A Long Time To Die: Fartlethwaite and the Death of Speke
On Tuesday morning the expedition members went their separate ways.
Will Nudd, with Hawser Trunnion, Twiga M’wizi, and the four other pirates who had been escorting Doctor Johnson and Boswell set off back to Summerdale with Rowley Buckram.
The Quinceyite Mission, now reinforced by the five Bashem brothers in their role as credible heavy duty auxiliary escorts, with Charnock and the four remaining outlaws under roped guard, headed for the small town of Fartlethwaite, some twelve miles further south. Here it was intended to hand over the prisoners to the local magistrate and bid farewell to Doctor Johnson and Boswell, who would there soon be likely to find a post chaise available to continue their journey.
‘You really ought to return to Summerdale with us.’ Rowley had said to Jasper, who had his arm in a sling strapped to his chest to minimise the movement of his injured shoulder. ‘Although you have the excellent care of Mistress Paragon you should travel as little as possible with that wound. It won’t mend being jolted about. Even if you came back to Goldcaster now it would be a further two or three days journey, depending on the weather.’
‘I appreciate your concern, Mr Buckram, but I shall not rest easy until I see our friends safely on their way. I lifted them out of their life and it is only right that I should put them back into it. And besides I am in very good hands. Mr Boswell has kindly allowed me the use of his steed, we shall rest in the town tonight, hopefully in one of those inns so approved of by Doctor Johnson, and return refreshed tomorrow. I can foresee no possible complications.’
‘I wish you hadn’t said that.’ muttered Aunt Hetty. ‘Never mind – we’d best get off.’
‘Now lads, ‘ said Jasper to Rowley’s escort. ‘Mr Nudd’s in charge, so do as he says, but you’re tough, and experienced, and very bright, so keep a sharp look out for danger, and help look after Mr Buckram. Everyone on this expedition is going to get a special bonus from my own funds if our new friends agree, and I’ve got high hopes for a brighter and more secure future for you all if we do our best. Good luck, and I’ll be back with you in a few days time.’
‘How are we doing Sir J.?’ asked Rathbone, a few miles down the track. ‘This hack’s not so sure footed as old Snowy, is he? You’re wincing a bit on this rough stretch.’
‘I’ll be alright, old friend. At least poor old Buckram will be getting an easy ride. I owe him that at least.’
‘It’s funny how things have turned out isn’t it? I’m well content to be at ease with these folk if they’ll have us. That is what we hope for now, isn’t it?’
‘If there had been any other intent you know I would not have considered it without your agreement. No, this is the right, the best, and the most pleasant way for us all, I hope. But until we turn back to Summerdale we are still proving ourselves.’
‘Well monitored though aren’t we? What with Mistress Paragon and the seagulls. Hello Fastnet. How near are we?’
‘Fartlethwaite only three miles now. Busy place – market day. Sir J looks a bit pale – time for a break is it?’
‘Right.’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘Take five – well fifteen, more like. Let’s look at that dressing… Mr Rathbone, get your missionaries tidied up and back into the Quinceyite mode – get a bit of practice for when we meet with real human beings. How can you hope to convert England with flapping vestments and guns holstered in every orifice? Oh, I don’t know – on reflection that might be a good approach if that was what we were really at.’
It was mid-afternoon by the time the church tower of the small town came into sight above the trees, and they soon found themselves the objects of considerable interest as they made their way through the broad main street where the weekly market was being held.
Boswell asked where the local Magistrate might be found, and they were directed to an ancient pillared and portico-ed Wool Hall in the centre of the market place near to a substantial and welcoming looking inn, The Fartledale Ram.
‘As we now appear far more aggressive than you Quinceyites,’ said Doctor Johnson to Jasper, ‘How would it be if our friends the Bashem family stood guard over these villains whilst Boswell and I explained matters adequately to the authorities? You and your mission could then repair to the inn and we will join you presently. This hostelry appears to be prosperous, and hopefully will be one with few bugs, good food, clean rooms, starched sheets, comfortable towels, and abundant hot water, where you can have rest and refreshment out of the sight of enquiring eyes.’
‘How welcome that would be!’ said Jasper gratefully. ‘Thank you Doctor. An admirable proposal.’
‘But hardly practical.’ snapped Aunt Hetty. ‘Those aren’t farmers’ mounts tethered outside the inn. Look at the harnesses – immaculate, with full trappings, and the young fellow in charge of them is no shepherd.’
