“I don’t like Ed, that new boyfriend of yours,” my fellow lodger said.
I looked at Steph warily. “We’ve only been on a few dates,” I said. “We’re not serious.”
“He gives me the creeps,” Steph said. “He only turns up after dark.”
“It’s December,” I said. “The sun sets around 4pm. By the time I get out of work, it’s dark so of course we don’t have dates in daylight.”
“He never suggests you go out in the day at weekends,” Steph said.
“We’ve only had a few dates,” I said. “There hasn’t really been a chance for us to meet at a weekend.” I didn’t want to admit my own feeling of unease was growing.
“And two nights ago your nightmares woke me up even though I’m sleeping like the dead in the other side of the house,” Steph said. “Seriously, he’s creepy.” She looked at me closely. “Has he talked about moving in together?”
“It’s too soon for that,” I said. “Because, like I said, it’s just been a few dates.”
“But he has mentioned it,” Steph said. “I can see it in your face. And have you noticed the extra rats around.”
“What’s that got to do with it?” I asked.
Steph shuddered. “I just think that he’s creepy,” she said.
I looked at her thoughtfully. “I don’t think that he’s a serial killer,” I said.
Steph sniffed. “Everyone says that. The bodies will be being dragged out of the basement and a reporter will be interviewing a sweet old lady who will swear that the serial killer was always lovely and polite and she can’t believe it.”
“He’s picking me up tonight,” I said. “I’ll be honest, I’m not sure. I’ll see how it goes.”
“Don’t let him guess what you’re thinking,” Steph almost shrieked. “You’ll never make it home.” She checked her watch. “What time is he getting here?”
“He’s coming around 9pm,” I said. “We’re going to a club.”
“You’re going to the club in the dark,” Steph said. “He drinks coffee, doesn’t he?”
“Yes,” I said. “Why?”
“I’ll be back in about an hour,” Steph said. “Don’t leave the house until I’ve spoken to you.” She grabbed her coat and bag and raced out of the door.
Steph was back before Ed called. “Look at this,” she said, holding up a glass bottle.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Let me show you,” she said and dived into the tiny kitchen. She returned with two glasses and poured a smidgeon into each glass. She took a drink of one. “Go on, try it.”
I looked at her through narrowed eyes and then drank it down. “It’s just water,” I said.
“But I want to add it to Ed’s coffee,” she said.
“What’s the catch?” I asked.
“Well it didn’t hurt me or you, did it?” Steph said. “So how can their be a catch?”
“Do you think he’s allergic to something?” I asked. “Is it infused with peanuts or something?”
“You would have tasted it if it was,” Steph said smugly. “That’s the door!”
I answered the door and brought Ed through to the living room. “Can we have a quick coffee before we go out?” I asked. “I’m parched and you know how expensive the clubs are.”
“Sure,” Ed said, dropping gracefully on the sofa and spreading his arms along the back. He smiled up at me, his teeth gleaming white and his dark eyes burning into mine. I could feel myself drowning in his gaze, losing all sense of time or place. I jumped like a startled cat when Steph came back with coffee.
“Here’s yours,” she said, handing me my usual coffee with milk and sugar. “And here’s yours, Ed, in a nice cup.” She handed the black coffee over to him.
“I’m glad that I’m appreciated,” he said smoothly. “Perhaps you could come out with us as well, Steph? I’m sure we can all have a good time.”
I took a quick mouthful of coffee to cover my expression. There was no way I was going on any date with him after tonight. “Mmm, nice coffee,” I said to cover my reaction.
“I’ll only come out if we go now,” Steph said. “It’s now or never.”
Ed smiled wickedly. “Then let’s make it now,” he said.
I watched him stand with exquisite grace and drain the cup of coffee. He froze and stared at Steph. “What have you done?”
Steph took a step back. “What do you mean?” she said, her voice shrill and nervous.
Colour was draining from Ed. “Are you okay?” I asked.
He stared at me, shaking his head and clawing at his throat. He staggered towards me, his eyes wild, before collapsing in front of me.
“We need to call someone!” I yelled, pulling my phone from my pocket.
Steph held my arm and shook her head. In front of my horrified eyes, Ed was crumbling. First his mouth and throat collapsed into dust, then inch by inch the rest of him vanished, swirling into a sad stain on the carpet.
I turned to her. “What was in that water?” I whispered.
“I didn’t think anything would happen,” she said. “I thought I was being silly.” She looked at me, her eyes wide. “I thought I was letting stupid books get into my head. There wasn’t anything in the water. It was the water itself. It was Holy Water.”
You were my perfect victim. You were young, bright and energetic and I was so glad when I stumbled across you when you visited that fake medium. You were the only one who believed in him because you had just a hint of my presence as I followed you home, but you shook it off and eventually went to bed for your lovely, long healthy sleep.
It was glorious. Here was someone who slept eight hours every night. That is a gift to one of my kind. During the day I could creep into a corner or a shadow and remain an unobserved spirit. I would even hide under the bed. Then, when night fell and you slid between your covers and slept, I could creep into your dreams.
