Invitation Accepted: Chapter Four

You can find the story so far here – Invitation Accepted

He woke up in Gareth’s body and stretched. Last night could have been a lot worse. He threw back the covers and sat up. Pale gold light filtered through the crack in the thin curtains and it looked like it would be a beautiful autumn day. He swung himself out of bed and pulled out the exercise mat and weights. The lad needed to build up some muscles if he was going to get anywhere. Besides, he liked to start the day by getting the blood moving.

Afterwards he stepped into the shower, deep in thought. Last night had been interesting. He’d assumed that the wolfkind had gone with everything else he remembered. Still, at least everyone got out of there without a bite. He let the hot water pound into his back, easing the muscles. The skirmish in the Iron Sickle hadn’t been too strenuous, but things had got a little more active after he saw the rest of the lads into their taxis. He wiped the water from his face and flexed his shoulders. At least his knuckles were finally starting to toughen up.

He stepped out of the shower and dried himself before padding, still naked, into the kitchen. There was too much that he didn’t know. He had a surface knowledge of a lot of things, and that device with the internet was useful, but there were too many important gaps. He made himself a large bowl of porridge with an ample side dish of berries before booting up Gareth’s ancient laptop. The lad would need a new one of these soon, he thought, but that was a problem that could wait. What he needed was information – and he had no idea of where to start.

He poured himself a cup of hot black tea and added sugar with a liberal hand. What he needed was someone who knew more about the old ways, someone who knew about wolfkind and elfen. All the people he once trusted had long since gone to dust. The laptop finally reached the home screen and he checked online local maps. Everything had changed so much. He didn’t even know where to start looking. He scrolled aimlessly around the area, hoping for inspiration. He found it. Of course, if anyone was around it would be there. He drained his mug of tea and stood. He had to get moving while the day was still young.

He parked Gareth’s car at the side of a main road and then walked along the lanes up into the Yorkshire Dales. He picked his way along the narrow road, then branched off onto a barely visible track and over a dip in the hills to a sheltered hollow where he stopped. The structure had changed, but it was still very much the same. A small cottage, now stone, stood a little above the garden that was flowing in ragged patches of strange plants. Even as the wheel of the year turned, the garden was flourishing with strange plants. The scent of mint and elder hung heavily in the air and a wisp of smoke was rising from the chimney. He looked carefully around and pushed open the gate. The thin path wound up towards the cottage between banks of herbs and flowers, giving him time to wonder if he was doing the right thing. Then he was facing the worn wooden door and all choices were gone. He knocked firmly.

The woman who came to the door looked in her mid fifties, with wildly curling hair screwed in a knot at the top of her head. Her oversized earrings swung as she tilted her head and pulled the large cardigan around herself. “Go away,” she said. “I’m not interested in strangers.”

“Look again, Anwen,” he said.

She stared. “It’s Violet these days, actually,” she said and leaned closer. “Bron?”

Bron smiled. “Yep, and I’m just as surprised as you are,” he said.

Violet opened and shut her mouth a few times and then shook her head. “Come in,” she said, holding the door open. “And what do you drink these days?”

“Tea, no milk, four sugars,” Bron said. “It’s good to see you.” He stepped inside the cottage. Of course everything had changed, but in essence, in the soul of the house, it was the same. A loom stood in a corner and drying herbs hung in bunches from the rafters. The seats looked comfortable, stacked with cushions and blankets, and the evil looking tom cat curled in front of the small fire was the same sort of cat that had always found their way there. The books heaped on shelves and on tables were new, and Bron was unfamiliar with knitting, but the same warmth and comfort radiated through the home, filled with the scents of flowers and herbs and good food. “I’m glad you’re still here.”

“Where else would I go?” Violet said as she pulled mugs from a cupboard. “I’m linked to the spring at the back.”

“It doesn’t really stop you, though,” Bron said. “I know your kind travelled.”

Violet ignored that and spooned dried herbs from a jar in one mug, dropping a modern tea bag in another. “And you’re in that poor body,” she said. “No wonder I didn’t recognise you.”

“It’s not my doing, Violet,” Bron said. “I was woken. The first thing I knew was that I was I was being summoned into him. Silly kid didn’t know what he was doing. That was about a month ago.”

“I haven’t heard any wars starting,” Violet said, pouring water from the kettle on the fire. She turned and looked at him. “Except for those drug people.”

Bron grinned widely. “I found them I think the first or second night I was back. One of them tried to mug me. I mean, this kid had the muscle strength of unspun wool but I could still sort them out.” He took the tea from Violet. “Then I found that one lot was blaming the other and that there was already bad blood, so I took advantage.”

“A lot of cash has been stolen, apparently,” Violet said.

“Well, I’m more expensive than the kid knows,” Bron said. “But with that and a few other jobs here and there, I’ve got some money.”

“I’m not sure that I want to ask,” Violet said primly. She sat in the small armchair next to the fire.

Bron sat opposite her. “So much has changed,” he said. “And I’m adrift in the world. I thought that your kind, or rather, those akin to your kind, had gone. Then I went to the Iron Sickle last night.”

Violet froze for a moment before taking a very small sip of her herbal tea. “How did that go?”

“I avoided the teeth,” Bron said. “I went with a group of lads from the kid’s workplace, and we all got out in one piece. I don’t know what they made of it all.” He took a mouthful of tea. “I’ll find out on Monday, I suppose. But I need to speak to the Defender.”

Violet looked at Bron thoughtfully. “Could you wait one moment, please?” she asked.

Bron nodded and sat back, sipping his tea. He remembered this of old. Violet wasn’t bad as nature spirits went, but she had her own way of doing things that couldn’t be rushed. She had always had a fondness for him, and in truth he had always had a soft spot for her, but she was still unpredictable and there was often a price for information. At least they had come to an agreement about food and drink. Bron looked down at his tea. He hoped that still held.

For a few moments Violet appeared wreathed in an iridescent blue shimmer, her eyes thoughtful as she stared down at her tea. Then the shimmer faded and she looked up. “You died three thousand years ago,” she said. “You are sharing a body with another soul. And I fear that you are needed.” She frowned. “There is so much to tell you!”

“I was hoping that you could tell me where to find the Defender,” Bron said. “It should be his job.”

Violet shook her head. “They’re called Paladins these days,” she said. “And there isn’t one now. There was some trouble a few years back and it got complicated.” She trailed off. “There isn’t a proper Prince, either, what you used to call Dark Kings. Lord Skyrack got caught in a fight he couldn’t manage and he disappeared. The Paladin died, but no new one came.”

“Who’s dealing with the hounds like the ones I found in the Iron Sickle, then?” Bron asked. “Wolfkind can’t go unchecked, Violet, not with this many people around.”

“You remember Lord Marius, don’t you?” Violet asked.

“He’s the new Dark King?” Bron said, surprised. “Mind you, he was always crafty with sorcery for an elfen.”

“It’s ‘Prince’ and not ‘Dark King’, and yes, it’s him,” Violet said. “But it’s not official. It’s been six score years or more since Skyrack fell and we haven’t had a Paladin or Prince since then. Normally Lord Marius would instruct the leader of the local pack.” Violet sighed. “That’s Mark Davis, but his wife is sick and he’s not holding things together as he should. Besides, they spend their time in Leeds and don’t bother coming out to the edges half the time.”

“The wolfkind in the Iron Sickle were acting like a pack,” Bron said. “And they weren’t exactly playing like puppies. They need to be put down. Would this Mark Davis do it?”