‘Whoops!’ said Morry.
‘Oh, dear.’ sighed Jasper. ‘Another night with no bath. A cavalry troop if I’m not mistaken, and that lad’s wearing the uniform of a dragoon. We had best say farewell and stroll nonchalantly away.’
‘Too late.’ said Rathbone. ‘We’ve been spotted, and, yes, here comes trouble…’
An officer and a sergeant had just issued from the inn and the guard was pointing across to Jasper’s party. The sight of the Bashems and the five closely roped prisoners was obviously of interest, and the officer and sergeant strode through the market towards them.
‘Sir Jasper,’ said Doctor Johnson grimly. ‘Will you trust Boswell and I to deal with these gentlemen and take your cues from us?’
‘That would be most helpful Doctor. It would be far more appropriate for you to be in charge of matters rather than some peripatetic preacher. All suitably humble now, brothers and sister.’
The officer was not one of the foppish variety but brisk and efficient with a florid amiable countenance, and was very well turned out, all epaulettes, froggings, lanyards, sash, and sword. As he drew closer his eyes widened and he laughed.
‘Good gad! It’s Doctor Johnson, isn’t it? Damme sir, you’re a long way from London.’ He removed his hat and bowed. ‘Darcy Carstairs Russell, Captain, Seventeenth Light. Gentlemen, my service to you, and to you Madam also, of course…’ He bowed low to Aunt Hetty, who smiled almost modestly and curtsied back at him.
‘Allow me to introduce Mr James Boswell…’
‘Know of you, sir, know of you. Howdy do, howdy do. And this man of the cloth who appears injured….?’
‘Ah, a very brave man, if rather foolish and too innocent in the ways of villainy – the Reverend Mr de Quincey, together with his companions on their mission to save sinners in the north of England.’
The captain laughed. ‘Tough task eh? Had any luck? What, what?’
‘We knocked them bendy in Bridlington.’ said Rathbone.
‘Oh jolly well done – well it looks as though you’ve saved some sinners for me too, haven’t you? And, good God (beg pardon Reverend), is that the swine Charnock you’ve got there? We’ve been searching for him and his gang for the past month. They got free from a prison hulk when it dragged anchors and went aground in a gale. No wonder the Reverend’s been wounded. What happened?’
‘Mr Boswell and I have been visiting friends in Summerdale. Unbeknown to us one of the residents of Goldcaster had been taken hostage by these villains. Because Mr de Quincey had received such a warm reception in Summerdale he insisted that he wished to help and volunteered to take the ransom and secure the release of the gentleman, maintaining that no one would hurt him or his colleagues because of their clerical profession.
Mr Boswell and I had intended to return from our holiday at about that time anyway, and when we learnt of this brave but unwise undertaking we set off hotfoot a few hours behind his party with a very strong escort, and arrived just in time to prevent a major tragedy, surprising the gang in their camp.
The fight was short and sharp, and even though they had few guns, they fought viciously and our men had no choice but to kill eight of them. Our men sustained no major injury but, as you can see, Mr De Quincey was hit, but lord be praised has only received a wound to his shoulder.’
‘The majority of our party have returned to Summerdale with the hostage Mr Buckram,’ said Boswell. ‘Since we only had these five prisoners it was felt that they could be more than adequately controlled by our friends, the brothers of the Bashem family from High Summerdale who, as you perceive, inevitably inspire fear and terror in anyone who find themselves opposed to them…’
‘Damme, I’m not surprised!’ exclaimed the captain, nodding to the Bashems, who leered down at him with gap toothed grins. ‘There’ll be a reward for you fine fellows – first rate effort, what, what?’
The Bashems shook their heads.
‘Ner, ner.’ grunted Bill and Ben.
‘ ’im.’ said Bert, pointing to Jasper.
‘And them and ‘er.’ said Broderick and Bedivere, pointing to the rest of the Mission and at Aunt Hetty.
‘Bless you lads, but we would not wish for a pecuniary advantage.’ said Jasper. ‘Perhaps any reward could be paid to Mr Bagley, the Mayor of Goldcaster, who could apportion it amongst all those concerned?’
‘Capital idea.’ said the Captain. ‘I’ll see it’s sent by the next packet boat. Sergeant…’
‘Get the keys to the local lock up from the Constable and throw this lot inside. We shall need round the clock vigilance, and I mean heavy duty surveillance – you know Charnock’s reputation.’
