A Writer’s Life – Some Ideas

Just so you know, Whisper in the Shadows is free in eBook until 29th April 2023 11.59pm PST.

It’s No1 in the ‘Horror Short Story Collections Free on Amazon UK’ Bestseller list as I type, so I guess that I am officially a best seller of sorts.

As I have mentioned, Whisper in the Shadows is a collection of short stories with a slightly darker cast to them or perhaps a supernatural leaning. Eight of them were previously on my blog, though now have been moved to the eBook, and there are four new stories. It seems only fair that I give at least some value for money.

I thought that it would be a chance to talk about the inspiration of a couple of the new stories. Or, perhaps, make shameful admissions. I read posts about writers struggling to find inspiration, to find ideas and characters and places. I’m not one of those. I get mugged by inspiration. I have a list somewhere of dozens of plots, characters and settings. The actual writing is the thing that slows me down.

The short story First House on the Left was inspired by four houses in a row at a junction. I’m often stuck in traffic there, and I started to wonder about them. I couldn’t see any easy parking nearby, and I’m usually too rushed to park and walk for much distance, so I took a screen shot from Google Maps.

I checked for copyright, and as far as I can tell, as long as I don’t go overboard with the screenshots and credit Google Street View, this is okay. I’m definitely not trying to pass this off as my own work. It’s not only blatantly from Google Streetview but I can’t take pictures as good as this. Anyway, I’d be stuck in traffic here several times a week and wondering about these houses. Why were three boarded up and not the fourth? Who would own these houses and let them go to ruin? What would it be like to live in that last house when the others were boarded up? Would there be ghosts? I have no idea who lived there or anything about this terrace, but my imagination took over and the next thing I knew there were just over six thousand words of a supernatural story.

That was inspiration that grew over months. On the other hand, I was happily shopping at the supermarket with most of my mind drifting away as I tried to remember whether we needed breakfast cereal and I noticed a woman forget the coin in her supermarket trolley. As someone chased after her, I wondered if that was a failed attempt to get rid of an unlucky coin and the result of that train of though was that I forgot breakfast cereal but wrote The Coin. I had to go back to the shop, but I don’t regret it as I had a blast writing the story.

This is the final reminder that Dark Picture, Under Dark Hills and the stories associated with At the Fireside will be removed from the blog on 30th April. Dark Picture and Under Dark Hills are likely to be converted to novels after a serious tidy up, so watch this space.

I’d love to hear what you think, so feel free to drop a comment, thought or question.

Hugs and good vibes to all.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Eleven

The story from the beginning can be found here

Rhys found himself smiling as he turned the corner into Reception. Surjit was there, frowning over the post and making quick notes on the computer. “Hi,” he said. “I’m just checking in.”

Surjit looked up and her answering smile seemed to light up Reception. “Hi, Rhys. Have you time for a quick coffee?”

Rhys nodded. “Don’t you know, I’ve got it all planned out,” he said with his best smile. “I’ve got my routes all sorted so that I can make my coffee stop here.” He had a quick scan of the area before he strode over past the desk and into the tiny back room. “And as it’s my stop, I’ll even make the coffee for you.”

“You’re an angel,” Surjit said. “I’ve got so much on here.”

 Rhys looked around the half assembled security equipment littering the small room. “If things carry on, this room is never going to be big enough.” He added coffee to the filter and slotted it back in.

“We’ll need proper security,” Surjit said. “They’re talking about getting the old looms out. A few of the sales team were talking about it, but they don’t get it. Luke is putting in massive orders for wool and dyes as well as booking a team in to get the looms running. We’re opening up the bigger warehouse.”

Rhys frowned. “I don’t think that I know half of this place,” he said. “I’ve been slacking.” He pulled out two mugs.

“I don’t think that you’ve been slacking,” Surjit said. “You’re always moving around and you don’t seem to miss much.” She paused. “I was planning on heading up to Bolton Abbey at the weekend. I like getting out and about, and it’s beautiful up there with the leaves starting to turn. Do you fancy coming with me? Just for a friendly day out?”

Rhys was torn. “I normally spend the weekend with my family,” he said. “Will your family miss you?”

Surjit grimaced. “Embarrassing admission – I don’t have family. I think I’ve got some third cousins down in Leicester and a few very distant aunts and uncles in Pakistan, but that’s it,” she said. “So weekends can be quiet. I like to keep myself busy.” She smiled shyly. “I can pack a picnic.”

Rhys’ hand clenched around the mugs. He wanted to go with Surjit. He wanted to forget about the prim, closed down Carli and fall into Surjit’s open smile. He wanted to tell his duty to go to hell, to shake off the shame of souring a romance to get a favour. Mark had got his tail twisted and his fur tangled. Where was the honour? Where was the pride? He was supposed to get someone into bed because he was ordered to? He stared at the hissing coffee maker. What had he become? But he had a duty to the pack. He had a duty to Mark. He needed to be at hand to make sure that Mark’s crazy obsessions didn’t wreck the pack any further. He needed to be there for the rest of them. He had to do his duty, force Carli to cheat with him and… There was a sharp crack and he looked down. The mug had shattered in his hand and the cut across his palm from the broken pottery felt like ice.

“Are you okay?” Surjit asked quickly. “That looks like a bad cut – I’ll fetch the first aid kit.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rhys said. “It looks worse than it is and I heal quick.” He looked at the shattered pieces. “I’d love to come out with you,” he said, dropping the pottery shards into the bin and rinsing his hand in the tiny sink. “And if you’re packing the picnic, I’ll drive, and I’ll even buy us a cuppa at the overpriced tea rooms.” He felt his heart light up with Surjit’s bright smile.

“It’s a deal,” she said. “I’ll pack plenty of food.”

“I’m not a vegetarian,” Rhys warned. His heart turned over at the sound of her chuckle.

“That’s okay,” she said. “Neither am I.”

Rhys walked away from Reception, deep in thought. He wouldn’t take the reputation of a dog around the bitches, no matter what Mark said. It was wrong. There had to be another way. Besides, for the last two years he had danced around Mark’s whims, no matter how outlandish, keeping the pack and the business together despite all that was thrown at him. Now, when he finally found someone with a smile that warmed his heart, he wasn’t letting it go.

He pushed that thought aside. He’d have to deal with Mark, but that could wait. He had another duty. He had the duty to keep this mill safe. But he didn’t know all the places. Surjit was talking about the looms, but Rhys had no idea where they were. He had suddenly become aware that there were large areas of the mill that had been closed for years – and anything could be there. He paced on his route, keeping a careful eye out. Technically he wasn’t a real security guard. The chances of Fang ever coming back were slim. Besides, Gareth and Bron could take care of most threats. Rhys had seen the way Bron held himself, the way he moved as he crossed the car park and the power of the man. That man was death. Rhys was never going to cross him, not even on Mark’s crazy orders. But he felt it, deep down, that he should be protecting the people here. That’s what they expected, so that’s what they should do. It was so deeply ingrained in werewolves. The loyalty, the passion and the protective spirit. He had a duty.

The mill was old and massive, sprawling across four floors and a scatter of outbuildings. There were two floors currently working as the old plan expected, with knitting machines on one floor and the making up of the garments on the other. Then there were the offices and the canteen, tucked away on one side but still attached to the factory, and the main stores with the new racks for the dyes and the massive bundles of fleece and cages for the threads. Now the nearest shed was opening up and Rhys could see a figure dragging out rubbish towards a skip. He jogged over. “Hi, I’m Rhys Davies, the security guard,” he said, running an assessing eye over the young lad.

