|Stormcastle: And Other Fun Games With Cards And Dice|
John Henson Webb
a Lords of Misrule story
Oh let the sun beat down upon my face, stars to fill my dream
I am a traveller of both time and space, to be where I have been
To sit with elders of the gentle race, this world has seldom seen
They talk of days for which they sit and wait and all will be revealed
Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.
All Along the Watchtower
Coda - June 1st
When he concentrated he could recall the woman looked oriental and the man had an eyepatch; left eye he was reasonably sure… And a beard; he wore a beard. They'd ridden motorcycles.
Stevens rubbed at his eyes with the heels of both hands. The incident had been marked by a profound confusion and it looked as if it had spread into his mind. He took another gulp of tepid coffee and returned to sorting the case papers spread across his desk. He paused with a part-one SOCO report withdrawn half-way from its manilla folder. Across his thoughts moved the ill-defined shapes of a dog and a bird...
Later the same day
'So we're looking for some Eddie Scissorhands copycat?'
Stevens pointed at one set of four parallel incised wounds. 'You're thinking of Freddy Kreuger.'
Carver glanced over the body at his partner. 'You are so anally retentive I'm gettin' constipation. Freddy, Eddie, who gives a sh...'
Stevens winced at Carver's words; Doc Porter produced another trademark sigh.
'If we could return our limited attention to the corpse!' Doc Porter indicated the pale body resting on the mortuary tray between them. 'He may be dead and in no particular hurry, but I've got two more recently departed to process. Thank you.'
Anyone encountering the two detectives for the first time might mistake their near-constant, low-level antagonism as genuine dislike, but their partnership was built on a solid foundation and the banter, acid though it might seem, carried an off-beat note of camaraderie.
Quiet descended. The ticking of the wall-clock picked up a rhythm with the intermittent dripping of a leaking tap. Porter looked at both detectives then back at the body.
'Are we all calm and attentive? Good.' Porter revealed both of the corpse's forearms and the palms of the hands. 'The deceased displays no defence wounds, nor did I recover any material from under the nails.' He looked in turn at the two detectives. 'Conclusion?'
'Victim made no attempt to defend himself.' replied Carver.
Porter smiled indulgently. 'Good to see you're paying attention.' He then indicated several clusters of slashes running across the body, most orientated from the sternum to just below the ghostly welts inflicted by the dead man's trouser belt. Each slit gaped open like an obscene, misplaced mouth, lips formed from inflamed skin. 'The incisions vary from three to five centimetres in depth and contain no foreign material. And yes, Mister Carver, they do equate nicely to the pattern of fingers on a spread hand. Whatever object caused the incisions was not strictly parallel; three of the wounds curve in toward the fourth within the body. Direction of the slashes indicates the blows were struck both from the right and the left.'
Carver gave Stevens a wide smile, making a clawing motion in air with his right hand. Stevens looked down at the body. He wondered, briefly, if there was even a remote chance Carver might spontaneously combust or simply vaporize within the next few minutes.
First Canto – May 30th
The wording on the road sign read Stone Howe; the origin of the name long-lost, though a persistent rumour was that the Romans had mined copper in the vicinity. Howe apparently came from the Old Norse word haugr, which meant a knoll or a mound, and probably related to the spoil heaps produced by the miners. Stevens wasn’t that bothered with etymology; a dead body concerned him more than a dead language.
A collection of restored 16th to 17th century houses clustered about the village green and a duck pond, the latter boasting a yellow-painted duck house. No ducks though; just a half-dozen crows talking amongst themselves high in the trees and a solitary magpie on the branch of a willow. Beside the pond a solitary sarsen stone, not quite the height of a man, jutted upright from the grass. In cursive script the village name was repeated on a surface that had been polished flat.
Off on his own Carver stood beneath a lop-sided oak, fiddling with his mobile 'phone ostensibly trying to contact the latest girlfriend. Stevens contented himself with a moment of relative silence. Across the pond, opposite the Hammer and Anvil, the sole public house within five miles, the presence of a patrol car and lines of bright yellow incident tape created a visual disturbance not easily ignored. Stevens mentally recorded that the duck house and the tape were different shades and that this minor difference resulted in the little wooden structure being at home among the bullrushes and reedmace.
