Particular

I looked down at my husband’s grave. The funeral had been yesterday and the flowers were already drooping. I stooped and pulled out a faded leaf. Alan always liked things just so, and it was the least I could do for his memory.

He had liked his tea brewed for exactly four and a half minutes. He had insisted that his newspaper was placed at the side of his breakfast dish with the sports pages showing. He had always checked that his dinner knife was exactly perpendicular to the edge of the table. I accommodated his little ways as the years went on. After all, a prize winning research chemist had to have a few little foibles after working with dangerous chemicals all these years.

But while he was so particular about the brand of salt on the table and the angle of the curtains when they were opened, it was a shame that he had paid less attention to other details. It was always risky taking a mistress who worked in the same lab as you and who also dealt with dangerous poisons. And his genius for new compounds was lacking when it came to cyber security. I had known all his personal passwords for years, and I suppose plenty of other people had as well. Perhaps most dangerously, he forgot that once, long ago, I had also worked in the lab with him on dangerous chemicals, the same lab I regularly visited to bring his freshly home-made lunch, with the sandwiches always cut on the diagonal.

The police had found the email apparently from my husband to his mistress, ending their relationship. They had found poison in the mistress’s bag, coyly left next to my husband’s coat in the cloakroom where I left his lunch. They had ascribed the hysterics she had to guilt.

I straightened the roses – not lilies. My husband had been particular about flowers as well. If only he had been as particular and paid attention to me.

Trouble at the Feast

“Thank you for coming, Mr Cornwall, I mean, sir, I mean, my lord…” Dawn trailed off, twisting her hands nervously together.

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired) looked around the wreckage of the wedding reception with some concern. “It’s okay, Dawn. You can call me Mr Cornwall. I think the important thing now is to work out what happened and how to put it right.” There was a roll of thunder in the background and Garm, Cerne’s huge dog, stood closer to Cerne and looked fearfully around.

“I didn’t think this would happen,” Dawn said. “I mean, they said that they were worshippers of the natural principle. I thought that they were sort of aligned. Like that time those lovely Swedish people came for a visit with Lord Thor. So when our Amber got engaged to their Gawain, I thought it would be okay.”

Cerne patted Garm’s head. Taranis may have been retired, but when the two thunder gods had started drinking, it had taken all his persuasion to stop things before they became paperwork. “I haven’t seen them around,” he said carefully as he looked over to a middle aged woman being talked down from hysterics by what looked like a bridesmaid. “But that doesn’t really mean anything. So your daughter got married to their son?”

Dawn nodded. “I mean, my mother always said that they were a bit peculiar. Each to their own, I say, but they were a bit, well…” She searched for a kind version of her words and gave up. “She’s home made everything and the type who wants to knit her own rice, and he’s so keen on saving money that I swear he’d have second hand toilet paper.” Her hand flew to her mouth as she remembered that she was talking to a god. “I’m sorry.”

“It looks like it has been stressful for you, don’t worry about it. So, what happened?” Cerne ran a reassuring hand over his trembling dog.

“We invited Lord Taranis, of course we did. He’s always been good to us, and I didn’t think it would matter, with them being all open minded.” Dawn flinched as lightning shot overhead, followed by a rattle of thunder. “And it got a bit silly on the run up to the wedding, with them wanting to save money and Mike wanting to give Amber a proper send off.” Dawn looked over to where her husband was looking sadly at the wreckage of a marquee. Shredded pink ribbon blew around the garden in the rising breeze. “We had some terrible arguments with them. Mike said that he was happy to pay, and it was only once if it was done right, and they shouldn’t worry. But Gawain’s parents couldn’t bear to see us spending money. They took the ribbon back to the shop three times before I hid it properly.”

“They didn’t like pink?” Cerne asked, bewildered. Beside him Garm whimpered as lightning flashed again. “So, Lord Taranis is in there, is he?” Cerne nodded at a separate, smaller catering tent. “If that is where the strong drink is, it’s going to be a problem.” He looked up at another rumble of thunder. “And it’s going to start raining hard any minute. You need to get stuff inside.”

“No, they didn’t mind pink,” Dawn said, looking over to a middle aged man in a bad suit standing alone outside the garden next to a row of cars and avoiding everyone’s glances. “It’s just that they thought it would be better to cut up a sheet and dye it pink. Shirley said she could do it with avocadoes. They don’t even eat avocadoes!”

Cerne wasn’t sure what an avocado was. “Dawn, I really think that you need to tell me what upset Lord Taranis and you need to tell me now!”

Dawn wrung her hands as women started frantically carrying plates and platters into the house. “We set up the wedding food as a proper dinner. We ordered plenty of beef and some salmon and a special side of roast pork for Lord Taranis. He’s always particular, and we always get him the good roast pork. Our family have always done our best.”

Cerne nodded. “Lord Taranis insists on the good meat for a feast. He may have even given you some if you couldn’t manage it, to make your daughter’s wedding special.” He tried a reassuring smile on the woman in front of him. “And he has always praised your cooking.”

Dawn’s eyes brimmed with tears. “We always got him the best stuff. We ordered a barrel of mead as well, and Mike had racked up extra home brewed beer and wine, and everything.” There was a crash from the catering tent, and lightning hissed down and split the tarmac on the road outside.

“If you have Lord Taranis hiding with Mike’s home brew, you need to tell me what happened quickly,” Cerne said. “You know what he gets like.”

“Gawain’s parents called the caterer and changed the order,” Dawn whispered as smoke from the burnt road drifted across the garden. “They said that we needed a more cost effective menu.” The first fat droplets of rain splashed on the broken tables piled up on the side of the lawn.

Cerne felt a sinking feeling in his stomach as Garm pressed his huge body against the god’s legs. “They didn’t give him fish, did they?”