“I’m Kidder Bronson,” he said. “I’m clearing this out now, but I’m going to be starting on the looms next week.” He hefted a bucket of rubbish. “There’s plenty to keep me busy.”

Rhys looked at him closely. “Shouldn’t you have presented yourself to Mark Davies,” he said. “You know that all werewolves are supposed to attend a pack whenever you cross into a territory.”

Kidder raised an eyebrow. “Does that mean that you should have attended on Tyler?” he asked. “This isn’t Leeds Domain anymore.”

“Don’t get clever with me,” Rhys snarled. “Where are your manners?”

Kidder looked him straight in the eye. “What are you talking about? Tyler is the pack leader, I’m staying with Gareth and Bron, I’m nothing to do with Leeds Pack and I’m not going to go fawning around some strange dog because they can’t keep their tail straight,” he said. “I’m not going to start anything, but this is my job. This is the first chance I’ve had in years. I’m not letting some overfed hound push me out of it.”

Rhys felt the fury rise up in him. “You’re yapping pretty hard for a stray,” he snapped.

Kidder dropped the bucket and glared at Rhys. “You stay out of my fur and I’ll stay out of yours,” he said. “But don’t think I haven’t seen you sniffing around Carli – who’s spoken for, by the way. Everyone can see it, everyone can smell it. What sort of dog does that?” He jabbed a finger towards Rhys. “And you ought to be glad I’m here, with Bron and Gareth. Because if Fang comes back here, you’ll need all the help you can get if you want to step up as security and push him out. If he catches you on your own, he’ll eat you, rhinestone collar and all.”

“Big bark, small paws,” Rhys said. “I can handle myself.”

“Yeah, I heard about when you tried to take on The Iron Sickle,” Kidder sneered. “You didn’t keep your tails up then, did you? And it’s getting worse, so if I were you, I’d leave Gareth’s lady alone and get on his good side. Because you’ll need him if Fang comes calling.”

“You might be tagging along with a normal,” Rhys snarled, “But don’t fool yourself. You’re either in a pack or a stray, and we all know what strays are like. Trust me, if I see a claw the wrong way I’ll shred you and they won’t even find your collar.” He spun on his heel and stalked off.

Kidder jogged up to Rowan Cottage. He’d worked an extra few hours under the watchful eye of Luke and Brian and felt a little tired and very satisfied. It was good to be working again. He grinned to himself. They’d even paid him his overtime cash in hand, just this once, so he had some decent money in his pocket. Things were looking up, even if there was that fluff furred security guard hanging around. He slowed down slightly. There were a lot of cars around, and that could mean trouble. He tried to keep calm. If the worst happened, he had the money in his pocket, right?

Carli met him at the door. “It’s chaos in there,” she said, waving at the kitchen. “I thought brownies were supposed to be amazing homemakers.”

Kidder stared. “They are,” he said. “They do homemade everything and keep the house surgically clean. They fold their towels in fancy ways and rotate their stores of toilet paper.”

Carli took a deep breath. “I’m an outsider, right?” she said. “But I think I can see a pattern here. This is a Paladin’s Citadel, isn’t it?”

Kidder nodded. “The place where the paladins live and where normals can come to for help.”

“So having non-normals living there is kind of a problem, as they’re protecting against non-normals?” Carli continued.

Kidder shifted uneasily. “I suppose I shouldn’t be here,” he muttered.

Carli sighed. “I don’t think that Bron would let anyone kick you out now,” she said. “You’re stuck here. He’s seeing you as family, heaven help us all. But you’re a werewolf that’s not a stray, because you’re here. And you’re not in a pack, because you’re here. You’re just part of the household. And now there is a brownie moving in. But not just any brownie! It’s a brownie that doesn’t know how to clean.”

“There’s no such thing,” Kidder said flatly.

Carli sighed deeply. “According to Sir Dylan, Mortimer has been living in a hole in the ground for all of his life, up until now. He explained something about a lord fading and another lord taking over and rescuing some trapped non-normals, over near Hebden Bridge. Mortimer hasn’t had any contact with things like washing machines or microwaves, or, well, have a look.” She ushered Kidder into the kitchen.

A young, tall and extremely skinny brownie was standing by the sink. “Water on,” he said. “Water off. Water on. Water off. Water on. Water off.” He stared, fascinated, at the water coming out of the faucet every time he turned the knob. “There’s so much water.”

“That’s right,” Sir Dylan said. “That’s the cold tap and this is the hot tap.”

“But where is the well?” Mortimer asked.

“There isn’t one,” Sir Dylan said. “It’s all taps.”

The brownie looked thoughtful. “So I don’t have to fetch water?” he said.

“No, you don’t,” Sir Dylan said patiently. “It’s all taps.”

“And I don’t need to heat it over a fire?” Mortimer asked.

“No, it’s all done with the plumbing,” Bron said gently. “Kidder, this is Mortimer and he’s going to be looking after the house.”

Mortimer looked around with determination. “I shall prove worthy of the trust you put in me,” he said. “Lord Richard has given me a device to access the internet and instructed me. There are many cleaning and homemaking resources.”

Kidder thought that he heard Sir Dylan swear under his breath. “I’m pleased to meet you,” he said. “I’m Kidder, and I’m a werewolf.”

Colour drained from Mortimer’s face but he swallowed, took a deep breath and stepped forward to shake hands with Kidder. “I am honoured to meet you,” he said. “I understand that you are a member of this household. May I enquire – do you prefer a bed or a rug?”

“It’s definitely beds,” Carli said with an edge to her voice. “Let’s keep it more standard, in case anyone visits.”

“Of course,” Mortimer said. “I should start making dinner.”

“It’s okay,” Bron said. “With everything being so confusing, I’m ordering pizza. I get a discount.”

“Is it the one near my old flat?” Gareth asked, making Mortimer start. “Have you been helping them out with troublemakers when I’m not around? Because I’ve noticed some really interesting bruises.”

“All you need to worry about is that we get an extremely generous discount,” Bron said. “And the food will come here nice and fresh.”

As Sir Dylan and Bron tried to explain pizza to Mortimer, Carli looked helplessly at Kidder. “Do you know how many cleaning blogs there are?” she asked him. “Or how many YouTube channels just about cleaning? Anything could happen!”

Kidder looked over where Bron was refusing to explain why the pizza place was on speed dial on the phone. “Yep,” he said. “Absolutely anything.”

Newsletters and I – My Writing Life

I fail at Newsletters. I fail so epically that it is almost visible from orbit. I have been planning newsletters for years. There is still no newsletter. I have a few draught newsletters on my laptop that have never been sent out. I’ve plans for Mrs Tuesday’s household hints with lists and copies of ancient housekeeping manuals that are currently going nowhere. The biggest obstacle is that legally I need to include a physical address in my newsletter and it can’t be a post box.

If anyone pays the slightest attention to me, they almost certainly can find me. I have a habit of wearing my heart on my sleeve and saying what’s going through my mind at the time. This has got me into so much trouble at times, but it means that you can pick up all sorts of details about me. However I don’t quite feel comfortable putting my home address down, and while you can pay to have a physical address somewhere, it’s a little more money than I want to spend, at least until I earn a little more from my writing.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and when I found out about Substack, it seemed like the answer. Anyone who wishes can set up a Substack account for free. There are paid for subscriptions, but I’m not going there. I may later, I’m not ruling it out, but I’m not currently comfortable with it. If you subscribe to me on there Lyssa Medana’s Writing (it is such an unoriginal title but I couldn’t think of anything else at the time) then whenever I post something on there, you will get an email letting you know. It’s like a newsletter, but not a newsletter and I’ll take it.

