More Questions

The latest instalment of ‘Under Dark Hills’ which you can read from the start here.

Richard looked around. Even with his vampire’s night vision, there wasn’t much to see on the moors. Everything was asleep. He turned to his old friend and fellow vampire, Nathan. “The lair could be anywhere.”

Nathan nodded. “I can feel it around, but I can’t get a fix. They knew their magic alright.”

“I may have to speak to Steve Adderson,” Richard said. “But I don’t want to be indebted to him. He’s a little too powerful and it could be a way of York or Leeds getting influence here. But the magic is beyond me.”

Nathan nodded. “There may be something in the papers,” he said. “How is the clerk doing?”

Richard scanned the moors again. “He’s doing well. It’s surprising how much I can find.” He could see the faint glow of the lights from Halifax in the east and it wasn’t helping. “After all, I found the details of…” he hesitated. “The potential challenger.”

“You can say their name, you know,” Nathan said. “They’re not Lord Voldemort.” He looked into the darkness. “We might as well go home and work something out in comfort. It’s going to rain soon. And you can’t just hand over the role to them, no matter how tempted you are. You remember what they were like and the fight they had with Lord Henry – and why they had it.”

“This is not what I had planned,” Richard grumbled. “I’m busy writing my novel. And I’ve got a lot of commissions. Remote working has generated plenty of IT glitches and I’m rushed off my feet.”

Nathan looked at his old friend. “But you’ll do your duty, won’t you,” he said.

Richard turned his collar up as the first drops of rain landed icily on his neck and avoided the question. “I’ll introduce you to Paul and let him know you can have free reign of the paper room. If you have a look there for anything that can help, I’ll speak to Mike about bringing Ian Tait over.”

“You can’t ask Ian!” Nathan said. “Don’t you remember, the man summoned a demon – accidentally!”

“That’s better than deliberately,” Richard said. “And it was my house that was affected. I remember it well. So does Carol, and I worry about her.” He turned and started trudging downhill towards his house. “But Ian knows magic, and we need all the help we can get. It was bad enough getting rid of the enchantment on Halifax. It had been there so long, it had grown roots. I’ll have to keep checking back to make sure that nothing else has come up.”

Nathan followed him. “At least you’re keeping Carol safe,” he said. “I just hope that the clerk knows to behave himself.”

Paul pushed his breakfast plate away from him. He felt stuffed. “That was amazing, Liz. Can I help with the washing up?”

“No, it’s fine,” Liz said. “I have it all under control.”

Paul wished he understood more about brownies. He’d been combing through the books in the paper room but had found very little. “I feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”

“You are paying me a good wage, and food and board,” Liz said firmly. “And I get a lot of time to myself. Now I’ve got the house clean and some sort of routine, it takes no time at all to keep the place in a decent state. I was wondering, do you think Mr Dark would mind if I made new curtains. I was talking with Carol, and the ones hanging here are in rags. There are some good fabric shops in Halifax.”

“I’ll ask him when I see him,” Paul said.

Liz meticulously straightened the draining board. “Do you know if Mr McGuire will be coming to dinner. I just want to make sure I make enough, no other reason.”

Paul nodded, his mind drifting to his main concern. “We’re talking about some places on the moors that we want to check out,” he said. “I can’t really do much until the weekend, but we want to plan our route. And Carol will be here, of course, so you’ll have a big meal to make.”

Liz sniffed. “A meal for four isn’t that big,” she said. “When the old man had company round we could sometimes do a fancy meal for twenty, plus our dinner, plus planning all the leftovers and get the dining room set up all nice.” She sighed nostalgically. “Perhaps we could open up the dining room. It wouldn’t take much to serve in there, and I’ve got it cleaned out.”

“It’s warmer in the kitchen,” Paul said. There was a part of him that knew brownies revelled in their housekeeping, but the fuss was starting to get on his nerves. “Listen, I can’t really get away today. Richard texted me and let me know that he would be bringing a friend after lunch. But why don’t I ask Theo to come over after lunch to walk you to the shops? I know Richard doesn’t want Carol going anywhere by herself, and I don’t want you taking any risks.”

Liz blushed. “If Mr McGuire wouldn’t mind,” she said.

“I know he’s busy in his workshop in the morning,” Paul said, “But I’m sure he’d be fine to come after lunch.”

“He can come for lunch,” Liz announced. I’ll make something nice for both of you. And a workshop – what does he do?”

Paul remembered that brownies had an apparent relentless pursuit of crafts. “He makes jewellery and stuff – not gold but iron and leather and that sort of thing. He showed me some and it looked nice enough I suppose. I’m sure that he’ll show you if you like.”

Liz sighed happily. “I’d love to see a nice workshop. And I suppose he wouldn’t mind me giving it a quick dust.” A shadow passed across her face. “I know Mr Dark is being particular about Carol staying here and not going anywhere after sunset,” she said. “And I think that there’s bad things going on.”

Paul thought of the stacks of paper he had been wading through. “There are always stories about wild places, and I’m sure that Richard is just being a bit cautious with his new guests.”

Liz took a deep breath. “Mr Dixon is a werewolf.”

What!” Paul said.

Liz nodded nervously, twisting her apron between her fingers. “Mr Dark told me. He said that Mr Dixon was head of a pack, but he was okay and that he could use a paw around his Bed and Breakfast places.” She flushed with embarrassment. “And he recognised that I was a brownie. I was so mortified.”

Paul thought for a moment. “Why? Anyway, don’t you know werewolves and vampires and that?”

Liz shook her head. “It was a bit odd, in Halifax, as there weren’t many of our type. My family were the only brownies we knew. There were a few ghosts down at the Piece Hall that would pass the time of day, and a family of goblins down by the Minster – but we didn’t really speak.”

“That’s it?” Paul asked, thinking of the lists in the paper room.

“My mum used to take soup to an elderly boggart down by the Borough Market,” Liz said. “But she died years ago. Mum said something about an enchantment, but I wasn’t really paying attention.” She looked embarrassed. “You probably know more about werewolves than I do.”

Paul frowned as he watched Liz pour him another cup of tea. “Mike Dixon seems a decent bloke,” he said. “And Richard seems to think he wouldn’t be a threat to you.” He took the tea gratefully. “I mean, if he was a ravening monster, he wouldn’t be running a building firm.” Paul thought about some of the builders he had known. “At least, not one like his. Besides, people know where you are, and I’m sure that werewolves wouldn’t want anyone asking questions. What does Carol think?”

“I haven’t said anything,” Liz said. “But she seems to like Mike. She was telling him off the other day because he didn’t wipe his feet.”

“So he’s probably fine,” Paul said. “But I think you shouldn’t be out after dark or alone, just like Carol. I’ll give Theo a ring.”

Paul finally got into the paper room and carefully locked the door behind him. Mike may be a werewolf, but Paul felt that the man could still be trusted. There was something solid about him, something reliable. According to the notes, the Dixon family had been builders and innkeepers in the area for centuries. Paul suspected that Richard was some sort of creature, though he wasn’t sure what. Paul pulled out his own personal set of notes. Richard and Mike weren’t the problem, as far as he could see. But Liz was right. There was something bad on the horizon. He could feel it in his meditations and scrying. Paul riffled through his notebook. What could he do? The notebooks referred to someone called a paladin, someone who championed the humans like him. Paul closed his notebook, switched on his computer and took a breath. He needed to find the paladin. They would be able to tell him what to do.

Housekeeping

“Thank you for bringing down the apples,” Liz said, handing a cup of tea to Carol. “I’ll put some up for pie filling this evening.”

Carol looked around the immaculate kitchen of the cottage. “You’ve managed a great shine in here. I don’t know how you found the energy.”

“I like to keep busy,” Liz said. She looked shyly at Carol. “I don’t suppose you know of anyone that would like a cleaner, you know, a few hours here and there? I could use the money.”

