Magic is bad. Would you use it for good?
Hannah Taylor is not about to settle down and get married. Her boyfriend should have known her better than that. But when she finds the aunt who raised her murdered, she and her cousin Sean follow the murderer into another world, challenging her values about family, trust and responsibility. Finding their way around a Victorian Nottingham where magic reigns, they must deal with complications from the past in order to find justice and return home. But will the lure of a destructive magic prove too much?
A Bed of Glowing Embers is a ‘light’ gothic novel, still in its editing phase. Read on to enjoy Chapters 1-3 and please, let me know what you think!
With her hand on the doorknob of her aunt’s house, Hannah hesitated. She had been so sure Aunt Jess would be on her side. But would she? The ball in Hannah’s stomach bounced up and down and sideways. Maybe she should come back later. But she would have to tell some time. And Hannah was like her daughter, surely Aunt Jess would be on her side.
Gah! Hannah gripped the doorknob tighter, hot as it was from an unusually relentless British summer sun. See, this is why they wouldn’t hire you as a policewoman! Make a decision already! Right. No sense in delaying the execution. She took a deep breath, turned the key, and pushed the door open. The foyer was little more than a square yard where you could stand and decide whether you wanted to go into the drawing room, back outside, or up the stairs. In this case, it was another chance to reconsider. Behind door number one: all the familiar cosiness Hannah had grown up with. Door number two was getting more attractive by the minute. It was also still wide open, showing the vivid blue Aunt Jess had applied as layer number… at least nine that Hannah could remember. If there was one thing she and Aunt Jess had in common, it was a love of vivid colours. Still, with these temperatures a vanilla top and cream-coloured wide skirt had seemed the best option. Not least because look-at-me clothes did not fit her mood today. Don’t-look-at-me clothes, or even don’t-see-me clothes, those would be perfect.
Hannah winced. Thinking about colours and clothes would not solve her problem. She was stalling and she knew it. She was trying to fool herself. On purpose! How deep had she sunk? One last deep breath before she closed the front door, picked up the post from the mat, and entered the drawing room.
Flowery sofa, blue cushions, orange rug, family photos everywhere. Yep, still felt like home. Aunt Jess came in from the garden through the double doors, a broad-rimmed, bright red hat on top of her greying curls. As was to be expected, Aunt Jess was the only one in Nottingham who didn’t seem to mind the ongoing humid heat.
“Oh, Hannah, dear! I didn’t hear you come in. Up to my ears in rustling dead leaves, you know. Everything seems to be dying this summer, no matter how much I water.” She pulled off her violet gardening gloves and took the post from Hannah. “I thought you’d be at work today. Come to help me out in the garden? Hello, darling.” She kissed Hannah’s cheek and sailed off into the kitchen.
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here,” Hannah called after her. It would be true… in any other circumstance. As always, Hannah stopped at her favourite photo, the oldest of the lot. A beaming three-year-old Hannah held her newborn cousin Sean. In the top left corner curled a lock of Aunt Jess’s blonde hair, the same colour as Hannah’s and of her mother’s, Aunt Jess always said. The three of them, together. In the picture and in life. A happy family. Life may have changed, but the picture remained, filling Hannah with a nostalgic sense of hope whenever she looked at it.
She turned away from the photo and pulled out a chair from the shiny white dining table. The sunlight bouncing off the yellow parasol just outside reflected in the surface of the table, filling the room with a warm glow. No place like home… to break someone’s heart.
Hannah perched on the edge of her chair, when Aunt Jess emerged from the kitchen with two tall glasses of iced tea, chattering about some girl whose story she’d found online and to whom she’d written a letter. Hannah never understood why her aunt didn’t just email these people, but strangely, most of them were delighted to receive an actual letter and wrote back to her the same way. The stamp collection she’d built up this way was almost as large as the pile of family photos. Today, Aunt Jess waved a moss green envelope bearing a Chinese stamp under Hannah’s nose.
Hannah pulled away. A gulp of iced tea cooled her down a bit, but wasn’t great for the bouncing ball in her stomach. Right. Better get it out quickly.
The sound of the letter opener tearing through the envelope ripped her courage to shreds. Clutching her drink with both hands, she tried to find the words, but the only sound was the soft clinking of ice cubes in her glass. Hannah stared at those instead of her aunt. By now Aunt Jess would know something was wrong. Her gaze would be leaving the sheet of paper in her lap to settle on Hannah’s reddening cheeks. Knowing that did not make it easier to talk.
“What’s wrong?” Aunt Jess’s voice sounded worried, not angry. Yet.
Aunt Jess clasped her hands over her heart and beamed. “Oh Hannah, that’s—!”
“I said no.”
And there it was, after a moment’s puzzled hesitation, the look of disapproval. Hannah’s already sweaty palms heated up even more. Marriage. What was Ben thinking? Did he know her at all? But Aunt Jess adored him. Of course she did. He was just as old-fashioned as she was, in some ways. Same ideas about the man being the provider, although he was always very gallant and not overbearing.
Hannah’s eye was drawn to where she knew was a picture of Ben and her together. He had his arm around her shoulders. More protective than loving. But maybe that’s what you get with all those muscles. She’d always liked that picture, but now she thought she looked pale next to his dark skin. Ben leered into the camera. Don’t look at me like that!