There are two main downsides to this. The first is that there will probably be something like a chatty bit like this most weeks, or maybe two or three times a month and it may feel like spam. The other main downside is that apparently you can do podcasts through there, I am very good at talking indeed. I’m not very good at shutting up, however, and I lose the thread a lot. My train of thought often leaves the station without me. Me having access to the chance to talk without interruption is not necessarily a good thing. By the way, it looks like there are a lot of interesting writers and accounts on there to browse.

There are some instalments of Invitation Accepted on there at the moment, but they are likely to go. I may well be sharing the fiction I post freely on here on other sites but I’m working that out. As I went to link to my account on Substack, I realised that there were still references to books published by Three Furies Press which no longer exist. And that made me realise that I have a lot of places where I need to go and edit. I’m still finding it a little hard.

I was looking on Unsplash for pics to represent the notes I’m currently taking, then remembered the pic above. I was trying to sort out the blog and found over 170 stories on here. Around eight, I think, made it to Whisper in the Shadows (I added some new stuff, of course). As I work out what I’m going to do now and what direction I’m going, the stories will be a little reduced and there may be other stuff going on. I’ll share when I work it out myself.

As I have mentioned a few times over the last month or so, Dark Picture, Under Dark Hills, and all the stories that aren’t really speculative fiction, such as those found under At the Fireside will be taken down on April 30th. Dark Picture and Under Dark Hills will eventually find their way into ebooks, but I don’t know when that will happen.

There are likely to be a few posts like this over the next few months as I work out what I’m doing, make mistakes, try and correct them and generally dither. I hope that you can bear with me, and I would love to hear from you. What do you like? What gets on your nerves? What do you want to know?

I hope to hear from you. Thank you for reading.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Ten

You can find the story from the beginning here

“Thanks for seeing me,” Gareth said as he stepped into Tyler’s workshop. “Me and Bron are both here, so it may sound odd.”

Tyler gave him a long look, then shrugged. “Two people in the same body is nothing compared to what’s been coming and going at the house. Lady Mary has been having a fit.” He waved a hand at a chair against the wall. “I’m mostly dealing with the more mentally stable side, but it’s still a shock to the system. How can I help a paladin?” He shook his head. “I’ve spent most of my life hiding from paladins. Now I’m here and chatting and about to ask if you want a tea.” He looked at them enquiringly.

Gareth shook his head. “We can’t agree how we take it,” he grinned.

Tyler shook his head and propped himself against his workbench. “So how can I help you?” he asked.

“It’s Kidder,” Gareth said. “He’s been staying with us in the paladin house, and he’s been a great help.”

“He’s been helping us get set up and he’s working too hard,” Bron added. “Like he’s scared we’ll throw him out or turn on him.”

Tyler briefly closed his eyes. “I’m never going to get used to this,” he said, then waved a dismissive hand. “It’s not surprising that Kidder’s in a bad place. He got thrown out of his pack down near Luton for practically nothing. Then he drifted around, keeping his tail up and his fur flat, and generally doing his best. He heard that there were places in Yorkshire where strays can settle and found Fang.” Tyler stood and started pacing. “Fang wasn’t always bad. I mean, a normal going into their bar would end up in trouble, and not all of the sheep kills around the Yorkshire Dales are from foxes or stray dogs, but he was okay with the other strays. They didn’t come together like a proper pack, not until Fang got hold of the Orache Stone, but he watched out for cubs like Kidder.”

“The Orache Stone is bad news,” Bron said. “I remember it last time. Don’t underestimate the power it has. It nearly blew Lord Marius away a few days ago.”

“So I heard,” Tyler said. “But back to Kidder. What do you want to do about it? I’m happy to have him here, if he wants it, but I think it’ll be hard for him to trust a werewolf, at least for a bit. I can ask around if any elfen will take him but that could take time.”

“I think he should stay with us,” Bron said. “If it’s okay with you and Lady Mary. He’s a big help. He’s got a knack for fixing things up, and he’s not bad company.”

“It’s not the usual run of things,” Gareth added. “Sir Dylan is having a hard time with it all. But Kidder seems happy enough, and I think it’ll be better once he knows that he’s staying. And we’re getting a brownie to help out,” he added. “Kidder won’t be on his own.”

“Sir Dylan wasn’t keen on that, either,” added Bron. “But I remember the hearth-keepers from the old days. They could be like a stone in your shoe when it came to keeping the home and garden tended, but they were harmless. They were more likely to hide behind a defender than attack them.”

“You have a brownie?” Tyler asked. “That’s…” He stood in front of them and stared. “You’re just breaking the rules for the fun of it, aren’t you?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Okay, I’ll take on the role of Kidder’s pack leader, though. Are you paying him a fair wage and treating him well?”

“I’ll keep a close eye on him,” Bron said. “I can tell that there’s a good lad under all the fear.”

“And he’s not really going to be working for us,” Gareth added. “Once the place is set up, he’ll be more like a lodger. And I’m sure that I’ll be able to get him work at the mill, if he’s willing.”

Tyler’s eyes narrowed. “What sort of work? How safe will he be?”

“Luke is really strict about safety on the mill floor at the moment,” Gareth said. “And I know he’s looking for people in the warehouse and trainees for the weaving. And after a recent scare, he’s been running a full audit of safety in the place.”

“It’s been fun to watch,” Bron said. “It’s a battle every day between him hating to spend the money and worrying about someone getting hurt. Luke looks like he has permanent toothache.”

Tyler ran a hand over his face. “Okay,” he said. “Two tongues, three people talking. It takes a bit of getting used to.” He paced for a moment. “I’m fine with Kidder staying with you – for now. And I’ll be dropping by regularly. Don’t let him get too fluffy and keep his fur flat, okay? He’s a werewolf, not a pet, and not a human – a normal.”

“We won’t forget,” Bron said coolly. “But we won’t make it a definition. The lad needs to work on himself and we won’t stop him. He’s nearly grown.” He met Tyler’s angry gaze without flinching. “And you need to start worrying about the strays that will be lost and without direction when Fang falls. You’ll have a pack to pull together and you’d better be ready to lead it.”

“I’m no pack leader,” Tyler snarled.

“That’s funny,” Bron said. “You were acting just like a pack leader five minutes ago.”

Rhys smiled as he saw Surjit behind the reception desk. “How are things going?” he asked.

“Not too bad,” Surjit smiled back. “I’ve got another rep from a dye company coming in an hour and Luke is having fits about that. He’s spending a lot of money.”

“I was there when the insurance company found out about the lack of security here,” Rhys said. “They still paid out for the dyes, as it turned out that the packaging was substandard. But he’s only got so long to get all the cameras and stuff set up.”

“Cameras?” Surjit asked. “I mean, we’ve got the alarm system and I think that there’s a camera on the car park…”

Rhys shook his head. “The cameras are on their last legs and half of them don’t work. My boss, Mark, put Luke in touch with a contractor, and he got a good deal, but there’s a lot to do.”

“I suppose so,” Surjit said. She looked around a little nervously. “Luke is spending a lot of money recently. We all thought he was running the place down, with him having no kids of his own. But now he’s got a new designer and he’s making all these improvements…”

“I don’t think that Luke is losing his touch,” Rhys said. “If you heard him arguing with the contractor, you would know that he’s as sharp as anything. Perhaps he’s just been distracted and he’s getting back to things.”