A bellow came from catering tent and the sound of smashing glass. Dawn started sobbing. “They gave him the vegan option.”

Quiet Remembrance

Taranis, god of thunder (retired), opened up his camping chair and pulled out his thermos flask. “It’s a cold night, but not a bad time to remember someone. And it’s quiet.”

Cerne, god of the hunt (retired), dumped his bag next to the cairn of stones. “Have you really brought tea to a memorial feast?” His great hound, Garm, sniffed at the stones and then flopped down next to them.

“It’s good to drop some of this into a hot drink,” Taranis pulled out a black, unlabelled bottle that glowed faintly in the night air.

Cerne brightened up. “That’s more like it.” His breath steamed in front of him and he rubbed his hands briskly together. “I’ll get a fire going.” He looked over to the stones. “Seems only right to remember an old friend with flames and strong drink.”

Taranis busied himself setting up a second camp chair and a small table. He caught Cerne’s eye. “The damp gets right in my bones,” he grumbled. “There’s no need to be uncomfortable.”

Cerne shrugged. “I hadn’t thought of Bran in years.” He pulled out his own contribution. “I brought venison.” He set some large Tupperware tubs on the table. Garm’s eyes followed every movement.

“I suppose you bought it from a butcher, didn’t you,” Taranis grumbled.

The former god of the hunt added some soft white bread in a box. “I’ve been busy.” He paused and looked at the cairn. “Time just slips by these days.”

“It wasn’t until I saw all the fuss in the paper that I remembered,” Taranis said. He set out two large tin mugs and a few more unlabelled bottles. “But I couldn’t let them build over the last resting place of our old friend.”

Cerne built a small fire, carefully arranging the logs and twigs for a long night of burning. He stacked up more firewood and cleared the space as Taranis set out the food and drink. Cerne nodded at the unlit wood. Taranis shrugged and a spark jumped from his fingers to light the campfire. “That’s better. I’ve got some mead and barley cakes to leave for Bran, before we start.”

Cerne nodded. “I suppose so.”

“Hey, grandad!”

They turned around and stared at the newcomers. A red-faced middle-aged man with a battery spotlight was in front of half a dozen lads who were holding shovels and crowbars. He strode forward angrily. “This is prime development land. I had everything set up ready for some residential and a shopping centre and then you bleeding hearts turned up. I’ve paid out good money for the land, but now that it’s a ‘special archaeological site’ it’s worthless.” He looked at the lads behind him. “But with one of those unexplained incidents, and with no way of being able to find the culprits, all the archaeology is going to disappear. There’ll be nothing left for any special interest and before you know it there will be executive townhouses and some convenient shop fronts. So why don’t you coffin dodgers pack up your little picnic and bugger off before things start getting messy.”

“You’re Mr Harris the developer, aren’t you?,” Taranis said. “We’re not leaving. We’re here to pay our quiet respects to an old friend. Just leave us in peace.” There was a brief rumble of thunder. He looked over the lads behind the developer. “I know you, Darren, and you know me. You ought to know better. Now get off back home, and I won’t say anything more about it.” The young lad lost every trace of colour, dropped the shovel he was holding, turned and fled. Taranis looked over the rest of the motley bunch. “Go away.”

“You don’t want to end up with paperwork,” Cerne said to Taranis. He turned to Mr Harris. “I’m sure that there’s ways of working around this. Why don’t we talk this out tomorrow?”

“There are plenty of ways, but they all cost money,” Mr Harris shouted. “I’m not wasting any of that on some dried up bones. So I’m saying – bugger off! I don’t care how old you are, you’ll regret it if you don’t move.”

Cerne sighed and looked at the bunch in front of them before catching Taranis’ eye. “There’s only half a dozen of them. Don’t go too hard on the youngsters. I’ll set up the memorial for Bran.”

Taranis growled. Thunder rolled and a flash of lightning arced across the sky. “Get out of here,” he snarled at the men in front of him.

Garm crawled under the picnic table. He was a big dog under a small table, but he did his best. Cerne patted his head. “Don’t worry, boy. Taranis will sort it out.” He pulled out a small box. “Just stay there, that’s a good boy.”

Garm’s tail thumped on the side of the table as he watched Cerne take out some candles and arranged them on the cairn. A crowbar sailed overhead. Cerne carefully wedged the candles and glanced over to Taranis. “Remember – no paperwork!”

“Coming here to disturb our peace,” Taranis growled as he grabbed a shovel and snapped it in half, throwing the pieces to the side.

Cerne ducked as a part of the handle flew past him. “Watch out,” he said mildly as he lit the candles. He looked thoughtfully down at the stones, ignoring the screams. “Bran would have sorted them out in no time. He insisted on respect.” He picked up the small box of barley cakes. “It’s hard to get proper barley cakes these days. But Mrs Atkins down the road is always happy to help out.” He glanced over and frowned as Taranis threw a young lad across the clearing. “Take it steady, Taranis. These lads aren’t like the old days. They break a bit easier.”

“Damn them,” Taranis roared as a brave lad tried to grapple him from behind.

Cerne sighed and shook his head as he broke the cakes over the mound. “I think Mrs Atkins is a little sweet on me,” he confided to Garm. “And she is a good cook. I could do worse than visit her more often.” He grimaced at another crash and looked back at the fight. Taranis had slowed his punch down enough to let the youngster in front of him dodge and the punch broke the tree behind the lad. The branches of the sycamore bounced gently as they fell. “You’re going to be in trouble if their mums complain,” he said. “And if Gaia finds out about that tree, you’ll be sorry.” He turned back to the cairn and opened up the mead. “I’ll pour the mead out for Bran now, should I?”