You had never remembered dreams before. When I first crept into your sleepscape I was shocked at how bright it was, filled with sunlight and good memories. But it was also full of your energy and you were worth the effort. It took weeks for me to make it my home. I eroded the sunlight, filled the golden fields with a nameless dread and sent strange shapes to hunt your dreamself. I nibbled at the corners, cutting off the good memories and making the perfect opportunities for every shameful moment of your life to echo. Every dark thought, every insidious fear, every tiny morsel was savoured as I nurtured your sleepscape like a master nurtures a perfect pupil.
You didn’t notice at first. I’ve been around for a very long time and I don’t make mistakes like that. Instead you noticed that you were a little tired, a little run down. You laughed with your friends about your strange dreams and tried changing your diet around. Once I became settled, I took a little more. You were finding sleep harder and harder and the nightmares were scaring you. You cut out all caffeine and went to a counsellor. I went with you, of course, and took notes during your discussions. You gave me wonderful tools to use for your torment.
Then you cut out sugar and went to the gym more. I basked in the dark thoughts that were brimming in your sleepscape and fed to satiation. I gave you sleep terrors and laughed as you woke screaming. I noticed that your boyfriend was a little too perceptive, so I made sure your nightmares featured him. I was relieved when you dumped him, as he was getting close to the truth.
I drained draught after draught from you as you slept, your torrid dreams feeding me to repletion. You, however, lost weight as you tried different diets and exercises. You went to the doctor and got sleeping pills and I celebrated. You had started to wake a little too often and now these wonderful pills kept you in my domain for so much longer.
You were finding it harder and harder and I gave some thought to moving on. The bright, bubbly victim I first met had gone. You were gaunt and pale, with dull eyes and slow speech. You dragged yourself from work to home to sleep to work and suffered. You were now insipid fare. I looked around for a suitable candidate, but you were now far too exhausted to speak to anyone and my choices were becoming very limited. I couldn’t survive long without a host, but you were so drained that you were barely adequate to keep me in existence.
Thank goodness I had my lucky break. You were far too tired to drive but at the same time you were far too tired to see sense. You lost concentration as you drove to your work and so you swerved to miss a fragment of dream and hit a tree. I was frantic, wondering if I would be able to transfer to one of the crowd who rushed around to help you, but they brought you into this place.
I have never been in a hospital before. It is truly a marvellous place. As you slip deeper into a coma and I perch unseen on the end of your hospital bed and plunder the last of your sleepscape, I have so many other potential hosts I can choose from. The patients are not worth considering, but there are plenty of visitors, along with technicians, secretaries, cleaners, maintenance, porters and all manner of healers. The chirpy blonde girl who chats to your unhearing form as she cleans the room is perfect. I wonder what her sleepscape looks like.
“It’s getting quieter now,” Brother Aran said. “And it should be dawn soon.”
Father Dorian nodded. “Yes, it’s quiet.” He sighed and pushed himself up from the wooden settle. His old bones creaked. “They said that it would likely finish before dawn.” He pinched out the single candle. Faint light shone through the shutters. “The wind has stopped.”
“What happened last night?” Brother Aran asked. “It sounded like demons racing around the village.”
Father Dorian picked up the jug of water. “Would you like a drink, my son?”
“I will share some with you,” Brother Aran said. “And we should be able to go out and get more soon.”
Father Dorian rubbed a weary hand over his face. “It will soon be time for the morning worship.” He watched Brother Aran pour the last of the water into two cups and drank gratefully as he listened carefully at the shutters. He took a deep breath and then opened them. Dawn sunlight streamed in.
Brother Aran sighed in relief. “Thank goodness. It sounded like the devils of the infernal pit were in the village this morning.” He looked past the old priest. “And I think that they may have been. There is quite a mess left behind.”
Father Dorian unbolted the door and removed the wooden bar. The courtyard was untouched, and the cottages and pens of the village that the priest and his apprentice had blessed were also safe. Beyond that was chaos. Branches and leaves were tumbled all around and scorch marks ran along the track to the forest. “Thank the Holy One Most High that the forest dwellers warned us.” He winced at the pain in his bones, then carried on. “
Brother Aran swallowed. “What are they like?”
“The forest dwellers?” Father Dorian limped across the courtyard and towards the chapel. He sighed. “I was younger than you when I first saw them. The old priest here was the first man that they met.” He looked sadly past the untouched bounds of the village to the battered meadow. “I forgot to bless the pasture. I blessed the fields, but I forgot the pasture.” He turned to Brother Aran. “They came at the same time as the goblins, but from the forest, not the mountains. When I first saw them, I thought that they were angels.” He shook his head. “They are not. Nor are they goblins or men. But there is such a light in them.” He limped up to the chapel door and rested for a moment. “I am failing, and I shall have to take you to meet them soon to pass on the duty. But you must never tell the lords about them. You must never tell the kings or the soldiers or the merchants. I fear that our good friends would be hunted like goblins, and they do not deserve that.”
“Why should they hunt them?” Brother Aran asked.
Father Dorian looked sad. “Great men fear what they cannot control. These strangers in the woods, they have such knowledge of the stars and the forest. They have a grace in them that shames us mere men. It would shame the lords and they would not tolerate it. And they are kindly to us, in this village. They warned us about this devil’s storm, and they share knowledge of healing. We cannot betray them.”