Violet wrinkled her nose. “He’d want to and make the right noises,” she said. “He might get the pack together, but they’re not at the top of their game. He’d have a fit if elfen or vampires got involved, though.”

“So who do they go to if there isn’t a Defender?” Bron asked.

“It’s a Paladin, not a Defender,” Violet said with a sigh. “And there are people called the Knights Templar. They’re okay, but if they deal with the strays at the Iron Sickle without clearing it with Mark first, there’ll be problems.”

“This Mark Davis,” Bron said. “He’s not holding the pack together, he’s not leading the werewolves in the area, he’s not protecting his territory, he’s not getting rid of the mutts but he’ll throw a tantrum if someone else does his job. What’s gone wrong? And why isn’t another one of the things challenging for leadership?”

“Things are different,” Violet said. “But that’s not all of it.” She looked down at her cooling mug of herbal tea. “You were buried with the Orache Stone, and I helped to weave the magic over your tomb to keep you and it undisturbed. You have woken and the Orache Stone has been taken.”

Bron ran a weary hand over his face. “I remember how hard it was to get that thing buried,” he said. “I remember what it was like.”

“So do I,” Violet said. “I remember even after all these years. We need to find your tomb.”

Bron drove them up to Otley Chevin and parked in a small carpark. “Around here, I think,” he said.

“How did you learn to drive?” Violet asked, getting out of the car.

Bron spread his hands in bewilderment. “Some things are just there, like the kid’s memories of driving and the internet and stuff. And I’ve got a sense of how things should be,” he said. “Just don’t press me for too many details.”

Violet laughed and then looked him over. “You haven’t forgotten everything?” she asked, flirtation in her eyes. “I wonder how you could do with a fresh young body but all that passionate experience.”

“Behave yourself,” Bron said, grinning back. “And the lad’s setting up to have a date with a woman that he likes so I don’t want his body to be seen with anyone else.” He looked at her thoughtfully, remembering past times. “Not that I’m not tempted,” he added.

Violet pouted but nodded up the hill. “You were buried up here,” she said. “It was a lovely leave-taking. Everyone came, even Lord Skyrack, and the feast ran for three days.”

Bron stood for a moment, looking up the hill. “Everyone’s gone,” he said. “My wife and sons have long been dust, and the friends in the Brotherhood gone with them.” He looked back at Violet. “You’re the first familiar face that I’ve seen for a long while. And nothing sounds the same or looks the same…” He looked back up the hill. “But if the Orache Stone has been brought back into the world, the same problems will come knocking at our door.”

“It’s not really your fight,” Violet said. “You fought your battles a long time ago – and fought them well. You deserve your rest.”

Bron walked up to her and put a hand on her shoulder. “If I don’t fight then who will?”

The climb to the site of the old barrow was steep and they were both out of breath when they reached the top. “At least you gave me a good view in death,” Bron said.

“Everyone knew,” Violet said. “They all knew the battles you fought.”

“I would have fought even if they hadn’t,” Bron said. “But it made it easier, them remembering.” He looked over the valley towards Otley. For a moment he was lost in distant memories before he brought his attention back to the present. “Speaking of remembering – how many knew about the Orache Stone? Was it common knowledge?”

Violet shook her head. “Lord Skyrack still had some sense then. He forbade anyone to mention it. The mortals forgot within a generation or two, and the werewolves and the boggarts that knew died out and there was no memory.”

Bron frowned. “How did you know it had gone, and how could they have found it?” he asked.

“I felt the disruption of my magic,” Violet said. “But it’s been a while since I cast that enchantment on your resting place. I was trying to remember what I had hidden and I only worked it out last week.”

“When did you first feel it?” Bron asked.

Violet frowned and looked over the view. It was quiet and dog walkers could be heard in the distance over the surrounding birdsong. The air was crisp and clear and the soft breeze ruffled the fading grasses. “It was nearer Midsummer,” she said. “No, wait…” The soft blue shimmer enveloped her and Bron jumped lightly onto a rock to keep watch. The blue shimmer faded and Violet nodded. “It was the week after Lughnasadh,” she said. “I remember that the weather was warm and it was too dry.”

“So that was the beginning of August,” Bron said thoughtfully, jumping back down. “The lad summoned me at the end of September, and it’s now nearly Samhain.” He grimaced. “Or Halloween as they call it. Who ever has it has a start on us. We still need to know how it was found.”

Violet shrugged. “People scry for all sorts of things these days,” she said. “And it depends on who’s found it. Apart from the drug people, I’ve not heard of any trouble.”

“It could have been taken out of the area,” Bron said. “Or it may not be violent.”

“If it isn’t violent now then it will be soon,” Violet said darkly. “And it will stay close to this place. The power of the Orache Stone is tied to these hills just as I am tied to the spring.”

“It could be the wolfkind, the werewolves,” Bron said. “It looked like a lot of lordless beasts had been dragged into a pack.”

Violet shuddered. “That could go bad very quickly,” she said. “But you can’t call them beasts anymore. You have to say non-normal. It’s a matter of respect.”

“I don’t think I’d respect any thing that did half the stuff I fought against all those years ago,” Bron said. “But I’ll behave.” He frowned as he looked at the broken barrow. Age had not been kind to his resting place and he could see the evidence of dirt being scratched away before new grass grew around it. “I need to speak to these Knights Templar. They’ll need to know what to expect. How can I meet them?”

“I’ll set up a meet,” Violet said. “But I want something in return.”

Bron narrowed his eyes. “What do you want?” he asked. “And will it hurt?”

Violet laughed and pulled her hair free. As she shook her head, she changed before him. The years fell from her and now there was a young woman with dark, deep eyes and black, shining ringlets. “Do you remember those days by the tarn?” she asked. “We spent such time and did such things! You married when your father told you that you should, and you were a good and loyal husband to your wife, but she was never your first love. Indulge my memories with that young body. Spend the weekend with me in my cottage and… remember your first love. If you do, I’ll set up the meeting.”

Bron felt his borrowed body stirring at the memories but he shook his head. “In all these years, you’ve not learned to think first,” he said gently. “Can you imagine your pain if you thought that any caresses from me were part of a bargain instead of genuine desire? You’d lose your mind.”

Violet stared at Bron with huge, pain-filled eyes before turning away. “You’re right,” she whispered. “You always were. You always kept me safe.”

“And you’d be there for me even if I didn’t keep the bargain,” Bron said. “You always were good at heart.”

“Don’t tell everyone!” Violet said quickly, getting back some of her spark as her eyes gleamed with laughter.

“Why don’t we go back to your cottage and spend some time…” Bron let his gaze linger over the spirit until she blushed. “We’ll spend some time remembering just for the sake of old times, and then next week you can perhaps set up a meeting with these Knights Templar because it’s the right thing to do. Are they safe? I mean, are they safe for you?”

“As long as I behave,” Violet said. “You would be surprised how uneventful things are now.”

“If a pack of stray werewolves has got hold of the Orache Stone then that will change quick enough,” Bron said grimly. “There’ll be more than enough excitement to go around.”

This story refers to a background that you can find in my White Hart series. You can find out about the world of the White Hart here and you can read some of the old short stories from that world here.

If you have any thoughts or comments, I would love to hear from you. The next instalment will be out next week.

Getting On With Things

I have finally got The Forgotten Village published as a paperback. I feel like I should do a lap of honour around the study. The novel was first published as an ebook in 2012 and was my first attempt at self publishing. I recently had an awful review of it, which I read and thought that, well, it’s a fair one, so I’ve edited the book, divided it up into chapters and found a way to get it into paperback. I’d like to give a shoutout to who have been amazingly tolerant of my requests while creating this awesome cover.