“Hang on,” Taranis grunted as he shook off the lad and grabbed him by the front of his t-shirt. “Go away and don’t come back, dog breath!” He dropped the offender who crashed, struggled to his feet and ran, leaving the developer all alone. Taranis turned back to Mr Harris who turned to flee. “Not so fast!” Lightning flashed to the ground in front of the man, singeing the earth and leaving Garm whimpering. “I want words with you.” He grabbed Mr Harris by the scruff of his jacket.

“Remember the paperwork,” Cerne said. “You know you’d get in trouble if you skewer him.” Mr Harris moaned.

“If you had made a decent fire we could have roasted him,” Taranis said, his quick wink at Cerne unnoticed by the terrified man in front of him. “And Gaia will take hardcore offerings for trees at a pinch.”

“She’s gone vegan,” Cerne said. “Let Harris go. We’re here for Bran.”

“Bran would have skinned him,” Taranis grumbled. “And thrown the skin to the dogs in front of him.”

Garm tried to retreat further under the small table as Cerne hid a grin. “Bran had his bad points as well.” Cerne stood and strolled over to Taranis’ captive. “Why don’t you go home. We can talk about this tomorrow, nice and modern and without any paperwork.”

Taranis dropped him. “Don’t try and run. We’ll find you no matter where you go.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr Harris squeaked.

“I’m sure that we can set the misunderstanding straight.” Cerne said. “But tomorrow. Because we want a nice quiet evening to remember our friend, okay?”

They watched as Mr Harris nodded, stumbled backwards, turned and staggered back to his car. Taranis sighed. “He wasn’t much of a fight.” He brightened a little. “But we have the venison, and some of my special home brew.”

“And some time for a quiet remembrance,” added Cerne.

Dominoes

“My mum says that you’re the god of thunder.”

Taranis looked up from his game of dominoes at the skinny lad staring at him. Across the table, Cerne, god of the hunt, grinned. Taranis ignored the grin. “I was, lad, I was. I’m retired now, though, and don’t really get involved. You must be Dawn’s youngest.”

“She sends a pork joint to regular, but I think you’re a con artist and a fake,” the lad continued. “And I think you should stop taking advantage.”

Cerne placed his domino down. “Your move.”

Taranis looked at the lad. “It’s Owen, isn’t it? You drive that weird yellow Corsa and your mum told me that you were working with a plumber.”

“You see, that’s it!” Owen said. “Mum gets stuff like that wrong all the time. I’m apprenticed. It’s all legal and properly set out. Mr Barker looks after me and I try and do him proud. I work hard for my money, and so does my mum, and I don’t see why elderly scammers like you should have any of it.” He glared at Taranis. “And it isn’t a weird yellow. It’s a custom wrap. That car is better than anything you’ve ever had or ever will have!”

Taranis grunted, laid down his domino and took a drink from his pint. There weren’t many people in the old-fashioned pub, and they were all carefully ignoring the lad and his demands. “Are you sure that I’m a scammer. I got rid of that problem Josie had.”

“I think it would have gone on its own,” Owen said angrily. He turned to the distant rumble of thunder outside the door. “And don’t try and fake that was you. I saw the weather forecast. Just leave us alone.” Owen turned on his heel and stalked over to his friends waiting at the bar.

Cerne looked thoughtfully down at the dominoes, ignoring the sharp crack of thunder outside. “Of course, a lightning strike on the electrics would just be coincidence,” he remarked. “But it’s obvious that the car is his pride and joy. I’m going to have to knock.”

Taranis nodded as he perused the dominoes. “There’s one thing about lightning that everyone forgets,” he said. “It’s hot.” He lay down a double six.

Cerne narrowed his eyes. “I’m going to have to pass again. So, lightning’s hot. I thought it just started fires.”

“I’ve got a good view of the car park from here,” Taranis nodded at the angled mirror behind the bar that, to the right seat, showed the half dozen cars spaced out in front of the pub. “And I’ve still got decent aim.” He put down another domino with a smug grin.

Cerne pursed his lips and then managed to lay down a tile before standing and peering out of the window. “There’s a lot of smoke out there.”

Taranis nodded thoughtfully as he lay down his last piece. “I’m out. And it’s hard to explain all four tyres spot welded to the tarmac as coincidence, especially with nothing else touched.” Taranis drained his beer glass. “That’s three games all and it’s your round.”

Cerne watched the shocked murmur run through the few patrons before they all rushed out to see for themselves. “I bet you get an extra offering next time,” he grinned. “Same again?”

Taranis nodded contentedly as he watched the confusion outside. “Yep, same again.”

Don’t Forget the Flowers

I had nearly forgotten the date. I had to rush out and pick up the flowers from the nearest florist in a hurry. I never wanted to miss the flowers on this day of all days.

“Promise me you will buy flowers on my birthday,” my aunt had said. Her fingers had been like claws as they clung onto me. I had stared at the dying woman, in the borrowed hospital bed in her bedroom. The nurse had stared sympathetically at me as the light faded with my aunt and the scent of disinfectant filled the air. “Promise me, every birthday, you buy flowers.” She had broken off, coughing.

I had nodded. “I promise, Aunt Carol. I’ll buy them every year.”

“I should have changed my will,” she had gasped. “I should have made you earn it.”

“Don’t make yourself poorly, auntie,” I had said. “I can get the solicitor in any time.” I had ignored the tiny shake of the nurse’s head. We both had known that my aunt had hours left, but there was no point in upsetting her.

“Flowers on my birthday, keep the house the same, no men, and no foreign food. Remember.” Aunt Carol had coughed and gasped and then fallen back on the pillows, exhausted. They were the last words she ever said.

That was three years ago. Aunt Carol had taken me in when I had lost my parents at the age of fourteen. She had terrorised me, gouged every penny of support for herself and sabotaged any chance I had to make a life away from her. I had cleaned her sparse and spartan house, ran her errands and survived. I even gave up my job to nurse her at the end. I had done my duty. All the money she had clawed from my trust fund, along with all the other money that she had hoarded, was left to me. She had never found a way of adding the clauses that she wanted, so she had just insisted, expecting me to be the good, obedient child that I had always been.