“I could at the moment!” Carol said. “The house is full of weird people who make a mess. It’s a big house that needs a lot of keeping up as it is. Normally I decorate the house for Halloween, but I haven’t been able to turn around. If they’re not raiding the kitchen, they’re rummaging in cupboards or tracking in dirt – and I never know what I’m going to find in the living room the next morning! The dirty dishes keep piling up, and the laundry is getting beyond me. Any help would be amazing. I’ll sort out the wages with Richard, but I’m sure that he’ll be generous. He knows what I’m suffering. I keep looking up and finding one of them standing over me and just staring sorrowfully at me. And eat! I can’t seem to cook enough.”

“I can cook some stuff down here and bring it up,” offered Liz. “I could make a few dozen cupcakes and biscuits, and perhaps a fruit cake. That will fill them up.”

“Nothing fills them up,” Carol said bitterly. “I’ll bring some ingredients down – don’t argue! I’ve bought in bulk, so it may as well get used up here as well as at Darke Manor. I’ll have a word with Richard…” She trailed off as the front door slammed.

“Paul went out with Theo,” Liz whispered. “It sounds like they got a little lost.”

Carol winced as she heard Paul bellowing. “What do you mean, you hadn’t used a map like that? I thought you said you could read a map.”

Theo was quieter but entirely fed up. “It’s obvious. You look at a map, you see where things are, you follow the directions. It’s not hard.”

“But we still got lost! Paul yelled, throwing open the door to the kitchen as he turned to look at Theo behind him. “And you didn’t recognise the warning for damp ground.” He pulled his muddy t-shirt off. “Liz is going to have a fit trying to wash this.”

“All the moor is damp ground,” Theo argued as he trailed into the kitchen. “That’s what the moor is. It’s full of peat and bogs.”

Paul turned around to see Carol sitting with Liz in the kitchen. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realise that Liz had someone here.”

Carol allowed herself to enjoy the sight of Paul without a shirt. The hours of working out and clean eating had paid off. He looked amazing. He also looked muddy. “What happened?” She tore her eyes away from him to glance at Theo who was equally muddy, though nowhere near as well built.

Liz jumped to her feet, turning her eyes away from Paul and blushing wildly. “I’ll get a couple of dressing gowns. If you get changed, I can get the clothes washed and dried.” She fled from the kitchen.

Paul looked coolly back at Carol. “There is supposed to be an ancient monument on the moors,” he said. “We were looking for it.”

Theo looked nervously at Paul’s broad back. “There’s supposed to be a stone circle, but we couldn’t find it.”

“We’ll have to spend some more time with the maps before we try again,” Paul said. “What a way to spend a Saturday.”

“But it’s bound to be…” Theo hesitated under Carol’s interested stare. “It’s very historical.”

Liz scurried back, her face turned carefully away from Paul’s bare chest. “I’ve brought down your bathrobe,” she said, pushing the plain black robe at Paul. “And I found this at the back of the cupboard.” She pushed a faded hotel bathrobe at Theo. “If you get undressed I’ll get the clothes washed and dried, and I’ll make something to eat.”

Theo’s face lit up. “Really?”

Liz smiled. “I’ve got a casserole ready to go, and an apple crumble.”

“You are a star!” Theo said.

“You can have the downstairs shower room,” Paul said. “I’ll take a shower upstairs.” He pushed Theo out of the kitchen.

Liz and Carol looked at the mud tracked through. Liz shrugged. “I may as well wait until it’s dry and then brush it out,” she said. “The carpet is worn to a thread, so I don’t want to try scrubbing.” She pulled a casserole from the fridge and slid it into the oven. “Will you stay for dinner?”

Carol shook her head. “I’ve got to feed the crowd up at Darke Manor,” she said.

The kitchen door opened and Richard strode in. “Carol, I’ve been thinking.”

“I hope you’re thinking of giving me a pay rise and paying Liz here to help me in the house,” Carol said. “It’s bedlam.”

Richard looked at Liz. “Are you willing to come as an assistant and a day worker?” he asked. “Obviously I’ll pay a decent rate, but it would probably only be two or three times a week once things have settled down.”

“I hope that I can give satisfaction,” Liz said.

“That’s sorted then. Ask Carol about hours, log your time and let me have the bill. Where’s Paul?” Richard looked around, but his mind was obviously elsewhere.

“He and Theo are in separate showers,” Carol said. “They got lost on the moor.”

“They’re lucky that they got home safe,” Richard said. “It can be tricky up there. Excuse me, I want to check something.”

Carol watched him wander down to the paper room and take a quick look around before unlocking the door and going in. “Well, that was easier than I thought,” she said. “If you could come in Monday morning, we’ll take it from there.”

Liz pulled out a bowl and a bag of flour before getting butter from the fridge. “Perhaps we could meet tomorrow afternoon, after church, and make some lists,” she suggested.

Carol watched Liz as she quickly brought together an apple crumble, rich with spices and full of flavourful promise. “That’s a great idea. But perhaps down here, as it gets complicated up at the manor.” She watched Richard come out of the paper room, carefully locking the door behind him. His face looked a little paler than usual.

“Carol, I think you should stay down here from tonight,” Richard said.

“What?” Carol stared at him.

Richard tapped the small, leather-bound book in his hand absentmindedly and looked around. “I think you should stay down here. I think it will be less stressful for you. I’ll help you pack some clothes. I’m sure that Liz will be glad of the company.”

“But this is Paul’s home,” Carol said. “I can’t just invite myself here.”

“I think you really should,” Richard said, frowning. “Paul will be happy to have you. It will be a lot better, just for a very short while.”

“What’s happened?” Carol asked.

“It’s complicated,” Richard said. “Just worry about the housekeeping.” He turned to Liz. “If you are looking for extra work, Mike can always use an extra paw. He has some bed and breakfast places over near Haworth and he is always glad of reliable staff.”

“Extra paw?” Liz said.

“Yes, it’s a very stable werewolf pack. I know brownies aren’t exactly comfortable with werewolves, but Mike is a good leader and I know that he’s desperate for the help. He’ll pay well, of course, and make sure that you’re safe.”

Liz went white. “I’m not called Brown. I’m called Liz Green, I mean Queen, I mean…” She stared at Richard for a long minute and then fled the kitchen.

Carol picked up the crumble mixture and spread it over the apple base. “She’s a brownie? Well, that makes sense. She is an incredible housekeeper.”

Richard frowned. “I didn’t think that she’d take it like that,” he said. “Perhaps you should have a word.”

“Are you serious about me staying here?” Carol asked.

Richard nodded. “I’ll need to explain a lot to you later, but I’m short of time right now. I’ll pick you up in an hour and you can get packed.” He caught hold of Carol’s arm. “And until I say otherwise, don’t go out after dark. Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t be alone outside. And always, always carry your phone and call me at the first hint of trouble.” He tapped the leather bound book again. “Things are getting complicated.”

You can read the story from the beginning here, Under Dark Hills

Magna Carta

Today is the 807th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. A link to the Wikipedia article on the Magna Carta is here, but there are pieces all over the internet. It doesn’t always mean what people think it means, and a lot of it has been repealed, but it is still vitally important. Before this, a monarch could do what they wished, regardless. Afterwards, the ruler was brought under the rule of law. It made the king accountable and, as such, was almost immediately repealed. However, with the death of King John soon after and the long minority and turbulence of the reign of his son, Henry III, the Magna Carta was reinstated, amended, quoted, argued and somehow endured.

I’ve read a translation, and I found it very interesting. Most of it wasn’t about truth and freedom. It was more about money.

It went something like this – the king was supposed to fight wars. To fight any sort of war, a king needed soldiers. Back in the days of William the Conqueror, a lord got his land in return for a promise to fight for his king, usually bringing along some other knights and foot soldiers with him. This was a great theory for the time, but it fell down pretty quickly. The lord could be too old to fight, or sick or injured. He could have died and the heir would be too young to fight or, shockingly, a woman. So the lord paid up something called scutage or shield money, so that the king could hire someone to fight in his, or her, place.

