather than I was.

“I’m not sure yet,” I said.

The banshee shrieked again, making me flinch. I looked wildly around, but the wind made it impossible to determine from which direction the cry came. It could be north, south, or right behind us. The night was cloudy and very dark, which would have been a problem normally, except the hill had an excellent view of the surrounding area. In the distance below, I detected a faint, bluish-white gleam.

“There’s something down there.” I pointed, but of course Sallie and the pageboy couldn’t see it. Sallie passed me the lantern, and I led them downhill. The mansion’s stone drive was a treacherous walk in the darkness, and I worried about ice forming on it. Mr. Braden had died from slipping on ice, hadn’t he? Unless it had truly been a murder.

“You don’t need any tools to get rid of the spirit?” Sallie asked in a muffled voice the wind nearly carried away.

“Tools?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the road in front of me.

“Candles, crucifixes, and such,” she clarified.

“And chicken’s blood,” the pageboy added.

At that, I paused, and so did Sallie.

“Chicken’s blood?” she exclaimed. “Honestly, Franklin, wherever did you hear such a thing?”

“Witches use chicken’s blood in spells to summon ghosts,” the boy insisted. “I read it in a dime novel.”

“I’m not a witch.” I continued down the road, glancing up to check that I could still see the ghostly glow in the distance. “And I have no need for any tools.”

Ghosts simply did as I said most of the time, though there were malicious ones like the ghost of Thornburgh manor who could overpower me. Would the banshee be one such spirit? I nearly missed my step, thinking of what would happen if she was.

“I pray it will be as easy as you say,” Sallie said. “This has brought Kath—Mrs. Braden no end of anguish. I’ll be relieved when it’s behind us.”

There came a sound like the snapping of a twig to our right, and we stopped. Franklin and I lifted our lanterns higher, but the light revealed nothing close by. Out there in the darkness however…who could tell?

Sallie and Franklin drew closer to me.

“It’s probably just a small animal,” I said. “Let’s continue.”

I wasn’t particularly brave, just cold. If someone or something was stalking us, they’d make themselves apparent soon enough. I had no desire to freeze to death waiting for them. My face was already stinging and half-numb.

We’d continued walking when we heard the banshee’s baleful cry once more. The sound sent a shiver through me that had nothing to do with the cold. It seemed somehow both low and high-pitched at once, keening and sorrowful yet with a malevolent edge. We must have been heading in the right direction, because it was louder than before. I could feel the cry in the center of my chest.

To our right, something rustled, startled by the wail. Sallie and Franklin hurried to catch up with me as I increased my pace. We’d reached the bottom of the hill, and nothing stood between me and the faint bluish glow ahead. I wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible.

“Miss Rosenfeld! Wait!” Sallie cried.

I stopped and turned to see what was the matter.

“You’re headed right onto the lake.”

Oh. I peered back towards the ghost, and indeed, it was out on lake. “We need to go another half-mile or so in that direction.” I pointed. “Is the ice safe to walk on?”

Sallie peered dubiously in the direction I’d indicated. “Are you sure it’s the banshee?”

“It’s too far away to make out details,” I admitted. “It might be a different spirit—a drowned sailor, perhaps—but it’s all I see, and you must have noticed the wail is getting louder.”

Sallie considered. “The ice should be solid enough, but I don’t fancy a walk on it in the dark. We’d need to go back to the house and get different shoes, in any case, or our feet will slip out from under us.”

“We could use the snowflyer,” Franklin piped up.

“Snowflyer?” I asked.

“A contraption Mr. Braden bought last year,” Sallie said. “It’s a fancy thing like a steam-powered sled. It could get us out there in no time. Good thinking, Franklin.”

“Where can we find it?” I asked.

It was back at the house, and unfortunately, by the time we trekked up the hill, the wailing had stopped, and the ghostly light on the lake had vanished. To say I was frustrated would be an understatement. All that time and effort had resulted in naught but cold appendages. Still, Franklin said he and the staff would bring the snow-flyer to the lake’s edge tomorrow, leaving it ready for us tomorrow night. One more day, and I could resolve the matter.

The next day was slow and tiresome, however. It was the day of Mr. Braden’s funeral, and my lack of sleep meant my mother had to pinch my arm to keep me from drifting off during the ceremony. Fortunately, I don’t believe anyone noticed. It was a Catholic funeral mass, and not being Catholic, my mother and I had opted to sit in the very back of the church.