To celebrate this, the new updated version of the ebook will be free on Amazon between 24th February 2023 and 28th February 2023, calculated midnight to midnight PST time. I hope that you’ll be able to enjoy it in its new form and now would be a great chance to update any old copies of this that you have.

It’s been a strange start to the year for me. I have been inundated with ideas for books, which I’m working on, I’ve done two podcasts, the first with Hidden Bookshelf about writing in general and the second with The Pajama People, who invited me to discuss horror movies and we talked about The Ninth Gate with Johnny Depp. It felt very odd listening to them. The sequel to King’s Silver is with the editor as we speak and will hopefully be released in August – watch this space!

I have also finished the equally overdue editing of Digging up the Past and I’ve commissioned a new cover for that as well. I’ll share when that goes live. I have also almost (but not quite) finished the new material that goes with the collection of horror and supernatural stories that I’ve taken from my blog. Invitation Accepted – Chapters One, Two and Three will almost certainly end up as part of a novel that will eventually move to Amazon, and I can’t wait to work out how on earth I define the cover for it!

I would love to hear what you think and what you would like to more of. I think that Kane needs his own novel, and I think that there are a few characters from the White Hart that may turn up again, but I would be interested to know what’s important to you.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Three

You can find Invitation Accepted Chapter One here and Invitation Accepted Chapter Two here to read the story from the beginning

Gareth pulled into the mill car park and reversed neatly into his usual place. He turned off the car and paused. Until a month ago, he had been the loser that sorted the post. Then he had been unexpectedly good at some marketing ideas and yesterday he had somehow rescued Carli from collapsing boxes of dye powder. His muscles ached from it, and whatever happened last night. He had another missing block of time and a huge bruise covering his ribs on his left side. Still, whatever that Gareth was doing, his knuckles were healing up nicely and toughening up or whatever they did. He looked at the building. The last thing he wanted to do was go in and be the focus of attention before going on his first lads’ night out with the sales team, but he was out of options. He wanted a warrior spirit. It was time that he lived up to that.

Surjit was still looking pale as he went in. “Hi, Gareth,” she said, straightening the notepad on the reception desk and avoiding his eyes. “I’m glad that you made it today.” She pushed over a wad of envelopes. “And I’ve got the post.”

Gareth’s heart ached as he saw the echoes of yesterday’s accident in her. “How are you?” he asked. “Are you feeling okay?”

Surjit’s eyes brimmed with tears as she looked up at him. “I just went to pieces,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for you and Luke and Syed, Carli could have been killed.”

“Surjit, don’t be hard on yourself,” Gareth said gently. “You kept it together and got the paramedics here. And I know that Carli was glad that you were there for her when we got her free and she needed someone to speak up for her when the paramedics turned up and it all got complicated.” He gently patted her hand. “So you can take the credit and get on with things. I guess Luke is going to be ordering more dyes. You’ll have your hands full with the companies ringing about that.”

Surjit nodded. “He was so upset,” she said. “He was talking about getting some proper racking built for the dyes. They’ve just been bunged in the corner for years.” She looked down at her desk and then forced herself to smile up at Gareth. “Is that a new shirt?” she asked. “I know that the team usually bring in suits and stuff for the nights out.”

Gareth deliberately flexed his shoulders to show off his shirt, concentrating on distracting Surjit. “Do you like it? I finally got some shopping done last night in Leeds. I was thinking that I ought to look like someone in marketing,” he said.

Surjit laughed. “I can’t imagine you as ‘someone in marketing’. You’ve got too many muscles,” she said with a quick glance over him.

Gareth shook his head. “I don’t know about that, but I’ve got a suit and a nice shirt in the car for tonight. I don’t think I’ll live up to Syed and Jed, though.”

Surjit looked at him thoughtfully. “You more than lived up to them yesterday,” she said quietly.

“That was yesterday,” Gareth said, picking up the orders. “Tonight I’ve got to keep up with them in a pub. I’ve heard about what they’re like and I don’t think that I have a chance.”

Syed was in the kitchen when Gareth went to get his morning cup of tea. “Nice shirt,” Syed commented. “Is that what you’re wearing tonight? The Red Lion can get a bit dressy on the weekend. I’m not saying it’s no good,” he added quickly, “but it’s a bit low key.”

“It’s okay,” Gareth said. “I’ve got something in the car.” He grinned a little shyly at Syed. “But I got the hint that perhaps I should get some new clothes.”

Syed laughed. “And with you bulking out, you must need them,” he said. “Your gym routine must be punishing.”

Gareth carefully poured boiling water on the teabag. “It’s working anyway. So, tonight we head to the Red Lion and celebrate the new sales?”

“Yeah, Luke is really pleased with how it’s gone,” Syed said. He looked at Gareth thoughtfully. “You seem to have a knack for those adverts.”

Gareth shook his head. “As long as I don’t have to talk to anyone,” he said. “I don’t know how you do it all day.”

“You made it a lot easier,” Syed said. “And you’ve earned your drinks tonight. We’ll start off at the Red Lion with some drinks and bar food, then take a tour around town. We could end up anywhere.”

“That’s near Otley, isn’t it?” Gareth said.

Syed nodded. “We start off at a distance and work our way towards home, so the last taxi doesn’t cost so much. Anyway, I’ll catch you later.”

Gareth nodded at him as he left and then poured his own tea. He had bulked up over the last month, there was no doubt about that. His old shirts were stretching over the shoulders now. And when that Gareth had bought all the clothes that he had found when he woke up that morning, the taste seemed spot on. He now had a small selection of decent quality, durable clothing fit for work that didn’t strain over his chest and hang loose around his waist. All he had to do was work out how that Gareth had paid for them.

Gareth raced through the morning’s work. The orders were drying up again so he should start blocking out the next idea. And all sorts of stuff was hitting the firm’s inbox, including the extra orders, so he had a lot to check. He stopped scrolling through the emails as he became aware of someone standing by the desk. “Hello, Carli,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

Carli smiled. “I’m doing okay,” she said. “I’ve got bruises on my bruises, but it could have been worse.”

“At least Luke is getting some proper racking for the dyes,” Gareth said. “And you’ll be able to have a clear out of the older stuff.”

“Forget about that,” Carli said. “I just wanted to stop by and say thank you. I could have been really badly hurt yesterday.” She smiled a little shyly. “You could literally have saved my life,”

“Perhaps I saved a few bruises,” Gareth said. He wasn’t used to this and he didn’t feel that he could take full credit. It may have been his body involved in the rescue but he had been pushed to the side.

“I brought this to say thank you,” Carli said. “I hope you like whisky.” She placed a bottle bag on the table. “I’d like to get together next week. Luke said that you’re taking over the advertising, and I’d like to talk through some ideas with you.”

“I’m usually busy on Mondays,” Gareth said. “But perhaps we can set aside Tuesday afternoon. And there’s all sorts of stuff in the archives that could be useful.”

Carli’s eyes narrowed. “You’re thinking of the nostalgia angle,” she said.

Gareth shook his head. “I’m thinking of using some nostalgia, but it’s got to be up to date,” he said. “We can talk about it on Tuesday.”

Carli nodded. “I’ll make some notes. We can perhaps put something together for Luke on Tuesday. There’s a lot of ground to cover.”

Gareth was horrified as he heard his voice say, “And perhaps I could take you out afterwards, on Tuesday evening. Just for something like fish and chips or a curry. It would be a great chance to wind down.” He watched the colour flood Carli’s face and she smiled shyly again.