‘I do indeed sir, and he’s about to find out mine. Never had a prisoner escape yet, sir. Some have died on me, agreed, but none have got away.’
‘Now, Mr de Quincey, you have been wounded, so I’m sure there will be a charge of attempted murder. We’ll need you to give evidence at the next Carlisle Assizes.’
‘Ah,’ said Jasper. ‘You know, I couldn’t agree to that. It happened in the heat of the battle. The weapon was probably aimed at one of the combatants rather than myself. We are but God’s foot soldiers, not men of war. And I could not, especially if under oath, accuse any particular individual of trying to do away with me. I found it all very confusing.’
‘I see. Take your point. Pity though, but I understand. Tell me more about your work – are you up here for long?’
‘We have to return to Summerdale. There is still much yet to do, and we are only half way through our mission there.’
‘Lot of sinning in Summerdale, eh? What, what?’
‘Do excuse me gentlemen,’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘But Mr de Quincey, may we remind you – you did so wish to take the opportunity to address the good folk of this town if you felt able. The market has attracted many but the afternoon draws on and they will no doubt shortly disperse.’
‘But of course, I am neglecting my duties.’ nodded Jasper gratefully. ‘Captain Russell, do you think it would be in order for us to address a congregation from the portico of this Wool Hall?’
‘Gad, yes, I am sure it will Reverend. I shall tell the Mayor and Justice that you are under my protection and deserve every consideration.’
‘Thank you Captain. Sister Hepzibah, Brothers, let us assemble at the top of the steps of this so suitable edifice…
‘Shall we leave Mr De Quincey and his potential converts Captain Russell?’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘I am a little weary but feel Boswell and I should present our compliments to the local dignitaries. We would not wish to be recalled as but rude travellers, merely passing through. Let us go together – perhaps you would kindly introduce us?’
‘Damme Doctor, I’m forgetting me manners – of course, let us do that. And then I’ll find you a comfortable billet at the Inn. You know, the Reverend’s face is vaguely familiar, just can’t place it. But he reminds me of someone, possibly a portrait I’ve seen…’
‘Possibly, possibly – worthies of the cloth perhaps? We have known Mr de Quincey for some while, haven’t we Boswell? A man of singular talents.’
‘Oh, most singular indeed. Shall we go in? After you Captain…’
Seeing the prisoners taken away and the Dragoon Officer entering the Wool Hall with Doctor Johnson and Boswell, the curious crowd who had gathered started to disperse.
‘Why don’t we give ‘em a tune to get their attention back?’ said Aunt Hetty. ‘It just so happens I has me portable mini-harmonium with me.’ She extracted a folded instrument from one of her donkey’s panniers, and issued Archibald with a tambourine, Morry with a triangle, and Tembo with a bongo drum.
‘Are you sure about this?’ said Jasper, doubtfully.
‘Course I am. And besides, we’ve got to give them a hymn or two haven’t we?’
‘Do we have to?’ said Rathbone.
‘Of course we do – it’ll be expected. Right – give us an intro on the drum, Tembo, and I’ll start of with a few chords.’
The drum roll was fine and the crowd in the market place turned to see what was happening, but the sounds created by Aunt Hetty were hideous in the extreme, Fastnet and Rockall soaring desperately skywards to escape from it.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘We’ve got their attention now, haven’t we?. Nothing like a bit of music to attract people’
‘And that was nothing like a bit of music!’ protested Rathbone. ‘What did you call that instrument – a pandemonium?’
‘Sorry… Just warming up with a bit of Stockhausen. Right, here we go – let’s hear it from the tambourine, and give me some nice loud tinkles on your triangle Brother Dancer…
‘Come and join us, come and join us,
Gather round and hear the message of the Lord…’ Boom! boom!
‘Thank you Sister Hezibah, thank you brothers, and good afternoon to you all, good people of Fartlethwaite.’ said Jasper solemnly. ‘We come amongst you today to bring a new message, a message that can change all our lives for the better, if only we will listen. I am not here to remonstrate with you for your shortcomings, I am not here to urge you to deny yourselves innocent enjoyments, I am not here to preach hellfire and damnation…’
‘Pity, I likes a bit of hellfire and damnation.’