When it comes to humans, theory and practice very rarely run along the same rails. As the theory of warfare evolved and changed, having the local squire turn up with his father’s sword and a few likely lads from the village wasn’t enough. The king now needed skilled archers and well trained cavalry. They needed people who spent their lives training for battle, like professional soldiers. In those days, that meant mercenaries, and good mercenaries were expensive. Kings started asking for scutage even if the local lord was willing to fight. It was much easier to pay regular soldiers than have someone turn up in second hand armour, serve for the regulation forty days and disappear again.

King John had managed to get bad blood between him and practically every noble around him. He took hostages and forced loans. He extorted every tiny corner of feudal custom to pull in every penny. He couldn’t rely on the barons to fight for him, as he had managed to annoy, insult or fine most of them, so he needed those expensive mercenaries.

King John exploited every loophole. Under feudal law, he had control of those too young to manage their lands, and he plundered those lands, leaving them a shell. He married off those he could to his mercenaries as a way of payment. He also married off wealthy widows, forcing them to wed the man of his choice who would be anyone who could bribe the king. It was an easy way to pay his important mercenaries but it made him even less popular. Rich barons did not like seeing well born ladies married to thugs for their dowries. They may have had eyes on those dowries themselves, but there was also a sense that forcing someone to marry ‘beneath them’ was a step too far. The first clause of the Magna Carta was to give freedom to the English Church, but the next eleven clauses are concerned with protecting those vulnerable to extortion and financial abuse by the king under feudal law and clauses six and eight are protections from forced marriage in this context. The often quoted habeus corpus or freedom from imprisonment without due process is down at clause 39.

I’ve often wondered what it was like for the great ladies, perhaps mourning their first husband, who were bundled swiftly into marriage with someone who had been born little more than a peasant. There must have been times when the gulf was wide. And the sort of man that could rise from being nothing to a place where a king marries you to a great heiress may not have made a comfortable husband.

One of those mercenaries was Falkes de Bréauté or Fawkes de Bréauté. He married the recently widowed Margaret Redvers, and got control of a lot of land, plus control of her son, the heir to the Earl of Devon. According to Wikipedia, he was not of noble birth and could well have been born a peasant. It doesn’t sound like it was a happy marriage – Margaret tried for a divorce later on and fought to regain control of her lands. Fawkes may not have been a good husband but he was, however, very loyal to John and his son, Henry III. Looking over the Wikipedia entry it sounds like his life was complicated but not boring!

Part of the property that Fawkes got through marrying Margaret was a manor in London, south of the Thames, which became known as ‘Fawkes’ Hall’ which became ‘Fox Hall’ which then became ‘Vauxhall’. This became the site of the Vauxhall Motor Company. So the name that started as a forced marriage between a high born lady and a low born mercenary became the name of a competitively priced British car. History can be quirky like that.

The clauses that prevented widows being forced into a marriage or wards being married to someone below their station have been repealed and replaced with more suitable legislation. I wonder, though, about the stories behind these clauses. I wonder about men and women struggling to deal with that forced relationship and whether they flourished or failed. I wonder if they managed to be happy, regardless.

For me, the Magna Carta isn’t a dusty document. It is a point in time which shows the stresses and strains and perhaps utter desperation of real people. It shows how rights and liberties come from pushing back against injustice and unfairness. It may have been a privileged class pushing back against a king, but that first step to make a government accountable to law started on a path that led to freedoms that we take for granted. And I am grateful for it.

Unwelcome Instructions

Mike was head of the local werewolf pack, and not easily intimidated. He still stayed close to Richard, the senior of the two local vampires as they stepped into Lord Henry’s domain. The tunnel was dark compared to the daylight on the moors above, and the air was heavy and thick compared to the sharp wind they had left behind when they entered Fairyland. “This place smells dead,” Mike said.

Richard nodded. “I don’t have your senses, but there’s not much life down here.” He looked around. “I’ve been in other domains with marble stairs and fine tapestries. This is…”

Mike aimed his torch down at the rough floor of the tunnel, then flashed it around. “It’s like an old mine. It never used to be like this,” he said. “I remember it being like a Tudor house.

Richard aimed his own torch around and nodded. “I first saw it as a Norman keep, but now it’s more like the caves south of here, in the Peak District.”

“It’s a large domain.” A voice floated out of the darkness. “It stretches from Skipton in the north down to Ashbourne in the south, with Leeds and Sheffield to the east and Manchester in the west. It’s the wild spine, or it was. And, as ever, my court reflects all of my domain as well as my mind. Come closer.”

Richard and Mike exchanged looks and headed towards the voice. The tunnel wound slowly round and opened into a dimly lit cavern. It was wide and rough walled, with wooden benches gathered around a fire pit that sent smoke and sparks up into the darkness. Tapers were wedged in cracks in the rock and gave a little light and added to the dancing shadows. Lord Henry sat facing the entrance, looking thin and stooped. A few gaunt looking elfen lounged around the fire and a goblin tended a spit at the side where some rabbits were turning. The werewolf and vampire bowed respectfully. Richard straightened and forced a calm expression. “Good day, my lord.”

Lord Henry sighed deeply and waved a languid hand. In the shadowed cavern, the cloth of his coat shimmered between a Regency coat and a medieval cloak. “Greetings. Sit and be welcome. You may eat and drink freely here without fear or favour.” He smiled thinly at Richard. “That is, if there is anything here that you would eat.”

“I am grateful for the kind thought,” Richard said smoothly.

Lord Henry looked Mike up and down. “No doubt your puppy would like some bones?” He laughed at Mike’s suddenly fixed expression. “I jest only.” He sighed heavily and waved towards the logs. “Please sit with me and my last few counsellors.”

Richard and Mike took seats and looked at the hopeless expressions of the elfen around them. “You summoned us, my lord,” said Richard. “How may we aid you?”

“I loathe Halifax,” Lord Henry said. “Our kind, the waifs and strays of our shadow world…” He glanced at Mike’s rigid features. “No offence, Michael Dixon, no offence. But as I was saying, I put a ward around Halifax so that our kind would be deterred from visiting. They would find it easy to leave, but hard to enter.” There was a long pause as Lord Henry stared at the fire, lost in thought, before he shook himself and continued. “The ward should be removed. It has no place in these modern days. Alas, I have misremembered my magic and I cannot think how to remove it.”

“I have some skill in magic,” Richard said respectfully. “It will be my pleasure to remove that ward.”

Lord Henry nodded. “I know, Richard Dark, I know. Removing it can be your first act when you take over as Prince, at All Hallows Eve. That is but half a moon away, is it not?”

“Er…” Richard stared at him in horror.

“It is not conventional to have a vampiric prince, but I believe that it worked well in Huddersfield, with whatever he is calling himself now. And I am fading. None of my counsellors have the power to take control, so it must be you. I am sure that you will make an excellent prince as I return to the earth.”

“Er…” Richard scrabbled for words.

“Take the counsellors with you, to that manor of yours, and they will instruct you in everything necessary. Gareth here will remain here until Samhain.” Lord Henry waved a thin hand at the despondent goblin turning the spit. “Return here then and I will hand over the power. That is all.”

Mike looked at Richard’s shocked face and grabbed his friend’s arm, urging him to his feet. They bowed stiffly to Lord Henry and then Mike dragged Richard back down the tunnel, aware of the elfen trailing behind them. “I told you that you could be a Prince,” he murmured to Richard.

Richard looked at Mike, his face paler than ever. “And what the hell am I going to tell Carol?”

If you are interested in the world this is set in and have questions, you can check ‘The World of the White Hart’ for information or leave a comment. And you can read the story from the start here, Under Dark Hills. I hope you enjoy!

Something Hidden

Paul winced as his Ford Focus bounced over the rugged lane that led to the cottage. It was already dark and the road was terrifying. “I may need to get a new car.”

“I’ll give it a good clean later,” Liz said. “It’ll be better then.”