Today would have been her birthday. So I ran out and bought a huge bunch of tulips, a flower that she had loathed. I would put them among the cosy throws and knickknacks that she had hated. And later my gorgeous boyfriend would call, and he would bring a curry.

£2.34

You can find Kane’s story from the start here.

“I can feel her here,” Joan said. “It’s like she’s breathing down my neck.”

Kane was blessed, if you could call it that, with the ability to see ghosts. As he sat sipping tea in Joan’s knickknack crammed living room, he could clearly see the ghost of Nancy leaning in close to Joan. “She’s there,” he said. “A lady about the same age as you. She’s wearing a blue hat.”

“She always wore blue,” Joan sniffed. “She said it suited everyone. Mind you, it was a close call a few times.”

Nancy caught Kane’s eye. “Well she thought she could wear yellow and she really couldn’t.” The ghost shuddered at the memory.

“I can’t keep going on with this sense of someone peering over my shoulder,” Joan continued. “It’s worse than when she was alive. Tell her to go towards the light, or whatever it is.”

Kane winced. “I’m not very good at that bit.” He looked at Nancy. “Do you miss Joan?”

Nancy sniffed. “We were close, that’s true. But I can’t rest. She owes me £2.34. I can’t seem to get away from that. I’m owed £2.34 and until I get it, I can’t leave.”

Kane turned to Joan. “Nancy says that you owe her some money.”

“I do not!” Joan said indignantly. “I’ve always paid up. We reckoned up after every trip and meeting. We’d settle up who paid for what and where and make sure that we were all square. I could never sleep if I owed money.”

“It’s £2.34,” Nancy insisted.

Joan carried on, unaware. “I have never been in debt – not a penny under or a day late. How dare she!”

“It’s the money from the bingo,” Nancy said. “Just because I died that day didn’t mean that she could get away with keeping my share. And it’s £2.34.”

Kane turned to Joan in confusion. “She said that you owe her from the bingo.”

Joan frowned, then looked at Kane. “It was the day she died. And I was so upset, I forgot.” The colour had left her face. “We went to the Community Centre for bingo. We paid the same for our tickets, took it in turns to buy the tea at the interval and bought our own raffle tickets. The only thing was, we split whatever we won, exactly half.”

Kane tried to work it out. “To be honest, I’m more used to ghosts that can’t rest because they owe money, not the other way around. So, you won a prize of £4.68, that you would normally split. But you never had the chance.”

Joan shook her head. “It was a box of chocolates. They weren’t allowed to give cash prizes because it was for charity.”

“It wasn’t proper gambling,” Nancy added. “So it would be something like a bottle of wine or a candle.”

“They asked for donations,” Joan explained, “And the profits went to a good cause.”

“Everyone took turns,” Nancy said. “And asked that we give a rough value.”

“We all took turns,” Joan said. “Nancy and I used to go halves on a decent prize. You were supposed to give an idea of what it cost so that they could rank the prizes.” She sighed. “We always got something nice, with it being a good cause. Mrs Holloway, down the road, she only gave things like a packet of mints. Well, she couldn’t manage more with her being on a pension and all the trouble her husband is having.”

“We never blamed her,” Nancy added to an unhearing Joan. “You give what you can.”

“And I won the box of chocolates,” Joan said. “I was going to go home and check the price, so I could give the right money to Nancy. It was donated by Mrs Cadwallader, and she sometimes, well, she gets carried away.”

“Joan was always a lot more tactfully than me,” Nancy said. “That Mrs Cadwallader was all fur coat and no knickers. She’d talk about her expensive perfume like she wasn’t seen buying it from the market.”

Kane looked back at Joan. “Nancy said that Mrs Cadwallader sometimes exaggerated.”

Joan put her tea down with care. “I would be ashamed to behave like that. She put it as a £10 prize but got it as part of a sale in the big supermarket at the other side of town. It cost £4.68. And the chocolates were stale!”

“I’d be mortified,” Nancy added.

“But with what happened to Nancy as we left the Community Centre, I didn’t think to hand over any money,” Joan said.

“I got hit by a car,” Nancy told Kane. “I never felt a thing.”

“How do I pay the £2.34?” Joan asked. “I mean, Nancy’s dead.”

“Could you perhaps bury it in the grave?” Kane asked.

Joan shook her head. “She was cremated and her ashes scattered.”

“I can’t go until it’s settled,” Nancy said.

“And what is she going to do with the money if she’s dead?” Joan asked. “I don’t suppose there’s much bingo there.”

“What would you do if you hadn’t had a chance to pay her back?” Kane asked.

“Oh, I’d pay for the tea next time we were out,” Joan said. Her face fell. “I haven’t felt like going out much, now that she’s gone.”

“We went everywhere together,” Nancy said to Kane. “We were inseparable from when we met at school. We even married brothers.”

Kane nodded to Joan. “Perhaps that’s it,” he said. “Why don’t you go out and have a last cup of tea on her?”

Nancy and Joan both frowned, then shook their heads. “A cup of tea is £1.80 in the usual place,” Joan said. “That would be 54p off.”

“That’s too much,” Nancy said. “How about a nice hot chocolate? You have one for you and one for me.”

Kane turned to Joan. “Nancy suggests a hot chocolate, at £2.35 and that you have one for you and one for her and then you’ll be straight.”

“It will still be 1p out,” Joan said. “But I can put a penny into the collection at church – separately, of course.”

“Of course,” Nancy said. She started to fade. “That would be perfect, and we would be settled up.”

Kane watched the ghost disappear and then turned to Joan. “She’s gone.”