Aunt Jess slid her glass onto the table. “Oh, Hannah…”
Another moment of silence. Hannah hoped she would get away with no more than that, a hope shredded as soon as Aunt Jess found the words.
“How could you do that to the poor boy? You said you loved him! Why would you not want to marry him?”
“I just don’t!” Hannah didn’t think she could get any hotter, but the thought of being stuck with Ben, or anyone or anything for that matter, put her heckles up. “He never said anything about marrying me before, and I just never thought about it. Come on, I’m twenty-four. There are so many things I still want to do and they don’t all include him.”
Aunt Jess leaned over the table. “You two have been together for years. Where did you think it was going to end up?”
“We were just having fun! We never even… I mean… He was always joking about who his next girlfriend was going to be. I had no idea he was getting serious about it. Us, I mean.” Hannah slumped back in the chair. She kept her eye on the fast-melting ice cubes and bit her lips closed. Had she really been so naive? Or had it just been convenient not to consider any consequences? Ben had told her as much last night, after she turned him down. You never think ahead, he’d said. Was he right? That little voice in the back of her head that hadn’t shut up since last night was fighting for attention again. Something about her reluctance to talk to Aunt Jess being proof that she actually agreed with him. But that was not what she wanted to hear. Little voices have a lot to learn before they grow up to be big voices.
Aunt Jess sat up straight, her blue eyes fixed on a potted plant and her hands clasped in her lap. It must be quite a shock for her. She’d always thought Ben was perfect. Attentive, thoughtful. He’d even tried, probably against his better judgement, to pull some strings in his department and get Hannah a job with the police. He was nice, sure! But… just…
Aunt Jess sighed. “I just didn’t expect something like this from you.”
Now that was just mean. “Don’t compare me to Sean! That’s not fair, he’s a… a…” Aunt Jess’s pained look was all she needed. “I’m not like him. I don’t take the easy way out. I know when people aren’t giving me the best deal, and this was not the best deal for me.”
“You think marriage is a deal? Some kind of impersonal transaction? Did you stop to think how Ben feels?”
“Of course I did!” The heat inside her began to surpass the heat outside. “But that doesn’t mean that I should just comply! I’m not going to marry him because I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
Aunt Jess took a sip of iced tea. “Naturally. But you should have seen this coming. Everyone else did.”
“Then everyone else can marry him! You’ve never needed a man! Why should I be dependent on one?”
Aunt Jess looked like she’d been slapped in the face. “Just because you’ve never seen me depend on a man, doesn’t mean I’ve never needed one. Look at what you’ve been doing the past two years. You haven’t held on to one job for more than a few months. Ben wants to take care of you. Why don’t you let him?”
“I don’t need him to. I’ve never once been fired. Those jobs just weren’t… the right deal.” Take care of her. What other superfluous things would he bring to the table? A set future? Children? She shuddered.
“Hannah, you’re taking these things too lightly. You think everything has to be easy, because it always has been for you, but you need to grow up. At some point you will need to make decisions in life that are more difficult than whether or not you should join the police. It’s a blessing having someone around to help you make those decisions, not a burden.”
“Unless they’re the wrong decisions, like Sean makes all the time.” Ah, yes, the perfect way to divert attention: hit them where it hurts. Hannah opened her mouth to apologise for her hot-headed reply, but the ice in Aunt Jess’s voice was enough to cool her down thoroughly.
“Are you sure you’re not making the wrong decision right now?”
That hurt. Even more than a comparison to Sean. The only other time Aunt Jess had ever questioned her judgement was when Hannah decided she wanted to join the police. Aunt Jess had been right then, but she should not have chosen this moment to remind Hannah of that. That was low. “Yes. I thought you’d at least credit me with that much sense.”
Hannah stood up, traipsed into the garden and stepped over the little wooden fence that separated the garden from the side street. Aunt Jess called her back, but she didn’t listen. Without even a goodbye, she started back to her apartment, fighting the red in her peripheral vision.
The one thing she had expected Aunt Jess to do, support her in this decision, had been denied. Anger, she’d counted on. Disappointment, yes, and sadness. But how could Aunt Jess question her judgement on whether or not she wanted to marry someone? That’s the rest of your life! Talk about thinking ahead!
Halfway down the road she stopped, brushing back a blonde curl that resisted being tied into a ponytail. Wiping her forehead with the back of her hand, she pulled her sunglasses from the tiny blue handbag she carried, and put them on. The wrong decision! She bit back a frustrated growl and stomped on.
And then Aunt Jess had compared Hannah to Sean! In their extended family of three, the percentage of black sheep was quite high. Ben had never told either Hannah or Aunt Jess what exactly he had arrested Sean for, but they both knew they had Ben to thank for the suspended sentence. Not that it had made any difference. Hannah had tried to talk to her cousin, too. They did have a special bond after all. In fact, the only secret Hannah kept from Aunt Jess involved Sean. But he had waved away her concerns, making her feel like an accomplice to whatever he was into.
But a refusal of marriage was not a criminal act!