“You’re going straight to bed when we return,” Mama said as we walked from the church to the reception hall. Hours of socially required conversation and dining at the reception meant we wouldn’t be returning for some time.

“There’s too much work to do,” I replied. “I’ve barely touched the books on Irish lore I brought for research, and I’d really like to speak with the police about the circumstances around Mr. Braden’s death. I spoke with Mrs. Braden this morning, and she said that the banshee hasn’t cried for at least two generations—not for her late husband’s father or grandparents, at any rate. It makes me wonder what was different about Mr. Braden’s passing. I suspect banshees may only cry to foretell violent deaths.”

In my research thus far, ghosts seemed more likely to form in cases of violent deaths. It wasn’t an exact rule, of course, and I needed much more data before my hypothesis became a theory, but I’d only been studying the afterlife for a little over a year.

Mama gave me an unreadable look. “And you don’t think the reception could be a useful opportunity?”

“No.” I sighed. “It will be a dreadful bore.”

My mother, however, surprised me. I let her polite conversation with the fellow mourners at our table wash over me as we ate—until I realized she’d deftly turned the topic to the late Mr. Solomon Braden.

“I don’t mean to gossip,” said an older woman with a glint in her eye. “But he was something of a Don Juan. The country girls here were easy prey, I’m afraid. The Rowleys dismissed one of their housemaids just last month after a scandal.”

The woman glanced to the head table where the family sat and lowered her voice conspiratorially. “The younger Mrs. Braden knew of it, of course. It was a source of shame for her. The elder Mrs. Braden knew as well, but she blamed it—rather vocally—on her daughter-in-law’s failings as a wife. Solomon could never do any wrong in her eyes. She coddled him as a child, and if you ask me, he only got worse as he grew older.”

I gave my mother an impressed smile, my mind racing. I didn’t want to think of Mrs. Katherine Braden as a murderer, but there was no denying she had motive. Come to think of it, any of Mr. Braden’s lovers had motive to kill him. A violent death suddenly looked much more likely.

The remainder of the reception produced no useful information and in fact turned most uncomfortable. Mrs. Muriel Braden grew abruptly loud and disturbed over something in her conversation, and her daughter-in-law’s attempts to hush her had the opposite of the intended effect. Mrs. Muriel Braden only snarled louder, and while I couldn’t make out the entirety of her rant, the phrases “murdering savage,” “never should have let you wed my flesh and blood,” and “trollop” were heard clearly across the hall.

Some friends of the family eventually persuaded her to compose herself, but the conversation that picked up around the hall afterward was stilted and hushed. Our table’s resident gossip happily confided in my mother that the elder Mrs. Braden was a notorious terror to her daughter-in-law and was getting looney in her old age.

We were a low-spirited group returning to the Braden family manor, the carriage driving us past drab, barren fields beneath an overcast sky of bleak gray. I decided to take my mother’s advice and get some rest, though I snuck in some quick reading first. The evening passed quickly in a haze of rest and research, though an unwanted and unfinished task weighed heavily on my mind. I couldn’t put it off until tomorrow, so before retiring for the night, I sought out Mrs. Braden and knocked on her bedroom door.

She called me in, and I found her sitting in front of an oak dressing table, gazing into a mirror as Sallie brushed her hair. Her wavy, raven-black locks reached her waist, and she seemed soothed by Sallie’s gentle brushing motions. I briefly went over tonight’s plans with her again.

“I’m still worried about the ice,” she replied. “But Mr. McFarlane said he went fishing just this morning and found it still very solid.”

“That’s reassuring to hear,” I said. “But I wanted to speak to you about a different concern. I’ve been reading up on banshees, and… In all my books, a banshee’s cry is a warning of death. It’s not the cause. Banishing the spirit may not change anything.”

My hands folded in front of me, I twisted my engagement ring as I waited for her response. Sallie had stopped brushing, and Mrs. Braden squeezed shut her eyes as if pained.

“I… You’ll still try of course?” She gave me a pleading look through the mirror’s reflection.

“Of course,” I said. “Which brings me to another matter.” I took a deep breath before plowing forward. “When I speak to the banshee, I’d like to be as well-informed as possible. Mr. Braden’s death—you’re sure it was an accident?”

Mrs. Braden’s face lost some color, and Sallie put a hand on her shoulder, not even pretending to brush anymore. “As sure as I can be. Why?”

“I suspect a correlation between a banshee’s cry and murder. And Mr. Braden slipped on the balcony, correct? What would he be doing there in such weather?”