Joan held herself upright with only a slight gleam in her eye suggesting how near she was to tears. “I’ll go tomorrow and have two hot chocolates and save a penny for church,” she said firmly. “And I’ll have a word with her nephew. She kept a close eye on him, and I know that she would be grateful if I kept up the good work.”

Kane felt deep sympathy for the nephew. “I’m sure that she will.”

This is sparked by the memory of my grandmother, around fifty years ago. She went to a charity bingo every Thursday afternoon and once won a block of butter – and was very pleased with it! Whenever she went out with my mother, they used to count up every penny spent and work out who owed what with a thoroughness that would make any accountant turn to Modern Literature.

Just a Little Garlic

Paula carefully opened the door and gestured for Ian to step through. “Come in,” she said, shutting the door and locking it. “Would you like a tea or a coffee?”

“A tea would be nice,” Ian said, following Paula into the kitchen. “Are you okay?”

It was a reasonable question. Paula looking like a deep breath would break her and her elderly face was strained. She forced a smile. “I am a little concerned. That’s why I asked you here.”

Ian’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not keen on me, I know. I married your niece and you play nice, but you’ve never warmed up to me.”

Paula licked her dry lips as she filled the kettle. “You’ve always been good to Jeanette,” she said. “And I’m very grateful for it. And heaven knows that poor kid deserves some luck in life. Her mother is dreadful.” She flicked the kettle on and pulled out two mugs. “You said tea, didn’t you?”

“Yes, no sugar.” Ian watched Paula fumble with the teabags. “I treasure Jeanette, and I make no secret of it. I’m lucky to have met her. I’m even luckier that she will have me. And you know my family have welcomed her. You were at the wedding.”

Paula dropped the teabags. “I’ve never been to a happier wedding,” she said as she scrabbled around for the teabags. “But you’re a werewolf.”

“Yes,” Ian said. “And so are most of my family.”

Paula pulled a fresh box of teabags out of the cupboard and struggled with the wrapper. “Jeanette always looks so happy.”

Ian took the box from her and opened it before casually dropping the teabags into the mugs. “You didn’t ask me to come around just because I am a werewolf. You’re obviously terrified.” He frowned for a moment. “Well, you’re safe. Try and relax.” He fidgeted with the bowl on the kitchen counter, avoiding Paula’s eyes. “I’m not like that. I never have been.”

“That’s garlic,” Paula said, holding on to the edge of the counter.”

“Hmm?” Ian said, tossing a bulb and catching it. “I love garlic,” he said. “Jeanette always grows extra for me.” He shot a hard look at Paula. “It’s vampires that are affected by garlic, not werewolves.” He set the bulb back in the bowl and picked up the boiling kettle. “Let me. You’re a bag of nerves.”

Paula swallowed. “You like garlic?”

“You should have silver against werewolves,” Ian said impatiently as he made two mugs of tea. “Come on, Paula, what is it? I’ll always go the extra mile for you. Jeanette told me how good you were to her growing up, and she needed it. Just try not to treat me like a monster.” He pushed a mug into Paula’s cold hand. “What is it?”

“There’s something in the garden,” Paula said quietly. “I hear noises, but I can never see anything. I’ve looked as much as I’ve dared, but I’ve seen no-one.”

Ian looked at her and then out of the window. It was dark outside and the huge garden was hidden from the window. “You’re scared of me, but you’re more scared of what could be out there.”

“The garden is getting too much for me,” Paula said. “It’s quite overgrown at the end. I thought it could be something…” she trailed off. “I never used to quite believe in werewolves.”

“I’ll have a look,” Ian said.

“You will be careful, won’t you?” Paula said, catching hold of his arm. “If there’s something dreadful out there, I don’t want you to be hurt.”

Ian patted her hand. “I can take care of myself. But lock the door after me and watch out of the window, just in case.”

Paula watched the hard faced, hard muscled man disappear into the shadows at the bottom of the garden. Even if she didn’t know that he was a werewolf, she would have found him intimidating. There was an unforgiving air around him. But she had seen him with her niece and their kids and Ian doted on them. And Jeanette absolutely adored her husband, it was clear a mile off. Paula peered into the darkness. She had heard a few stories through the years and seen enough not to dismiss what she was told. Besides, there had been a lot more large, wolf-like dogs at the end of the wedding then there had been at the beginning. Some of them had had bowls of beer.

She picked up her tea and took a reassuring sip. Surely there would be nothing. A doubt gnawed at her. What if she had sent Jeanette’s husband into trouble? What if it was darker than he could deal with? What if things went wrong? She couldn’t really call the police if it was something worse than a werewolf.

There was a commotion in the darkness and Paula nearly dropped the tea. It splashed wildly on the counter as she jumped but Paula didn’t dare stop to wipe it up. Instead she stared through the window, wondering what was going on. Something was emerging from the darkness. It was Ian with two teenagers. Paula started to breathe again. The young lad had the start of a black eye and the young girl was scarlet faced as she hastily buttoned her top. Behind them, Ian’s face was carefully expressionless, but Paula could see a glint of amusement in his eyes as they got closer. She unlocked the door.

Ian gave the lad a small shove. “What are you going to say?”

“I’m sorry, Miss, for trespassing in your garden,” the teenager blurted out.

“We won’t do it again,” the girl added.

“And why won’t you do it?” Ian said firmly.

“Because we realise that we were being disrespectful,” the lad said, glancing nervously back at him.

“And what are you going to do to apologise?” Ian prompted.

“We’ll come back tomorrow in the day to weed the front drive,” the lad said.

“We’re really sorry,” the girl added. “We didn’t think that you would realise we were there or that you would be worried.