‘Yeah, livens things up a bit don’t it?’
‘What are you here to preach, then?’
‘(Patience my son, I’m in mid flow aren’t I?) I am here to ask you to rejoice at the glories of the world, to wonder at the beauties all around us, to give thanks for all that we are and all that we shall be blessed with, and, whilst we fume at the evils mankind is capable of, to urge you to so live that you all help each other, and to so laugh that goodwill and happiness increase and grow to the abounding benefit of your community, and to so love that your families, friends, and future offspring spread in their turn the message of hope and renewal from this day forth.’
‘Sounds good to me – I’ll have some of that.’
‘Pity the wife’s mother’s not ‘ere – that might shut her up for once.’
‘I still miss the hellfire and damnation.’
‘Alright, alright, we’ll have some of that in a minute.’ said Jasper, rather curtly, for his shoulder was starting to ache quite badly.
‘Can I do the hellfire and damnation bit?’ asked Rathbone.
‘Presently, presently. Now, where was I? Ah, yes… Brothers and sisters here today, I do not ask you to believe in the strength of this message merely because of my counsel, I do not ask you to take it without proof of its effectiveness, I do not expect without evidence the words of one moment to convince you of the truth that can change your whole lifetime…’
‘What do you expect then?’
‘For heaven’s sake!’ snapped Jasper. ‘Sorry, sorry… Er, yes – we Quinceyites have all been sinners, if only perhaps in minor ways…’ (‘Oh yeah?’ muttered Aunt Hetty) ‘…Indeed we have. But we have come to the way of the Lord, each and every one of us, and our lives have been enriched by the experiences of redemption, so I shall now call upon each member of the Mission to give us, albeit briefly, their words of encouragement.’ He clasped his bible to his chest and smiled sweetly on Aunt Hetty. ‘Perhaps, Sister Hepzibah, you would be so kind?’
‘Will I? (I’ll have you for this…) Alright, then – Habanagila!’
‘Sorry – Hallelujah! Listen up you lot, to the words of a wise woman. I too have been a sinner – no, no, it’s hard to believe, but I have. I have said unkind things, I have thought unkind thoughts, (quite recently, too), and, wait for it – I have even told the occasional uncalled for little fib…’ (Gasps of shock and horror from the crowd.) ‘Oh, yes, and I have done such things in my previous existence as would amaze and terrify the hardest one amongst you.’ (Oo-er – what you done then?) ‘I’m sorry, good people, but I cannot speak of those things for I am now redeemed, and devote my life to attending to others (not too gently either, if they’re not careful…)’
‘Thank you Sister Hepzibah. Brother Dancer – can we hear from you please?’
‘Oh, well, if you must. But where does one start? I mean to say – I’ve been such a tinker, haven’t I? I’ve got up to all sorts of naughties, me… I remember when I and Hooky Wacker met this Hussar – (there was something about that soldier, but I couldn’t put my finger on it, more’s the pity) – anyway, the thing is, in those days I was anybody’s for doughnut, nobody ever did me no favours, dreadful it was…’
‘Get on with it!’
‘Ooh, vada you, you cheeky cleric. Oh, alright then… I WAS CONVERTED! Yes, I was – the Mission!, the Message!, it was a whole new way of life for me – Oh YES! I was strangely drawn, and overcome I was, yes… And yes, I gave myself up to it, believe me, I did… And oh, the tears, the trauma,! – it would tug at your heartstrings, it really would… And now I’m changed – Changed I tell you! … CHANGED!’’
‘Yes, yes, thank you Brother Dancer..’
‘I was just getting going then…’
‘So we noticed, but we don’t want you to have one of your turns, do we? Brother Archibald?’
‘Oh, alright. Here goes then – “I’ve been a sinner, I’ve been a scamp – but now I’m willing to trim my lamp.” ’
‘Is that it?’
‘What’s wrong with it? My mum taught me that.’
‘Oh well, it’ll have to do I suppose. Brother Tembo, would you like to say something – appropriate preferably?’
‘Sho nuff Massah! Alleluja, how yo hangin’ everybody? Yeah, right on. Now, ah was a slave, and then ah was saved, and then ah was a sinner big time. Yea sayeth de Lord, yo am one bad-ass Tembo. And he was right. Ah was robbin, an lovin, and smokin de Camberwell ceegar, and den got saved again wid de De Quincey massiv innit? Now ah am one cool contented dude, yeah, so go for it, right? Big Love, Peace… Yeah?’