“I suppose so,” Surjit said doubtfully. She looked towards the door. “Hi, Carli, have you heard about the security update?”

“I know I’m going to be working away from the office for the next few days because I daren’t risk a power surge on my laptop,” Carli said from behind them. “The last thing I need is losing that while they’re playing with the electric. It cost a fortune.”

Rhys turned around and gave her his best smile. “Will you need a hand getting your stuff to the flat?” he asked. “I’d be happy to help.”

Carli smiled politely. “It’s okay, thank you,” she said. “I’ll be working with Gareth at his place. It’s not far away so we can get back here if we need anything.”

Surjit shook her head. “You need to make him take you on a proper date,” she said. “Or at least make you a nice dinner.”

Carli laughed. “Perhaps I could cook for him as a thank you for letting me work with him,” she said. “I mean, his place is so much nearer and there’s a lot of space.”

“I thought that he just had a little flat,” Surjit said.

Carli shook her head. “He’s moving into somewhere different that’s near to the mill. I’m not sure of all the details, but I know that it needs a lot doing to it, and that he’s got a good deal on the rent.”

“Don’t let him use you for free labour!” Surjit said. “Make sure that you at least get a trip to the cinema or something.”

“He won’t take advantage of me,” Carli said. “Anyway, I need to get busy. I’ve a lot I want to get done today before they start with the security systems, and I need to speak to Allen on the machines first.”

Rhys watched her walk briskly over to the factory. “I wonder if she knows how much she’s fallen for him,” he said.

“I don’t think either of them have realised,” Surjit said. She sighed softly. “And they’re both really nice people. Carli’s the designer, you know and could really throw her weight around. But she doesn’t. She’s really sweet.”

Rhys turned back to Surjit. “But so are you,” he said, watching the blush run over Surjit’s face. “Anyway, I can’t stay here forever, no matter how much I want to. I like to keep an eye on the back of the mill, so I’ll just take a quick walk. I’ll see you later.” He winked at Surjit.

“I’ll see you later,” Surjit said, flustered.

Bron and Gareth parked the car and looked at the house. The light was fading but they could still see a thin plum of smoke curling from the chimney and lights were on in the kitchen and living room.

“It seems odd to have a wood stove in this day and age,” Gareth said. “But I suppose that we need to be prepared for anything.”

“We really do,” Bron said as they reached the door. “That book that Sir Dylan gave us had quite a list of things to look out for. Still, the house is well built and we can be comfortable.”

“I hope Kidder can as well,” Gareth said.

Kidder was busy in the kitchen. “Hi,” he said, jumping around to face them. “I thought that you might like something and I put on a casserole like my mum used to make. But if you’ve already eaten then it will freeze or you can put it in to the fridge for tomorrow. They say that a casserole is better on the second day.” He looked at them anxiously.

“It smells delicious,” Bron said. “Full of good meat and flavour. When will it be ready?”

“It’s ready now,” Kidder said, fidgeting with a tea towel. “I’ve got baked potatoes in as well.” He shifted from one foot to another. “It’s supposed to save energy, cooking baked potatoes and a casserole at the same time.”

“Sounds great,” Gareth said. He pulled out deep white bowls, plates and silverware. “I’ll make the tea.”

“I can do it,” Kidder said quickly.

“You’ll be too busy dishing up the dinner,” Gareth said. He was probably the same age as the werewolf, but he felt so much older. “And I’m starving.”

Kidder dished up two generous servings of beef casserole with huge baked potatoes on side plates, squishy and slathered with butter. Gareth put two mugs of tea on the table and sat down. “This looks great,” Gareth said and took a large forkful.

“This is really good,” Bron said. “And we’re grateful for it. But it shouldn’t all be on you. We’ll have to take it in turns.”

“While I’m here,” Kidder said awkwardly.

“That’s something we need to talk about,” Bron said. “We called in to see Tyler today. I suppose he’s the nearest thing to a pack leader around here.”

Kidder tensed. “Does he want me to move on?” he asked.

Bron shook his head. “We suggested that you stay with us for as long as you feel like it,” he said. “At the moment, you’re sort of a guest and helping us out with setting up the place. And there’s plenty to do,” he added.

“But once things are stable, we thought you could be a sort of lodger,” Gareth said. “We’d charge you a bit of rent, and as we’re getting a brownie housekeeper then you won’t have to do much cleaning.”

“If I remember rightly, you won’t get a chance to do cleaning,” Bron said. “But they’ll raise hell if you make a mess.”

Kidder managed a faint smile. “I’ve heard about them,” he said. “But what about rent and that. I mean, what do I do?”

“We’re trying to work it out,” Gareth said. “But I promise it won’t be much. I’ll look at the bills and see what a fair share of them is. We won’t cheat you.”

“And it isn’t fair that you have to cover stuff that we need because we’re paladins,” Bron said. “But a share of the food and some of the bills sounds about right.”

Kidder stared at them and swallowed. “But that’s…”

“And if you’re looking for work, I think that there’s some jobs at the mill,” Gareth said. “It’s noisy, and no-one knows about non-normals, but it’s okay.”

“I didn’t think… Are you sure?” Kidder asked. “I’m a stray. Do you know what it means?”

Bron shrugged. “It sounds like you’ve had some bad luck. Anyway, Tyler has said that he’ll be looking out for you to make sure that you get treated fairly here. He’s not a bad leader,” Bron said. “Even if he has got his fur up at the moment. There’s papers that you’ll need and he’s sorting that out.”

“Sir Dylan is having fits,” Gareth said, “But he’s agreed that you would be best here for a while, although you can leave whenever you like.”

“So after we’ve cleaned up, we can all have a beer and relax,” Bron said. “And plan how to make this place comfortable.”

“Thank you,” Kidder said, his voice cracking a little. “Thank you so much.”

“I’d wait until we’ve met the brownie before you get too grateful,” Bron said.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Nine

You can read the story from the beginning here

Image from Unsplash, taken by Phil Cruz

“Have you seen the new security guard?” Surjit asked.

Carli shook her head as she hurried into reception. She leaned on the reception desk. “Do you think that they know what it is?” She asked. “I mean, all the scary stuff?”

“I don’t know,” Surjit said. “Syed told me what happened at The Iron Sickle, and I saw a bit of what happened in the car park. Something weird is definitely happening.”

Carli shivered. “I think there is,” she said. “But I think Gareth can deal with most of it.”

“You are so sweet on him,” Surjit said. “But think about it. Gareth can’t be everywhere, and he may need a hand if it gets scary.” She looked around the reception. “And Luke knows something that we don’t. I’ve been told to let in Lord Marius or Sir Dylan at any time and without question. What’s with the titles?”

“I think I’ve met Sir Dylan,” Carli said. “He doesn’t look like a ‘sir’. He looks like he could rip Gareth apart. He has tattoos on his neck and he’s built bigger than Jed. But he seemed nice enough.”

“I suppose that you can’t judge by appearances,” Surjit sighed. “I’d love to go out with someone with a ‘sir’ or a ‘lord’ in their name. As it is, I’m not even managing a ‘mr’.”

“Perhaps you’ll get a date with the security guard?” Carli said. “Is he really old?”

Surjit snorted with laughter. “He’s gorgeous,” she said. “I mean, he’s dark, with short hair which always looks good on a man. Then he’s full of muscles and there’s just something about him.” She looked at Carli and sighed. “He’s just calm. He reminds me a little of how Gareth is these days.”

“And not old?” Carli asked.