“So, off you go and get back here around 10am, and no messing about,” Ian said with an almost paternal authority. His face stayed set in stern lines until the teenagers were well out of sight before he broke into a grin. “A little youthful romance,” he said. “They genuinely didn’t mean to scare you.” He chuckled. “The lad was accusing me of all sorts until I got his attention and explained. The lass was just about dead with embarrassment. But they’ll do something useful and that will be the end of it.” He frowned. “But I can’t have people thinking that no-one is bothered. I’ll come around tomorrow and get some tidying up done. Jeanette’s really the gardener, but I can at least get the worst of it cleared until she can come down here. Just make a list of what you want doing.”

“There’s no need,” Paula said.

“You were there for Jeanette when she needed you. That means that there’s every need,” Ian said firmly. “I’ll see you tomorrow – don’t forget to lock the door.”

Paula watched Ian stride away before carefully locking the door. She finished her tea and washed the mugs. Ian was intimidating, tough and relentless and looked like he was made of iron. But she remembered his grin after the teenagers had left, and the kindness he had shown her. Perhaps he was safe after all. She would have to make something for him as a snack tomorrow. Paula smiled. Perhaps she could make him garlic bread.

A Date and a Church

“How are you going to find a decent husband if you don’t go to the right places?” My mother was almost incandescent. “History walk! What a lot of nonsense. All there will be is the unemployed and pensioners.”

“It’s not all about getting a husband,” I said. “I run my business, I take care of you and dad, I have my hobbies…”

“Your hobby should be finding a husband!” Mum waved her hands in exasperation. “And look at you. I know how much you are earning these days – and an unmarried woman at that! – but you don’t look it. You should go to a decent stylist, perhaps, and dress a little better.”

“I dress fine in the office,” I said wearily as I dragged my coat on. “And there’s nothing wrong with what I wear.”

“I want grandchildren,” Mum snapped. “And with a nice young man, not some old fogey that’s older than me. Why won’t you meet with Darren Sharp? He’s a barrister and I’ve known his mother for years!” I let her voice trail into the distance as I dashed out.

I had been looking forward to the history walk for months. It took me a few minutes, but I managed to shake off my mother’s mood and join the group. I had not been allowed to forget that I was nearly thirty and had been single for over a year. Today I was going to put all that behind me. I had been fascinated by the old church for years and I wasn’t going to miss the chance. I had had enough of my mother’s complaints.

I was one of the last to arrive and found myself next to the only one in the group who was near my age. He was a quiet looking man, perhaps two or three years older than me, with dark, short hair and an athletic build under his hoodie and jeans. He smiled wryly as I stood next to him. “Thank goodness I’m not the only pensioner here.”

I chuckled quietly as I looked at the rest of the group. I guessed that most of them were thirty or forty years older than me. I knew a few of them, and they were great fun, but I agreed, it was fun to have a contemporary around.

“Listen up, everyone,” an elderly man at the front called out. “I’m Vivian, and I’m the guide for today. Can everyone hear me at the back?” He looked around carefully and then, with some ceremony, pulled out some handwritten notes. “Right, thank you for coming to this guided walk. I’m sure that you all will find it educating and entertaining. I’m Vivian and I have been the churchwarden here for forty three years. Let me introduce you to this beautiful building. St Cuthbert’s church has been standing on this site since the Anglo Saxons, but the current building was erected on this site later, starting in the reign of King John, the one who signed the Magna Carta in 1223.”

“1215,” I muttered automatically, then glanced, embarrassed at my companion.

He nodded. “John died in 1216, before the church was started.” We grinned at each other.

Vivian cleared his throat and gave us a dark look. “As I was saying, the church was started 1223 with money from the local lord, Lord Robert, during the reign of King John, son of the famous Richard the Lionheart.”

“Brother,” I murmured. “John was Richard’s brother.”

“Hasn’t he even seen the Disney cartoon?” my companion said.

We hushed quickly after catching Vivian’s expression, and trailed after him as we passed through the lych gate and up towards the church porch.

We deliberately fell behind. As an architect, I could talk easily about the building, and he was wonderfully knowledgeable about the religious side. We could hear Vivian butchering history but let it drift over us as we marvelled together at the beautiful late Anglo Norman stonework and the Victorian stained glass. Time seemed to fly by as we talked and talked, and we had to hustle as Vivian led the rest of the group back to the church door and waved his keys pointedly.

We walked back to the car park. He raised an eyebrow at my Range Rover. “Nice car.”

“I’m not always in the office. I do site visits and I need something reliable.”

He nodded. “I’m always in an office, so I just go for comfort,” he said, as he waved a hand at the Volvo parked next to me. He smiled. “I’m glad you were here. I think I would have murdered the churchwarden if I’d had to listen to him.”

I nodded. “He meant well,” I said, “But he missed so much.”

“I’m going to a talk on Medieval Crosses next Tuesday evening,” he said. “Would you like to come? I’ll even buy you dinner afterwards.”

He had a lovely smile, and I smiled back. “I’d love to. I’d better give you my contact details, just in case.” I pulled out a business card. “I’m Kylie Brenner.”

He stared at me. “Kylie Brenner? Kylie Brenner the architect? The one who’s mother is a great friend of Imelda Sharp?”

I nodded slowly. “That’s right.”

He grinned. “I’m Darren Sharp. I’ve been hiding from you for months.”

I laughed. “I can’t believe it. Well, despite all the efforts of my mother, I would still love to come to the talk and dinner,” I said. “But perhaps we shouldn’t tell our mothers.”

“Perhaps not,” he agreed.

My new book, King’s Silver, a medieval fantasy, is coming out on 8th February 2022! I cannot tell you how excited I am. This is the first hint that things are getting medieval here. Watch out for further stories, article and character spotlights coming up over the next few days. King’s Silver is available for pre-order now.

Dark Woods

You can find the story of Alex from the beginning here.

Alex stumbled over a root and caught himself just in time. He ached. He straightened slowly and looked around. Why hadn’t he waited?