“I’d like that,” she said, and then whisked herself away.

Gareth looked into the bag. What was happening to his world? He recognised this brand of scotch. It was his father’s favourite and Gareth could remember, very faintly, seeing his father sip it carefully while he watched the rugby final on tv. Gareth had very few memories of his father before he died, but one of them involved this relatively expensive single malt. And now he had a date. Perhaps she was doing it out of gratitude for his actions yesterday. But Gareth remembered the blush before Carli left and something, somehow, said that she wasn’t just agreeing out of pity.

Gareth carried on working at his desk through lunch, eating as he scrolled through the endless pages of advertising. He needed to work with Luke on a good angle for the marketing, and he had a few ideas. He wiped his fingers clean on a tissue and made a few more notes. He needed to check some more sites. He could have a look through some of the fashion ‘influencers’ that fell into the demographic that also bought knitwear. He took an absentminded bite out of his hunk of cheese and quickly wiped his fingers before making some notes. He became aware of a presence and looked up. “Hi, Jed,” he said. “I’m sorry I was caught up in some research for the ‘how to make people buy our stuff’ stuff. I’m looking forward to tonight.”

“Yeah, me too,” Jed said. “I’m still coming down after yesterday. How about you? You were right in the middle of it. Carli reckons that you saved her life.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Gareth said with an uncomfortable smile. “We all pitched it. I think we’re all a little shaken. Still, at least we’ll get the dye sorted out. I’ve been hearing the factory floor complaining about the storage since I started here.”

Jed laughed. “Me too, and they were probably complaining about it when Luke started as an office junior. But you really stepped up,” he said. He looked thoughtfully at Gareth. “I was wondering, do you want to come along to rugby training next week? We could do with a decent fly half and you seem to have the speed and strength. They’re a good crowd.”

Gareth froze. He had been an abject failure at rugby at school and his strongest memory of it was a feeling of pain and complete humiliation. He had been too small, too slow and too weak. He hesitated. Yesterday he hadn’t been slow. The now familiar sensation of his voice speaking without any input from him washed over him. “I’d love to, but I’m too small,” he heard himself say. “But I’d be interested in coming along to a game. Are you playing tomorrow?”

Jed looked slowly over Gareth. “I don’t know about too small,” he said. “You’re bulking up nicely.” He nodded at Gareth’s lunchbox with the remains of steamed chicken, cheese and a pasta salad. “And you’re obviously taking it seriously. But it would be great to get any support. I’ll send you the details.”

“I’ll be there,” Gareth said, finally getting control over his own voice.

“And it’s good that you’re putting a lining on your stomach,” Jed said, grinning. “I hope you can keep up.”

“I don’t have a chance,” Gareth laughed. “But it’ll be a good night.” He was thoughtful as he watched Jed go. He was still a bit lightweight for rugby. Even after the muscles he’d put on, he had a way go before he could take the field. But perhaps one day… He didn’t finish that thought. He checked his new watch (and where the hell had he found the money for that?) and got back to work.

Gareth got an admiring glance from Surjit as he came out from getting changed. The suit was sharp and a dark, sophisticated blue and the crisp cotton shirt had cost, according to the label, more than Gareth’s previous wardrobe put together. He smiled at her. “I’ve scrubbed up okay, I think,” he said.

“You look really good,” Surjit said. “I wish I was coming with you.”

“I don’t make the rules,” Gareth said. “But I’m sure that you’ll hear all about it on Monday.”

“If any of you can remember it!” Surjit snorted. “Have a good weekend.”

“And you,” Gareth said. He watched her leave and cross the car park to her car. He turned around and looked for Carli. She was coming down the steps to reception and even after a hard week and a major accident, she was looking as trim as ever. He smiled. “I hope you can get some rest over the weekend. You must feel battered,” he said.

Carli smiled back. “I’ll be fine. I’ll spend some time going over the new shades that are out there. We’re practically starting our dye collection from scratch so I think it’s worth having a look,” she said. “But I think that a lot of the old favourites are used so often for a reason. I’ll see what I find.”

“I thought that the guys in the dye house would be having fits,” Gareth said. “But I think they agree with you. It will be interesting to see what’s new. I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.” He paused. “If we can get overtime, I don’t mind staying back on Monday, if you’ve nothing else on. I’m following your designs, and I want to keep the advertising that I’ve started going.” He grinned. “We can even get some fish and chips afterwards.”

Carli looked thoughtful. “I get the feeling that we’ll work hard enough to earn it,” she said, then grinned. “I’ve got a few designs going through already, but I think I’ll need to add quite a lot more to keep up. Anyway, try and stay out of trouble tonight and I’ll see you Monday.”

“I’ll probably still have the hangover,” Gareth joked as he watched her wave goodbye and go out to the car.

“I think you’re in there,” Jed said as he came out of the men’s locker room. “There’s nothing like saving a lass’s life to get her to come on a date.”

Gareth looked at him calmly. “It’s not like that at all,” he said, “Is everyone here?”

Jed blinked at the unexpected pushback but nodded. “It’s only the sales team tonight,” he said. “And you count because of the flyers.”

Syed came up behind them and nodded. “And that’s why Luke put £100 behind the bar,” he said. “Do you think you can stand the pace?” he asked Gareth.

“Not a chance,” Gareth said, leaving the building to the night porter and security to lock up.

Pizza and drinks at the Red Lion led to more drinks led to a different pub and then Syed thought that there was a pub just down the road but had forgotten that it had shut and after some drunken wanderings they ended up at The Iron Sickle. Gareth hung back as the others staggered in. He had been carefully nursing a vodka and tonic in each bar, drinking perhaps half and then ‘forgetting’ it, or simply abandoning it. Once the sales team had ploughed through the money at the Red Lion, they were buying their own and no-one was watching Gareth sitting quietly on the edge of the group or realised when he switched to straight tonic. Now, as they approached the dirty building, Gareth was grateful that he mostly had his wits about him.

“Are you sure this is worth it?” Gareth asked. “It looks a bit of a dive. We could head back towards the Eagle and maybe get a game of pool or something.”

“Nah, mate, we’ll be fine,” Syed yelled as he held on to the broken streetlight. “We’ll have a pint here and then head to the Eagle after. I bet I can beat you at pool!”

“I’m not betting against you!” Gareth said, as the rest of the lads erupted in laughter. He could feel part of his mind working out how to hustle money out of pool but it was being drowning by his unease. It looked like the sort of pub where only locals drank, they drank hard and didn’t like strangers. The half dozen or so lads from the sales team were walking into a potential mess. He looked up and down the street with no idea how they had ended up here. Half the streetlights were out and drifts of rubbish surrounded a burned out car in the tiny pub car park. Before all the strangeness Gareth would have had no hesitation in turning around and going home. Now he followed the team in, every sense on alert.

The pub was dated and shadowy. Too many hard faced men sat around the stained tables with a pint in front of them, and the single bartender didn’t smile as he saw the team heading to the bar. Gareth hung back. He could feel the unease of the other Gareth overlying his own and he didn’t feel reassured. He found himself discreetly noting all the corners, counting the men and checking the exits. At least there weren’t too many big brawlers but the wiry drinkers looked like they could handle themselves. Something else was nagging at the back of that Gareth’s mind, but he was distracted as the bartender refused to serve Syed.

“You’ve had enough, sir,” the bartender said. “We don’t want any trouble, so you can call a taxi from the phone on the end of the bar.”