Mrs. Braden attempted a weak smile. “We have coal heaters and some wonderfully warm fur blankets for the balcony chairs. It—It can be rather peaceful to watch the sun rise over the frozen lake.”

Mrs. Braden glanced down, and Sallie swallowed as she watched my reaction.

“I see.” I curtsied. “Well, I’ll inform you of our progress in the morning.”

Mrs. Braden wished me luck, and Sallie promised to accompany me again. When I closed the bedroom door behind me, I caught a scrap of conversation from the other side.

“You don’t have to go again,” said Mrs. Braden.

“I want to,” Sallie said. “This whole awful ordeal will end tonight. You’ll see.”

I waited outside the door for a minute longer, but they said nothing else, so I returned to my room. As I waited in bed for sleep to take me, I wondered what the two of them were hiding.

* * *


* * *

The snowflyer was a bizarre machine. Reminiscent of a carriage, it had two wheels on the back but a pair of narrow runners on the front like a sleigh. There were no horses needed, as it ran by steam engine—a fact which I appreciated, as apart from generating power, the engine provided a source of heat.

Sallie drove, though Franklin had campaigned persistently for the job, and the experience was altogether different from the night before. The sound of the engine staved off the eerie quiet of the cold night, and the snowflyer came with its own brighter lanterns. We soared across the frozen lake at a brisk, easy pace, and the ghostly light grew steadily nearer. My only complaint was that our speed made the icy wind feel even fiercer.

When we were close enough for the pale blue glow to resemble a human figure, I told Sallie to stop. She cut the engine, and the snowflyer kept gliding for another dozen feet before slowing smoothly to a halt. With the sudden absence of the engine’s rumble, the silence on the lake seemed incredibly stark. I disembarked from the snowflyer, snow crunching under my boots, and made my way towards the figure. Sallie and Franklin took lanterns and followed.

The spirit was unquestionably female. Loose, long hair flowed from her head, and she wore a billowing dress. Like all ghosts, she was ethereal, her body and garments composed of a pale substance partway between light and smoke. It was difficult to perceive if she walked or glided across the lake’s surface, translucent and softly glowing. As I drew closer, more details became apparent. She was skeletal, her face gaunt and her arms long and bony. Her dress was torn and ragged, and her cloak bore darker spots that resembled dirt—or perhaps blood. She took no notice as I approached her, continuing her macabre journey.

“Excuse me,” I said.

She drifted onward without turning.

“Stop,” I said with force.

Her head turned slowly in my direction, and I barely resisted a gasp. Her eyes were pure white, lacking a pupil or iris. Yet I had not the slightest doubt that her gaze was fixed completely on me.

“Forgive the interruption,” I said with a curtsy. “I come from Braden Manor. Your cries have been heard, and I must ask: whose death do you herald? And how will they die?”

The banshee’s head tilted to the side as she looked at me. Her manner reminded me of a wild animal, and I began to doubt that she understood my words. Yet at the same time, there was a dark dignity in the way she held herself. Her hair and cloak undulated outward as if she were underwater, and though her luminescent dress was in rags, bits of embroidery hinted that it had once been quite fine.

“Miss Rosenfeld…?” Sallie asked, unable to see whom I addressed.

“Shush,” I hissed, for the banshee was opening her mouth. Would she say Ada Braden’s name and confirm my fears?

She shrieked. I clenched my jaw, the sound rattling my skull, and Sallie and Franklin dropped their lanterns in shock. The lights went out except for those still on the snowflyer, and in the dark, the banshee glowed all the brighter. Her cry summoned wind, scattering the snow that had collected atop the ice. For a moment, it was as if we were in a storm, and I flinched as the cold, white stuff flew into my eyes. The banshee’s wail continued, the deathly spirit having no need to pause and draw more breath. The ghastly sound made me clutch my ears to block it out.

“Enough!” I shouted.

The shriek abruptly silenced, and the banshee put a hand to her throat. She looked at me, and I flattered myself that there was some fear in her gaze. It did me no good. I should have known better than to try to press her for information. A banshee could only be expected to wail.

“Enough,” I repeated tiredly. “Thank you for the warning. It’s certainly been heeded. Go now, and don’t return.”

She flickered like a candle, her hand flying to her chest, but remained.

“Begone!” I shouted.

Her light blazed bright, and with another gust of wind, she vanished. Silence fell over the lake once more, the scene dark and desolate yet completely ordinary. I gave my eyes a moment to adjust to the lost light.