“They’re not demons, are they?” Brother Aran asked. “Because back in the city they said that it was dangerous to study the stars too much.”
“If they are demons, they are strange ones,” Father Dorian said, opening the chapel door and walking towards the high table. He bowed creakily. “They send for me to baptise their children, and they pay their tithe more readily than many villagers.” The old priest waited until Brother Aran had bowed respectfully. “And after the worship here on a Sabbath, I go to the forest and preach again to them. They listen better than all the villagers combined.” Father Dorian sank onto the bench in the corner. “They do not know who they are either. They study the stars to find out.” He stretched his bad leg out in front of him. “I fear that I will not live to see their answer. Say the prayers, my son, and read the passage of the day. Then, after we have eaten, I will take you into the forest with a gift. You can meet them and we can thank them for the warning.” Father Dorian ran a weary hand over his face. “Because without that warning, I suspect that we would all be in pieces. We owe them our lives, and perhaps our souls. We should take a good gift.”
Brother Aran’s hand trembled as he lit the candles on the high table. After the terror of the storm in the night, now he was going to meet the strangers in the forest. He opened the prayer book and found the right passage. It didn’t matter whether he was scared or whether he was eager. He had a duty. He couldn’t guess what waited in the forest. He had to go, regardless. He was called to bring the faith to whoever needed it. Yesterday he had said the last prayers over an old man in a dark hut and blessed a plough. Today he would go into the wild wood and pray with strange creatures that were not ruled by the king. The dark storm had passed and now they continued, just as they should. He took a breath and started to pray.
Toran looked anxiously at the hillside. “Perhaps we should wait for Lord Deveric’s instructions. This is something new.” There was a murmur of agreement in the group of villagers surrounding them.
Sir Selwyn shook his head. “We can’t risk waiting. So far only cattle have been taken. It could be a child next.”
Toran closed his eyes against the thought. “Goblins come in numbers. We all know that. What if we are overrun?”
“There are only traces on one set of tracks,” Sir Selwyn said. “And it is unheard of for goblins to come down from the mountains before the snows. It may be just one.”
“Lord Deveric should be leading us instead of dancing in Aldberg,” one of the men muttered.
“None of that talk!” Sir Selwyn snapped. “I know you, Berun. You’re brave enough after a drink. I’m sure if you have a beer or two, you can keep up.”
There were a few quiet chuckles around the group but they fell quiet. Berun clenched his fist. “Pardon, Sir Selwyn, but it is the Lord who should protect his lands.”
“I don’t know what he is doing or why,” Sir Selwyn said, “But the tracks are now and we are here now and I can’t risk a real person being taken. It’s bad enough losing the cattle. Istan lost his best bull two nights ago, and Agatha lost half her flock of goats. I don’t know how she will manage. We cannot lose more this close to winter. So my squire, Toran, will go with me to the cave. The rest of you, stay close to the village, with plenty of light, and keep watch. Protect our own.”
Orvin nodded. “We’ve brought all the beasts to the Infield, and we’ve got the dogs as well.” He hesitated. “If there are a lot of goblins, you won’t be able to drive them back.”
“If there are more than three goblins I shall come back here and make better plans,” Sir Selwyn said. “But we need to know. If there is a troop of the goblins already down from the mountains, then we can send word to the king’s court and Lord Deveric will return. He is a good lord.”
“It may be that there is no trace tonight at all,” Toran added. “We blocked the entrance to the cave this morning. It may still hold, and we will be spared more raids.”
“Or we will find out how well they move stone,” Berun muttered. “My grandfather said there were no goblins when he was young, that they came out of nowhere. That it took years to learn how to protect ourselves. What if it is something else new?”
“Enough,” Sir Selwyn said. “It could just be bandits, and they have been around since the time of the ancients. We will deal with whatever we find. Take your posts and pray for a quiet night.”
Sir Selwyn and Toran trotted towards the waterfall in the woods. The moon was bright and the damp path gleamed. Toran found himself peering into the dark shadows. “It took ten men to get the boulder in position to block the cave,” he said. “Do you think that the goblins could have moved it.”
“I don’t know,” Sir Selwyn said, also scanning his surroundings. “Whenever I’ve faced goblins, I’ve always been aware of their numbers and speed, but not their strength. They’re scrawny little things.”
“Do they really carry poisoned knives?” Toran asked.
Sir Selwyn nodded. “Some of them, not all. It’s always the numbers, not the poison on their stone knives. Now, quiet, and keep alert. We’ll leave the horses by the boundary stone.”
The path was tricky in the dark, and it took longer than expected to reach the clearing. The moon was dipping behind clouds and it was getting harder to see the way.
“I don’t want to light the lantern,” Sir Selwyn muttered. “I don’t want to alert anyone, especially if it’s bandits that are raiding.” He stumbled over a tree root and bit back a curse. “But I don’t want to break my neck in the dark either.”
Toran stifled a yawn. “Won’t it be dawn soon?”
Sir Selwyn paused for a moment and thought about their travel. “We’ve got an hour or two yet, lad. And I don’t want to miss them.” He strained to see through the gloom. “This way, I think.”
Toran followed him. There was barely a gleam from the moon and only his familiarity with the path was keeping him steady. “I can hear water.” He murmured.