Gareth’s heart sank further. All those in telesales were trained to identify and overcome objections and he could see Syed accepting the challenge. Syed and Jed would enjoy the arguing as much as the beer. He checked his phone and wasn’t surprised when he couldn’t get a signal. He stuffed it deep into his pockets and loosened his shoulders. “Come on,” he said. “We can get a few games in at the Eagle. I can call the taxi now.”

“Listen to your friend,” the bartender said. His eyes swept the room. “I don’t want any trouble.”

“Listen, mate, we’re just wanting a few pints, and you can’t refuse legal tender,” Syed started.

“It’s cash as well, so no fees from a card company,” Jed added. “All legal tender. You can’t refuse to take that.”

Gareth glanced briefly at his friends who were swaying gently at the bar before continuing to watch the other men around the bar. It was never a good sign when there were no women in a bar, not in a rundown place like this. “Come on, mate,” he said. “It’s not worth the bother. Trouble is the last thing we need.”

“But it looks like trouble is what you’re getting,” a tall man said, unfolding from a stool near the bar.

“I’m going down to the cellar to check the kegs,” the bartender said. “I won’t find any trouble when I come back, will I?”

There were some unpleasant chuckles from around the bar. “We won’t leave any traces,” the tall man said. “Take your time.”

Gareth watched the bartender slowly walk into the back and then he heard the sound of a cellar door opening then clicking shut. “Come on, Jed,” he said. “We’ve all had a lot to drink, let’s get a taxi and a kebab.” He didn’t have much hope of getting through to the man. Jed and Syed were the main sales reps and they prided themselves on their ability to drink hard and to talk their way into and out of everything. They were also big lads who looked hard to push around. In the back of his head, that Gareth was almost screaming with unease which intensified as men from around the shadowy edges of the bar started to stand. “Come on,” Gareth urged. “It’s going to be ages before he comes back and I don’t feel like waiting for a drink. We might as well go somewhere else.”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” Syed said. “We can go where our money’s welcome.”

Jed scowled as he looked around. “Yeah,” he said. “And somewhere cleaner.” He tried to stalk towards the door, only staggering a little.

“But we haven’t had our fun yet,” another of the watchful drinkers stood between Jed and the door.

“We’re leaving,” Jed blustered and tried to push the man out of his way. Instead he received a push to the chest that sent him sprawling backwards onto the floor in an undignified heap.

“You shouldn’t have come here,” the tall man said. “Anyone can see it’s a local bar, not for kids like you.”

“What did you say?” Syed snarled.

Gareth felt relieved as he felt the other Gareth, that Gareth push him aside. There were half a dozen of the sales team plus him. There were at least a dozen other drinkers in this dirty bar, most of them were standing and all of them looked like they could handle themselves in an unfair fight. Something nagged at the back of that Gareth’s mind, the way that the drinkers were looking hungrily at the sales team like chickens to be plucked, but he didn’t have time. The tall man swung at Syed and connected, sending the big man flying backwards against the bar. As Syed and Jed pulled themselves to their feet, Gareth stepped forward.

He didn’t have time for this and he didn’t have the luxury of space. The numbers might be close, but this wouldn’t be a fair fight if it got going. He had to close it down fast. The time for talking and calculations was over. That Gareth stepped forward with precision, grabbed the tall man’s hair and slammed his head hard down on the bar. The man slid down onto the floor but Gareth wasn’t paying attention. Instead he had kicked a bar stool towards two approaching drinkers, slowing them down as they pushed it out of the way and giving that Gareth time to punch another of the drinkers hard in the sternum. As that one fell back, winded and gasping, Gareth glanced behind. “Get the door clear,” he snapped.

Jed and Syed were taking on a couple of the other brawlers. They were too drunk to do much more than slow the locals down, but it meant that Tony and Dean could hustle and jostle the local guarding the door out of the way.

“We haven’t had our fun yet,” another drinker snarled. “And don’t think you won’t pay for what you did to our mate.”

That Gareth sensed a hostile presence behind him and drove his elbow back and high. There was a crunch as something connected and a lot of swearing as someone fell back but Gareth ignored it as he stamped on the back of the knee of knee of a local about to swing at Syed following with a swift kick to the head as his target crumpled. “Everyone – get out!” Gareth called.

“I said we haven’t had our fun yet,” the drinker’s voice sunk to a growl. The speaker leaned forward and flowed. Before their appalled eyes, the wiry drinker with dirty hair was now a wolf – a skinny wolf with matted fur and hatred in its eyes.

Gareth swore and, triggered by some ancient memory, kicked the creature hard in the throat. It would have killed anything else, and it at least slowed it down. He grabbed up a pint glass and rammed it hard into the nearest hostile face. “Get out of the door!” he yelled.

“That’s not real! That’s not real!” Syed cried as Gareth grabbed his jacket and almost threw him towards the door.

“Move!” Gareth snapped as he flung a barstool hard into the side of an approaching local. The snarls coming from the corners were too chilling to be ignored. He glanced around quickly and then backed towards the door.

“I’ll make you pay!” one of the few remaining locals snarled, crouching down. Gareth didn’t wait to find out, but slid quickly through the door and out.

“Come on!” he said. “We can’t hang around.”

“They weren’t real,” Syed said.

“We’re all out,” Gareth confirmed as he glanced quickly around the shocked group. “It must have been the dodgy beer.”

“Yeah,” Syed said doubtfully, not objecting as Gareth marched them down the road.

“And we can have a few games of pool at the Eagle,” Gareth added.

Jed stumbled as he looked over his shoulder. “They’re not coming after us, are they?” he asked.

Gareth glanced quickly behind him. “I don’t think so,” he heard himself say, “But it’s probably not a good idea to come back. The beer’s foul anyway.”

Syed nodded, blankly but Jed met Gareth’s eyes. “It wasn’t the beer,” Jed said softly. “And thanks, mate. It looks like you’re making a habit of saving people.”

Gareth glanced back again, but there was still no sign of pursuit. “I just saw what was happening,” he said.

Jed looked at him steadily. “I don’t know what’s happened to you, Gareth, but it scares the living daylights out of me,” he said. “I’m still glad it happened, though, and I definitely owe you a pint.”

Gareth felt the adrenalin draining from him. “I’m keeping off the carbs mate – make it a vodka and tonic and a game of pool,” he said. He looked over at the rest of the stunned team. “We’ll have a few games of pool, a quiet drink and a kebab and we’ll forget that this ever happened.”

“No,” Jed said, “We won’t forget. We just won’t remember so often.”

“That works,” Gareth said as the other Gareth, that Gareth, slipped back beneath the surface of his mind.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Two

You can find the first installment, Invitation Accepted Chapter One, here

“Have you put on some weight?” Surjit asked.

Gareth, his mind occupied as he got to work, looked blankly at the Receptionist, who blushed. “I think I’ve put on a bit, but I’m still okay,” he said.

“No! I didn’t mean that!” Surjit said. “It’s just you look like you’ve filled out and maybe put on some muscle.”

“I’ve been working out,” Gareth said. “It’s good to know that I’m getting results.”

“I’ll have to come with you one day,” Surjit said. “It would be great to see your routine.”

“I’m very quiet at the gym,” Gareth said. “I just keep my head down and get on with it. Have you got the post?”

“Here it is.” Surjit smiled at him. “And it looks like there are a lot of orders on the website after you set up that link.”

“Great.” Gareth managed a smile back. “It’s good to be busy.”

