Excerpt from The Long Dark Cloak,
Book 1 of the Relics Adventures by Vicki D. Thomas
I van leaned into the schoolhouse door and pushed with his shoulder. He shoved harder, but
it scarcely budged. Snickers and shuffling feet sounded against the raw floorboards on the
Not again. He drew a deep breath. Why can’t they just leave me alone? With teeth clenched,
he took a run at and crashed against the door. It swung open and Ivan fell into the classroom,
just catching himself before dropping to his knees. His books scattered onto the floor. Dirk
Mackle laughed at his prank and gave Ivan’s history book a swift kick with his ragged boot.
“Go fetch it, you stupid foreigner.” Dirk’s eyes narrowed.
“Yeah, go fetch it, you dog,” said Mackle’s cousin, Gussy. Ivan tightened his hands at his
“Coward. Ya don’t fight back, do ya?” Gussy put up his fists, his brow creased. “Try, just
try an’ hit me.”
Breathing hard to hold back his anger, Ivan remembered his mother’s words: Always show
good manners. Don’t fight or cause us troubles. It is best to avoid attention to ourselves. Do you
understand? Ivan would nod, but he didn’t understand at all.
His parents cautioned him and his older brother, Peter, not to speak of their royal Russian
heritage. “There are those who hunt us for the secrets we have.” She would put her index finger
to her lips and say, “Sssh. Don’t tell.”
“I-I don’t fight,” Ivan said, trying to hide his stuttering.
“Sissy. No guts.” Mackle’s face twisted with disgust.
Bonnet raced forward with stringy brown hair flying. She picked up Ivan’s books,
clutching them to her chest. “You’re such a bully, Mackerel—that’s an ugly fish, you know?”
she said with a sneer. “Why don’t you pick on me instead?”
“Cuz you bite,” Gussy said quickly.
“My name’s Dirk Mackle. You’d better remember that.”
“You look like an ugly fish to me.” Bonnet lifted her nose and stuck out her tongue.
Funny, Ivan had to agree. Dirk did have a fish-like face, with his jutting chin and squinty,
“He can’t fight for himself.” Eddie Rample stepped forward. “He needs a girl to fight for
“Boys!” Mrs. Hambuckle stomped into the room, her voice cracked the air. “Dirk, Gussy,
Eddie, take your seats at once. It seems I can’t leave the classroom for a minute but you three
are always causing trouble.” She faced Ivan and said in a low voice, “Why don’t you knock
them on their rear ends?”
Ivan shook his head and he met his teacher’s sympathetic eyes. “I…I can’t. My
parents…they wouldn’t allow it.”
Mrs. Hambuckle said gently, “Your parents are dead, Ivan. You’re on your own now.
You’ll have to fight for yourself.” Her voice quivered with sadness. “If there’s ever anything I
can do—please. You have only to ask.”
“No, I…there’s nothing.” He turned away, wishing she’d stop.
“Well, then.” She exhaled, brushing her hands against her black dress. “Take your seats
now. Bonnet, give Ivan his books. It’s time for our history lesson.”
“Here you are.” Bonnet smiled brightly and handed them to him, touching his fingers
lightly. Behind him, Eddie Ramble whispered, “He’s a Russian spy, I’m sure of it. No Russian
has a last name like Kimble.”
“Shush now.” Mrs. Hambuckle held up the palm of her hand. “You must know that Russia
was our ally during the war. This is no way to treat our friends.” Glancing at Ivan she said,
“You’re the tallest in the class, would you please pull down the map?”
Ivan stood, gave a short bow, and unrolled the map of England from its wooden dowel. A
voice hissed behind him. “Aaah, teacher’s pet. Hee-hee.”
“Enough.” Mrs. Hambuckle spun around, her jaw set hard. “To the cloakroom with you,
Dirk,” she yelled. “I’ve had enough of your rude behavior. Go!”
Dirk rose and hesitated as though testing her. He glanced around looking for allies, but no
one would look at him.
“Now!” The teacher’s voice rang out even louder. She shook her finger toward the
Dirk bared his teeth at Ivan. “You’ll get yours, rat.” He shuffled away, disappearing into the
small space that held coats, boots, and umbrellas, along with the students’ lunchboxes.