“I can hear something else as well,” Sir Selwyn whispered. “Light the lantern, but keep it hooded.”
They crept closer to the waterfall, the trickle slowly growing into the roar of a stream swollen by autumn rain. Sir Selwyn moved a little quicker, trusting that the sound of the water would hide their approach. Whoever was there was not trying to be quiet. They could hear the thrashing of branches even over the sound of the falls. “Get the lantern ready,” Sir Selwyn hissed.
Toran held the lantern out in his left hand away from him, his short sword in his right hand. Sir Selwyn had his sword out as well as they crept closer. The moon shone briefly over the clearing. Toran looked at Sir Selwyn. “The boulder has gone,” he breathed.
Sir Selwyn nodded and pointed near the pool. “Look.”
The carcass of a large cow had been dumped at the water’s edge, its broken neck at a grotesque angle. In the brief moonlight, the blood seeping into the water made a dark patch. Sir Selwyn touched Toran’s arm and pointed to the other side of the clearing. Broken ferns and branches made a gap in the woodland. Something had dragged the cow through there. Sir Selwyn eased towards the gap and pointed at some of the destruction. “They went that way,” he mouthed, pointing down the new track. “Follow me and keep the lantern ready.”
It was surprisingly easy to follow the tracks, even in the deep darkness between the trees. Enough moonlight was getting through to give a shape to the darkness, and whoever had gone this way had left a clear path. The going was still slow, though, and painstaking as the men picked their way through the woods in pursuit of the cattle thief.
“It will be dawn soon,” Toran said quietly. “It’s getting lighter. Whoever it is may be coming back this way soon to hide in the caves.”
Sir Selwyn nodded. “Well thought. Keep alert. We’ll hear them before we see them.”
“They’ve headed towards the Far Lea Farmstead,” Toran said. “But there’s no-one there. They’re staying in the village.”
“Then whoever it is will be back soon.” Sir Selwyn said. “We’ll wait here. They are likely to be coming back for the cow no matter what. Get the lantern ready. As soon as they approach, shine a beam right at them and I’ll attack.” He caught Toran’s doubtful look. “Or we’ll know to get back to the village as quickly as possibly to raise the alarm.”
“I can hear something,” Toran whispered.
Sir Selwyn strained his ears, then nodded. “I hear it too,” he said. He worked his sword shoulder and took position behind a sturdy oak. “Get ready, lad.”
As the figure burst through a stand of birch, Toran raised the lantern and shone a beam straight into its eyes. It let out a pained screech and lurched towards Toran, who backed away.
“What in the Name of the Most Holy One is that?!”
Sir Selwyn swore loud, long and hard. “Run, lad, run for your life. Get to the village and warn them. Run!” He raced forward, his sword swinging.
“I’ll not leave my lord,” Toran shouted, but he felt sick. It wasn’t a goblin that they faced, nor was it a man, It was something else like he had never seen. Whatever it was stood a head and a half taller than Sir Selwyn, who was a tall man. But it wasn’t cleanly built and athletic, like the knight. Instead it was a lumpy figure, like handfuls of river clay squashed together by a child. Dull, small eyes gleamed in the light of the lantern and a half formed face snarled as it swung a thick fist towards Sir Selwyn.
Sir Selwyn jumped back and swung. The creature didn’t try to move out of the way and the sword sliced into its arm. But it didn’t get far. “It’s got a hide like boiled leather,” Sir Selwyn yelled. “Keep the light in its eyes.” He swung again.
The creature yowled. Slime trickled from the cut, but the thing still swung again at Sir Selwyn, flinching at the light. Sir Selwyn dodged back but slipped and lost his footing.
“Over here!” Toran yelled, desperately dancing back to distract the thing as it loomed over Sir Selwyn. It turned and lumbered towards him, before suddenly screaming in pain. Sir Selwyn rolled to his feet and took his chance. He sliced the sword across the back of its legs. This time he had got the aim and the power he needed. The thing toppled forward, hamstrung and howling.
“What is it? What is it?!” Toran cried.
“Stay clear of it,” Sir Selwyn said. “It’s not finished yet.”
Toran stumbled further back, directing the lantern at it. “This is no goblin.”
Sir Selwyn stepped away from the swinging arms. “It’s not even a big goblin,” he yelled over the cries of the creature. “It’s a different shape. I don’t know what it is.”
Torun stared at the thing, lumpen and huge, flailing around at them as it howled in pain and frustration. “What do we do?”
Sir Selwyn stared at it. “I’ll stay here,” he said. “You get the men up here with nets. If we can pin its arms, we can finish it off and take the carcass to Lord Deveric. He’ll know what to do.” He glanced at the tops of the nearby mountains, already gleaming gold. “But wait until the sun’s up. There’s no point in taking risks.” He stepped back quickly as the creature managed to lurch closer to him.
“I’m not leaving you,” Toran said. “I mean, I’m not leaving you, sire. They’ll hear the noise down in the village. They’ll come and see.” He skirted quickly away from the creature that had dragged itself to its feet and was hobbling painfully back towards the waterfall and its cave.
“Use the lantern in its eyes again,” Sir Selwyn dodged as the thing flailed madly, trying to get past and to its lair. “We can’t risk it getting underground. We’ll never be able to track it there.”