Around the corner another river of asphalt flowed down the hill. In front of a cafe a fat man sat melting into his chair under an orange parasol, sipping diet cola and sweating profusely. Most pedestrians tried to stay in the shade on the other side of the street, but in this part of town even the sunny side was quite busy, so Hannah had to slow her pace. Her train of thought was still thundering along, though.
She could have handled things better. She could have been more mature about it and shown that she wasn’t as unprepared to handle grown-up life as her aunt seemed to think. If only it wasn’t so mindbendingly hot! This was Britain, why wasn’t it raining?
And why was this idiot of a man blocking her path? She almost bumped into him. I’m thinking here. Go away! The idiot didn’t move. Jaw clenched, she yanked off her sunglasses and looked up at him to tell him exactly where she thought he should go. But then her eyes met his and she recognised the grinning face of her cousin.
“Got out of the wrong bed this morning, Nana?” he sneered. Being about a foot taller than Hannah, he literally looked down on her.
“Stop it, Sean, I’m not in the mood.”
Hannah ignored him and walked past. The only thing she could expect was more sarcasm.
But he didn’t give up. He turned and joined her. “Where are you going?”
“Okaaay, so where have you been? It’s only eleven, and when you take a day off, that’s usually the time you get up.”
“That’s not true! I…”
His eyes twinkled. He was only trying to aggravate her. And succeeding, as usual.
That frustrated growl finally came out. “Why are you following me?”
“What’s wrong with you anyway? Anything I can do?” His face had gone serious. He must have realised this was not the time to provoke her.
She swiped her forehead again. “Ben proposed, and I turned him down. And now your mum is angry.”
Sean made an effort not to laugh, but failed miserably. “Oh, I see! Well, she shouldn’t be. I told her you wouldn’t want him as your slave forever.”
She skidded to a halt. “My slave? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, come on! He’s always following you around. Like a little dog, making sure you have everything you wanted. D’you think he would’ve ever gone skydiving if it weren’t for you? Has he ever opposed you or given you a reason to fight with him? Noooo. He’s just been there night and day, laying offerings by that great big pedestal he has you on.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. We were just having fun, that’s all.” She wrinkled her nose. “At least I thought so.”
Sean shook his head. “And I thought you were supposed to be the smart one.”
“So what are you, the pretty one?” How dare he be so cheerful.
He put on a quasi-serious face. “No, Hannah, I’m the bad egg. I would say I’m the rebel, but I guess it depends on the angle from which you look at it.”
Here we go again. He babbled on, an upbeat version of the story she’d heard so many times before. With Hannah being so perfect, someone had to provide some balance, blah blah. In the frustrated version of this speech he had once accused her of wanting to join the police just to spite him.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” she interrupted his monologue, glancing at him. He should have been a model, or an actor. That would probably have been more lucrative than this borderline or sometimes blatantly illegal stuff. He wasn’t exactly handsome, but his face was interesting nonetheless. Her best friend, a French girl, once said that he looked very British, with his thin frame and bony features, topped with shaggy light brown hair.
“Nope!” Sean said, still grinning. But then his grin turned mischievous. “Actually yes, I think I’ll go and turn mum against you. She might disinherit you and I can finally claim my rightful place in the family.”
“Did he cry?”
“Did he cry when you said no? He’s such a softie, I bet he cried.”
She sighed. “Unbelievable, Sean. He’s with the police, he’s not a softie.”
“That’s not a no. He did cry, didn’t he!”
“Stop it! I’m not discussing this with you if you only want to make fun of us.” She glared at him, but all he did was smirk. Her palms itched. “No, he didn’t cry! Just go home, will you. Be juvenile with your friends or something.”
“Fine, I’ll leave you to wallow. Eat some ice cream, you’ll feel better!”
“Thanks, grandma, I will.”
“Hey, I’m only trying to help.”
“No, you’re not.”
“No. I’m not.” His smile became friendly. “Hey, I’m sorry. You’ll get over it.” Then he put on a pair of flashy, mirrored sunglasses and was back to being Sean. “Well, I’m off to mum, see what I can do about that inheritance. Byeee!”
She stared at his back for a moment, then put her sunglasses back on and continued on her way home. Typical Sean, never serious about anything. Hannah used to be the same, but here was another piece of evidence that she had matured.
Still, even Sean said she’d been unfair to Ben. How many more people would have to say it before she acknowledged it? Because they were right, of course. With a sigh she came to a halt, taking off her sunglasses again and squinting in the harsh sunlight. Why had she let it go on this long? Why had she not even realised that she hadn’t been in love with him for such a long time?
Ben had always been a good friend. That was probably why. He had become such a familiar face, almost like family already, that even Aunt Jess hadn’t seen Hannah’s feelings change. During all the holidays together, all the time spent after work together, and all the dinners at Aunt Jess’s, he’d become more like a brother than a boyfriend. One she maybe kissed a little differently.