‘Er, thank you Brother Tembo. I’m sure they got the gist of that. Brother Clarence?’
‘Mutter, mutter, cough, cough, rasp, rasp, mutter, mutter…’ responded Clarence.
‘Los……ma…..voi……’ pleaded Clarence. ‘Too….much….stress….’ he managed.
‘Oh? Dear me, how convenient, and what a disappointment. It appears that Brother Clarence is suffering from psychosomatic laryngitis.’
‘Then can I do the hellfire and damnation bit now?’ asked Rathbone.
‘Oh, very well. But don’t make a meal of it.’
‘Goody, goody,’ said Rathbone eagerly, rubbing his hands together, and then spreading his arms wide apart. ‘Brethren!’’ he thundered. ‘You have heard the message of LURVE!… And it is a good message, yea verily, and it is a fine message in the sight of the Lord, and it is a strong message, and it pleaseth the Lord. But hark unto these words and let them be etched in your hearts – what if you do not heed the message? What if you allow yourselves to be drawn aside by Satan from the paths of righteousness?
We Quinceyites are safe from sin for we have the infinite care, patience, and wisdom of our beloved leader here to raise us up from the depths of temptation. But ye who are without the Quinceys must be forever vigilant lest you should transgress and fall back into sinful ways.
For what is to become of you when the last trump finally sounds, when the righteous are called forth and sitteth in glory in the golden vault of heaven, and when those that hath not repenteth are thrust out and cast down, yea cast even unto the deepest depths of the pits of hell?
I will tell you how it will be, brethren. There shall be the shedding of streams, nay rivers, nay oceans of tears, there shall be a such a wailing and a gnashing of teeth…’
‘My dad ain’t got no teeth, come to that neither’s me mum.’
‘Teeth will be provided! Don’t interrupt… Anyway, that’s about it. Have you got the message? Love one another now or it’ll be eyes down for eternal torment! So just remember when you’re low, all you need is L.O.V.E – LURVE… So give me an L…’ ‘ELL!’ ‘Give me an O…’ ‘OHH!’ ‘Give me a V…’ ‘VEE!’ Give me an E…’ ‘EEE!’ That’s it good people. Sister Hepzibah, take it away please – and all together Quinceyites…’
‘All you need is LOVE…boomty-boomty-boom,
All you need is LOVE…Boomty-boomty-boom,
All you need is love, love,
Love is all you need…’
Even Fastnet and Rockall, now back perched on the eaves of the Wool Hall, were waving their wings in time with the music.
‘Wonderful!’ cried Aunt Hetty. ‘Now everybody – let’s hear from all of you. After me… We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah…’
‘We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah,
We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah,
We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah…
YEAH! ! !’
‘Good God!’ said Jasper, when the cheering had died away, ‘Where did all that come from?’
‘I dunno.’ said Rathbone, rather flushed and bemused.
‘I do.’ said Aunt Hetty, smugly. ‘Maybe one day I’ll tell you. But it went down well, didn’t it?’
It certainly had. Besides the crowd, on the balcony of the Inn an enthusiastic group was clapping loudly and calling ‘Bravo!’ With Doctor Johnson and Boswell, there were Captain Russell and several self important dignitaries including the Mayor. The only one who looked a little woebegone was the local Vicar.
‘No criticism,’ said Jasper to Rathbone, ‘ But what got into you?’
‘I don’t know. Mistress Paragon was staring at me and nodding her head, muttering away and waving her hands about.’
‘I see. I was a bit concerned with the prospect of having to improvise a sudden sermon.’ said Jasper to Aunt Hetty. ‘But you weren’t worried at all, were you?’
‘Not after we arrived at this Wool Hall.’
‘Ah – goes back a bit does it? A bit special for your profession?’
‘You catch on pretty quick now, don’t you? Yes, the building itself is only two or three hundred years old, but it’s on a bit of a mound, isn’t it? And I was getting some good vibes from the foundations, ancient, they are. This place has been a meeting place and probably more for thousands of years – it’s on the same ley line that passes through Summerdale, just what I needed to charge up me ‘fluence.’ Leading Seaman Dancer was almost taking off. Where’s he got to?’