“The sun is almost up,” Toran said, twisting the horn panel on the lantern to direct a beam. “The light won’t work much longer.”
The creature flung up a thick arm to shield its face from the lantern but then slowed to a halt. Sunlight flooded down the slopes as the sun rose, the rays shining straight into the thing’s face. Sir Selwyn braced, ready to swing again and then stopped. He looked closer, and then leaned forward.
“Watch out!” Toran cried.
“It’s not moving,” Sir Selwyn said. He slowly reached forward with his sword and tapped the shape. It rang like iron on rock. The creature still didn’t move. Sir Selwyn moved closer still and rapped his mailed fist onto the creature’s arm. “It’s rock. It’s solid rock.”
Toran looked at the sunlight shining into the clearing and then back at the shape. “It was trying to get back to the cave before dawn. It couldn’t stand sunlight.” He touched the slashed leg. It was dry like a stone split for building.
Sir Selwyn stared for a few moments more, then turned to Toran. “Get back to the village. Bring back the priest to see what it is and to pray over it, and all the men of the village you can quickly find. Tell them to bring hammers. We’ll smash this thing to rubble before nightfall. And we use the rubble to block the damned cave.” He sank onto a fallen tree, his face set. “Go! And then we will send word to Lord Deveric, and he will know what to do.”
“I told you to stay away from me.” Cana rolled away from him. There was plenty of room in the clearing and the fire was still bright.
“I thought we stayed close when camping in the woods,” Sion said. “To keep warm.”
“It’s past midsummer,” Cana said. “It’s not cold.” She rolled over and looked at the stars peeking through the canopy of leaves overhead. “The fire will keep away wolves and the horses will warn us if anything approaches. Get some sleep. We should reach the castle by noon tomorrow.”
“You won’t come into the castle with me?” Sion asked.
“I’ve been warned about monsters in the castle.” Cana said. “Besides, as you said, I’m just a girl.”
“Tomorrow I go to fight a monster,” Sion said. “This could be my last night on this earth. Won’t you at least make it a little warmer for me.”
“No,” Cana said, shifting her blanket a little further away from him.
“I could come back laden with jewels and gold,” Sion says. “The rumours say that there is treasure beyond counting.”
“And that is why you are going to the castle.” Cana said. “If there was no castle then the villagers could rot under monsters for all you cared.”
Sion laughed. “A man has to make his way in the world,” he said.
“I’m only here because of the steward’s orders,” Cana said. “You could turn back at any time.”
“I received no encouragement from village,” Sion said. “Don’t you fear monsters?”
“We fear them,” Cana said. “And we have learned to recognise them. You are going into this with a black eye because you couldn’t learn to take ‘no’ as an answer and the men of our village are protective.”
“And the women are no fun,” Sion said. “You are sleeping with a knife under your pillow. Don’t think I didn’t notice. Is that why the priest refused to bless me and my weapons?”
“It’s because you wouldn’t confess your sins first,” Cana said. “The whole village heard the argument.”
“Tomorrow I face a blood sucking, immortal creature that has powers that no-one can measure,” Sion said. “Won’t you warm my bedroll, to give me the comfort I need?”
Cana turned back and looked at the greasy, red face, predatory intent clear. “Save your strength. You’ll need it.” She looked coldly into his eyes. “And you’ll never make the castle if you try to force me.”
Sion laughed again. “It’s worth asking, at least.” He placed his sword in the clear ground between them. “There, do you feel safer?”
“The horses will warn of any movement,” Cana said. “Goodnight.”
Cana watched him leave the next morning and then tidied the campsite. Those who tracked the creature in the castle came at all times of year, so she stacked up firewood against the winter. She had lost count of those that she had brought here, seeking their fortune and, perhaps. fame. There had even been a few that had wanted to serve what they thought lived in the lonely fortress that was a short ride down the path. There were raspberries in the forest, and she picked a good basket full before the shadows lengthened. Then she made up the fire and waited.
She became aware of a presence. “You defeated him?”
Calixtus nodded and joined her near the fire. “To be truthful, he was a careless warrior. And he was avoiding me as he searched for the fabled treasure. I think he would have fed you to me to buy time if he could.”
“And you’re unhurt?” Cana asked.
“I can’t be hurt like you,” Calixtus said softly. “But no, he didn’t land a blow. The black eye didn’t help. Let me guess, he tried to flirt with Maria?”
“He tried more than flirting!” Cana said. “Fortunately for him, her husband reached them before she could do much.”
“How is Maria?” Calixtus asked.
“She’s well.” Cana said. “Rhia has had her baby, it’s a boy and they are calling him Calix, after you.” She frowned. “Father John’s joints are hurting him, I think, though he isn’t saying anything.”
“I’ll call in soon and see what I can do,” Calixtus said. “And I’ll have a look at the mill while I am there.”
Cana smiled. “You know so much. Perhaps you should take an apprentice.” She loosened her tunic.
“Perhaps I should,” Calixtus said. He held up his hand. “I won’t need blood for a while. The would-be warrior gave me plenty and there are many animals in the forest. But thank you.”