He prodded one of the logs. It seemed safe enough so he sat down and worked his shoulders, taking a small sip from the bottle in his backpack. It was nearly empty. He had no idea how long he had been wandering. He didn’t dare check his phone. The battery had been full when he entered this place, but somewhere in the foggy mists filling his head he knew that there would be no chance of recharging.

He screwed the bottle top on tightly and settled it back into his backpack. He was losing track of everything. He closed his eyes briefly, then forced them back open. He couldn’t risk sleeping here, he knew that at least. He couldn’t let his mind wander. He was Alex Poole, who had just got a job at a shop called the White Hart. His mind slid off for a moment as he stared at the small fern curling at the base of a tree. He was caught by the intricate fronds delicately unfolding and spent another few minutes before he brought himself back. He was Alex Poole and he had bought a second-hand camera with pictures of a vampire on it. He’d caught a vampire feeding, but the victim had chased him off. There were others who knew about vampires. They were, they were…

Alex pushed himself to his feet. He could see the faces of his friends. But he had come here alone, to the vampire’s lair. He was Alex Poole and he had come alone because Rhys – yes, that was his name! Rhys was nervous and Jack was weird so he, Alex Poole, had decided to go alone. He had worked out the entrance from the pictures on the camera and the notes from the flat and he had come to kill the vampire.

Alex stumbled again but kept his feet and carried on along the track. Things had not worked out exactly as expected. He’d got through the iron grill without too much trouble. There were no fancy alarms or cameras, just lots of padlocks. And then he had stepped through the door.

Alex spun around. He strained his ears. Was that someone calling his name? He leaned towards that direction, over in a dark thicket of oak. Yes, someone was calling. All he had to do was leave the path and strike off towards the sound. Alex dug his nails into the palms of his hands and held on to what he knew. He was Alex Poole. He was trying to hunt a vampire. He seemed to have stumbled into Fairyland.

It wasn’t the Fairyland of children’s stories, with the bright flowers and sunshine. It was all the dark, brooding stories that dripped with blood and terror. He mustn’t leave the path. He had tried to turn back to the gate, but when he turned, it wasn’t there. Just this endless, hard dirt track through mossy, fern filled woods. He was exhausted, but he didn’t dare sleep. Bad things happened to those who slept in Fairyland. He pushed himself to take another step and on around the huge ash that hung heavily over the path.

Alex groaned out loud. A clear spring ran over the rocks, clattering and chuckling as it tumbled in a miniature waterfall. Next to it was a crystal goblet, perfectly placed. It looked like something from a fantasy film. Alex’s mouth was dry and sore. He was desperate for water and had perhaps two mouthfuls left in his backpack. He didn’t dare drink from the stream. He couldn’t look away. He was desperate. How much longer could he go? What would be the worst that could happen? He couldn’t remember what the stories said. He couldn’t remember why he was there. He couldn’t remember anything except this frantic, all-consuming thirst.

With a strength of will he didn’t know he had, Alex forced himself backwards away from the temptation and against the ash tree. He couldn’t force any words out of his dry mouth, but his lips made the shape as he tried to cry out, ‘No!’ Then the tree grabbed him.

Alex struggled as he felt branches whip over him and pin him tight against the trunk. He could feel the trunk giving and his back sinking into the bark. It shouldn’t end like this. He had to find the vampire – he couldn’t give in! But his body ached and his mind was full of fog and it was only his reflexes that kept the struggle going.

“Hang on!” A voice rang out along the path. “He’s here, and in trouble!”

“Don’t worry, Alex, we’ve got you,” a familiar voice said.

It sounded like glass in the background. “It’s gabble ratchets. Dave, can you keep them back? Someone help Alex.”

“I have them Padre,” another voice said.

Alex tried to form the sounds. “Jack? Watch out.”

“It’s okay, Alex, we have you. We’re the rescue party.” Jack grabbed Alex’s hand and started a steady pull.

“Release him!” another voice said with authority. “Ian, Callum, set up the howl.”

Alex fell forward into the arms of Jack, who grinned his irritating grin and pulled him away from the ash. “Don’t worry. You’re safe now.” He frowned. “Have a drink of this, take slow sips.”

Alex didn’t know how he managed to control himself as he took a small mouthful and swilled it around his mouth before swallowing. “I thought it was the vampire’s lair, but it isn’t.”

“It’s sort of that,” Jack said. “That particular vampire managed to grab a corner of Faerie but left it a little tainted. Most of the elfen, the fairies, can’t get near here because of the iron in York Station. But Steve here will sort it out, and I think that Lady Freydis will be along any minute. You can hear the doggies howl.”

A huge wolf broke off its howl to give Jack a cold look and a sharp bark before returning to the howl.

“My apologies, Ian,” Jack said, unrepentant. He grinned at Alex. “Werewolves can be so touchy. Just never mention fleas.”

“A little help over here,” another voice called.

“Excuse me,” Jack said, bounding off.

Alex swayed a little, sipping from the water bottle. The howling had stopped and small, malevolent creatures were being batted away by the priest, Rhys, the vampire and someone that Alex didn’t recognise. Jack used a fallen branch to swing wide and hard at them and they broke with the sound of glass and evaporated. A huge swarm was rapidly being reduced as Alex’s rescuers pushed forward with purpose. The werewolves had taken a station either side of him and didn’t seem hostile. Instead they were snapping at the twigs that were pushing towards Alex and Steve and keeping a watchful eye on the fight. Behind him, Steve was muttering at the tree and pulling dark strands out. Alex stared as the strands became iridescent and multicoloured. “I’m hallucinating.”

One of the werewolves gave a gentle woof and leant against him briefly. Alex looked down at the water bottle and wondered what was in it. He had just felt comforted by a werewolf’s touch.