Hannah made a face at her reflection in a storefront. A woman behind the window pulled up her eyebrows, which Hannah ignored. She wouldn’t even miss his kisses. And as for anything more… Wasn’t that the reason she’d never believed him to be serious about their relationship? Guilt poked her in the stomach. Very mature, Hannah…
Ben had been the main reason why she’d taken up target shooting. Without him pushing her, that would have remained a half-formed idea, but she had turned out to be quite good at it. She had loved their holidays together, the donkey safaris, the mountain climbing, the horseback riding and the archery. But getting married? His proposal had done one good thing: show her that this was not what she wanted. At all.
Even though he was perfectly sweet, perfectly reliable and not even boring, she kept thinking: do something naughty. Come on, do something unexpected for a change. She wasn’t going to marry a man whose every move she could predict!
But her ignorance had cost her a dear friend. She never meant to hurt him. Or Aunt Jess, for that matter. She should go back. Saying sorry to Aunt Jess would not be as complicated. She’d had some practice. After all this, she didn’t even care that Sean would be there to see her grovel.
Feeling lighter already, Hannah hurried back along the street for the third time that morning. But when she reached Aunt Jess’s house, her heart jumped. The blue door was ajar.
Sean was already here. But why leave the door open? He couldn’t have been so excited about talking to Aunt Jess that he’d forget to close it?
Sunglasses in hand, Hannah pushed the door open and crossed the hallway to the living room door. “Aunt Jess, I’m sorry, I—”
Halfway open, the door stuck and she bumped into it. A curse on the other side. The door gave way, but all Hannah could see was her cousin’s back as he moved out from behind it. Her skin tingled. Something was wrong. A fraction of a second later the realisation hit. A gun. In Sean’s hand. Footsteps. Running. A man with black Beethoven hair, wearing some kind of heavy cape-like overcoat, disappeared into the garden. Sean followed him over the little fence.
Hannah’s hand moved towards the phone in her bag, but hovered as the rest of the room came into view. Her breath faltered. Dropping her sunglasses and her bag, she covered her mouth with her fingers and sank to her knees. Aunt Jess! No! On hands and knees Hannah moved towards the woman lying in the middle of the room, a large red stain covering her chest. No, no!It wasn’t Aunt Jess. It couldn’t be! But it was. Frantically checking for a pulse, Hannah fought the growing sense of futility until it suffocated her and she leaned back, gasping for air. She pressed her palms against clouding eyes. Why? Who would do this?
Staring at the dead woman in front of her, Hannah took the hand that had fallen over her aunt’s stomach and caressed it, clutching the fingers to her chest. Oh, Aunt Jess… How did this happen so fast? Hannah had only just left. She swallowed. And now she had to leave again. Sean had gone after the killer. He could be in danger too. With a last kiss on her aunt’s hand, she placed it back on her stomach. When she closed the eyes staring at the ceiling, she let her fingers brush the cheek. Bye, Aunt Jess.
Forcing back her tears, she ran into the side street. For a moment she hesitated, searching for a hint on where Sean and the attacker had gone. The rows of houses were baking in the sun. A dog had found a tiny patch of shadow to fall down in. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
The sound of a car braking ripped through the air, followed by angry shouting. Hannah sprinted in the direction of the noise. Left here, then right. Halfway down the road one of Aunt Jess’s neighbours was talking to an angry woman in a little red car.
“Just like that! Yes, I saw them! And in this heat!”
“Mr. Singh!” Hannah shouted, “Which way did they go?”
Mr. Singh pointed to the right. “Down there, Hannah. Was that Sean with a gun?”
“Call the police!” She raced to the corner, just in time to catch a glimpse of them across the square. Come on, Sean! He still hadn’t caught up, chasing the man up the stairs leading to Mill’s Park.
Hannah shot after them, feet pommelling the steps. At the top of the stairs… nothing. Panting, she kicked the ground. Too slow! She scoured the field surrounding the windmill. She wasn’t that far behind. Where could they have gone? Her eyes darted around. The windmill, locked. The field, deserted. They couldn’t have doubled back. Where else was there?
On her left was the old, overgrown wall where the miller’s cottage had stood. That was too high to climb without a ladder. Oh! The gate! She had never seen the weathered wooden door open before, but now it was ajar. A fleeting moment she wondered where it led, but then she bridged the few yards to the opening and with her hand on the post, flung herself through it.
The next moment she was on the ground in the dark.
* * *
The ground was soft and smelled of pine needles. But there was more underneath her than just forest floor.
Sean moved and grumbled, “Get off me!”
She jumped to her feet and helped him up. “What happened? Where is he? Where are we? Why is it so cold? And dark…” She looked around, but the killer was long gone, leaving them alone in an inky bubble streaked with the even darker shadows of thin, straight tree trunks. In the dark she couldn’t even make out if he had left footprints. She rubbed her eyes with her palms, trying to make sense of the situation.
Sean rubbed the back of his head and grunted, but said nothing. Hannah tried to read his face, but in the scant moonlight that seeped through the branches, she couldn’t find anything more than she already knew. Something she felt just as bitterly.
“Oh Sean!” Whimpering, she leaned her head against his shoulder and he put his arms around her. There was no need to say anything, the loss weighed as heavily on him as it did on her. She pressed her forehead into his t-shirt and tried not to cry. But when she turned her head, her cheek against his chest, and she opened her eyes, the fabric in front of her darkened where Sean’s tears fell. A sob shocked her body and she buried herself in his arms. Aunt Jess, her Aunt Jess, was the sweetest person in the world. And Hannah had left her in an argument. She should have stayed! She should have at least said sorry!