‘Don’t fret, chuck – I’m over here.’ called Morry, making his way back to them through the crowd and waving a bucket. ‘Seeing we went over so well I thought howsabout taking up a collection? That sort of thing’s expected, isn’t it?’
‘Pretty good really – twenty eight shillings and ninepence farthing, two brass buttons, an Isle of Man groat, and an voucher for a round of drinks from the potman at the inn. We ought to come here more often.’
‘Sadly, I think not Brother Dancer.’ said Jasper. ‘Ah, Doctor Johnson, Mr Boswell – we’d better be leaving now, whilst our luck still holds.’
‘No, no, Mr de Quincey ’ said Doctor Johnson. ‘The weather is changing, it has become colder and is growing misty. Rain is likely I think, and you must rest. All has been arranged. Even though the Inn is almost full a quiet room has been arranged for you where you will not be disturbed. We have rather enlarged on the nature of your infirmity and so adjoining you will be Sister Paragon to nurse you and to keep any awkward enquirers at bay.’
‘What about my men and the Bashem brothers?’
‘The Inn keeper is also an important farmer and behind the Inn is a very large barn, with many bales of wool, hay, and straw. Boswell has arranged for the others to all be provided with blankets and made very cosy there. They will have the use of all the Inn’s conveniences but will not have to keep company with any dragoons or curious locals, so there should be little risk. The Inn keeper will ensure that everybody has more than sufficient food and drink, Captain Russell has explained that you have all had an arduous and exhausting time and that he wants you all to have an undisturbed rest, and he has insisted on defraying all expenses.
‘What about yourselves?’
‘Boswell and I have been offered lodgings with the Mayor. This will give us an admirable opportunity to reinforce the understanding every one is being given about your innocent occupation, and the natural circumstances of our presence in these parts.’
‘I must confess I shall be very glad to rest a while and cannot thank you both enough for taking charge of matters here so efficiently.’
‘Nonsense, it was the logical role for us to play. Now I suggest that Madam Paragon and I see you to your room, and that you dine as soon as possible and retire early. We will be sure to see you off safely in the morning, preferably after a hearty breakfast so we can talk further then.’
‘Mr Rathbone,’ said Boswell, ‘May I offer my congratulations on your exhortation? Come and let me introduce you to the Inn keeper, and then we can lodge everybody as comfortable as maybe in the barn.’
Within the hour Jasper had been fed, had his wound dressed, and was drifting off to sleep, with Aunt Hetty sitting in a rocking chair beside him, thumbing through an early but already dog eared copy of Wainwright’s guide to the Northern Fells. The Quinceyites and the Bashems were enjoying a hearty feast, the Bashem brothers very considerately sharing their frequently topped up ale with the poor temporary tee-total Quinceyites, and the Quinceyites were looking forward to a profitable evening teaching the Bashems the joys of gin rummy, black jack, and five card brag.
Somewhat further north Luther Speke had already set out on his own mission…
* * *
Luther Speke believed that he had thought of everything.
A barrow had been quite openly and reasonably taken to the forge with tools and material to mend the roof. If the treasure chest could be dug up from beside the Tingle Stone it could now be wheeled back to the harbour in the dark to be loaded on to the longboat. Their own sea chests, together with carefully concealed sails, now covered with casually thrown tarpaulins and various bits of tackle, had already been stowed under the thwarts of the barrow when the last of the stolen booty had been brought ashore.
It helped that surveillance in Goldcaster appeared now to have been virtually suspended as far as himself and his two henchmen were concerned, presumably because he was more than honouring his commitments.
The plan this time was to head straight out to sea under cover of darkness and then sail for Ireland and Belfast. There one small boat would hardly be noticed amongst so many others. Fishing and trading vessels of all shapes and sizes were forever busy about the many settlements nearby, and others were entering or leaving the harbour at all hours. Once ashore Speke would become a retired merchant who, with his two servants, would take secure lodgings where they could prepare for the next stage of their prosperous future…
The weather had changed during the day, and although the clouds had momentarily cleared, what with an on shore breeze bringing in a sea mist during the morning and the occasional shower of drizzle in the afternoon, it had been a soggy day in Goldcaster town.
Now Speke was striding along in the darkening evening, the high collar of his long black leather coat turned well up and in his action mode, committed and determined, with no more wondering or plotting or persuading to be done, lips no longer twitching, wart no longer picked at, fingers still and eyes blazing with eagerness at the profitable prospect before him.