Cana shook her head. “You have saved us from so many monsters. Now, sit, share some raspberries and let me tell you all of the news.”
With King’s Silver being released on 8 February, I’m revisiting some of my medieval stories. I hope you enjoyed this.
Kent waved the letter at his wife. “It’s the valuation.” He ripped it open. Rupert watched carefully.
“You can’t be thinking of selling it.” Alison said. “It’s been in your family for generations.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “And you know painting is haunted. Look what happened last time it was sent for cleaning.” Rupert nodded. At least someone else was paying attention.
“Those sort of accidents are normal for a house of this age.” Kent looked uneasily over his shoulder. “And we have to face reality. We are in a Grade I listed English Stately Home with a leaking roof. We can’t just get any old tiles from the local builder’s yard and get the cheapest quote plus scaffolding. Did you see how much the only firm I could track down wanted? We need the money.”
“Do you want to sell it?” Alison asked as Kent pulled the letter out of it’s rich, cream envelope.
Kent shrugged. “No, I don’t. It’s part of the place, I was fascinated by the old man in the picture as a child. But sentiment won’t patch the roof.” He absently straightened out the letter. “I wish we didn’t have to.” He straightened his shoulders. “And if I’m not getting a good enough offer, I’m keeping it. There are grants, after all.”
Jenkins stuck his head round the door. “It’s Soames about his business proposition. He’s in the study, sir.”
Rupert waited until Kent and Alison had left the room and inspected the letter. He concentrated. Kent would certainly sell for £350,000 but while the figure was flattering, he could not let the portrait go. It took some work to manipulate it but by the time Kent got back the offer was £35,000, take it or leave it. The old ghost knew that Kent would never settle for that. The portrait would be safe for now. Rupert tapped his ghostly finger on the polished mantle. Now how could he help with this business idea?
It was the longest night of the year and she always found it tough. She loved the sunlight and long days, and the dark, dreary nights pressed down on her like a weight. She sat next to the new woodburning stove and watched the flames flickering. He’d forbidden her to get a stove, of course. “Central heating is good enough for the church in the village, so it’s good enough for us.” The church was always freezing, though, and the central heating had never quite given the warmth of a fire in this draughty room. She added a small fragment of crumbling wood to the stove and watched it crackle into fiery life.
Traditionally it was a time to look back at the last year and on to the next. Last year had been a long, grinding slog with little respite. Her husband had fallen ill, and they had found it was terminal with very little time left.
“I told you to see a doctor about that cough,” she had said.
He had glared at her, his eyes sunk in his greying face but the glint of malice still bright. “I was never going to let you tell me what to do. You were always trying to get one over on me. You never knew your place.”
She shrugged. “Can I fetch you some water?”
“That fool Jeffries has been on the phone,” he had snarled. “They won’t let me change the payee on the life insurance. Did you sleep with him? You should have made me go to the doctor – I bet you worked it so that I wouldn’t.”
She had stared at him for a long moment. She had begged him for months to get a medical appointment but his refusal was still her fault. “It won’t be much,” she said. “I’ll have to go back to work.”
“No you won’t!” he had growled before a coughing fit took him. He sipped some water and gathered his strength. “I’ve made arrangements. There’ll be enough for you to live quietly, but you’re not to go gallivanting around and meeting people, and you’re not to change anything in the house.” His smile under the oxygen mask took on a vicious slant. “When I said I’ve made arrangements, I mean I’ve made proper arrangements. I’ve been speaking to Doctor Adodo and I’ll be haunting you. I’ll be watching every move you make and I’ll be waiting for you at the other side instead of crossing straight over.” The vicious angle of his smile grew stronger. “And you won’t like what happens if you disobey.”
He had not lasted long after that, and the funeral had been particularly grim. Hardly anyone attended apart from the unnerving Dr Adodo with his assistant and a scattering of neighbours who had nothing better to do. Unexpected fog had risen from the grave as he had been lowered down and Dr Adodo had given her a meaningful look. If she hadn’t seen Dr Adodo’s assistant tip dry ice into the grave as the minister said the last prayers, she would have been seriously upset.
The clock in the hall struck ten. She had spent enough time thinking of the past. There was a good film on and a bottle of wine in the fridge. He had been wrong about so many things. She had never stopped him going to see a doctor. She had never slept with Mr Jeffries at his old firm. And he was not haunting her. There had been a few unpleasant incidents at first, when she had started to redecorate, but she had dealt with that. She tossed the last piece of coffin wood onto the fire before standing up and fetching the wine. YouTube really did have a tutorial for everything.
“Good afternoon. I’m Mr Kennington. I was the first Head Librarian when this establishment opened, in 1803, and I’ve haunted here ever since my death.”
The new ghost smiled and shook Mr Kennington’s ethereal hand. “I’m Rose Donnelly.” She smiled, a figure in her late fifties, dressed in ghostly Victorian skirt and blouse and with an air of energy and determination around her. “Apparently I’m attached to the books.”
“As am I.” Mr Kennington nodded. “This is Toby. He passed on the premises two years ago.”
Rose tactfully didn’t ask the details but shook his hand. “You look about the same age as my great-great-grandson.” She said. She smiled a little sadly. “It was a shame that he decided to get rid of the collection, but there wasn’t the money and he needed to sell the house, so that was that.” She rubbed her hands briskly. “Besides, they were practically untouched. He spent most of his time on his top lap.”