Thanking Ivan, his teacher asked him to take a seat in front. She pulled back a stray lock of
light brown hair and tucked it under her hair bun. She took a deep breath and pointed the rubber-tipped stick at the map. “I’m not sure what your substitute teacher taught you while I was sick—ah, absent last year, so I’ll begin with the most rudimentary history lesson. This is
Southern England, where you live.” She half-turned and glanced at the students. “You do know
that, don’t you?”
When no one answered but all bobbed their heads, the teacher went on.
“This entire area is the West Forest.” She circled the green wedge-shape with the pointer
and turned once more to face the students. “This is the Solent and further south is the Isle of
Wight.” She tapped the areas for emphasis.
Looking over the rim of her glasses, she continued, “The West Forest is one of the largest
remaining forests in England. It encompasses about ninety thousand acres within its
boundaries and is ruled by Lord Richard Graydon. I understand he’s a fair and just person,
though few people have ever met him. A long time ago, his father willingly released Graydon
Village from his kingdom, wanting us to rule ourselves and take responsibility for our own
welfare. All in all, this was sensible and has worked quite well.”
“My daddy says the forest is haunted with vicious creatures—like dragons and mad
weasels,” Mercy said, her eyes going wide.
“I heard there are trolls in the forest that eat little children and horses,” said a boy in the
When a girl frantically waved her hand to speak, Mrs. Hambuckle shook her head. “Enough
of this,” she said, and that put an end to their ridiculous statements.
Ivan glanced at the boy who mentioned the trolls. Peter had claimed trolls existed, along
with many other odd and dangerous creatures. Rather than sound crazy, Ivan stayed silent.
“You may know from history that William the Conqueror left his home in Normandy,
along with an immense army, and conquered England. He became king in 1066. William was a
brutal man, stopping at nothing to steal, burn, and slaughter the townspeople.” She paused.
“That usually sums up the picture of war, doesn’t it?” She let out a small sob and pulled a
hankie from her pocket, dabbing her eyes.
“I’m sorry your husband didn’t come back from the war,” Mercy said. “My daddy got
killed, too. The Germans shot him right here.” She touched her forehead with her fingers.
Mrs. Hambuckle’s face froze, and she turned away quickly. “Please excuse me,” she
stammered and hurried from the classroom.
“Why’d you have to go and say that?” Bonnet shot from her desk and yelled, “You know
her husband was lost in the war.”
Ivan watched his teacher from the window where she wandered slowly in the schoolyard,
wiping her eyes. Some students had learned that Mrs. Hambuckle had suffered a nervous
breakdown. He knew the sadness of losing someone in World War II. Peter, his older brother,
hadn’t come home either. A sharp pain of loneliness flashed through Ivan’s heart and it caused
him to gasp.
Dirk peeked out from the cloakroom, snickering. A chalkboard eraser sailed through the air,
hitting Ivan on the side of his head. It bounced off Mrs. Hambuckle’s desk where it left a mark,
and dropped to the floor. Chalk dust fell on Ivan’s shirt collar and shoulder. After a moment, he
picked up the eraser and placed it in the tray. Ivan stretched his lips taut, but he said nothing as
he remembered his mother’s warnings. Ivan sat down, grinding his teeth.
When Mrs. Hambuckle returned, she removed her eyeglasses and examined the white dust
on her desk and floor. She shook her head, frowning. “It’s after two o’clock,” she sniffled.
“Classes are over. Please read the second chapter of The Norman Conquest in your textbooks,
and tomorrow we’ll take up where we left off.”
The students rose from their seats in a mannerly way, and filed out, getting rowdier as they
neared the exit. Dirk and Gussy, along with a couple other boys, whooped and hollered, pushing smaller students out of their way.
“Such hoodlums,” Mrs. Hambuckle muttered. “Oh, Ivan, could you stay for a few
“Yes, ma’am.” He bowed slightly.
“Bring a chair closer to my desk.” She gestured with a sweep of her hand.
“The eraser, Mrs. Hambuckle, I didn’t—”
“Oh, I know that. I wanted to talk to you about something else.” She sat down, blew her
nose with her hankie, and tucked it into her dress pocket. “You may think it’s none of my
business, but I’d like to help you if I can.” Her eyes were pale blue and her cheeks had red
blotches from weeping.
Ivan chanced a look at her, feeling more comfortable in her presence now that his
classmates had left. “What did you want to talk to me about?”
“How are you managing all alone?”
“Well enough,” he replied, not wanting to seem weak. “Peter will be coming home soon,
now that the war is over. He’ll be a big help on the farm.”