“I don’t want you to feel you need to do that,” Paul said, out of his depth. “I mean, I’m not paying you that much. Besides, I think if I’m staying here for a while, I need a car that’s a bit more…” he searched for the word. “I think I need something more suited to these roads.”

“You couldn’t do the shopping in a tractor, if that’s what you’re thinking of,” Liz said. “And I bet it’s tricky in winter. I don’t suppose that there’s a rush, though. The farm shops around here seem decent for fresh stuff and the supplies we picked up today should last a while.”

Paul thought of the stuffed boot and the overfilled bags spilling over the back seat. “I would hope so,” he said.

“I could do with some more rags,” Liz said thoughtfully. “I’ll have to have a trip to a charity shop to see what they have to cut up. Do they have jumble sales in this forsaken wilderness?”

“I don’t know,” Paul said. “I’ve not been here that long.”

Liz sniffed. “I’ll ask at the shop. And there’s plenty of soup ready for your guest as well. I put it on before we went out.”

Paul navigated the awkward turn into the yard and stopped before saying anything. “What guest, what soup, and how did you put it on before we went out?”

Liz climbed out of the car. “That guest there, it’s pea and ham soup that will keep you going with all the work that you’re doing, and I brought a slow cooker with me.” She sniffed again. “He can help bring the things in while I get unpacked and set the table – properly!”

Paul frowned as he climbed out. Theo was hanging onto the wall at the front, almost invisible in the dark. He looked scruffier than ever. “He’s not my friend and I didn’t ask him to come,” he said.

Liz looked at Paul, gave Theo a long hard stare and tutted. “You can’t leave him there. He makes the front look untidy. And he may as well be useful. Besides, he looks like he could do with a square meal.”

Before Paul could answer, Liz had taken the first of the bags and marched in through the front door. He braced himself and went over to Theo. “Hi, mate, are you okay?”

Theo looked at him with bleary eyes. “I’m a damned fool.”

Paul was tempted to agree. The man looked drunk and it was barely 8pm. “What’s the matter?”

“I can’t find him anywhere,” Theo said. “I know that he’s near here, but I can’t quite find it.”

“Who is?” Paul asked.

“The vampire,” Theo said. “There’s a vampire around here.”

Paul thought of the locked room full of notes that he was slowly reducing to order. Vampires didn’t even cover a tithe of it. “There’s no such thing as vampires. Listen, why don’t you give me a hand with the bags. Liz said that you can stay for dinner.”

Theo looked wistfully at the cottage. “I usually don’t bother much. I have a sandwich or pizza most nights.”

“It’s homemade soup,” Paul said. “Give me a hand with the bags. I think Liz bought half the supermarket.” He walked back to the car.

Theo walked after him, staggering only a little and put his hand on Paul’s shoulder. “There really is a vampire, you know. I’ve got an old book back at the cottage. Someone wrote it, years ago. There’s a vampire in the hills near Darke Manor. I want to find them.”

Paul’s mind whirled. He handed Paul two shopping bags. “Why?”

“Hm?” Theo hefted the bags and swayed just a little.

“Why do you want to find a vampire?” Paul picked up a couple of bags and headed to the door.

“Want to find one to become one,” Theo said earnestly. “I want to know the secrets. I want to find everything out.”

It took all of Paul’s composure and self-control not to pause. The last thing he needed was Theo finding out about the paper room. He could never allow him to roam around the house. “Okay, let’s say that the vampire is real. What about all the blood? And how will you convince them? I mean, what if they just drain you?”

“I’ve got some charms,” Theo said. “I’ve done all the research.” He strode into the cottage where Liz was waiting in the hall.

“Leave the bags here for me to unpack while you get the next lot,” she said. “I’ve got the kettle on, and I’ve stoked up the fire in the kitchen. If you get the rest of the shopping in and wash your hands, dinner should be nearly ready.”

Theo gave her a charming smile. “Something smells absolutely amazing,” he said. “I’ll get the rest of the bags in a jiffy.”

Paul watched him go out and then turned to look at Liz who was blushing. “Are you alright?”

“I’m just a little warm from rushing around,” she snapped. “Could you bring the rest of the shopping in, please, and don’t forget to wash your hands.”

“Right away,” Paul said, watching her bustle back into the kitchen. He hesitated for a moment before he followed Theo. He was fairly sure that at least two vampires were currently active locally, though he wasn’t sure who they were, and he was confident that they were happily feeding from the local cows. He had to stick with Theo and act like an unknowing side kick. If Theo poked his nose in the wrong places, it could get bad, because it seemed obvious that Theo hadn’t done all research at all. Besides, there was that piece of paper he had found tucked at the back of one of the diaries. It had been crumbling and he had copied it before the fragment disintegrated in his hands. There was another vampire somewhere, one that had retreated to sleep. Paul had the feeling that perhaps it was best that the vampire was undisturbed. If that meant following Theo around and sabotaging him, so be it.

You can read Paul’s story from the beginning here – Under Dark Hills.

And you can also read the first instalment of a series that Three Furies Press is kindly sharing here – Researching, Writing and Rabbit Holes.

Thank you for stopping by and please feel free to leave a comment.

Company for Dinner

Image from Unsplash, taken by Sheri Silver

Paul paused in his brisk walk back from the farm shop. “Hello! Can I help you?”

The young woman peering furtively through a cottage window flinched and then backed away. “Um, I was just wondering if anyone was in.”

Paul looked at her. She looked in her early twenties, with dull brown hair and frightened eyes. She was far too thin. “I think that they’ll be home soon,” he lied. He waited to see what she would do next.

Her eyes darted frantically around. “I can’t really wait, I’d better get off. I don’t want to miss my bus.”

Paul stood calmly next to the gate. “There isn’t another bus here until Wednesday,” he said.

“I mean, car, I mean, my lift,” she stuttered.

Paul looked at her carefully. He had never seen anything less threatening in his life. “You’re the phantom cleaner, aren’t you?”

“What? No! I mean, I’m not a phantom! I mean, what are you accusing me of?” She tried to back away and stumbled, losing her footing on the edge of the path and landing with an undignified bump. She burst into tears.

Paul walked through the gate and held out a hand to her. “Come on, let me help you up.”

She hesitated, rubbed the tears from her eyes and then put her hand in his. “Thank you.”

Paul helped her up and led her gently out of the garden. “I’m Paul.” He hesitated, but he couldn’t abandon the woman in front of him. “Why don’t you come back to my cottage? You can stay outside while I make you a bite to eat and we can talk. You look like you could use a friendly listener.”

Her lip quivered as she fought for control. “I’m Liz,” she said, looking carefully over him.

Paul realised that his height and strength were doing him no favours at the moment. “I know you haven’t any reason to trust me,” he said, picking his words with care. “But all I want to do is give you something to eat, listen to your story and try and help you out – promise!”

Liz looked at him suspiciously. “I don’t take charity, you know,” she said. “I’ll do something in return. I’m good at cleaning, so perhaps I could help your wife?”

Paul recognised the question in the question. He picked up one of her bulky bags. “I’m not married. In fact, I live alone. I’m renting a cottage from Richard Dark, but I’ve only met him once or twice. I’m a stranger to the area and there is even a locked room that you mustn’t go in.” He looked down at the wide eyed woman. “That’s the main reason why I said that you could wait outside while I made you something to eat. You need to decide if you will trust me.”

Liz stared at him for a long moment, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Are you going to call the police?”

Paul shook his head. “But you can’t go breaking into places. Come on, I’ll make you something to eat and we can talk.”

Liz followed Paul back up the hill to the cottage. He led her around the back of the cottage to the stone bench. “Take a seat. Tea or coffee?” he said, unlocking the kitchen door.

Liz stared at the seat, then around the empty moorland at the back of the cottage. The light was fading from the sky and the air was damp. For a moment she seemed lost in thought and then shook her head. “I’m coming in to make the tea,” she said. “And I can put some washing on.”