“Laptop.” Toby said, without thinking. He was watching Elsie. The third ghost was peering over Rhia’s shoulder at the latest display she was putting up.
“Quite.” Rose said. “Who are the ladies?”
“Elsie has been here since she passed away from the influenza, back in…” Mr Kennington thought for a moment.
Tony drifted over to the display. “1919, apparently.”
Rhia looked over her shoulder. “Do you mind?”
“Rhia is the current Head Librarian.” Mr Kennington said quietly. He took Rose’s arm and quietly drifted back into the stacks. “She is somewhat in love with the owner of the Library, Mr Liam Kelshaw. And she is the first employee who can see us.”
“Is that convenient or inconvenient?” Rose asked.
“It has had its uses.” Mr Kennington said. “I managed to direct her to some items which were sold and secured the future of our library, and I’ve deflected her from a few other bits and pieces that I have salted away for future necessity. I cannot, however fully approve.” He sighed. “The ghost is Elsie. She is a good girl, who has always done her best, but she was never much of a reader. She met her young man here, as it was warm and dry and away from her mother, and promised to meet him here when he got back from the Front.”
“And he never came back?” Rose asked.
“I sincerely believe he was a casualty, rather than an unfaithful beau.” Mr Kennington said. “Unlike Elsie, he was a reader, and had great promise. The Great War took many good souls.” He drifted back to the main room. “Elsie doesn’t always keep up with things.” Mr Kennington said. “But she does her best.”
“That’s my name, there.” Elsie said, pointing at a list on the board in Rhia’s beautiful calligraphy.
“Albert Birkenshaw, yes he died of the Influenza when he was at Etaples.” Rhia said, shuffling through the copied photos. “It’s very sad. A lot of soldiers who survived the Great War were killed by the Spanish Influenza.”
“My Albert is dead?”
Toby laid a gentle hand on her insubstantial shoulder. “It’s has been a while.” He said.
“Albert was an estimable young man, with great potential.” Mr Kennington said. “I was always confident that he would have returned if at all possible.”
“My Albert is dead?” Elsie repeated. “So he won’t come back to meet me here?”
“I’m afraid that he won’t be able to meet you here.” Mr Kennington said. “He would never let you down if he could possibly help it.”
“Albert can’t come here to meet me.” Elsie said. “If he could, he would.”
“Indeed.” Mr Kennington said sadly, as Elsie started to fade.
“And if he can’t meet me here, why am I waiting?” Elsie said. “What if he’s waiting for me outside the Pearly Gates? I can’t be hanging around here.” There was barely a trace of her left, a wisp hanging in the air. “I’ve got to go and meet my Albert.”
“Goodbye.” Mr Kennington said softly to the empty air. “And God Bless.”
“We have to do something.” Elsie whispered. The faded ghost peeped around the corner. “She’s in a world of her own.”
“You can’t interfere with someone’s love life.” Mr Kennington said. In life he had been a head librarian and he still had the habit of authority.
“She didn’t realise that he couldn’t see us for years.” Elsie said. “She’s not going to notice that he’s besotted by her.” Elsie sighed. “It’s so romantic.”
“She may not like him.” Mr Kennington pointed out.
The third of the library’s ghosts drifted over. “It’s up to him,” Tony said. “Unless she’s got a boyfriend somewhere else.” He looked nervously at Elsie and then looked away quickly.
“That’s not the only reason she would refuse.” Mr Kennington said. “After all, the young man is not likely to be a good provider.”
“We only know what Rhia told us.” Elsie said. She looked wistfully between Rhia, sorting out the classic fiction, and Liam, who seemed engrossed in his computer. “Tony, go and have a look at what he’s looking at, there’s a love.”
Tony looked at Mr Kennington, who nodded. The ghost of the teenager, the only one who had any understanding of computers, disappeared through the wall and slid into place behind Liam.
Elsie and Mr Kennington carefully composed themselves as Rhia picked up a faded book and walked passed them to the back rooms. Mr Kennington sniffed as soon as Rhia was out of sight of Liam and wagged a faded finger. “Your cleaner did not attend again this morning. It is completely unacceptable. You need to speak to her. In fact, it was Mr Liam who did that vacuum thing and dusted this morning.”
Rhia managed a smile. “Hello, Mr Kennington.” She sighed. “Liam can’t afford to pay the cleaner any more. He said he’ll take over that job.”
“It is inappropriate for the owner of the library to dust.” Mr Kennington said. “The first owner, his esteemed ancestor, would never had done such a thing.”
“We need new subscribers.” Rhia said. “People aren’t coming here. Liam doesn’t know what to do. He says people don’t like old books anymore.”
“Hi,” Tony said awkwardly as he slid out of the wall behind Rhia. She jumped and turned around.
“Tony, I wish you wouldn’t do that.” Rhia said. “Anyway, I need to get on. I’m going to see if I can do something about this spine before it goes.”
The ghosts watched her as he walked briskly into the back room before Elsie and Mr Kennington turned to Tony. Tony had only been dead three years and had managed to keep up with a lot of the technology. He shook his head.