“D-Did you see that?” Franklin gasped.

I’d often found that others could see ghosts in the brief moment that I banished them.

“Is she gone?” Sallie asked.

“Yes,” I answered. I only hoped it was enough to save poor Ada.

The snowflyer took us back to the lake’s edge, Franklin babbling excitedly about the banshee for the entire journey. We then hiked up the hill, and by the time we reached the top, Franklin’s description of the spirit had grown to include sharp fangs, cloven hooves, and eyes that burned with hellfire. I didn’t bother correcting him. I brought no sense of accomplishment up the hill with me. Spirits could certainly kill, but the banshee wouldn’t have been able to harm Mr. Braden—or Ada—from the lake. If Mrs. Braden wanted me to save her daughter, it would be better to summon her husband’s spirit and ask him how he’d died.

I looked forward to the heat of the house and the softness of my bed, but our approach was interrupted by a scream. It wasn’t the banshee. It was decidedly human, and it came from inside the house.

Sallie and I shared a brief, fearful glance and broke into a run. Franklin trailed behind us, unable to match our pace as we burst through the front door. Sallie pulled ahead of me, her legs longer and stronger, and she took the stairs two at a time as she rushed to her mistress’s room. A crash came from the second floor, and I ignored the stitch in my side as I ran. Mrs. Braden’s doorway was dark, but light and sound came from another room down the hallway.

Ada’s room.

I hurried through the door a second after Sallie. The bedroom was a large one with pale pink walls and a large canopy bed decorated with ruffles and ribbons. The fireplace was lit, which struck me as strange, but not as strange as the scene before me. On one side of the bed was Mrs. Katherine Braden, crouched slightly and ready to run. On the other side stood Mrs. Muriel Braden. Strands of her gray hair spilled out from under her nightcap, and she wore nothing over her white nightclothes.

She clutched a butcher’s knife in her withered right hand.

“Kathy!” Sallie shouted.

“Ella, get away from here!”

I hadn’t noticed my mother at first. She’d retreated to the corner behind a rocking horse that had been knocked over, and the small figure of Ada Braden cowered behind her. The sleeve of Mama’s blue dressing gown was torn and stained with blood. She’d been cut.

“Mrs. Braden!” I shouted. “Drop the knife!”

But Mrs. Muriel Braden was no ghost and felt no compulsion to obey my commands. “Listen to your mother, girl,” she spat. “This isn’t your concern.”

“I’ll send for the police,” I warned. “Use that knife, and you’ll hang.”

“Then I’ll hang. This mongrel killed my son, and I’ll have my pound of flesh from her in return.”

“She didn’t kill him!” Sallie cried, but Mrs. Muriel Braden was already stalking around the bed towards her daughter-in-law. Mrs. Katherine Braden backed away, but there was nowhere left for her to go.

“Stop!” Sallie rushed forward, and the old woman slashed the knife through the air to keep her back. Sallie shrieked and stumbled, and Mrs. Katherine Braden screamed her name and ran to help. Mrs. Muriel Braden wielded the knife like a madwoman. The two younger women tried to dodge, but that sharp edge was sure to strike something.

I took one step forward before stopping myself. True, Mama shouted my name, but it was my fiancé’s voice in my head that urged caution. If I approached, I was sure to get wounded at the very least. There must be a smarter way to end this.

“Solomon Braden,” I whispered. The idea took hold in my head, and I had no time to reconsider. “Solomon Braden, if any part of your spirit remains here, come forth.”

My clients expected candles, a circle, and chanting, but I needed no such theatrics. The power of my voice was enough.

A cold wind filled the room, and the fireplace went dark. The struggling women paused, and the shadows were pushed back by ghostly light. The translucent shade of Mr. Solomon Braden stood in the center of the bedroom. Mrs. Katherine Braden gasped, and her mother-in-law lowered the knife in awe. Sallie’s hand covered her mouth, and she backed quickly away until she bumped into the wall.

“Solomon?” Mrs. Muriel Braden croaked, approaching the spirit with gleaming eyes. “Solomon, my boy, is that you?”

Mr. Braden’s ghost didn’t reply. He was a big, bearded man and had probably been strong in life, but his spirit was weak and wispy. I was surprised I’d been able to summon him at all.

He pointed an insubstantial finger at where Sallie cringed against the wall, and then he faded like fog in the sunlight.