Steelclaw and Blackheart were taking turns to push the barrow which now also held shovels, picks, and a crowbar. With their sacking covered shoulders hunched, they complained about the weather.
‘This suits us fine, you fools. It’s more likely to keep the peasants indoors.’
By now, with the ever present seagulls discretely circling above, they were making their way up the track that lead through the trees towards the low hill surmounted by the Dancing Sisters stone circle and the target Tingle Stone.
Suddenly it became very still in the wood.
The late September air ceased to even stir the long grasses on either side of the track. The background of birdsong died away. Tendrils of mist hung motionless. The watery sun sank lower. Trees dripped.
The stillness was broken by the sharp clamour of a jay, defiantly strident as it chattered away through the trees. His two companions shivered but Luther Speke seemed oblivious to the subtle change in the atmosphere.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he snarled.
‘Bit creepy ain’t it?’ sniffed Steelclaw.
‘I’d as soon not be up here after dark.’ said Blackheart.
‘You both do as you’re damn well told if you want your share. And keep a sharp lookout. Kill anyone sniffing round – we want no witnesses.’
‘We know, we know…’
‘All pistols primed?’
‘All primed in case, Mr Speke.’
The Quartermaster himself was armed with his special Griffin breach loading carbine with one cartridge already loaded and ten more in his belt.
They continued along the track.. The unusual stillness was vaguely disconcerting. There was a marked chill in the air and despite himself Speke shivered. Insensitive as he was normally, it was somehow disturbing for them to be alone in this eery place.
But not quite alone…
Through the thickening mist they saw something separate itself from the darkness of the trees and cross swiftly over the track a short way ahead.
‘A bloody snooper…’ hissed Speke. ‘Get him!’
They started to run forward but the track was becoming uneven and they slipped and lurched on the patches of clayey earth in the ruts and between the tussocks of grass. Speke began to sweat, and was soon panting with frustration and the unaccustomed effort.
They reached the point where he judged that the intruder had crossed. Here there was the wide ride on the right that lead up from the track to the crest of the hill and the stone circle.
Pausing here, at first they could see no one. No furtive prowler, nobody scurrying away, no other occupant to share the ever darkening twilight.
But then a brief gold glow illuminated the sky above the hill, a final weak glimmer from the watery setting sun. It was enough to distinguish a tall dark figure, not furtive at all, but striding purposefully up to the top of the crest and then turning, slowly, to look silently down the ride towards them.
‘Heh! – You…’
Speke’s voice sounded dull and strangely flat, as though muffled by the mist.
For a long moment the tall figure just stood there, looking at them, his features unclear, silhouetted against the dying light, as though savouring the situation.
They were now, if anything, even further apart from their quarry, but he was still within the range of the Quartermaster’s carbine. Speke tried to raise the gun but a kind of dreadful lethargy seemed to fall upon him. His arms felt weak and heavy, the simple effort assuming the dimensions of a major task, and it was as though time was almost hanging still, each second passing with icy slowness.
He stood transfixed, and could only watch with growing apprehension as the stranger slowly raised his arms and put on some sort of head dress. Multi-horned and horrible it appeared to Luther, even at that distance.
The arms were then stretched out to their fullest extent either side of the body. The fingers were spread wide and the head then laid back, as though the creature, gazing up at the darkening sky, was receiving some sort of blessing, some special strength…
There was a moment of utter stillness in which even the tendrils of mist seemed frozen. Then the horned figure looked down the ride at them again, and those outstretched arms were brought slowly and deliberately downwards, inwards, and forwards, in a ritual gesture, as though to scoop up the air from the ground beneath its feet and deliver it down into the wood.
Two, three, four times, this was done, and then the creature was still again, the head bowed, as though patiently waiting.
To their horror the scene before the three men began to blur, at first just at the edges of their field of view but then right across their vision, with a kind of rhythmic oscillation that grew to an almost unbearable level before it gradually died away.
There was a pause.
Steelclaw and Blackheart turned and ran, stumbling and tripping, but managing rather well in the circumstances, now totally determined to escape into the open countryside, to abandon their master, whatever the outcome, and to get away, as far away as possible, from the menacing terror welling up behind them.
Speke tried to yell at them but his throat felt dry and choked and no words came.
Then, faintly in the distance could be heard the sound of Goldcaster’s greatest bell as it chimed the hour of eight.