Vague panic filled him as he left reception. He couldn’t go to the gym with Surjit – he didn’t know what to do there! His body seemed to go without him being present. He had even found his membership card, tucked behind his library card in his wallet. But he had never consciously gone in his life. His shirts were getting tighter around the shoulders, though, and the waist. of his trousers and jeans were looser. When he looked in the bathroom mirror, he could see muscles. He had been avoiding looking in the mirror for a while.

Gareth tossed the bundle of letters onto his desk, oblivious to how much his aim had improved over the last few weeks, and headed into the kitchen to make his morning tea. Syed was there, waiting for the kettle to boil. Gareth smiled and nodded and dropped a teabag into his mug.

“Are you coming out with the lads on Friday?” Syed asked. “We’re having a bit of a drink to celebrate the new campaign. Luke’s paying for the first £100 at the Red Lion. We’ll probably get a kebab after.”

Gareth’s brain froze. This was uncharted territory. He was just the admin boy, the gopher, and he was far too quiet to even be noticed by the larger than life sales team. He wouldn’t know what to say or do. Besides, he hadn’t remembered anything between Friday night and Sunday evening for the last three weekends and he wasn’t sure what was happening. To his horror, his mouth opened. “That would be great. Look forward to it,” he heard himself say.

“Awesome. Tomorrow night, straight from work, bring some decent kit.” Syed grinned as he tugged on Gareth’s well washed white office shirt. “There are a couple of lasses there that would be more than happy to meet you.”

To Gareth’s relief, the kettle snapped off and Syed poured the hot water into his mug and walked out. Gareth sagged a little as he poured his tea. What was going on? He’d wanted more confidence and perhaps the courage to go for a better job. Now he was… Gareth’s mind skittered away from the implications of what he was becoming and the time he was missing. He would open his washer to put in clothes and would find newly washed gym kit. He had bruises he couldn’t explain and his muscles were aching. The fridge was always full of meat.

Gareth took his mug slowly back to his desk. His knuckles were now a mass of scabs and his pockets had unexplained money in them. He started flicking through the post without really thinking about things. It didn’t take a genius to sort out invoices from payments and to toss the flyers, and with his mind occupied with more worrying matters, Gareth got the post done with greater efficiency every day.

Maybe he was going mad? He’d done a little browsing at home, ignoring the ads for protein bars and replica weapons, and perhaps it was a disassociation disorder. Gareth picked up the sorted pile, took a mouthful of tea, and headed off to hand out the post. A large stack for the accounts department, a wedge of orders for the sales team and a box of thread samples for Luke that he balanced easily as he jogged around the office.

Luke was looking out of his window and across the factory floor, but looked around as Gareth tapped the door and came in, dropping the samples neatly on his desk. “Thanks, Gareth,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Gareth, shut the door and sit down.”

Gareth wondered what he had done. The door sounded like a rifle shot as he gently pulled it closed and then he sat in the hard chair across from Luke’s desk and waited.

“That idea for the new flyers took off,” Luke said. “And the way it’s spread on the internet advertising has really opened up some doors. We’ve got a lot of interest. There’s even some big chains asking questions here.”

“That’s great,” Gareth said into the following silence.

“I suppose so,” Luke said. He paced over to the window again. His huge office had two windows, but Luke always ignored the view over the car park and instead was usually found staring down at the mill floor beneath. “This company is one of the few left in Yorkshire, you know. We are still hanging on here, despite competition, with reasonably priced knitwear for all ages. We still have our old reliables that have been keeping the lights on since the sixties.” Luke leant against the glass. “And they are still doing okay. But now Carli has been coming up with some new designs, and they seem to be hitting the mark.”

Gareth kept quiet. The whole mill had been shocked when Luke hired a new designer to add to, as well as update, the catalogue of cosy cardigans and sweaters. She had smoothed the ruffled feathers of the machinists and weavers, though, and the new items were moving well.

“I really need a proper advertising man,” Luke said. “Someone who’s been to college for it. But I can’t afford someone like that.” He shook his head as he watched the floor crew unload drums of dye onto the mill floor. “I’m going to have to go down there and sort it out in a minute.” He turned back to Gareth. “You came up with something worth having. How about, I pay you to go to evening school and get some qualifications in advertising, and you take on some of that on top of the office work? I get tax deductible on paying for you to take a course, you get a certificate and we see where we go from there, right?”

Gareth blinked. This is what he wanted! This was his chance at getting a better job and qualifications! He opened his mouth to agree, but was horrified to hear himself say, “I’ve seen how many extra sales you’re getting on the back of the internet campaign I threw together. You’re getting a good deal there. I’m sure that you’re already getting back more than the cost of the course from the campaign. I’ve been taking through the orders, remember. Even if I don’t have the qualifications, shouldn’t I be on more than minimum wage? And how do I know that you’ll pay for the full course?”

Luke wasn’t paying full attention. “They’re doing it all wrong down there. And Carli isn’t helping. She doesn’t need to check the orders.” He turned around to Gareth. “You should be biting my hand off.” He waited for Gareth’s reply, but Gareth was too appalled to say anything. Luke shook his head. “I’ll pay for the course up front, but any pay rise will be as a monthly bonus. I’m not committing to anything long term,” he grumbled. “This could be just a flash in the pan, something or nothing. But fair’s fair, you’ve made a difference.” Luke held up a thick finger. “I want to see results.”

“You’ll get them,” Gareth heard himself say with horrifying confidence.

There was a sudden scream from the floor below, followed by shouts and running feet. Gareth had a sensation of being pushed aside as his body rushed towards the window. The stacked boxes and barrels of dyes had collapsed and Carli was trapped under a stack of Shade 73. The boxes around her were teetering and the men on the floor were desperately trying to push the overhanging stack back before they fell and completely crushed Carli. Others were hovering around him on the floor, trying to work out how to pull her out without sending the poised boxes crashing down.

Gareth dimly heard Luke swear, then watched himself glance around, open the big window and leap out, catching the rail below to swing downwards, managing his fall and bouncing off the bottom of the metal stairs before rolling to his feet in the corner. He grabbed the yard brooms and the long multicoloured poles that stirred the dye and raced across the floor. Helpless, Gareth watched himself throw poles and brooms at the men on the floor and rush to Carli’s side.

Luke was racing as fast as his bulk would allow, thundering down the metal stairs. Surjit had rushed in and was trying to keep her head as she called 999 for an ambulance. All the while Gareth watched himself as he snapped out orders and pushed his skinny muscles to the limit, using all the leverage he could, forcing the biggest barrel back and yelling to Surjit to put a wedge at the base. Surjit was sobbing in the corner, so it was Luke and Syed who jammed rags and broken boxes under the barrel to stop it rolling and took the strain so that Gareth, the other Gareth, could leap like lightning to knock boxes back from the top of the pile and then add his meagre strength to the men pushing the nearest packs of dye back onto their pallets, yelling hoarse directions as he did so. Then, with reflexes that Gareth didn’t know he had, the other Gareth yelled for everyone to get clear, grabbed Carli and dragged her away from the crumbling pile as it collapsed, skidding over the concrete floor and landing hard against the door.

Then Gareth was back in control of himself as Surjit, still sobbing, grabbed Carli and started checking her over. The dye settled into an untidy heap with coloured powder shooting out from corners of damaged packs in a grotesque rainbow. There was an awful silence, broken by the sniffs of Surjit as she focused on Carli and the panting of the men. Gareth forced himself upright on shaking legs.