The fireplace roared back to life, and we all stared at Sallie. She was breathing heavily, her freckles standing out against her bloodless face.

“Katherine didn’t kill him,” she said, addressing Mrs. Muriel Braden. “I did.”

Mrs. Muriel Braden seemed too shocked to reply. The knife remained in her hand, and I edged surreptitiously closer, hoping to knock it from her grasp. “Why?” she whispered.

“Because the bastard couldn’t keep his hands to himself!” Sallie stood straighter now that the ghost had departed. “He was constantly making advances, though he knew I abhorred him. On the balcony, he tried to take liberties with me, and I—I pushed him away. I didn’t mean to kill him.” For a moment, her voice turned soft and her gaze distant, but then she raised her chin. “But I’m not sorry that I did.”

Her story left the room in utter silence but for the crackling of the fire. Then Mrs. Muriel Braden let out a shriek of rage and charged her.

Two things happened at once. I grabbed the old woman’s arm just as Mrs. Katherine Braden gave her a forceful shove. Mrs. Muriel Braden tumbled to the floor in a flurry of white fabric and went still.

We waited for her to move, as I certainly wasn’t going to approach her and check if she still breathed. Then we noticed the crimson blood soaking through the pink carpet beneath her body. She must have fallen on the knife.

Mrs. Braden let out a choked sob, and Sallie rushed to her, taking her in her arms. I exhaled slowly and looked to my mother, my relief mirrored in her eyes. It wasn’t until Mama escorted Ada away from the grisly scene that Mrs. Braden remembered her daughter and embraced her. The rest of the staff was roused and the police summoned, and all in all, it was a very long night.

I’d been worried about the police, but Mama did most of the talking, and it left little doubt the death had been in self-defense. After all, everyone knew Mrs. Muriel Braden hated her daughter-in-law. Mama was obviously horrified over the loss of life. She was also obviously offended over the impropriety of drawing a knife on one’s guests. She said nothing of Sallie’s confession, and I saw no reason to contradict her.

“I think it was Muriel’s death the banshee was foretelling,” Mrs. Braden told me two days later. Mama and I had extended our stay slightly, as Mrs. Braden insisted on her physician tending my mother’s cut. We sat by the fireplace downstairs, and I was updating my journal in my lap.

“But she had no Braden blood,” I said.

“She wasn’t in the direct family line, but I recall Solomon saying she was his father’s cousin.”

It was good to know Ada was safe. I felt satisfied—and only a little annoyed Mrs. Braden hadn’t divulged that detail sooner.

Mama and I left the next day. Mrs. Braden paid for first-class tickets, and our cabins were luxurious. Plush chairs, floral wallpaper, and fine curtains decorated the room. Once we flew further south, we’d be able to stroll out on the deck, but for now, we chose the warmth of indoors.

“Do you think they’ll be alright?” I asked Mama of Mrs. Braden and Sallie.

We gazed out one of the windows at a lovely view of the landscape passing slowly below.

“I expect they’ll take care of each other,” Mama said.

“Yes, they did seem quite close.”

“Indeed.” Mama’s mouth quirked as she worked on her embroidery. “I doubt Mrs. Braden will be remarrying anytime soon.”

“What do you—Oh.” I looked back on our stay with a whole new lens. “Oh.”

“Do try to be aware of such things, Ella,” said Mama with a sigh. “I would hate for that odious fiancé of yours to have an affair and you not realize it because his paramour was male.”

“Mama!”

“It can be the people you’d least expect.”

“Surely not—” I stopped and surveyed her, struck by something in her tone. “Not Papa?”

She continued with her embroidery. “No, not dear Abraham.”

I surveyed her more closely, sure my instincts were mistaken. “You?”

“Once upon a time.” Her face colored, but she didn’t miss a stitch.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I married your father, and she… Well, she was understandably upset. We grew apart.”

“You should write her,” I said.

Her fingers paused. “Perhaps I will.”

She returned to her embroidery, and I my reading, and the airship carried us to warmer weather and hopefully, brighter days.

* * *

Kristen Brand likes writing about ghosts but can’t handle watching even the trailers of horror movies. She writes steampunk and superhero novels and is probably drinking tea right now. You can find out more about her work—including more ghost stories featuring Ella Rosenfeld—at kristenbrand.com.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?

For me, the most important aspect of any story is the characters. Yes, I want an awesomely detailed world, cool magic, and a tight plot, but if I can’t connect with at least one character, the story falls flat for me.

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