Learmouth intended to stay at Netherton until the spring. During the rest of the harsh winter he became a surrogate father to Mirless. He bought the boy a pony, taught him to ride, and took him for long rides out in the fresh air. He taught him that he need not beat the pony so that it would trot, canter, and gallop, and more importantly this cruel side of his nature must be deeply hidden from all eyes. Learmouth and the Crone could know but no one else. In the evenings, they would play innocent games such as hide and seek, and when Mirless became very adept at concealment, the Crone added lock-picking into his childhood play time.
The Crone would lock the door to her chambers and hide inside while Learmouth taught him how to open locked doors without keys. During the day the Crone taught him to read and write and the beginnings of arithmetic, whilst spending more and more time outside with Uncle Learmouth, he was taught how to use the shrubs and wildflowers that grew locally, especially the poisonous plants. Gone was the pudding-basin haircut and the ill-fitting smocks, for he was now dressed as a young Lord of the Manor, and certainly looked the part.
For a special treat one early spring evening, for a very special reward, his own bow and arrows made especially for him, he was to break into his mother’s poison cellar and bring out a jar of hemlock without getting caught. That evening, an excited but confident Mirless wished his grandfather and mother “goodnight” and politely went off early to bed.
Once in his room he waited in silence for half an hour, opened his bedroom door, and came back down by the servant’s stairs and passed unnoticed out into the stable yard. In an unused stall at the end of the stable, he pushed away the straw on the floor, picked the lock and pulled up the concealed cellar door. There was just enough moonlight for him to see the steps down and the shelves filled with neat jars of poisons, he could not read well enough to tell which was which. Puzzled, he looked along the rows, he recognised HEM from the letters the Crone taught him and pocketed the jar hoping it was the right one.
He left the cellar, locked the hidden door and replaced the straw, and now he did something extraordinary for a boy of not quite seven: he retraced his steps back to the manor, but instead of going back to his own room, he picked the lock of Learmouth’s room, stole the bow and arrows, locked the door from the inside, opened the window and looked out to see if the Crones’ bed- chamber window was still open. Seeing that it was, Mirless slung the bow and quiver over his shoulder and climbed along the ivy-covered wall and in through the window. He placed the poison on the Crones’ pillow as though it was a loving gift, and let himself out of the Crones’ room and went contentedly to bed.