“I don’t think so!” A feminine voice rang through the woodland and, to Alex’s fevered eyes, the landscape seemed to shimmer. A tremor ran through the trees and the ground under their feet. Sunlight raced across the trees and birdsong echoed. Alex stared as flowers bloomed like bad stop motion, jerkily unfurling until they were surrounded by blossom. The woman who strode out was tall, blonde, impossibly beautiful and queenly. She was also very annoyed. The men who followed seemed like heroes to Alex’s dazzled eyes. The woman turned to Steve. “I am most grateful to you. I will not forget this.” She turned to the huge ash, her eyes narrowing. “How dare you!”

Alex stared as the ash tree, at least six feet across, started to dwindle. Branches and twigs retracted as the trunk shrank and faded. Then the monster that had nearly destroyed him was just a sapling.

The woman frowned. “No excuses!” She uprooted the sapling and snapped it in half, throwing each piece in widely separate directions. Everything went quiet and a sense of peace and serenity stole across the small clearing.

After a moment, she turned to Alex. “I apologise for your experience. Please come with me, and I will make sure that you are looked after.” She turned to Steve. “Could you close everything down here? I had better get this poor young man back to the White Hart. I will make a short cut.” She turned back to Alex, her huge blue eyes sympathetic. “Poor, brave boy. I think you have seen enough today. Sleep.”

And for Alex, everything went blessedly dark.

Entrance to Fairyland

The story of Alex from the beginning can be found here.

Rhys followed Jack down towards the station. “So you say that there’s an entrance to Fairyland under York Station?”

Jack winced. “That’s not the best description, and there wasn’t one until a few years ago, but it will do.”

“And we’re going to meet a vampire?” Rhys asked.

“Yes, we are,” Jack said. “Perhaps the most powerful that you will ever meet.”

“And the problem with Fairyland…”

Jack interrupted. “Please can you call it the faerie domain. People will think that you are peculiar.”

“I’m a vampire,” Rhys said, controlling his voice with some effort as they edged past some tourists. “And I’m supposed to be meeting a couple of werewolves, an exorcist, a paladin – whatever that is – and another vampire. I’ve gone past peculiar.” He shook his head. “And the problem was caused by a vampire, a different one from the one we’re meeting.”

“Yes,” Jack hurried his pace. “He’s been destroyed, but it seems like it was quite a performance. I’m sorry that I missed it. There were all sorts of dark things left around. He’s the one who Alex found, the one who had that room.”

Rhys swallowed. “And he isn’t around anymore.”

“No, he was dealt with,” Jack said. “Will you please hurry yourself.”

“What about the other vampires?” Rhys asked, picking up the pace.

“There is only Martin, Dean and you now. There was a bit of a cull, apparently. I missed all the fun. Here they are!”

Rhys recognised Martin and flinched. When he tore his eyes away from that dark gaze he saw two huge Alsatian dogs, or perhaps husky crosses, and two hard muscled men with grim expressions. “Hi,” he said, uncomfortably aware of how lame he sounded.

“You must be Rhys. I’m Martin, this is Dave, the paladin. This is Darren, an exorcist and this is Callum and Ian.” Martin indicated the huge dogs. “Yes, werewolves. They’re staying in fur for this. Come on.”

They strode over the road away from the war memorial and then cut across the Memorial Gardens. “There are a few old tunnels,” Martin said. “Steve is checking them out now and looking for the entrance. Of course, he’s half elfen himself so he has a better chance of finding something.”

“And he’s not affected by iron either,” Jack said. He turned to Rhys. “You are in powerful company. How strong are you?”

“I don’t want to leave Alex in there,” Rhys said. “I don’t know what to expect or what it all means, but Alex is a good lad. It’s my fault.” His voice broke.

“Lady Freydis thought that he would be strong,” Martin said. “And she is usually right.” He thought for a moment. “That is, if she is concentrating. Regardless, we can’t abandon him. The part he entered is likely to be…” He looked at Darren. “How would you describe it?”

“Lethally unsympathetic,” Darren said. He shifted the huge kit bag on his shoulder. “I’ve got some stuff here, if we need it.”

Martin led them around a corner to a grating covering what looked like an old, stone built tunnel. “What we will need most is our wits.” He unlocked the cover and motioned them in. “I hope you have included torches, if only for this part.”

Dave pulled out a torch and shone it down the tunnel. “Is it far?”

Jack shuddered. “I can feel it close enough. I’ve never felt such malice.” He looked around. “Can anyone explain why you didn’t put him down?”

“It’s amplified now,” Darren said. “And I think it was complicated.”

Rhys flinched. He could feel it as well, the heavy oppression of dark swirling evil.

Martin noticed. “How long have you been turned? I mean, how long have you been a vampire?”

Rhys could feel his nails becoming claws and his fangs lengthening as he fought against the fear. “I’m not exactly sure. Perhaps two years.”

Martin was unimpressed. “We shouldn’t have brought you, not so young. Stay close, don’t take risks and play it safe. When we find Alex, he will want to see familiar faces.”

One of the werewolves gave a sharp bark. Jack nodded. “I think if you stay close to Ian and Callum, you’ll be alright. And Martin is correct, as usual. Alex will want to see someone safe and familiar.”

“He doesn’t know that I’m a vampire,” Rhys said.

“When we get out, you are going to have to explain why you took up with a vampire hunter,” Martin said. “Cruelty is not a survival trait.” He peered down the tunnel. “Here we are. Have you opened it, Steve?”

The tall, slim man waiting shook his head. “It was already open. I’m pretty sure that someone has come this way.” He looked anxiously at the group. “It’s bad.”

Darren unzipped the holdall and handed swords to Dave and Martin before taking one for himself. “I think a quick prayer is a good idea before we go into this.”

Martin looked through the portal next to Steve. There was no colour in the misty woodland stretching away from them, and the stench of decay hung in the damp air writhing out of the portal. “I think we need all the help that we can get.”