Leonardo Swanson fumbled with keys frozen to his grey wool gloves. The fur coat wrapped tightly around his body did little to ward off the biting cold that whistled around him. He could already see bits of white starting to form at the end of black bangs he brushed from his eyes. His fingers continuously flipped keys around the large ring he held, frantically searching for the right one; he was too late finishing his rounds of the estate, and hoped he could rush back to the kitchen before the residents had cleaned out the soup pots. Finally, he pulled out the correct copper key and pushed open the black, spiked gate in front of him. The front courtyard ahead of Leonardo stretched all the way to the estate entrance, flanked by the east and west wings, where most of the residents stayed. The main section housed the Magistrate and his family, as well as a few officials below the magister's station. Halfway towards the main house, two walkways branched off in both directions towards smaller courtyards surrounded by their own residential buildings. This mansion had been named once, reflected Leonardo, but he couldn't exactly remember the name. Blennem? No, Blenheim, the Magistrate had told him. But that was a long time ago, long before the Magistrate had set up a community. The significance was unimportant, he'd been taught, so there was no value in pursuing the history of the name.
At this time of year, the walkways were known for gathering ice, and sent countless pedestrians flailing for balance. Leonardo took even steps into the large courtyard, careful not to fall. He turned around reached to shut the gate, but something stopped him. Out in the distance, he thought he had seen a slight movement. He squinted his eyes and peered forward, but the whirling snow only hampered his vision and put tears in his eyes. He stepped out, past the gate, and onto the main road. It stretched out in front of him, sandwiched between two giant expanses of frozen grass blades. The road veered to the right and left from the gate; it stretched on endlessly to the right, but the left side led down to the lake.
The lake was the prime spot to pass the summer days nights, as it provided a fresh source of water and the chance to cool off. Now, however, Leonardo could barely entertain the thought of jumping into its water. It was completely frozen over, anyway, so that would be impossible. Just thinking about it gave him even more chills to contend with. Deciding that his eyes were only playing tricks on him, he lifted his feet and trudged back through the gate. It creaked loudly as he pushed it shut, and the key had to be shoved into the lock before it turned. Leonardo pulled the key back and stowed the ring inside his coat. Shivering, he stuck his hands in his pockets and made his way towards the warm lights that emanated from the windows ahead of him. The screeching wind blew him sideways slightly, and he scrunched his chin into chest and pressed forward. As he neared the doorway, the icy surface slid Leonardo's feet out from under him, and crashed down onto his back. Groaning, he pushed himself up onto his elbows and cursed the weather. His left arm throbbed as he twisted around to heave himself back up, and his shaky knees made it hard for him to steady. After his spill, the bright windows seemed to him even more inviting, promising him warmth and comfort inside. He picked his feet up and, one step at a time, finally arrived at the thick, heavy doors. He planted both hands firmly and struggled to push the right side open; his frozen limbs made his task much more difficult than usual. As the door finally budged, light gushed out through the opening and blinded him, placing even more tears in his eyes.
He struggled inside and shut the door behind him, cutting off the bitter wind that briefly sliced through the atmosphere inside. With a grin of relief on his face, Leonardo proceeded to shrug off his coat and pull off his gloves. He crossed over the large fur carpet in the middle of the entrance hall and placed his wet clothes in front of a large fire burning in the hearth. Already Leonardo could feel the flames thawing his body off. It was a welcome reprieve from the vicious storm swirling outside the walls of the estate. But while he warmed himself in front of the fire, something nagged at him. He was sure that he'd seen a flash of movement beyond the gates. However, the thought melted from his mind as Gregory, the chef, walked into the hall carrying a steaming bowl of hot soup. The heavyset man grinned underneath his fuzzy black mustache, a perk during these cold times.
"I thought you might be getting back soon. I saved you a bit before it was demolished," he said, gesturing with the bowl. A bit of broth lapped over the rim and splashed onto the carpet, a hiss of steam quickly rising from the wet patch.
"Don't waste it!" Leonardo exclaimed, laughing. "I need that to thaw myself out at this point. And, you don't want to let Matilda catch you making a mess in here, she'll be furious!" He took the bowl off Gregory's hands, slurping the soup as soon as he had his hands on it. The hot liquid scalded his tongue, but he didn't care. The burning broth felt like a godsend, melting away the shivers and chills that had been dampening his spirits during his last rounds. He gratefully downed the entire bowl, ignoring how the hot broth seared his tongue. Leonardo licked his lips when he finished, all feeling gone from inside his mouth. "Thanks," he said, handing the bowl back to Gregory. "You should head to bed now, I'm about to lock up for the night."
"I suppose I should, I'll just finish cleaning up the kitchen." Leonardo turned back towards the doorway and fumbled around in his pockets, but felt nothing. He turned his jacket inside and out, searching every empty space, but his key just wasn't there. "I think I dropped my key outside," he groaned. Gregory narrowed his eyes and shook his head, wearing a light smirk.
"It'll be a pain to find that thing out there, I'll come with you. Let me grab my jacket." Gregory strode into the kitchen and emerged wearing a baggy black jacket. The two heaved open the door and braced themselves for the onslaught of cold that rushed to meet them. Leonardo crunched the snow beneath his boots and traced his footprints back to where he'd slipped. He rummaged around in the snow until he saw a sliver of black protruding from the ground. He stood up with the key clutched in his hand. He paused suddenly, watching the gate ahead of him swinging back and forth in the wind; the gate he'd closed.
"Gregory!" He yelled, barely audible over the wind. The cook slowly turned his head around from where he stood in the distance and trotted over. Leonardo motioned for him to follow, and made his way to the gate. While moving closer, he could begin to hear the creaks, producing an unpleasant symphony to his ears. He winced, thinking of nothing but the warm hall that waited behind him. He trudged the last few steps to the gate and tripped over a rock sticking out of the ground. His face burrowed into the snow, and he cried out in pain. He pushed himself up, expecting a remark from Gregory, but none came. Leonardo gingerly brushed the snow off his face. He turned around, but the cook's eyes were wide, staring at something on the ground. Leonardo followed his gaze, which settled on a rose lying on the ground. He knelt down to inspect it, and, his heart missing a beat, saw a blackened hand clutching the stem. Leonardo stumbled, unable to utter a word, and the world spun before him as he fell over backwards.