Surjit thought for a moment. “I think he’s in his thirties,” she said. “So maybe five years or more older than me. But he looks in great shape and has a lovely smile.”

“Here’s the big question,” Carli said. “Is he single?”

“I can only hope,” Surjit said. “Hang on…” She smiled professionally at the man walking into reception. “Good morning, how can I help you?”

“The name is Mark Davis,” he said. “I’m here to see Mr Luke Ossett. He should be expecting me.”

Surjit checked the computer. “Of course. If you go up now, I’ll let him know that you’re here.”

“I can take him up,” Carli said. She smiled at Mark. “This way.” She led him out of reception to the stairs. “I’m Carli Sykes and I’m the designer.” She started on the stairs, uneasily aware of Mark’s intent gaze. “The business is all under one roof from design to packaging.” They reached the top of the stairs and Carli pulled open the heavy wooden fire door. “It’s just down here,” she said as she led him past the cluster of desks in the outside office, glancing quickly over to where Gareth was sitting. Their eyes met briefly before Carli carried on. “This is it,” she said, raising her hand to rap on Luke’s door.

Mark held up his hand to stop her. “My nephew is starting today as a security guard – Rhys Davis,” he said. “I hope that you’ll make him feel welcome. He’s a bit lonely these days.”

“Everyone is welcome here,” Carli said. “It’s a good crew. But I’ll say ‘hi’ when I see him. Would you like a tea or a coffee?”

Luke stared across the desk at Mark. “Lord Marius asked me to take on Rhys Davis,” he said. He drummed his fingers on the desk. “But I have reservations. He’s not to be alone with the ladies.”

Mark looked at him coldly. “If Rhys asks a woman out to dinner, it means that he will be paying for her to eat with him at a restaurant, nothing more. He’s not a stray with no manners.”

“You tell me that, and Lord Marius tells me that, but how do I know?” Luke said, running his hand through his thinning hair. “How can I trust you and Rhys when you’re something I can’t even imagine?”

Mark looked at him coldly. “I can’t answer that,” he said. “But what choice do you have? If Rhys steps out of line, Lord Marius will deal with it.  You know how he deals with things.”

Luke swallowed. “I’ve seen it, a little,” he said quietly. “I took in some apprentices in the factory, years ago. I said I’d do it to help them out, and everyone needs a hand now and again.”  He stood and paced over to the window and looked down on the stained floor. “They were boggarts, and they’re still with us. But it seems that other boggarts were after them. I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell, but I stood by them then and I stand by them now. Lord Marius was grateful.” He turned around and looked hard at Mark. “Lord Marius looked after me then and I suppose that he’s looking after me now, but…”

“If there was a genuine threat then you wouldn’t be able to move for Knights Templar and non normal protection,” Mark said. “This is just playing safe. Lord Marius feels that he owes you for looking after Keith and Brian. And Rhys is a good lad. He’s usually in charge of a building site. You won’t have any problems. Here.” He pushed his business card across to Luke. “Look my firm up. Look at the reviews. You may find people complaining about the finish, but nothing about throats being ripped out.”

Luke walked back to the desk and took the card. “It’s alright for you to joke,” he grumbled.

“What else has Lord Marius talked about?” Mark asked.

“He’s talked about there being trouble within your lot, but not much,” Luke said. “And he wants some blankets at a good price.”

“You’re doing a deal with an elfen?” Mark said, amused. “Are you sure you want to do that?”

“He’s sending someone in to do the negotiations,” Luke said. “He said it was someone like me, someone called Steve Adderson.”

“He’s a salesman,” Mark said. “He buys and sells to the elfen. He’s tough, but he’s unlikely to be weird.”

“I can deal with tough,” Luke said. “The mill would last long if I couldn’t.”

“I wish I could see it,” Mark said. “But why don’t you show me around so I know what Rhys is getting into. After all, I may need to swap in others if there’s a problem.”

“They’ll all be respectful, won’t they,” Luke said sharply.

“Trust me, all my pack act like gentlemen,” Mark said.

A tense silence hung in The Iron Sickle. Fang was sitting in a corner, his pint untouched, as he stared unseeing and muttered to himself.

“Are you okay, boss?” Kidder asked.

Fang stared at the young werewolf. The lad was just twenty and had been kicked out of his pack for kissing a normal girl his own age. At the back of what was left of his mind, Fang recognised that there was something wrong going on, that Kidder was trying to be kind and he deserved a chance. It was overridden by the swirling dark filling his head. “I’m fine, just fine, and I’ll tolerate no disrespect.” His eyes swept the room. “You lot can’t even look at me straight,” he snarled. “Tonight we’ll hunt, and I’ll show you about respect.”

Sir Dylan waved Gareth into the cottage and switched on the lights. “It’s not been used for a while,” he said. “But it was once a safe space. When I rang the top brass in Lincoln, they said that Otley was once a minor domain before Lord Skyrack got ideas.” He sighed. “The old prince of Leeds sounds like a right bastard. Anyway, we’ve done the rewiring and checked that the plumbing works. There’s some brownies that owe us a favour so they’re going to come in, clean it and redecorate. You’ll have to let them know what you want. Carli’s on her way, isn’t she? She can help with the colours.”

Gareth grinned. “Don’t tell me, you don’t believe that there’s a colour called ‘lilac’.”

Sir Dylan shrugged. “She does colours for a living. I’d make the most of it if I were you.” He hesitated. “You don’t sign up to the same stuff as the Knights Templar. We’re under most of the same rules as monks.” He avoided Gareth’s eyes. “I know a few paladins that are far from monks. All I’m saying is that you can’t have a lass move in without the benefit of marriage. Not here.” He took a deep breath. “Anyway, this is obviously the hall. The living room is through there, then the kitchen, study, dining room, another room, downstairs bathroom – we converted that, so the plaster needs to dry out a bit. Then the stairs are at the back.” He led Gareth further in. “There’s six bedrooms because you never know when you might have to put up visitors from Knights Templar, people needing refuge, etc. And there’s another main bathroom upstairs.”

“It doesn’t look that big on the outside,” Gareth said uneasily. “I’m used to a bedsit.”

Sir Dylan laughed. “If you’re working then you can use your stipend from the Home Office to pay for a housekeeper and gardener. Some brownies would jump at the chance.”

“This is taking a bit of getting used to,” Gareth said.

“There’s a gun safe in the study,” Sir Dylan said. “I’ll show you that and I’ll sort out some time at the shooting range and a licence and that.” He grinned. “What does Bron think of that?”

“I have no idea,” Gareth said. “He’s not around at the moment, but I’m sure that he’ll enjoy it.” He looked around the wide hall with the dusty wooden doors leading off. “This isn’t set up like a normal house at all, is it?”

“Not even close,” Sir Dylan said. There was a wild banging on the door.

It was Carli. “Gareth, Bron, you have to help me!” she cried. “It’s awful.”

Gareth followed Carli as she raced out of the garden and down the lane. “I parked down the hill,” she gasped. “I wasn’t sure of the turning so I walked up and I heard the whimper. I thought it was a wild animal that needed help, but…”

“Someone’s hurt?” Gareth said.

“They’re in a bad way,” Carli said. “And I didn’t know what to do.” She raced over to a ditch. “He’s here.” She knelt down to a shape on the ground. “It’s okay, I’ve brought help.”

A shiver ran through Gareth as he heard the pitiful whimper. He felt Bron stirring as he followed Carli. It took all of his self-control not to recoil. “We’re going to need help,” he said, pulling out his phone. “Carli, ring the number marked Tyler, werewolf. Sir Dylan, we’ll use our jackets as a stretcher. We can’t leave him here.”