How long they stood there, not wanting to go back to reality, but simply holding on to that little bit of safety and familiarity, she could not tell. The fact that they had no idea where they were and how the world around them could suddenly have switched from an oppressively hot summer morning to a chilly night, was of little importance next to finding themselves without the one person who had always been there. Around them, sometimes between them, but always close, Aunt Jess had been a mother to both of them, guiding them, supporting them and loving them. She had always been the one they would go to for help. But now Aunt Jess was gone. Who would help Hannah with that?
When she finally let go of Sean, she shivered and he rubbed her arms to help her get warm.
“Ehm…” she said while drying her cheeks, “I guess we should find out where we are, so we can go back.”
He stared at the ground, then took a deep breath and nodded. “Yeh, we can’t stay here forever. Wherever we are.”
Hannah took in her surroundings, but nothing familiar stood out. All she could see in about a ten yard circle around her were silvery patches of pine duvet. As far as she knew, none of the parks and woods around Nottingham were so dense that only the tops of the trees still bore needles. Certainly nowhere around Mill’s Park.
She reached for her bag, but it wasn’t there. Must have dropped to the floor when she saw…
“D’you have your phone?”
Sean reached into his pocket, and handed her the device. No reception. Naturally. No internet either. Great. Flashlight would have to do. A glint at her feet caught Hannah’s eye. The light from the phone reflected on the matted surface of the gun. Using the hem of her skirt, she lifted the weapon by the barrel. Her stomach turned. Instinct told her to throw the awful thing as far away as she could, but she’d have to keep it until she could turn it over to the police. But where was the nearest station? Where was the nearest anything? To the left, darkness. To the right, creepiness. Straight ahead, trees. Behind her— Oh, decide already! She took a few steps in a random direction, walking more steadily when Sean followed her.
“This is so weird…”
Sean shrugged. Hannah bit her cheek. No, weird was hardly the word. But there were too many questions swimming around in Hannah’s brain to think of the proper word. This was Sean, he shouldn’t need the proper word from her. Talk to me!
“So what happened to you?”
He rubbed his head again. “I followed him through the gate, and when I saw I had run into this non-existent wood in this non-existent darkness, I stopped, and he hit me from behind.”
“Let me see.” He bent over, and she raised her hands to check him. They were shaking. Biting her lips, she examined him as well as she could in the dark, eventually establishing there was nothing worse than a bump on his head. He straightened, and for a moment neither of them knew what to say. Sean coughed and folded his arms over his chest.
Hoping her voice would sound steady, Hannah asked, “Who was that? Do you know him?”
“No!” For Sean, that was a fierce reaction, making Hannah almost glad she couldn’t see the expression in his eyes. “I don’t hang out with murderers!”
“I didn’t say that! I meant, did you recognise him. You could have seen him somewhere. She must have known him, right? Otherwise, why…” Her lower lip quivered and she took in a sharp breath. Lowering her voice and trying not to sound too bitter, she forced herself in a different direction. “Why didn’t you shoot?”
He hesitated a moment and looked away. “I don’t know how.”
“What? What about all those selfies with your mates, posing with guns?”
“It was a fake, all right? I’ve never shot a gun. I was afraid I’d hit someone else instead!”
The weapon weighed heavily in Hannah’s hand. “Well, this is not a fake. We saw what it did…” She swallowed, pushing away the memory by glancing around again, searching for any way out of this nightmare. “I think there’s a sign there.”
Her voice mingled with his.
“There’s a light there.”
He was right. A tiny light shone in the distance. The far distance. On the other side, not five yards to the left of where they stood, a path cut through the trees. It was too dark to tell if the white post a little further down was actually a sign, but Hannah had already made up her mind.
She took a step to the left. “Maybe the path will take us to the light. And anyway, the sign might tell us where we are.”
He looked at the light again and opened his mouth, but then turned. “Okay, let’s do that.”
The path was hardly more than an animal trail. Perhaps it had once been well-used, but now most of it was covered by long grass and weeds, leaving only a narrow strip of sand to walk on. A very old and weathered white wooden arrow told them that Nottingham should be a quarter of a mile to the left of where they stood.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Sean, “There’s nothing like this forest anywhere near Nottingham. I say we go back to the light and see if we can at least borrow some warm clothes.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a different Nottingham…?”
“Well, sure, there’s Nottingham-on-Avon, High Nottingham, Nottingham-by-the-Sea…”
When she shot him a poisonous look, he continued, “The light probably means there’s a house there, we could ask the people…”
“It could just be a lamp or something! The sign says that Nottingham—or at least some kind of village or something—is a mile and a half away, we’ll have more chance of finding someone who can help us.”
“The light is closer.”
“It’s cold! I don’t want to do the extra walking if it is only a lamp.”
He threw his right hand in the air as if he was flinging something over his shoulder. “Fine! We’ll do it your way, as usual.” He grumbled some more, but set off in the direction of ‘Nottingham’. After about ten minutes they came to the edge of the forest, where the path sloped downward. Soon a bank rose on one side, while thick bushes grew on the other, blocking even more of the walkway.