Paul thought about his full laundry basket. “Don’t worry about that,” he said quickly. “Are you sure about coming in?”

Liz nodded. “I sort of trust you, heaven knows why. Anyway, I’m stronger than I look.”

“There really is a locked room you mustn’t go in,” Paul said quickly. “It’s not mine to show you. It’s full of confidential papers.”

Liz looked irritated. “I never pry,” she said. She took another deep breath and walked past Paul into the kitchen.

Paul followed her. “It’s a bit of a mess,” he said, “But I’ve got some bacon and eggs. I can make you a quick fry up.”

Liz looked around the spartan kitchen and tutted. “Why don’t you go into that locked room, let me know where to knock, and I’ll make some dinner. Then we can talk.”

“We’ll both be eating?” Paul asked. Liz looked like she would be blown over in a soft breeze.

“Of course, after I’ve done the work,” Liz opened some cupboards and frowned. “You said you had eggs?”

Paul held out the shopping bag from the farm shop. “There’s some bacon in there as well, and I picked up some butter.”

Liz peered inside the bag and sniffed again. “Right,” she said, taking off her coat and hanging it neatly on the back of the door. “Where shall I find you when I’m ready?”

“The door at the end of the hall,” Paul said, waving a hand in a vague direction. “Will you be okay?”

Liz gave him a long cool look. “I can make a simple supper. Now, if you’ll let me get on with things…” Paul took the hint and left.

Paul was absorbed in the faded entries of a diary when he heard a firm knock on the door. “Hang on.” He meticulously put the diary back in its place before opening the door.

Liz was in an apron, her face was a little flushed and her hands looked reddened and a little damp. “I’ve made dinner.”

“Wonderful,” Paul said as a savoury scent wafted down the hall. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“You don’t know if I can cook,” Liz said as she led the way down the short passage to the kitchen.

“Can’t all brownies cook?” Paul said absently, his mind still on the diary entries.

Liz gave a short gasp and froze. For a moment she stood, transfixed, in the hall before taking a deep breath. “I don’t know what you mean. Besides, my name isn’t Brown. It’s…” She scrabbled for a name. “I’m Liz Queen.”

Paul looked at her scared but defiant face and wondered what he was supposed to say now. He settled for the truth. “That room is full of documents about werewolves and vampires. My parents were killed by a boggart. Who else but a brownie is breaking into people’s houses and cleaning in return for food? Besides, I’m starving.” He pushed gently past her and into the kitchen.

It took all of his hard won self-control to keep walking casually over to the table which was now scrubbed within an inch of its life. Everything in the kitchen looked like it had been scrubbed within an inch of its life. The room gleamed. Paul took a seat at the table next to one of the plates, leaving the seat next to the kitchen door for Liz, in case she felt the need to escape. “This looks amazing.”

Liz took the seat opposite and sat ramrod straight. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Paul thought about breaking, entering and theft of food and decided not to argue. He remembered a fragment about brownies that he had read among the stacks of notes. “Should I say grace?”

“I should think so!” Liz said. “I’ve been properly brought up.” A shadow passed across her face before she squared her shoulders, folded her hands and looked expectantly at Paul.

Paul muttered a few words he remembered vaguely from a film he had seen, then looked uncertainly at Liz. “Should I serve?”

Liz looked much more assured. “Why don’t you help yourself while I pour the tea.”

Paul didn’t need much encouragement. The huge pasta bake sat on the table looked and smelled incredible. He took around a quarter of it and added some of the greens. “How did you manage to make this? I mean, it’s been less than an hour.”

Liz smiled as she helped herself to her own generous portion. “It’s surprising what I can do.” She hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Brownies have a knack, and I was brought up in the correct way of doing things.”

“I’m very grateful,” Paul said as he tucked into the delicious bake. “I was just going to fry bacon and eggs. This is amazing.”

They ate in companionable silence for a while, then Paul asked, “What happened?”

Liz put down her fork. She had eaten hungrily, but now she seemed to have lost her appetite. “I was staying with my family, at a house in Halifax. He was a bit of an old skin flint, but he left us alone most of the time and while he didn’t pay well, he paid prompt.” Liz paused and then took a sip of tea. “He got Covid first, then we all did.” Her eyes grew wide and she stared, unseeing, at the plate in front of her. “I got better, and I helped nurse him and my family, but…” She swallowed and tried again. “It took my family. We suffer with such things.” She forced a smile. “Perhaps it’s because of our weak chests that we insist so much on keeping things nice and clean.”

Paul looked around the immaculate kitchen. It was clean enough to perform surgery on any surface. “You did a good job in here,” he said.

Liz sighed. “If I had more time I’d do a thorough job. Anyway, when Mr Dent, the old man, died, it sort of took the fight out of my parents. They were poorly already, and they went quickly, with my brothers.” She rubbed away a tear and carried on, keeping the same matter of fact tone. “You see, we like to belong. Some families have their own business and can keep going with all their clients. Others stick to the same family. But old Mr Dent had no-one and then we heard that they were going to knock the building down.” Liz bit back a sob. “We had kept that house beautiful. And it was being pulled down to dust. Well, I’d recovered by then, but it just about finished off my sister, so it was just me. I didn’t know what to do, so I packed up what was rightfully mine and started walking. There wasn’t much money left, as we couldn’t get a normal doctor and the medicine and visits were expensive, and Mr Dent never liked parting with money anyway. I didn’t have money for a place, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought it was fair enough doing a bit of cleaning in return for food, but I think I may have upset people.”

Paul didn’t know where to start with that. “People feel uncomfortable if strangers have been in their home without them being invited,” he said carefully. “And I think some felt judged.”

“They should feel judged,” Liz snapped. “Some of those ovens were a disgrace! It took more than baking soda on them, I can tell you.” Her face softened. “But I did enjoy the clean.”

Paul felt out of his depth, but he couldn’t let the brownie down. “I can’t pay you much,” he said, “and I’m not sure how my employer would see you staying here, but if you stay and keep things clean I can work out some wages as well as food and board.” He looked hard. “That paper room has to stay out of bounds. I’m sorry, but Richard and Mike were really clear. And I don’t know what they would think about a cleaner.” He thought for a moment. “If they ask, I’ll tell them that you’re my girlfriend and you’re staying with me for a while. We just won’t say how long. That way, you can stay here until you work out what you want to do next. Do you have any other family?”

Liz shook her head. “We kept ourselves to ourselves and didn’t cause trouble. I know I need to find more brownies, but I don’t know where to start, and I’m so tired.” Her control finally cracked and she started to sob.

Paul reached over and gently patted her hand. “I’ve got to keep working, of course, but when I’m not, I’ll see what I can do to help. There may be clues in the room.” He fumbled for words. “And you can stay her for as long as you like until you work out what you want.”

Liz wiped her eyes. “And I can give this house a good going over, and the garden is a shame as well.” She looked warily at him. “If that’s alright?”

Paul sighed deeply. “It will be fine,” he said and really hoped that he was right.

You can find Paul’s story from the beginning here, Under Dark Hills

Watch and Wait

Richard looked out of the study window and sighed. The light was fading and the rain was setting in. Autumn was already rolling around. He watched Mike’s Range Rover pull up and saw him walk towards the kitchen door. It shouldn’t be up to him and Mike, but what was the alternative? He was a vampire, Mike was a werewolf, but they were the ones that would be protecting normals from non-normals. There should be a paladin and a prince, but there weren’t. There was just him and Mike.

The study door opened and Mike came in. “It’s rough weather out there.”

“It is indeed. And someone or something is lost out there,” Richard said, waving Mike to one of the comfortable leather armchairs near the fire. “I’m sure that the problem is a non-normal.”

“It has to be a brownie,” Mike said, sinking into the chair with a sigh.

“You’ve found something?” Richard asked.

“I’ve not had a chance to look. We’ve been tied up with a new build down by Mytholmroyd, and there’s a problem with the foundations. I haven’t had a chance to think. But what else could it be? Someone homeless doing chores for food?”