Sir Dylan’s face was set as he ripped off his jacket. “We should get Mark Davies,” he said.

Bron had dragged off his jacket and was kneeling by the creature. “Mark Davies is a self-absorbed idiot who’s miles away,” he said. “Gareth was right. Tyler is a better choice.” He cast his eyes over the werewolf. “And this poor thing needs help now.”

Sir Dylan glanced up at Carli as she reached Tyler. “Tell him to come to Rowan Cottage,” he said. “He’ll know where it is.” He looked down at the werewolf. “And tell him to hurry.” He started gently easing his jacket under the creature’s head.

Something bad had happened to the werewolf. It wasn’t just the oozing wounds and torn flesh. Werewolves healed quickly enough. Whoever it was had been traumatised. One hind leg was a wolf’s paw, but it was next to a man’s leg. Both of his front legs ended in paws, but they were at the end of human arms. His muzzle was misshapen, neither human nor wolf. Worst of all, he was whimpering and rigid with pain and his eyes were blank.

“Stay back, Carli,” Bron said. “He won’t know what he’s doing and he may snap.” He eased his jacket under the creature’s hips. “Sometimes the wildness takes over in the kindest of wolfkind. Right, Sir Dylan, let’s get our footing and on three… One, two, three.”

The men carried their burden gently down the lane. Carli ran ahead to the cottage and held the door open as they carefully lifted the werewolf into the living room. “Warm water in a basin, please,” Bron said as they lowered the werewolf onto the floor. “If there is one.”

“The house isn’t furnished,” Sir Dylan said. “But there’s a small first aid kit in the cupboard under the stairs. It won’t be much good until Tyler gets here, but I’ll get it now.” He pulled off his sweater and folded it before easing it under the tormented werewolf’s head. It whimpered.

“It’s okay, laddo,” Bron said. “You’re with friends and it’s okay.” He pulled out a knife. “Can you hear me? Now, this knife is big and scary and sharp, but it’s not to hurt you, see. It’s just to cut away your clothes so we can treat you. So don’t fear it, and don’t fear us.”

Carli came in with a bowl of warm water and a roll of kitchen paper. “What happened?” she asked. “Is he going to be okay?”

Bron frowned as he sliced off the werewolf’s tattered jeans. “It’s hard to kill a werewolf, even with fire and silver, but he’s been badly treated. All we can do is make him comfortable and hope that Tyler knows what to do.”

“I told him everything,” Carli said. She reached out and gently stroked the creature’s paw. It whined gently.

Bron stayed poised, ready to knock Carli out of the way if pain got the better of the werewolf and it snapped, but the creature seemed soothed. “Okay, laddo, I’m cutting off what’s left of your shirt,” he said. “It will hurt some, but then we can get the dirt out of your wounds. We can’t have you getting a fever.”

The creature whimpered and whined as Bron removed the last of the tattered clothing. Carli gently stroked his paws. “Poor thing,” she said.

“Keep your hands away from his head,” Bron said. He looked into the werewolf’s eyes. “I know that you wouldn’t want to hurt her, but pain makes people do crazy things and we don’t want you snapping out of instinct, do we?” He saw a faint recognition of his words and relaxed a little. At least the creature wasn’t complete maddened. “Now I’m going to try washing some of the dirt from you, okay, and it will hurt, but it’s not through malice. Try and hold onto that.” Bron looked up at Carli. “If you have to, get away quick. It’s not his fault, but instinct’s the devil when you’re hurting.”

Carli nodded. “Can I help?”

Bron shook his head. “He’ll have enough to bear with just me.” He looked up at Sir Dylan. “You had better get out in the lane and make sure that Tyler doesn’t miss the house. There aren’t many lights around here and we can’t waste time.”

Sir Dylan glanced down at the injured werewolf and nodded. He bent to gently touch a paw. “Help is coming, don’t worry,” he said before striding out of the room.

The minutes stretched. The werewolf whimpered softly as Bron gently cleaned his fur, easing the dried blood and dirt away and murmuring gently to him. “Can you see if there’s a blanket anywhere?” Bron asked. “He’s starting to shiver and he needs warmth.”

Carli leapt to her feet. “He’s going into shock,” she said quietly. “If he’s stuck then he may not be able to heal properly.” She ran a gentle hand over his paw. “I’ll find things to make you comfortable,” she said.

Bron watched her leave and then put a gentle hand on the werewolf’s shoulder. “She’s a good lass,” he said. “If there’s anything around here to help, she’ll find it, don’t worry.” Bron sat on the bare floorboards between the werewolf and the door, blocking any draught. He could worry enough for both of them.

Sir Dylan had never been so glad to see a werewolf. “In here,” he said urgently.

Tyler took in the signs of strain on Sir Dylan’s face. “The woman that called said it was a badly hurt werewolf that was stuck halfway through a change,” he said.

“That’s about right,” Sir Dylan said. “He’s in a bad way and we’re not set up to help him.”

“I’ve brought over some stuff,” Tyler said, hefting a jute bag. “I know my way around a sick dog.” He jogged into the house and into the living room, grimacing when he saw the shape on the floor. Carli had managed to find a faded blanket and her own jacket was added to that, but the creature was shivering and whimpering under the coverings.

“Okay, mate,” Tyler said as he knelt next to the werewolf. “I’m one of your kind, okay, and I know a few things. I’m going to get you set up and then we’ll have a good long talk about how this happened, okay?” He ran a gentle hand over the werewolf, checking the muzzle and wiping it clean. The werewolf licked at Tyler’s hand and Tyler nodded and smiled. “Relax, I’m in charge and I’m going to get all this sorted out,” he said. “I’m going to take control, take the lead and if you keep your fur flat, you’ll be fine, you understand.” He looked at Carli. “Could you pass me the bag?”

Carli’s eyes were wide and fearful as she handed over the bag. “You’ll make him better?” she asked.

“It’s a rough medicine,” Tyler said. “And it’s not easy, but werewolves are tough, right young pup?” The werewolf licked his hand again, though a whimper escaped. Tyler pulled a dusty bottle out of the bag and a small pipette. “You may want to leave for this part,” Tyler told Carli. “It’s not always pretty.”

“I won’t leave now,” Carli said, pale but determined as she held the werewolf’s paw.

“I’ve seen something similar,” Bron said quietly. “It was a long time ago, but I know how it works. He’ll need all his courage.”

Sir Dylan looked between them. “How safe is it?” he asked.

“Safer than staying like this,” Tyler said. “Sometimes you need a drastic remedy.” He carefully drew up 20ml of the brown liquid. Then he frowned and pulled up another 10ml. “I think we need to take a risk.” He patted the werewolf who was watching, panting and with wide eyes. “Hang on, pup,” he said, without warning, and squirted the liquid deep into the werewolf’s throat.

The werewolf convulsed violently, coughing and spluttering. Carli stared as the limbs flowed from one state to another as the shape struggled, wheezing as it dragged in air before finally coming to rest as a young lad, red faced and spluttering. The gashes across his chest and back were already starting to heal and he looked up at Tyler with gratitude. “Thank you,” he said. He coughed a little more.

Carli dashed out to the kitchen and came back with a freshly washed glass of cool water.

“And thank you for your kindness,” he said. “You’re a normal, and you didn’t turn away.” His voice broke a little. “I’m Kidder.”

“Is there somewhere in here where he can rest?” Tyler asked. “It looks pretty empty.”