“Have you heard anything from him?” Mrs. Hambuckle absently arranged papers on her
Staring out the window, Ivan saw Bonnet standing in the schoolyard next to her horse,
while holding the reins of his chestnut gelding. She smiled, waving vigorously. Ivan returned the smile, wondering if she could see him inside the schoolhouse.
“No,” he said, looking down at the floor. “I haven’t heard anything. But Peter must know
our parents were killed in a train accident and is on his way home.”
“Ivan,” his teacher said softly, placing her hand on his. “You haven’t heard or seen Peter
since he left our village four years ago. Maybe, like my husband Aaron, he won’t be coming
home. What will you do?”
"I can manage the chores by myself.” His voice broke and his throat grew tight.
Mrs. Hambuckle shook her head slowly and then she became more excited. “Ivan, listen to
me. You’re fifteen, now. You can apprentice with a professional, just as you’ve always wanted.
I know an engineer in London who will take you on and teach you everything you need to know. t’s a wonderful opportunity and you certainly have the aptitude for math and engineering. Your father thought so, too.” Her eyes locked intently on him. “Here.” She pulled open the top desk drawer.
“I’ve had these papers of recommendation prepared and signed for several weeks. I was
waiting for the right time to show you.”
Ivan avoided her eyes, studying his fingers.
“You do want to go, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve thought about building bridges, roads, or houses, ever since I was a little
Mrs. Hambuckle smiled and her eyes turned glassy. “Now your dreams can come true and it
would bring me such joy.”
“But what about the farm? The spring planting, the weeding, the harvesting? Who will care
for the animals?”
Leaning back into her chair, Mrs. Hambuckle laced her fingers, tightening them. “I don’t
have all the answers for you, but I’m sure we can find solutions.”
Ivan grinned, hope overtaking him. Here was his chance to make his dreams come true. If
only Peter were home, he’d know what to do.
“It’s nice to see you smile, Ivan. You don’t do that very often.” She hesitated and then
coughed into her hand, blushing a bit. “Well, you’re a serious young man.”
They were both quiet for a moment. Ivan didn’t know if he should explain his shy behavior
or stay silent. “It’s my accent, ma’am. They…the students resent me because my parents were
“Well, I’m not so sure. When Peter was my student, he told me your family came from high
society Russia and perfect manners were the call of the day. But this is England, far from high
society protocol. I don’t believe bullies like Dirk and Gussy know what to make of you.”
Ivan nodded, knowing that Peter had told Mrs. Hambuckle about their family and that she
had sworn to secrecy. But she was only partially right. Peter had warned him many times not to
be so passive. He always said, “Stand up and fight for yourself. You are so much more than you
believe.” Now, his teacher was telling him the same thing. He felt he was a disappointment to
“Thank you, Mrs. Hambuckle, for the good news.” Ivan stood and returned his chair to its
place. “I have to go now and take care of chores.”
“It’s my pleasure to help.” His teacher glanced out the window and winked. “I think
someone is waiting for you.”
Bonnet stood on the school lawn stroking Bounty’s cheek.
“Oh—and Ivan,” Mrs. Hambuckle’s voice was suddenly sharp. “I meant what I said when I
told you to smack Dirk the next time he bullies you. Otherwise, he’ll just become a bigger bully,
hurting people wherever he goes. You’ll probably run into a lot of his kind in your life.”
“Yes ma’am.” Ivan lifted his dark eyebrows. He scooped up his books and went into the
cloakroom where he grabbed his jacket and lunchbox. Liquid, smelling like urine, leaked out.
He gritted his teeth and opened the box, dumping its contents into a dustbin near the front door.
There was no question who had done such a barbaric thing. Someday. Someday, he promised
“Hi, Ivan,” Bonnet called sweetly, waving for his attention. “I fetched Bounty for you.”
“Thanks,” Ivan said. “How’d he get loose from the stable?”
“Take a good guess.” She dropped the horse’s reins and scratched her head with both hands.
“The Mackerel?” He gave a short laugh, liking the new nickname for Dirk.
“Yeah. What a bloody bloke.” She scratched her head again. Ivan jumped back. Lice? He
mounted quickly and said, “Thanks for getting Bounty for me.”
“Anytime,” she sang.
Nudging his horse in the ribs, Ivan rode to his farm home. He thought of all the things Mrs.
Hambuckle had told him. Then he imagined his balled fist smashing into Mackle’s fish-face,
knocking him on his bum. That made him laugh out loud.