Sean held back so Hannah could lead. She would have preferred to walk together, but the hedgerow made that impossible. Sean was unusually quiet. Although that made sense considering what had happened, it only made Hannah’s thoughts circle back to the same horrific image over and over again. After a few minutes she couldn’t take the quiet anymore.
“My feet are frozen. I’ve got sand in my sandals.”
He didn’t answer. Of course not. Ridiculously mundane thing to complain about. But what else could she say? Not wanting to disturb him any more, Hannah walked on in silence, trying not to drown in her own thoughts. How much farther would they have to go? They passed a bend and just then a village came into view. Lights shone behind the windows of several houses, and what seemed to be a pub at the end of the road.
Hannah had never before been so happy to see a pub. She upped her tempo and turned to Sean with a smile. “You see? I told you there would—”
She stopped. He was gone.
Roderick put his glass on the woodworm-ridden table in front of him, playing with its stem for a moment. He would run out in a year or so. Not that it mattered, really. Nothing mattered, really. He picked up the bottle and filled his glass again. It was more habit than enjoyment nowadays. But when it’s the only thing you do…
He stared into his wine, the flames of the fire behind it leaping around in the red liquid, dancing like the people at the parties they used to have up at the castle. Now he had only their memories to keep him company. And the wine. For another year or so.
His gaze drifted from the wine and settled on the fire. He frowned, as if he saw it for the first time. Why had he even bothered to light a fire tonight? He came here almost every night, but he never lit a fire. What was different today?
He glanced around, casting his eye over the long tables and benches, lined up and dusty, as always. The workers hadn’t used them in years, nothing new there. The comfy chairs in the alcove by the tall windows, flowery patterns fading, the little tables in between; they were all there, exactly as they always were. No-one to fill them or move them. No-one but Roderick.
He sighed and was reaching for his glass when there was a knock on the door. His mouth half open in anticipation of the wine, Roderick froze. Staring at the door, he had half convinced himself he’d imagined it, when another knock sounded, louder this time.
He got up and opened the door, eyeing the visitor through shuttered lids. Tall, but quite thin, with white skin and straggly hair, the young knocker would not easily be mistaken for a gentleman. And why this state of undress? Wearing nothing but torn breeches and some kind of undershirt, this man was not merely a stranger, he was strange. And not very impressive.
While Roderick observed his odd dress, he noticed that the strange stranger returned the look.
“Hi. Can I come in?”
Then, remembering some of his past charm and hospitality, Roderick smiled. “Certainly.”
He stepped aside and waved the newcomer to the corner of the long table where he had put his bottle of wine. A visitor, even a peculiar one, was very welcome after all this time.
Sitting down on the bench closest to the fire, the young man looked around. “What is this place?” he asked, “Some kind of factory?”
Roderick scratched his chin. It must be difficult to distinguish the building’s purpose after all these years, especially with only the light of a small fire in the capacious dining hall where he had come to drink. The majority of the complex was actually situated on the other side of the mill yard, but there weren’t any chairs there. Nor glasses.
He ducked behind the counter that stretched along one side of the hall and came up holding another wine glass. “It used to be,” he said as he poured the visitor a drink, “a textile mill. Lace, to be precise. But that was back when my hair was the colour of yours. It has been closed down for years. I come here every so often to reminisce and to drink to good times past.”
He handed the stranger the glass, but the boy just put it on the table with a soft ‘thanks’ and tapped the stem with his fingertips.
Roderick sat down opposite, scrutinising his visitor. “Excuse me for asking, but why are you not dressed? Or at least wearing a coat?”
The boy frowned. But whether that was due to anger or confusion was hard to tell. “Well… Where I was before… it was hot.”
“It was hot. At the end of October?”
His eyes widened under another frown. “October? It’s the middle of July!”
He was undoubtedly a very odd fellow. It took Roderick a while to pick one of the various questions this man’s arrival prompted, during which the newcomer kept fidgeting with his wineglass, and glancing around without really seeing. He was making Roderick nervous just looking at him.
“Can I help you in any way?”
“Nah. Well… maybe. I, er… came here looking for a warm place, but I left my cousin going the other way, towards where the sign said would be Nottingham.”
Roderick waved his hand to set the boy’s mind at ease. “Oh, but then he will—”
“…She…” Roderick hesitated before he finished his sentence. “Will be fine, the village isn’t far. Why did you not go with her? You would have had more chance to find someone in the village. Besides, a woman on her own in the dark…”
He snorted. “Yeah.” Then continued, “We sort of… disagreed, so we split up.”
“She will be fine,” Roderick repeated. What could possibly have possessed this young man to leave a family member, and a weaker one at that, alone in the woods? Even if the last robbery had been some time ago. He frowned at his visitor. At least the boy finally picked up his wine and took a sip. Apparently it wasn’t really to his taste. He could be a little more appreciative. “Don’t you like it? It’s a good year.”
“More of a cider man.” He gave a little apologetic smile and then tried another sip. He still made a face, but it seemed to defrost him somewhat.