“I think Rhia’s right. He’s looking at stuff like auctions and articles on the best way to sell old books. He looks pretty down as well.”
“See,” Mr Kennington nodded. “He’s not a good provider. Rhia is mostly sensible and would not chose a husband who couldn’t provide for her and a future family.”
“It’s not really like that these days.” Tony avoided Mr Kennington’s eyes. “Anyway, it looks bad. Perhaps he can ask her for a date once he has sold the library.”
“What?” Mr Kennington snapped, before taking a deep breath. “He can’t sell the library.”
“It’s not going to happen.” Elsie said with fake confidence. “I mean, we live here – if you know what I mean.”
“We’ll probably be still here, but I think they’ll turn this into a bar or some flats.”
“Flats?” Mr Kennington said. He didn’t always remember modern terminology.
“Apartments, small sets of rooms where people live.” Tony said helpfully.
“But then how will my Albert ever find me?” Elsie asked, her pale eyes wide.
“He isn’t coming back.” Mr Kennington said with as much patience as he could manage. “You have been dead over 100 years. If Albert was going to come back, he would have already got here.”
“I waited for him.” Elsie said. “I promised him. I said I would wait and always be in the library whenever I could so no matter what happened while he was away, he could find me.”
“I have overseen this library for nearly two centuries.” Mr Kennington pulled himself to his full height, such as it was, and drifted slightly upwards. He shook his head sadly. “It is all my fault. I have spent far too much time coaching Tony and now that Mr Pierce and Miss Ellis have found peace, well, we are spread thinly.” Mr Kenning shook his head. “Not that I blame either of you,” he said quickly. “It’s been a pleasure to see you come on, young Tony, and I certainly don’t want any more deaths in the library.” His translucent finger tapped at his pale chin. “We shall have to have an advertising campaign in all the appropriate newspapers. Perhaps even a picture!”
Tony shrugged. “People don’t bother much with papers these days.” He said. “Besides, adverts cost money. If Liam can’t afford a cleaner then he can’t afford hundreds of pounds and a marketing manager.”
“He shall have to sell a book.” Mr Kennington said. “It’s a dreadful thing for a library to do, and it should be resisted until there is truly no other way. Fortunately, I have been holding something in reserve.” He drifted towards the classics section. “It was before your time, Elsie, but Charles Dickens visited Leeds.” Mr Kennington sniffed. “He was not complimentary about our good city, but he did sign some copies of that Oliver Twist book.” Mr Kennington’s mouth twisted. He was not a fan of serialised fiction. “I know he signed quite a few, because a rascal came in and tried to force Mr Horace to purchase them.” Mr Kennington shook his head. “There was a dreadful scene and several of the dozen books he brought in fell down the crack at the back of the bookcase. No-one noticed as the rogue got quite vocal and had to be escorted out. Mr Horace threw his books at him afterwards. I couldn’t get out to see what was happening, of course, but the constabulary were called and there was quite a scuffle, Mr Dickens being popular.”
The ghosts drifted over to the classics section. Sure enough, behind the collected works of George Bernard Shaw, was a crack where the thin pine of the original shelves had split. Elsie slid in to check.
“They’re dusty, of course, but they seem okay and you can still see their autographs. But we can’t tell Liam. He can’t see us.”
Mr Kennington looked over to where Liam was slouched at his desk, his head in his hands and a blank look on his face. “We tell Rhia and hope that she can persuade Mr Liam to invest the small sum raised by the books into an advert in the Yorkshire Post. And then,” he said, shaking his head, “We need to work out how to get them respectably married – once Mr Liam can provide properly of course.” He frowned. “Do you think that they will raise enough funds with those novels?” He shook his head. “I shall start working on contingency plans, just in case.” He cast his eye over the two ghosts. “The library must go on!
I stared at the faded roses in the centre of the table. My cup of coffee was cooling in front of me. Tonight was the last night of the dark of the moon. Perhaps it wouldn’t work.
I sat immobile, staring at the fallen petals surrounding the plain black vase. I had made a deal. I should get the results before the last petal fell. Outside the sun was setting. I needed to get up and close the curtains but somehow, after all the weeks since the funeral, I couldn’t quite find the will to move.
I watched another petal drop. I had worked so hard, risked so much, lost so much. I couldn’t bear to see it fail. Another petal dropped. I looked down at my hands. I had lost weight over the last month. My hands looked like claws and my wedding ring was loose.
The room was getting darker. I needed to stand up. I needed to close the curtains, switch on the light, sweep up the fallen petals and admit my failure. I briefly closed my eyes. How could I have failed him so badly? But I had done all I could. I had thrown everything into this.
Outside the wind was rising. I could hear a sighing of the trees. It was all the more reason to push myself to my feet and take care of the house. To go through the motions of closing curtains and lighting the fire as the temperature dropped. I gripped the edge of the table and forced my head to move. By a massive effort of will I looked out of the window. I could hear the sighing of the wind, but the trees were not moving. Moving became easier. I looked back at the table as another petal dropped.
I managed to push myself to my feet. My joints ached and my head swam but I stood and looked fully out of the window. The last gleam of the sun’s rays slipped down and I heard a soft tap at the door. My dead love had come back.