“I found a camp bed upstairs,” Carli said. “It’s where I got the blanket. It’s pretty bare, but Kidder should be able to rest there.”

“You’ll need a nap, young pup,” Tyler said. “Then we can work out what to do next, okay?”

Kidder nodded and followed Tyler obediently, the blanket wrapped around him. Tyler came back a few minutes later. “The lad will sleep now,” Tyler said. “It would be kind if you could let him rest overnight here before moving him.”

“It’s not a problem,” Sir Dylan said. “We’ll stay here and keep an eye out.”

“What did you give him?” Carli asked. “It seemed to be so, well, violent.”

Tyler met Bron’s eyes and grinned. “It was two tablespoons of cheap rum in an old bottle and with plenty of drama,” he said. “It works every time.”

Don’t forget, Dark Picture, Under Dark Hills and the stories that belong to At the Fireside will be taken down on 30th April.

Invitation Accepted Chapter Eight

Image from Unsplash, taken by Jerry Klein

You can read the story from the start here – Invitation Accepted

Gareth looked up at the large, rambling house. The setting sun was blood red as it sank behind the hills and there was a chill in the air. “She’s a vampire?” he said.

“Yes, but she’s not a bad vampire,” Sir Dylan said. “I explained. She has arrangements, no-one dies, no-one is fed on without consent and no-one is converted without some sort of oversight.”

“She drinks people’s blood,” Gareth said.

“She is what she is,” Sir Dylan said. “Don’t worry, she’s mostly okay.”

“Just mostly?” Bron chipped in.

“I hate it when you’re both speaking,” Sir Dylan said. “Listen, just be respectful and don’t let her take liberties.” He ran a tired hand over his face. “I’m going to have to get someone else in to explain stuff.”

“That would be a help,” Gareth said. “Especially as I’m not actually a defender, Bron is.”

“It’s a paladin,” Sir Dylan grumbled. “Anyway, if there’s a paladin then there’s a prince. The non-normals usually sort it out between themselves, but Mary Dutton is old, powerful, knows everyone and is marginally possible to deal with. At least, we’ve not had to deal with her much.”

“And you’re as much the defender, I mean, paladin as me,” Bron said. “You’re getting there.”

Sir Dylan looked at them with narrowed eyes. “What does that mean?” he asked suspiciously.

“Shall we meet the blood sucker then?” Bron said, switching subjects.

“Don’t call her that,” Sir Dylan said wearily. “And she’s in a relationship with a werewolf called Tyler.”

“What’s he like?” Gareth asked.

Sir Dylan shrugged. “I’ve never met him. I heard that he works as a carpenter and on building sites. He’s not part of a pack, but he’s never caused trouble.”

“A stray then,” Bron said thoughtfully. “Like those in The Iron Sickle.”

“Not exactly,” Sir Dylan said. He climbed out of the car and took a deep breath of the bracing air. “She’s expecting us.”

“Oh good,” Gareth said.

Bron took the measure of the man who opened the door. Like most werewolves, he was well built and in shape, with short, greying hair and sharp brown eyes. He would be unlikely to start trouble but would be difficult to deal with if trouble started. “We’re here to see Lady Mary,” Bron said. “You must be Tyler.”

“I can’t wait for you to tell Mary that she’s a lady,” Tyler said. “Come in.”

He led them down a narrow, tiled hall and into a wide reception room. It didn’t look much like Gareth’s idea of a vampire’s drawing room. Instead it was minimalist. There were groups of plants around in the corners, and the grey and blue sofas were plentiful, broad and soft, with throws layered over the backs. However the rest of the room was bare. A single print was hung on each cream coloured wall and, apart from a luxurious thick rug in front of the woodstove, the floor was immaculately polished bare wood. Heavy grey curtains framed the wide windows and their spectacular views towards Ilkley. The woman drawing them was tall and slim with sleek blonde hair elegantly styled in a twist. She smiled as they came in.

“So you’re the people who want to make me a prince,” she said. “Take a seat. Would you like coffee?”

“If there’s a paladin, there has to be a prince,” Sir Dylan said, sinking onto one of the sofas.

“And this corner of the world is somewhat neglected,” she said. She held a hand out to Gareth who had remained standing. “I’m Mary Dutton, apparently the new prince.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you are not exactly what you seem.”

Gareth shook the cool, dry hand. “I’m Gareth and I went to look for a warrior spirit to be more assertive at work. I accidentally summoned the spirit of Bron, a Bronze Age defender, into me. It’s been complicated.”

“And I’m Bron,” added Bron. “I’m the defender, although Gareth has potential. And I suppose I was around to be summoned because someone disturbed my burial and brought out the Orache Stone. It sounds like it reached the pack of strays at The Iron Sickle. They need to be stopped.”

“And the first thing I need to do if I’m a prince is something unpleasant against my own kind,” Mary said. “That seems somewhat unfair.”

“Do you think that your kind won’t suffer if these strays get out of hand?” Bron asked. “The stone sends the owner mad, but they scramble for power as they go there. It’s not pretty. I remember it from the first time.”

“And are you sure that it’s still the same?” Mary asked. “After all, it’s been a while.”

“Have you been to The Iron Sickle recently?” Bron asked. “I was lucky to get out of there alive.”

Sir Dylan remembered his visit with Bron and suppressed a shudder. Bron’s calculated and vicious skills had got them out of there alive. “It’s true, Lady Mary,” he said. “The strays from the area are banding together and it’s not healthy.” He turned to Tyler. “I know that you’ve been keeping an eye on some of the pups and strays in the area. There isn’t a strong pack around here. What have you heard?”

Tyler looked at them thoughtfully, then at Mary. “It’s the idiot that calls himself Fang,” he said. “He’s dragging the strays together and it hasn’t been pretty.” He looked hard at Bron. “I heard that you caused some damage at The Iron Sickle.”

“It was me or them,” Bron said. “And I’d do it again, every time. They were mad dogs, Tyler, and you know it. It wasn’t a punch up or a bit of a scuffle, it was war and kill or be killed.”

A silence ran around the room and the tick of the mantel clock echoed. Mary stood. “I can’t interfere with The Iron Sickle and this Fang immediately. Lord Marius was in touch with me and Mark and his pack are going to deal with the matter. At this moment, it’s completely out of my hands. However, if the matter isn’t resolved soon then I shall have to deal with it myself.” She glanced at Tyler. “I daresay that I’ll have to make a lot of changes in the area. I’ll be getting in touch with all the local non-normals and get an idea of how they feel. I’ll also be in touch with Lord Richard, over in Hebden Bridge, as he is a vampire that had to take on a domain unexpectedly.” She nodded at Gareth. “Take off your shirt.”

Gareth blushed wildly. “What?”

“The lady wants to see our mark,” Bron said. “It’s just business,” he added with unusual tact as Tyler glowered at him. He shrugged off the battered leather jacket and started unbuttoning his shirt. “Now, if she talks about our trousers, that’s something else.”

“Keep a respectful tongue in your head,” Tyler snarled. “There’s all this talk of paladins and there’s a shift in the area around the Chevin, but that’s not proof.” He leant a little closer. “And I may have to scratch a bit, just to make sure that it’s real.”

Bron met his glare without flinching. “You could try,” he said. “But it would be a shame to get your blood all over this pretty room.”

“Gentleman!” Mary snapped. “Get the shirt off.” She prowled around Bron as he coolly removed the shirt and handed it to Sir Dylan. “Someone’s been hitting the gym, I can tell. The body’s shaping up nicely, Bron, but you need to stop getting hit.” Mary shook her head at him. “So many bruises.” She peered closer. “Hmm, two crossed swords. I’ve never heard of that.”