Now, to Speke’s mounting dread, the ride started to ripple. Grass, plants, shrubs, the very ground itself, undulated and heaved in a series of shallow waves originating from where the figure stood, each wave coming further and further forward, until there was a pulsing path of menace flowing from the crest of the hill inexorably down to the foot of the ride.
As this drew closer and closer the area it covered became clearer than the thickening darkness all around, and at first, to his horror, all colours were leached from the scene, everything before him only visible in streaks of black and shades of grey and leprous white. But then colour returned. Every conceivable colour, at first surging and whirling and mixing in rhythmic rainbows, but then melting away as green began to dominate, viridescent green, glowing obscenely bright with a kind of terrible beauty, and then came all the shades of green to match the texture of every ingredient of the view before him.
And preceding the colour came something else, something dreadful, like a buffer zone of impacted air, malevolent and heavy with menace as it passed over the ground, rustling as it came, and sending terror into Luther’s heart.
He cried out, and turned to escape, desperately lurching and stumbling along the track, a track that now seemed like a sodden sponge, sucking and clutching at his feet.
Ten, fifty, a hundred yards he staggered, panting, looking over his shoulder and sobbing with despair as he saw the menace spill out from the ride like an evil stream, swirling and washing against the trees before the flow steadied and it set off again, surging relentlessly now along the track behind him.
He reeled onwards, even praying out loud, and for a while it seemed as though his prayers were answered. It wasn’t gaining on him. He was holding his own – perhaps he could even outrun it…?
Then his heart almost stopped.
Ahead of him, gushing down the hill through another gap in the trees, a further ghastly cascade of green havoc had hit the track and had turned back in his direction. He twisted around. Now the original abomination was gaining on him. He was trapped.
Or was he? Perhaps this hideous thing ran only in the open? He turned to the trees. On his left at this point the wood was not very wide. If he could just get through to the field beyond, and to the lower ground, and to the road that ran between Goldcaster and the water mill… That way, perhaps, lay safety?
He leapt clumsily over the ditch at the edge of the track, grasping at the undergrowth in front of him. And dropping his gun.
His palms wet with panic, but managing to hold on to a branch with his left hand, he groped with the other in the long wet grass. His right hand closed on to the barrel and he snatched up the gun, but as he did so and straightened up, the stock struck the craggy side of a rock half hidden in the bracken and the briars. His slipping fingers slid up the gun and on to the trigger…
The sound of the shot thumped across the track.
The gun had been pointing downwards as he had fired it. The shot ripped down his leg, tearing open cloth, sending the bullet deep through the skin, splitting leather, bursting open his boot, driving through gristle and cartilage, and splattering blood and flesh and splinters of bone across the ditch.
Before the pain came he was still, leaning back, gazing with disbelief at blood welling out of the white flesh of his leg and the mangled remains of what had been his foot.
He raised his eyes to the track.
Both streams of the hideous horror were now almost upon him. The ground was writhing as the ripples rolled over the edge of the ditch and reached him at last. And as the terror hit so did the pain. Screaming in agony and looking down he felt the loathsome waves lapping on to him and saw his bare and bloodied skin actually rippling as the invisible foulness crawled slowly up his leg.
Almost deranged now, he turned and flung himself away from the ditch, clawing his way forward, clutching at tree trunks, trying to pull himself upright, but failing, and falling into the dense scrub.
Years of neglect had rendered the undergrowth here almost impassable. Maimed as he was, he could barely crawl, and struggled helplessly to break through the thicket of saplings and matted briars, retching at the rank smell as he disturbed the decay beneath him, at first impervious to the needle pricks of the brambles, lost in the greater pain and then in the awful fear as a dreadful lime-green light finally flowed right over him.
All around the vegetation began to glow and seemed to swell and fill with obscene life, suckers starting out of the ground, tendrils looping and twisting, the briars clutching and scratching at his body, their thickening snakes of thorn wreathing him in coils and tightening their grisly grip.
Now something was curling around his neck…
His whole body shuddered as he tried to jerk his head free, but that very action brought the great barbs cutting into his skin, ripping open the flesh of his throat. He fell back, twitching, choking, and then lay still at last with the bright red blood slowly pumping and oozing from his wounds.
Luther Speke took a long time to die. There was still the faintest flicker of life in his eyes when the dawn came.
But with the morning came the crows…