Roderick studied the boy as he fidgeted and shivered. After all these years. Years of solitude, and the first visitor was him. An undressed, uncultured, dare he say unfit specimen. If this was the alternative to solitude, which was to be preferred?
Yet, perhaps this was too quick a judgement. His current apparel might belie his habitual behaviour. Roderick took a sip of his own wine, while his visitor pulled on his nose. Perhaps not.
* * *
Sean took another sip of wine, even though it made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth. The alcohol warmed his body, at least, but his thoughts remained icy. He shouldn’t have left Hannah. Even if she was a controlling witch. She needed him right now. And he hated to admit it, but he needed her too. Maybe more. Probably more. He shook his head to lose the thought.
Why did she have to be like that? Even now! They should be together in this! But he was the one who left. Left her… where? In a forest on a hot, dark, cold October morning in July. Was he just going crazy?
He glanced at the man opposite. Dark blond hair, grey eyes, probably about forty years old. He might have asked this man if he was going mad, because the man looked sharp enough to be able to tell him, except that he wore ridiculously old-fashioned clothes. Like, at least a hundred years old. If this man hadn’t been so surprised to see him, Sean would have thought that he belonged with that bastard they chased through the gate. Another old-fashioned nutter. And a dangerous one at that.
Sean stood up. “I have to go. I have to find my cousin. She could be in danger.”
The man nodded, but then held up a finger. He rose as well, climbed the stairs in the corner, and returned a minute later with a brown heap over his arm. He gave it a good shake before handing it to Sean. “Take this. I don’t think it’s really your size, but at least it will keep you warm.”
What was that? For a moment the emptiness inside Sean was filled with curiosity. It even put a little grin on his face, while he put the coat on. As he ran his fingers across the shoulder cape, he remarked, “This place has been closed for a while, hasn’t it?”
The man drew himself up, eyebrows together. “I’ll admit it is a little out of date, but you don’t seem to have much choice, do you?”
Ah, faux pas, the bane of Sean’s existence. He had told himself not to care about them anymore, but he couldn’t help blushing. Even the caretaker of a dusty, abandoned factory can have pride in his job. He thanked the older man, and turned towards the door.
“You… do know where you are going?”
Fair question, unfortunately. The man had called Nottingham a village, but as far as Sean knew, Nottingham had been more than that since the Middle Ages, let alone by Victorian times. Yet another confusing fact to add to the mix. Partial thoughts and feelings rolled around in his head, none of them making any sense. The only thing sharp in his mind was the image of his mother, lying on the floor, staring into nothingness.
The man’s voice floated through the fog in Sean’s head. “Forgive me, but you seem to have little direction. How did you happen upon this place?”
A log in the fire cracked, bringing Sean back to the present. “We were following… a man, who led us to the forest.”
“Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. We lost him in the woods. I was hoping to find him here.”
“None have passed by here. But if he led you to Nottingham he may be from the area. What did he look like?”
Sean frowned. That face would be on his mind until he saw its eyes turn cold. “He had black hair and dark eyes. Tall, about my height. And he wore Victorian clothes, like you, only with a long, dark blue coat.”
A muscle twitched in the older man’s cheek. “Tell me, did he have short hair, or was it perhaps a bit longer than usual?”
“Depends on what you call usual, but it was longer than yours and mine.”
The caretaker breathed in through his teeth. “Then you were robbed.”
Sean’s lips tightened. “In a way. Do you know him?”
“There is only one man around here whose hair covers his neck. Unfortunately, he is also the owner of most of the land around here, including this old mill. Which means it will not be easy to regain whatever he took from you.”
His words stabbed Sean in the gut. “I’d say it would be impossible. He killed my mother.”
The man narrowed his eyes, but said nothing. Not that it would have helped if he had. All he did was fill up Sean’s glass again. Sean stared at it, trying to silence the screaming in his head raging to get out. He focused on the face appearing in the liquid. If he didn’t find that man, nothing else mattered.
Hannah would have to wait a little longer. Sean sat down again and picked up his glass.
“So he’s the boss around here, huh? That should make him easier to find.”
“He lives in the castle…”
“Of course he does.”
“But you can’t just go in there.”
“Oh can’t I?” Part of Sean was hoping the man would get angry—somehow the thought of a fight appealed to him—but his host remained quite calm.
“No! He’s powerful. He has magic.”
Wait, what? His mouth half open, Sean blinked. First Victorians and now magic? Yes, it would explain the transition from morning to night and ending up in a forest in the middle of Nottingham, but come on! “Magic, right! Like swish and flick? Pointy hats and robes?”
“Don’t be foolish! You must be aware that magic is the very reason he is ‘the boss around here’, as you put it. The only reason, I might add, for he hasn’t done much to merit his position.” A quick look around. “I really shouldn’t tell you this, because one never knows if he is listening, but take this mill for example. He built it for his own profit, but the people in the village required the work, so they came, even without pressure. However, he neglected to take proper safety precautions and after a few accidents he had to close it down, leaving all those people without work once again.”
“What kind of accidents?”
“Oh, nothing too serious at first, just bad maintenance, machines breaking down and all that, but in the end one of the parts broke off under the pressure and hit someone in the head. Poor girl died instantly.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with magic.”