“What?” Sir Dylan said. “There was only one a few days ago.” He edged politely past Mary and peered at the mark. Instead of one indistinct sword, there were two of them, dark and crossing on Gareth’s shoulder.

“There are two of us,” Bron said, twitching the shirt out of Sir Dylan’s hands and sliding into it. “We’ll be going, then, Lady Mary. But you’ll know how to contact us. And take care. The Orache Stone is not a toy or a game. If I were you, I’d make sure that I had my people in fighting fettle.”

“You may make a habit of taking over other people,” Mary said. “But you haven’t taken over in me. I’ll make my own decisions, and, if necessary, I’ll be in touch. I’m sure that you can see yourself out.”

Gareth and Sir Dylan left in silence and climbed into the car. Rain started to fall as the light faded and the car seemed chilled. “Well, that could have gone worse,” Sir Dylan said.

Rhys stalked around the building site. He’d managed to placate the client, excusing the absent builders with the excuse of problems with suppliers, but he wasn’t happy. This build had been going pretty well, despite the usual snags, and the delays this was causing stung. They had strutted into The Iron Sickle like they owned the bar and had been badly mauled. It was one of the elementary rules – overconfidence was punished.

Rhys nodded to Tim. “That’s looking good,” he said, nodding at the plastering. “You’ll have it finished in no time.”

“But I won’t have as much finished as I’ll be waiting on Joe and Josh,” Tim said. “They were really badly hurt.” He slapped the float onto the plaster. “And I know I shouldn’t say it, but the boss got it wrong.”

“If you know you shouldn’t say it then you don’t say it,” Rhys said evenly.

“I’ve got to say something or I’ll burst,” Tim said. “What about Will? He’s a mess.”

Rhys sympathised with the young werewolf. “Well, we’ll know better next time,” he said. “And there has to be a next time. We can’t let rabid strays like that around. The boss will work it out.”

“The boss is busy with Claire,” Tim muttered. “It’s like no-one else exists.”

“That’s enough,” Rhys said firmly. “Listen, if you finish the plastering, there’s a few bits that need tidying up over on the third floor. There’s some panelling that needs fixing. If you could do that, it would be a help.”

Tim stared at the wall. “I’m happy to do that for you,” he said. “You were right there with us and if you hadn’t got James out of there, it would have been a lot worse.”

A chill ran through Rhys. They didn’t need this sort of division in the pack. And the last thing Mark needed to worry about was the pack switching allegiance away from him. And what was worse, that sort of talk was dangerous to Tim. He put a brotherly hand on Tim’s shoulder. “We can’t talk like that, Tim,” he said. “We have to trust in the boss and stick together as a pack. I’m going over to the clubhouse later to speak with Mark and we’ll see where we go to from here. We handed out a lot of damage to them, so we need to be careful. They are hurting more than us. But Mark will know what to do and we’ll all pull together.”

Tim nodded reluctantly. “I suppose so,” he said.

“And we’re going to have to secure all the sites and keep all normals away. It could get nasty. If you could do a round up of the site before you go home, I’ll be glad of it. Just make sure that everything’s locked up and put away,” Rhys said.

“Mark was talking about everyone staying down at the clubhouse,” Tim said. “That’s the sort of thing you do when it’s war.”

Rhys could feel the uncertainty radiating from Tim. “And if it’s war, we’ll win,” he said firmly. “We’ll talk it all out, we’ll give Mark our advice and our support and we’ll stick together as a pack. That’s what we do. At least we’ll get good cooking out of it.”

Tim managed a chuckle. “Yeah, it’s always good when the wives get cooking together,” he said.

“Well then, I’ll see you there later. Now get this bit finished and the panelling done and call it a day. We can’t do much more now,” Rhys said. “And don’t worry. Remember, we’re the pack.”

Rhys’ sense of unease had grown all day and he could feel it settling between his shoulder blades as he strode into the clubhouse, nodding at the other werewolves around the entrance. Men were gathering in low voiced conversations while the cubs chased each other around the car park and the wives were setting up camp beds in corners. It was undoubtedly the right thing to do. The pack at The Iron Sickle were small and almost certainly didn’t have the reach to get to the clubhouse, what was a works club on the planning permission but was the pack headquarters and social meeting place in reality. All the single werewolves lived in the rooms upstairs, and even those who were living out were close. Rhys couldn’t remember when it had last been this full or this tense. He pushed his way through the cluttered hall, past Claire’s room and into Mark’s office.

“Sit down,” Mark barked. The slash on his face hadn’t fully healed yet and he was working a sore shoulder. “What a mess.”

Rhys kept a neutral expression. “We weren’t expecting that,” he said. “It must have been the stone.”

“Whatever it was, we got our tails singed,” Mark said. “But we’ll be better for spending time together. And I’m calling in a few favours and asking around. There’s some goblins up there that owe us for those jobs at Menston. We helped them out then so they’re helping us now. I’ve told them to keep a good distance unless they want to be chew toys, but they’re keeping an eye on things and letting me know what the movements are around The Iron Sickle.”

“Can they be trusted?” Rhys asked.

“They’ve no reason to lie,” Mark said. “Besides, we’ll take the information and check it against other stuff. And there’s other help there as well.”

“You mean from Lord Marius?” Rhys asked.

Mark shook his head. “This is a werewolf matter,” he said. “It may take a bit of time, and we can ask for help in return for favours, but we’ll keep the damned elfen out of it. And that’s why I needed to speak to you.”

Rhys looked at him warily. “How can I help?” he asked.

“You’re a dapper dog,” Mark said unexpectedly. “You seem to be able to charm the bitches. Well, you can turn that charm on for the pack.”

Rhys felt a chill run over him. “You want me to talk to someone?”

“I’ve had a normal Private Investigator make some enquiries,” Mark said. He rummaged in the drawer with his good hand and pulled out a file. “This is Carli Sykes,” he said. “She’s not a bad looking lass, and I’m sure you won’t find it a hardship. I want you to charm her.”

“You mean, get her talking to us?” Rhys said. “Is she a werewolf?”

“She’s a normal, but she’s seen Fang,” Mark said. “And what I mean is, get into her knickers. Get her fixed on you. Show her some good werewolf loving, flex the muscles and show her a good time.” He pushed another envelope towards Rhys. “There’s some expenses to start with and the key to the flat near Roundhay Park. Give her a good feed and get her drunk. If you show her some good moves then she’ll be licking your hand.” Mark glared at Rhys. “Do whatever you have to but get that bitch away from Gareth Peterson and into your bed. And that’s an order.”

“Seriously, boss? You want me to…” Rhys couldn’t believe it. “You want me to seduce her?”

“You’re good looking enough, you have bitches following you around all the time and you’re good at the smooth talk,” Mark said. “The file will tell you where to find her. The investigator was pretty thorough. Bump into her at the gym or something – whatever it takes.” Mark leaned across the desk. “Because that’s what we need to get an important favour. Bed that bitch and make sure she’s hooked on you.”

Rhys stared at the pack leader for a long moment, then picked up the files. “Okay boss,” he said.

“And start right away. Get a clean shirt on and start sniffing around. We can’t waste time,” Mark said, indifferent to Rhys’ stony face.

Rhys nodded, turned on his heel and strode out of the office.

Just a reminder that Dark Picture and Under Dark Hills will be disappearing from the blog on 30th April, along with At the Fireside.