“Excuse me,” he said and bolted. He just made it to the bathroom in time before vomiting violently, again and again. His legs, arms and back felt on fire and he was horrifically aware that it could all have gone so wrong. How had he done that? What if he hadn’t? His stomach heaved again, retching helplessly. He was vaguely aware of the hubbub back on the mill floor as he leant helplessly against the partition. What was happening?

Whatever was happening, he couldn’t stay in here. He pushed himself up and staggered over the to washbasin to rinse his face and swill out his mouth. The door was flung open and Luke strode in.

“Are you alright, lad?” the manager asked.

“Yeah,” Gareth said. He was on his own here. No other presence was helping him out. But that was what started it, the quest for the warrior spirit. He wasn’t going to collapse now. He pulled himself upright. “How’s Carli?” he asked.

“The paramedics are here,” Luke said. He ran a hand over his pale face. “It’s a bad do, I tell you. They say she’s just badly bruised, but it could have been worse. It would have been worse if it hadn’t been for you.”

Where was that missing voice when he needed it? “I just saw what was needed,” Gareth said and put a shaky but comforting hand on Luke’s shoulder. “As long as Carli is alright. That’s what matters.” Gareth managed a shaky grin. “I shouldn’t be in here, hiding from the work. We need to get it all cleared up.”

“I think you’ve earned a break,” Luke said.

“I think we all did the right thing, no-one sat on their hands,” Gareth said. He struggled to find the words. “I think we all deserve a medal, and maybe we can have one when it’s all cleared up and we’ve worked out how to store the dyes properly.” He could dimly hear sirens as an ambulance approached. Gareth pulled himself upright, ignoring the aching muscles and the heaving stomach. “Let’s get this sorted out.”

I will be uploading this and subsequent chapters to Royal Road. TYRRFPA

Invitation Accepted Chapter One

Gareth stuck his head around his boss’s door. “I’m off now to drop the post off,” he said.

Luke grunted. “See you tomorrow.”

Gareth swiped his key card, shrugged on his jacket and picked up the bundle of outgoing post. If he got a move on, he’d make the box before the last collection. He tried to find the motivation to pick up his pace. The day had been deadly dull, his boss had been in a foul mood and he owed a duty call to his mother. It took all his will power to quicken his pace. He slowed once he shoved the letters in the box and trudged towards his car. Leeds was supposed to be a bustling city, but his tiny studio flat on the edge of Yeadon and the obscure cloth mill on the edge of Horsforth where he worked seemed far from the glamour of the city centre.

Still he had the notebook waiting for him. His mother had extracted a promise that he would leave the flat on Sunday and he had ended up at the car boot sale at the airport. The weather had been grim and the place had been almost empty.

“You look like you need these, mate,” a stallholder had called.

Gareth had managed a weak smile as he saw the bundle of self help books. But for once there wasn’t mockery in the man’s eyes. Instead there was sympathy. “How much are they?” he asked.

The man had looked at the tag on the bundle. “It says £3 on the ticket, but you look like you need a break. It’s yours for a quid.”

Gareth had handed over £1 and lugged the half dozen books back to his car. He’d meant to look at them straight away, but he had got caught up in a phone call from his mother that had lasted for over an hour and left him so mentally exhausted that he had been fit for nothing more than mindless internet browsing. That was yesterday. Now he had the evening to check it all out.

Gareth’s mind was so brimming over the next morning that he walked into the break room without realising that the lads from sales were there. Automatically he shrank into himself and pulled a mug from the cupboard. He knew that they were a good bunch, but they were so overwhelming. Gareth carefully avoided looking at them as he dropped a teabag into his mug.

“…and then she said, ‘I’m going to need more than a packet of crisps if you want me to do that.’ And she walked out!” Syed said, laughing. “And the lass behind the bar said she’d charge me double if I mentioned it again.”

“Excuse me,” Gareth murmured as he pushed his way to the kettle.

“Morning, Gareth,” Syed said cheerfully. “I was just talking about what happened on Friday. You would have laughed yourself sick.”

“You’re going to get into trouble one day,” said Jed. “Mind you, I’ll never forget the look on her face.”

Gareth nodded at the two salesmen and topped up his tea with milk before escaping to his corner in the office. Perhaps that was a warrior spirit, like the booklet talked about. That’s what he had to do, summon a warrior spirit. They were certainly a lot more outgoing than him.

His mind was still full the next day. The symbols were hard work. There wasn’t anything quite like them on the internet. He hardly noticed sorting the post and handing out the orders, his mind was still tussling with the conundrums in the notebook. Luke noticed, though.

“You can’t be sitting around daydreaming, lad,” the boss boomed. “Have you finally got yourself a girlfriend?”

Gareth couldn’t stop the colour rising in his face, but he shook his head. “I could go into the archives,” he said. “They are all over the place.”

“You’re not wrong,” Luke said. “But I want you to help Carli. She’s setting up her office so you can help her carry stuff.” He looked at Gareth’s slight frame. “And you can ask the lads in the warehouse for a hand if they’ve finished the post.”

“Yes, I’m happy to help,” Gareth said. “It’s the old dyer’s clerk office, isn’t it?”

Luke nodded. “It’s been cleaned up, but it’s a mess. And show her the archive afterwards. No funny business, mind,” he added. “Be respectful.”

“Of course,” Gareth said, keeping his face blank.

Carli was the new designer that had just joined the company. Shock had rippled through the company, but everyone knew that it was overdue. Ossett & Co had been on this site since 1843, when Lukes great-great-great-great-great grandfather had bought one of the new-fangled steam engines to power a factory. It had been supplying reliable, competitively priced knitwear ever since. The current best sellers had been designed some time before Gareth’s mother had been born, but with times getting hard, Luke had decided to take a risk. Now they had a designer.

“Those pattern cards need to go on the shelves in the exact order,” Carli said. “If you get on with them, I’ll work on the shade cards.”

Gareth nodded and started unloading the boxes. “Is this the list that I follow?” he asked.

Carli nodded. “Please don’t mess it up. Those things are in that order for a reason.”

Gareth glanced over the list and then checked the boxes. When Luke told the staff that there would be a designer, they had been expecting someone with wild hair and big earrings. Gareth glanced over briefly and noticed that, despite her business suit and her dark hair neatly bobbed, she was a lot younger than she had first appeared. He mentally filed that information away before slotting the pattern cards onto the shelves. It was mindless work and left plenty of time for him to consider the meanings in the notebook.

By the end of the week, Gareth had, he thought, worked out the notebook. It was a ritual of sorts to summon up a warrior like spirit into someone. That’s what he needed, to get out of this dead end job and the dead end corner of Leeds. He picked up the last bundle of post and headed for the door, when Luke called him into his office. “Are you okay, mate?” he asked.

Gareth had been thinking about the meaning of the second set of symbols he had copied out last night. “Hmm? Yes, Luke, I’m fine, thanks,” he said.

Luke frowned. “You’ve not been yourself this week,” he said. “I can’t complain about your work, it’s been spot on, and I’ve never seen your desk so clear. Carli said that you’d been a real help as well and I know that you’ve helped out in the warehouse, but you’ve not really been with us.”

“I’ve just had something on my mind,” Gareth said.

“Is your mum okay?” Luke asked, shuffling some of the invoices scattered across his desk.

“Yes, she’s fine,” Gareth said. “Listen, I’d better get a move on or I’ll miss the post.”

“Okay,” Luke tried a smile and almost managed it. “But let me know if there’s anything wrong. You know you can come to me – any time.”