Again, his host took the bottle and emptied it into Sean’s glass. “Naturally. My intention was to show you his inadequacy as a leader.”
Right. Rubbing his eyes, Sean sighed. Maybe it would be easier to just agree to what this man said. Any information he could give Sean about his mother’s killer would be welcome, even if it turned out that the truth was warped by this man’s mind. Besides, he hadn’t been able to come up with any other explanation to the situation yet.
“So, what you’re telling me is, don’t go after him or he’ll say abracadabra and some demon is going to eat me alive.”
Now it was the caretaker’s turn to stay silent for a moment and drink his wine. “You have a vivid imagination. I doubt whether he will summon a demon just to have you killed when he can just as easily shoot you, but if it will keep you away from the castle, by all means believe what you will.”
“So no demons.”
“Not that I know of.”
“What then? Does he look in his crystal ball and sing incantations, or does he brew potions from bats’ teeth?”
The man pursed his lips. “Again, I don’t wish to seem inhospitable, but it is getting rather late and if my advice is not to your liking, sir, then I suggest—”
Sean interrupted him with a gesture. “Nonono, I’m sorry. You’re right, okay?” What happened to agreeing with him? “I’m sorry, it’s just… I’m not used to magic being… real, you know? I just have this reaction of,” he raised his hands and widened his eyes, “‘Ooh, magic, I’m so scared!’ But I don’t know how else I got here, so I guess I should listen to you. Can I have some more of that wine?”
His glass was still full, but his host seemed to accept his way of reconciling. “Of course, I’m no authority on the subject, but I believe he uses spells.”
“What kind of spells?”
“That’s really all I can tell you about it. I haven’t ever seen him use any spells, I just don’t know.”
Sean shook his head, his floppy locks brushing his forehead. “No, that’s not what I mean. I mean, what does he gain from this magic?”
“Ah, I see.” The man scratched his chin. “Well, he is excessively rich, but so was his father before him and his father before that. He is used to getting his own way. I heard he once put a pig’s tail on one of his nursemaids for attempting to bathe him when he was playing.”
Sean raised an eyebrow. “Yes, truly evil…”
Glaring, the older man tightened his lips. Sean could kick himself. Agree, Sean, you were going to agree. He raised his glass in apology, which the other man accepted. Or at least he started talking again.
“Then, when he was older, a girl refused to kiss him and he made her tongue wither in her mouth.”
Sean grimaced. “You’re making this up.”
“I assure you, I saw this girl’s shrivelled tongue myself!”
Sean raised his glass to drink, looked at it, made a face, and put it down again. “He doesn’t sound so scary to me. What you’re telling me is that he’s a spoilt brat and a bad business manager. If all it takes is a rotting tongue to get you people scared, then I’m—”
“Ah, but you’re mistaken. Unfortunately, it’s not just his powers that the people are afraid of. Sadly, you already know my master is no stranger to killing. He—”
“Your master?” Sean jumped to his feet and glared at the caretaker. The bench he had been sitting on toppled, its clatter on the floor echoing around the hall. “You’re with him?”
The older man held up his hands in defence. “My dear boy, calm down! I don’t condone any of his actions, but neither can I do anything against them. I have been serving the family for as long as I can remember. I’m thoroughly in his grip and there is nothing I can do about it. Believe me, dear boy, if I could, I would leave. He has even tried to kill me once…” He shuddered. “But even the village is out of bounds for me. This mill and the castle are all I am allowed to roam.”
Sean ran a hand through his hair. Should he believe anything this character was saying? For all he knew, this was the village idiot. Was it even worth staying? He’d been here too long already, he should go and find Hannah. But if this magic was real… “You can’t leave.”
“I can’t leave.”
“But I just came in that door, you could just walk out.” He pointed to the flaked brown door separating them from the outside world.
The man sighed wistfully. “Did I not just explain to you that this man has powers you and I don’t understand?”
Hm. “But… haven’t you tried?”
“Of course I have!” The man took a deep breath. “I have tried, but I have also given up long ago. I used to know the people in the village, but now I’m sure they have forgotten me.”
Sean looked down on the man sitting on the other side of the table. Crazy seemed more and more likely. Who drinks wine in an abandoned factory, claiming they can’t leave? And why would some magic man come to his house to kill his mum? Why would anyone kill his mum? He closed his eyes and swallowed. Part of him wanted to believe that the whole weirdness of the situation meant that none of it had actually happened. That he would wake up in a hospital or something, and his mum would be sitting by his bed.
But even in this ridiculous setting it wouldn’t stick. His mum was gone. He had seen the blood on her body. The smile gone from her eyes. She was dead. Furiously blinking to try and get that image out of his head, he sank down on the edge of the overturned bench behind him, waiting for his blood to thin and flow again.
“Are you all right?” The man’s voice sounded muffled. When Sean didn’t answer, he came around the table and put a hand on Sean’s shoulder.
The touch brought Sean back to reality. And with reality came an alarming thought. He looked up at his host. “Is the castle close to the village?”
“It’s on top of a cliff overlooking the village. Why?”
“Hannah has gone to the village. What if she meets him on the way?”