“I wish I knew,” Richard said. “But you know how the gossip runs around the area. Someone is breaking into houses, cleaning them, taking food and leaving without a trace. I don’t know many normals who can do that, or who would want to.”

Mike looked uncomfortable. “Times are getting hard, Richard.”

“We both know that,” Richard said. “But it’s the ease of getting in and out. No locks are forced and no windows broken. There isn’t even a record on alarms or door cameras. There’s no damage done, so it couldn’t be a boggart.” He thought for a moment. “Well, it’s unlikely to be a boggart. Your pack haven’t sniffed out a strange werewolf and a vampire wouldn’t have much use for food.”

“I’ve never heard of a rogue brownie before,” Mike said. “They’re usually law abiding, quiet and their cleaning services are booked up for years. Most of them have more money than you and me! Not that they do anything with it.”

“Not all of them have money,” Richard said. “There was that family over in Todmorden, and there was a whole group of them that lost their savings to the djinn, you know the ones, the Bestwich family, over near Sowerby Bridge. It was heart-breaking.”

Mike grunted. “Yes, but you got most of the money back for them and explained to the djinn what would happen if he tried it again around here.”

“I hope the paladin gets here soon,” Richard said as the door opened. Carol walked in with a tray.

“What’s a paladin?” she asked.

“It’s complicated,” Richard said.

“You may see them first,” Mike said. “You are out and about quite a lot.” He looked apologetically at Richard. “She needs to know. After all, it’s likely to be centred around here.”

“What is?” Carol set out two cups and saucers and looked warily between the two men.

Richard sighed and watched her pour the tea. “In brief, most areas have a prince, someone who keeps the non-normals like Mike and I in order, and a paladin, someone who protects the normals from the non-normals. Our prince is Lord Henry, but he hasn’t been seen since…”

Carol looked at him as he tracked back through his memories. “Is he a vampire?”

“No, not at all!” Richard said. “He’s an elfen – think psychotic nature spirit with impulse control issues and a lot of power. The princes all have domains in the Otherworld – think Fairyland – and Lord Henry retreated there after he returned from the battle of Corunna.” He saw Carol’s blank look and flicked through the internet on his phone. “1809, according to this. It was one of the battles of the Napoleonic Wars.”

“I’ve only seen him a few times,” Mike added. “To be honest, I think that he’s fading.”

Carol frowned. “What about the paladin?”

Richard ran a weary hand over his face. “Something, some higher power, appoints a paladin. It’s usually someone ex-army or police who understand about patrols and stuff. The last one was Makepeace Chambers. He was a good man.”

“When did he leave?” Carol asked.

“He died,” Richard said with soft sadness. “I was sorry when his time came, but he had a good life and a long one and he passed quietly.” He thought for a moment. “I think it was about the time of Queen Victoria’s coronation.”

Carol looked between the two of them. “So shouldn’t there be another one after that?”

Richard looked helplessly at Mike who looked at Carol. “No-one turned up. That’s what happens, they just turn up.”

Carol thought for a moment. “Why do you think one is coming now?”

“Nathan has had premonitions,” Richard said flatly.

“And there’s almost certainly going to be a new prince soon,” Mike added. “There’s going to be a lot of stuff going on for the non-normals, so it makes sense that a paladin will be around, to keep it out of the papers.”

Carol looked between the two men. “What about Paul, at the cottage? Could he be the paladin?”

Richard shook his head. “There are two reasons he couldn’t. First of all, he replied to a job advert. No paladin would turn up just for a job. And, while he is great at working with the papers, that’s all he does. He’s a clerk. Clerks don’t become paladins.”

Mike nodded. “There was a boggart over at Leeds that got into some bad mullein and it took half the local werewolf pack, a couple of elfen and a vampire to stop it from ripping up the town centre. A clerk can’t deal with that.”

Carol looked at him blankly. “I’ll take your word for it.” She hesitated for a moment. “It’s not likely to get scary, is it? I mean, there’s not going to be too much weird stuff?”

Richard shrugged. “I may have lived centuries, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this. It should be a peaceful handover, but with Lord Henry already so faded, it’s unpredictable.”

“Don’t worry,” Mike said. “We’ll look after you. Besides, you’ve already fought off a demon.”

“I don’t want to be reminded of that,” Carol said tartly. “So some paladin is going to turn up and you want me to keep an eye out. What should I look for?”

“I have no idea anymore,” Richard said. “We just have to watch and wait. They will probably be male and who looks like they can handle themselves and keep calm in a crisis. They may have a sword tattoo visible. And someone who’s ready to fight vampires and werewolves.”

“Not on these clean carpets,” Carol said.

“And that reminds me,” Richard said. “The Phantom Cleaner is probably a brownie that’s gone rogue. If you see anyone, be careful, but if you can point them in the direction of me or Mike, we’ll look after them.” He caught Carol’s speculative look. “And I couldn’t be a paladin. Vampires can’t.”

“Dinner will be in half an hour,” Carol sniffed, and left.

Mike waited until the door snapped shut behind Carol and looked thoughtfully at Richard. “But there’s no reason that you can’t be a prince.”

The full story so far can be read here

Interruption

black ipad on brown book
Image from Unsplash, taken by Charl Folscher

Paul nearly dropped the diary he was holding when he heard the knock on the door. He placed the diary carefully on the desk and then locked the Paper Room securely before answering the door, opening just after the second impatient knock. “Hello?”

The man at the door was not as tall as Paul, and certainly not as muscled. Paul was not bulky, but he worked out. The man at the door was skinny, with a thin, pointed faced under the black-dyed hair. “Hi, I’m Theo McGuire. I think I may be a neighbour.” He grinned and waved his hands at the open fields around, sharing the humour. “I have the white painted cottage a couple of miles down the road. I was passing and I saw your car and thought I would introduce myself.” He waited expectantly for Paul to invite him in.

Paul didn’t move but smiled blandly. “Passing?” He looked over Theo’s shoulder at the empty fields around. “There are a lot of walks around here. I’m still finding my way. I walked to the farm shop this morning for milk and it felt like an expedition.”

“I love a good walk, with a nice cuppa,” Theo leaned forward, the hint unmistakable. “I swear I’ve got fitter in just the last few weeks. But you’ve been here only a day or two?”

“I work out a lot anyway,” Paul said, still unmoving. “But it’s a pleasant change from the gym.”

Theo stepped back, frustrated, and looked over the front of the cottage. “This looks ancient. How old do you think it is? I wonder what stories it could tell. It’s an out of the way place, I’m sure that there’s dark deeds that happened here.”

“I’m sure that there has been stuff happening,” Paul said, thinking of the crazy stuff in the diaries. “Just by the law of averages. I mean, dark things happen in modern bungalows and bus stations.”

“But this is so out of the way,” Theo persisted. “You don’t need to be quiet in case the neighbours hear. Anything at all could go on. And there are stories in the villages around here of really dark stuff.” He leaned in a little closer. “According to some old books, there are monsters on these moors. They talk about werewolves and the undead.”

Paul thought again of the papers in the Paper Room. Werewolves were the least of it. “No-one believes in that sort of thing these days,” he said. “But it’s an interesting superstition.”

“Perhaps we could have a chat,” Theo suggested. “I’ve done a lot of research. You’d be surprised at how much stuff is out there.”

“Are you trying to make me nervous about staying here?” Pauls said calmly. “I’d love to talk, but I’m working. Perhaps we can catch up later.”

“When?” Theo asked.

Paul looked vague. “I’ve got a lot on at the moment. But I call in at the Crown sometimes, and I’ve heard that you’re often there. Perhaps we can meet up there at some point.”

Irritation sparked in Theo’s eyes, but he kept his smile fixed in place. “Well, I’ll see you then.” He paused, then waved a jaunty hand before setting off down the drive to the lane.