“Thanks, Luke.” Gareth tried to look grateful as he backed out of Luke’s office. He caught sight of his desk as he strode out of the office and into the small car park. He hadn’t really thought about work at all but slid through the week on autopilot. Gareth dismissed the thought as he dropped the post into the box and got into his car. Tonight he was going to try something out. He’d got everything stashed in the boot. Now he had to see what happened.

Gareth drove up to Otley Chevin and headed for the Surprise View. It was after six now, and the sun was getting low. Dog walkers were sticking to the lower paths as the light faded and the late September wind was cold. Gareth barely noticed it as he strode up the steep trail and onto the rocky outcrop. There were still a few people around so he worked his way west along the ridge and found a small dip in the ground. Oblivious to the magnificent view, he ducked into the shelter of a large boulder out of sight of the main path and unobserved. He pulled some charcoal out of his back pack and a small packet of red ochre. He glanced around and pulled out his notebook. It was cheap and spiral bound but it held his notes and a quick set of prompts for this evening.

Gareth looked around again. He wasn’t going to risk standing up and shouting all this stuff, not where any dog walker could hear him. But he muttered the words and traced the symbols in charcoal and red ochre on the gritty rock in front of him, and he painted the red ochre mixed with cooking oil onto his arms, tracing the symbols there instead of on his face. Then he sat back. The last of the light was draining out of the grey sky and he watched the houses and streetlights spark into life across the wide valley in front of him. Nothing happened. Perhaps he should have taken this a little more seriously. He could have picked up some olive oil from the supermarket yesterday and found somewhere a little quieter so he could stand up and paint stuff on his face. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to summon the spirit of a warrior into himself. Gareth carefully washed the rock with water from his bottle and, pulling his thin hoodie around him, trudged back to the car.

Back at the flat, Gareth went over the notebooks again. He could see so many places where he went wrong. This might be harder than he thought, but he was not giving up. Getting a warrior spirit could only be a good start, and of course it would need effort. That was always the way. The more effort you put in, the more rewards you got out. It made sense. An alarm went off on his phone. Time to ring his mum.

Gareth listened dutifully to his mother as she covered the issues with the neighbours and the difficulties with his stepdad, but after half an hour he broke into the monologue. “I’m sorry, mum, but I have to go. I’ve something for work to finish up. Give my love to Matt,” he said.

“Oh sweetheart! You called him by his name! We’re going to have to meet up soon. We can come up and have a nice meal. It will be marvellous,” his mum exclaimed.

Gareth couldn’t think of anything worse than sitting across from his mother’s relentless chattering and his stepdad’s helpless silence. “Great. I’ll call soon. Love you.” And he hung up. He paused and looked at his phone. Maybe he was getting a little spirit just reading the notebooks. He put his phone away. It didn’t matter. He was starving and the pasta he had planned didn’t appeal. He really craved a burger, with extra fries and double cheese. He grabbed his keys. The pizza shop down the road sold quarter pound burgers, and he could ask for an extra patty.

It was dark now, but the streetlights kept everything bright, throwing immaculately sharp shadows across Gareth’s path as he strode briskly to the run down arcade. He was famished, really hungry. Perhaps he could get some onion rings as well. Then he saw them. A group of young lads, hoods pulled over their faces, hanging around with a sullen, restless energy. He knew what they were like. They caused trouble and he was going to have to run the gauntlet getting past them if he wanted the burger. Gareth weighed up his options. If he turned and walked back, there was a good chance that they would chase him. If he just kept his head, kept his pace and got the burger, he should be okay. At least, he would probably be okay. He kept his eyes down and his hands out of his pockets. That was the trick – don’t make eye contact and keep an even step.

Gareth drew nearer to the lads and he felt sick. They had seen him and they were bored. He was a skinny, 21 year old in a thin hoodie and thinner office trousers. He was a target. How much worse would it be if he ran? He forced himself forward. He wanted a warrior spirit. Now he could start earning it. He could hear them muttering and calling, but he didn’t look up, he didn’t dare. He was at the pizza shop and almost past them, when one of them shoved him hard in the back, sending him staggering wildly forward. Then everything went black.

Gareth rolled over and groaned. He ached. What the hell had happened? He threw back the covers and pushed himself out of bed. He couldn’t remember a thing. He must have had a kicking. He rubbed sore hands over his face and staggered to his tiny bathroom. His arms and legs ached and his hands throbbed. He turned on the cold tap and ran his hands under the cool water. He felt sick as he saw how red and swollen his knuckles were as they stung in the water. What had they done to him? With a jolt he realised that he had gone to bed naked, but as he craned his neck in the mirror and checked himself out, he couldn’t see bruises that would account for the aches. Maybe they had got hold of a taser. He had a couple of bruises on his forearms, with a long, shallow slash, and there were a couple of bruises on his shins, but nothing to explain the deep ache in his muscles. He climbed into the shower and turned the temperature up.

He took his time in there before grabbing a dressing gown and heading for the kitchen living room. He was ready for breakfast, despite the unaccustomed ache in his stomach muscles, and he needed coffee. He paused in the doorway. Scattered over the living room table was a drift of takeaway wrappers and cartons. There was a stack of empty cola cans next to what looked like a box from the giant all-you-can-eat bellybuster kebab. A couple of empty burger boxes and the remains of a couple of packets of the cheap fries sat on the counter next to a nearly untouched slice of their disgusting chocolate fudge cake.

On autopilot, Gareth switched on the kettle and got a mug from the cupboard, his shoulder aching as he reached up. His hands stung as he caught his knuckles on the edge of the drawer as he pulled out a spoon and he felt clumsy as he spooned the instant coffee into the mug. The kettle clicked off and Gareth carefully poured the boiling water on the granules before opening the fridge. There were pizza boxes in there. Gareth checked them carefully and then put the two meat feast pizzas and the garlic bread back into the fridge before getting out the milk. What had happened? What had happened? He took a sip of his coffee. He needed to think positive, to think with a warrior spirit. Whatever happened, he had cold pizza for breakfast, and there were worse things than that. Gareth nodded as confidently as he could manage and started up his laptop before getting out a plate and loading it with pizza.

His laptop had finally reached the home page and Gareth took a healthy bite of the pizza. He skipped over the news and opened Facebook. There was a message for him. “Hey, it’s Glyn, long time no see. Didn’t know you had it in you.”

He hadn’t worked with Glyn for at least two years. Gareth warily clicked the link, relieved to find a video clip. Then the world seemed to stop. The empty sound of the flat rang in his ears as he watched grainy, black and white CCTV footage of him being jumped by the lads outside the pizza shop – and fighting back. It was him, no doubt of it. It was his face, his hoodie, his scuffed shoes, but it wasn’t his expression. Instead there was a detached focus as the Gareth on the screen dealt with five young lads with a sort of clinical efficiency that you never saw in films. There were no fancy blocks or sweeping kicks. Instead that other Gareth handed out a systematic beating to each of them, not allowing them to flee until he had them crawling and retching on the ground. Gareth looked down at his knuckles. No wonder they were sore. He had hammered punch after punch into ribs, stomachs, backs and legs. No wonder his arms ached. He didn’t have the strength to lift a lad as big as him and throw him, but that’s what that other Gareth had done. The lads had hardly touched him. That other Gareth had blocked a few punches and kicks, but it had quickly become a lesson that those lads wouldn’t easily forget. Gareth hoped they were okay. What if the police came knocking? He put down the pizza slice he was holding and then carefully put the pizza box back in the fridge. He had lost his appetite.

I will be uploading this and subsequent chapters to Royal Road. TYRRFPA