Paul watched him for a few moments before shutting the door and meticulously locking it. Then he headed into the kitchen for a large cup of tea. He waved briskly at Theo who was passing the back of the garden and wondered if Richard would mind if he put up some one way film on the windows. He felt under scrutiny. Then, after watching Theo move out of sight and checking that all the doors were locked, he took his cup of tea back into the Paper Room, locking the door behind him.

He sat at the desk but didn’t immediately start back on the list he was making. Instead he sipped his tea and looked through his memories. They were dark, and coming here hadn’t helped. Vampires and werewolves weren’t the half of it. The diaries and notebooks were full of stuff about them as well as boggarts, wights, brownies, goblins and gabble ratchets. He’d had to look those up. Richard had thought it was fiction, or even mental illness. He’d waved aside the subject when he had come to discuss the delivery of the filing cabinets. He thought the notes were those of an enthusiastic folklorist, like Sabine Baring-Gould. Everyone knew that there were no such things as werewolves and vampires.

Except Paul knew better. He had been nine when it had happened. The counsellors that the foster carers had brought in had explained that the huge hairy monster that had killed his parents was just his mind making sense of a terrible tragedy. The man who had killed his parents wasn’t a monster. He had been poorly inside and had been shot by police in a standoff later. Paul had been frustrated when his frantic accounts were dismissed, and his outbursts had him thrown out of a few foster homes before he made a decision. He had been just thirteen, traumatised, skinny and unloved. No-one believed him when he talked about the monster. Plenty avoided him. So he set out to change his life.

He had stopped talking about monsters, because everyone knew that they didn’t exist. He had watched his diet, exercised and studied. It hadn’t always been easy. Not all foster homes were good and food could be scarce. He had had to take what he could get. But he had grown strong and capable. His ability to train with the various martial classes had also varied with the foster placement, but he had kept his priorities straight and now that he was an adult he made the most of all opportunities.

He’d gone beyond just physical training, though. He’d trained his mind. He had meditated, studied and pushed himself beyond his own imagination. He learned magic. He had started on the books that filled up old libraries and second-hand shops but had worked beyond that. Now he had reached the place where people asked him to get rid of spirits and curses.

When he had started going through the papers, he had been tempted to go off and get drunk for a week. Paul smiled a little wryly and took another mouthful of tea. Habits of self-control were too ingrained now. Besides, after the first shock, he felt the calmest that he had for years. These were an affirmation. They were proof that the monster that he remembered from all those years ago was real.

The question remained, what was he going to do with this information? Would Richard accept that there was a possibility that there was truth in these papers? Was it responsible to allow some of these papers into the public domain? Paul had met too many people like Theo with too much imagination and too little discipline. There were descriptions in these books that allowed those with insider knowledge to recreate spells. Perhaps the most responsible thing would be to pile them in the garden, douse them in paraffin and burn them to ashes.

Paul looked around him. He couldn’t do that. These records were the story of men and women who had fought against the dark. Sometimes they lost. Sometimes they won at dreadful cost. But these were stories of people who hadn’t given up. He wasn’t giving up on them. And it wasn’t just people. Threaded through were references to allies who were werewolves, brownies, vampires and boggarts. They deserved respect and to have at least this small corner where their struggle was remembered.

Paul picked up his pen and checked his place. He had been digging through a notebook to find dates when he was interrupted. He needed to keep going. He couldn’t let these long-forgotten people down.

The story so far can be read here Under Dark Hills

Where Do You Start?

Paul pulled up in front of the stone cottage with a sigh of relief. He was a city lad, born and bred, and the country roads had been a challenge. The drive with all the narrow lanes, blind corners and dry stone walls inches away from the car had been harrowing. He got out and stretched. The roads may be a nightmare, but there were compensations. The air was fresh and the only sounds he could hear were birds and sheep, apart from the thumping coming from the cottage window. He knocked politely on the door. “Hello, is that Mike?” he called.

There was a patter of feet and the door flew open. A small brunette, flushed and out of breath, smiled at him. “Hi, I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Carol.”

“Of course I remember you,” Paul said. “We met at Richard’s house, during the interview.”

Carole grinned. “It’s good to see you. Come on in. I’ll give you a quick look around. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“I’d love one,” Paul said, relaxing a little. “The drive here was terrifying.”

Carol laughed as she led Paul inside. “You’ll get used to it. Okay, this is the hall…”

Carol showed Paul around the deceptively large cottage. “I was in the middle of giving it a good clean when you knocked. Richard has suggested that I come down here once a week to give it a turn out, depending on how you feel.” She looked around the plain, plastered walls. “It could do with it. The place has been neglected for years. Anyway, once you have had a fire going for a while, it will warm up.” She led him out of the back door. “Firewood is there.” She waved an arm at a well stocked store. “And you can get propane in Hebden Bridge. That’s probably the best place to call in for food, or Halifax, or even Burnley. There isn’t a town close.”

“I’m not used to it being so quiet,” Paul said, looking out the window to the rolling moor. “But I can see me getting used to it.”

“I moved here from London,” Carol said. “It was a real shock to the system. By the way, the electricity can go in bad weather. Follow me and I’ll show you where we keep oil lamps and candles. There are some solar powered lamps as well, on the shelves in the kitchen, but Richard is old fashioned and he likes to make sure that we are all prepared.”

Paul peered at the cupboard under the stairs. “What’s in the safe?”

“Hmm?” Carol looked again. “I’ve no idea. I’ll ask Richard. Anyway, on the subject of being prepared, you can’t always get a signal for mobile phones so we use landlines.” She led Paul across to the large living room. “There’s a list of useful numbers next to the phone. You may want to copy them into your mobile. Mike runs a construction business and Richard works in IT so between them they can sort out most things. I’ve stocked the kitchen with the most obvious things, but there are farm shops around for any extras, and you can always pop in to somewhere like Todmorden or Haworth.”

Paul followed Carol into the kitchen. “I don’t think that there’s a house within miles. I can’t exactly knock on a neighbour’s door to borrow some milk.”

Carol laughed. “Well, we’re just up the hill. I usually have a good stock cupboard.” She frowned. “With more jobs working remotely, a lot of people have been moving up here. I’ve had a few people knock on my door, and there’s one that seems very persistent.” She shook her head and clicked the kettle on. “I’m sure that you’ll be fine. I’ve got tea and coffee in here, and I put a few packets of rice and pasta in the cupboards. I baked some biscuits and cakes for you – I’d like the boxes back, please – and I put a few meals in the freezer.”

Paul stopped for a moment. He wasn’t used to this. “It’s very kind of you,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”

“It’s not a problem,” Carol said. She handed him a mug and beckoned him outside. A stone bench stood behind the kitchen door, looking over a tiny, unkempt back garden and then across a dry stone wall to the moorland. “No-one has lived here for years.” She frowned. “I think there’s some sort of mystery going on. I don’t know if Mike is planning to convert it to a holiday cottage or something.” She shrugged and took her seat at one end. “All I know is that there is a stack of papers that Mike and Richard want sorting. Oh, I nearly forgot.” Carol waited until Paul was sat next to her and handed over a key ring. “Front door, back door, meter cupboard and these two are the paper room.” She dropped the keys into Paul’s waiting hand. “Richard would like you to keep the paper room locked at all times.” She looked over towards a large house in the distance. “I’ve started keeping the doors locked at Darke Manor,” she said. “I never used to, but since Theo McGuire started prowling around, I’ve not felt as comfortable.”

“I can’t imagine leaving a door unlocked,” Paul said. “I’ve always lived in the city. But I’ll be careful.”

Paul watched her leave and then unloaded the car. He had kept things to a minimum. His exercise equipment, some clothes, toiletries and laptop didn’t take up much space. His books and notebooks had taken up a little more. Paul looked around carefully before opening the boot. When you practice magic in a room in a shared house you learned to be discreet and you learned to work with the bare essentials of tools. It still took up most of the boot, however, and the polished wooden cases that he had commissioned were a contrast to the battered holdalls and supermarket bags that held the rest of his stuff. He really didn’t want anyone to see these. He carried the equipment to one of the spare rooms. He could always hide it back in the car on the days that Carol came cleaning, or perhaps he could shove them in the locked paper room. Paul wondered how much there could be in there. There was bound to be space if he was careful.

 Paul took his time. Richard and Mike had been clear. His job was to make sense of a collection of handwritten notebooks and papers, get them in some sort of order and catalogue them so that there was a rough guide to what was there. They seemed very trusting, Paul thought, as he sat on the stone bench and had the protein shake and salad that he had brought with him. There were no guidelines, no timesheet, and no hint that they would even call in regularly. They seemed to think that the job would take a while, and the pay was quite generous, so what was the catch? They hadn’t even asked him to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Paul carefully tidied the remains of his lunch away, grabbed a notebook and, after checking that the front and back doors were locked, opened the so-called paper room. For a long moment he just stood and stared. He hadn’t expected this.

Carol had not been allowed in here, that was obvious. Apart from the generous amounts of dust, there was no hint of cleaning spray hanging in the atmosphere like the rest of the cottage. Instead it was musty and the air felt dead and overstuffed. It was a large room and dozens of side tables were heaped with bundles of papers, notebooks, files, maps and battered books. A couple of generous mahogany bookcases on the far wall spilled over with wedges of more notebooks and papers. The wide window was barred and locked, with dirty net curtains hiding the view and filtering the light. Opposite was a huge map that looked older than Paul, complete with pencil notes and rusty push pins. Someone had brought in a small folding desk and computer chair and, from the drag marks, shoved another box of paper out of the way to set them out. A fresh post-it note was stuck to it. Paul carefully shut the door behind him and went over to the desk. The note read, ‘filing cabinets and filing supplies arriving Monday. Please inform if more needed. R.’

Paul put his tea and notebook down on the table and turned around several times. Where did he start? What was all this stuff? He picked up the nearest notebook and opened it at random. The handwriting was haphazard and the pencil was smudged, but Paul could read the title at the top of the page – Rogue werewolf at Carter’s Farm. He picked up another random book. Attempted demon summoning at Carr End. He strode over to a stack of leather bound books and tried to decipher the titles. His eyes widened as he read Amphitheatrum Sapientae Aeternae, Solius Verae. He’d only ever heard of that as he researched alchemy. He never thought that he would ever hold a copy – it went for thousands online.  

Paul sat down carefully in the cheap computer chair and stared around him. What on earth had he found? And what was he supposed to do now?

You can find the the story so far here Under Dark Hills

The Interview

“Please, come in. I’m Mike Dixon and this is Richard Darke. We are the trustees behind this project. I hope that you found us without too much trouble.” Mike gestured to a chair in the well-furnished study.

Paul Kidson smiled and sat down. “The roads are a little tricky up here in the wilds of the Penines, but I checked a map before I came and I have a very good satnav.”

“Would you like a tea or a coffee, Paul?” Richard asked. “I think that anyone who makes it as far as my house deserves some refreshments.”

“Thank you, a cup of tea would be nice.” Paul looked around the study. “Is this where the job is?”

Richard shook his head. “I’m afraid it isn’t. Hang on, I’ll just shout for my housekeeper.”

Mike shuffled the papers in front of him as Richard yelled for Carol, his housekeeper. There was something about Paul that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. The man had come for a job interview. He should be the one shifting nervously in his seat. Instead he seemed to be completely in control. “So, your last place of work shut down?” he asked.

Paul nodded. “The owner wanted to retire. None of his family were interested and, to be honest, it was an old fashioned business that wasn’t keeping up. Mr Andrews, my boss, wouldn’t deal with emails, for example. I had to print it all out for him. He refused to have a website. It was a shame because it was a nice place to work.”

Mike flicked through the papers. “You ran the office, according to this. Does that mean all of it?”

“I sent the accounts to the accountant once a year,” Paul said. “But I did everything else. Mr Andrews paid for me to take courses at night school.”

Mike met Richard’s eyes. The qualifications looked promising, with a lengthy list of certificates. “A small cottage comes with the job, or rather, the job is inside a small cottage. Are you prepared to move here?” The man was too controlled. There didn’t seem to be a stray movement.

“As you can see, I left a foster home a few years ago,” Paul stated. “I’ve lived in house shares since. I don’t really have any roots. Moving here would be a bonus. The area is beautiful.”

“Do you have any connection to the area?” Richard asked.

Paul shook his head. “No, I just saw the advert and thought it would be interesting.”

“It’s interesting, alright,” Mike said. “There is a mass of documents and books that need cataloguing. There are boxes of diaries that need transcribing and, well, just a load of stuff that needs sorting out. The cottage has a room full of paperwork and, to be honest, we don’t know where to start.”

There was a knock on the door and a young woman came in with a trolley. “Sorry to interrupt.” She held up a teapot and looked questioningly at Paul.

“Milk, no sugar,” he said. He stretched out a hand to take the cup and his shirt sleeve rode up, exposing part of a livid burn.

“That looks bad,” Richard said. “How did you get that?”

Paul looked at his arm. “On the oven,” he lied. “To be honest, I’d forgotten about it.”

Carol smiled brightly, handed Mike and Richard their cups and left.

“That was my housekeeper,” Richard said. “She gave the cottage a bit of a clean for whoever gets the job, and we’ve supplied a few basics. Some of the work will be done up here, and she’ll be around. She’s very efficient.”

Paul sipped the excellent cup of tea and smiled. “I’m sure she is. The job said that those of a superstitious nature should not apply.”

Mike had been dreading this sort of question. “A lot of the papers refer to folk beliefs,” he said airily. “We think that there may have been a sort of code, or perhaps ongoing mental issues…”

Richard jumped in to help him. “If you are bothered by the idea of ghosts and such then perhaps it isn’t the job for you. And some of the books are of what could be considered an ‘occult’ nature.”

“We think that people got carried away. I mean, no-one believes in magic anyway,” Mike added.

“Of course not,” Paul said. “But I’ve always found folk belief fascinating. It would be interesting to see what’s there.”

“We might consider publishing some of the papers later, or donating to a museum or library,” Richard said. “For academic purposes only,” he added quickly. “They would need to be in order for that.”

“Are there a lot of papers?” Paul asked.

Mike shuddered in spite of himself. “There’s about a ton of them. And all the little diaries and notebooks in leather bindings, stacked three deep in the bookshelves. We expect the work to take at least a year.”

“So we have to ask about how you would feel being so isolated,” Richard said. “We can be all but cut off over the winter, and the power goes down regrettably often.”

“The chance of some peace and quiet after the last few years sounds wonderful,” Paul said. “I’ve been cooped up with roommates and the thought of a bathroom that I don’t have to share sounds wonderful.”

“Would you like to take your tea into the living room and wait,” Richard asked. “I’d like to have a word with Mike.”

They watched Paul pick up his cup and leave. Mike closed the door carefully and then the werewolf and vampire looked at each other. Mike shook his head. “It’s got to be him. I mean, I don’t think that he’s the one but he’s the one meant to do the project. No-one else has applied.”

“There’s some strange forces at work,” Richard said. “I hope that he isn’t too interested in occult documents. We would have our hands full then. But we need the stuff in order for when the Paladin turns up.”

Mike shook his head. “It feels wrong. The Prince hasn’t been out of his domain for, what is it?”

“I haven’t seen him out of his lands for about two hundred years,” said Richard. “He was never really interested in vampires like Nathan and I anyway. I’ve heard that he’s become too susceptible to iron, like all the old and powerful elfen. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was replaced.”

“And that’s a war I want our pack to stay out of,” Mike said. “It never ends well for the werewolves. But, well, it’s not right that we’re looking out for a Paladin.”

“What choice do we have?” Richard sighed. “I suppose we had better tell him that he’s got the job.”

Richard and Mike are from ‘Dinner at Dark’ and you can read more about the world in which this is set here, ‘The World of the White Hart

You can read the story from the start here Under Dark Hills