A uniformed constable broke into Steven’s reverie
'Excuse me, sir, the body’s been removed and the house is secure. SOC have finished their preliminary and said it’s OK to take a look.’ He handed Steven’s a pair of disposable, blue plastic overshoes and latex gloves.
The cottage was one of the latest tranche of refurbished buildings. Outside it looked newly built; stonework walls neatly pointed, slate roof immaculate; surrounded by empty shells of people’s second homes, all shining with the same newness, all with closed curtains and empty driveways.
Going inside slowly revealed a mess. The front door opened directly into a sitting room which, given the heavy amount of foot traffic it had recently experienced, was remarkably clean and tidy. Only a single line of bloody footprints marred the room. These prints, made by the unfortunate neighbour who’d entered first, led away from a study at the rear of the cottage.
Steven’s wasn’t sure what the room would have been when the cottage was originally built, maybe a smithy, possibly even an integrated cowshed, but now it was a scene of devastation. If you ignored the bloodstains on the carpet, no easy task given the coppery smell that still pervaded the air, the rest of the room had been trashed. It didn’t strike Stevens as the usual burglary disruption – drawers turned out, furniture over-turned – this was pure destruction; oak sideboard and desk splintered, curtains and rug shredded. He glanced at the initial SOC photographs he’d been given; debris lay on the body and none had been found beneath. Mr Jeffries had been dead or dying before the killer had set about the room. There was no obvious pattern to the damage; cut marks scored walls, floor, furniture, even the ceiling. Poised beside the blood stain, Stevens glanced about, shook his head; it almost looked as if something had tried to claw its way out of the room.
With his usual, deliberate methodology Stevens examined the study; it’d help make the clinical details of the SOC report come to life when he read through them later. Then, when the forensics team had deconstructed the crime scene he’d still be able to rely on memories as well as the written word. Carver’s approach was different; he relied wholly on the reports they’d receive, letting none of the atmosphere of the scene affect his judgement. He often said ‘impair his judgement’, but Stevens wasn’t sure Carver knew what impair actually meant. Regardless, and despite Carver’s mocking attitude toward his partner, they functioned well as a pair. Maybe not the highest clearance rate among the other detective teams, but theirs was a solid score sheet.
For nearly two hours Stevens wandered through the cottage, examining old photographs, the man’s CD and DVD collection, the contents of kitchen cupboards, drawers and wardrobe in the small bedroom, even the refuse in the bathroom bin. He thoughtfully considered the minutiae of the dead man's life, piecing together an existence that had been halted by unimaginable violence.
Peter Jeffries, 46 years old, divorced. Sub-manager of a car dealership based twenty miles away. One three-year old conviction for speeding. No living family. No children. No pets. No close friends. A nobody. A man few would miss. Stevens headed back to his office with no clear path to follow.
Second Canto – May 31st
The heavy oak door thudded shut behind him. Stevens glanced up at the weathered, hand-painted sign that hung outside the public house. Now only just visible, a muscular hand clutched a hammer, where it rested across an anvil. Hammer and Anvil. Very rustic. But not very busy and none of the ‘locals’ knew a thing. The majority were newcomers to the village; successive purchases and redevelopment by speculators had replaced the original inhabitants with new people. According to the recently-arrived landlord, the only original inhabitant of Stone Howe lived in a cottage on the outskirts of the village; an old woman called Berta Huldra, who had her granddaughter Maggie living with her.
Apropos of nothing, Stevens turned his steps toward the only un-renovated building in the village, almost lost among an over-growth of elder, hawthorn and ivy.
As he arrived, his black leather shoes now slightly damp from the wet grass of the overgrown path, Steven noticed a girl leaning on the cottage gate talking to an old man. Actually the man may not have been all that old, but his wild hair and shabby demeanour made it difficult to be precise. The girl was obviously young, she practically vibrated with restrained energy, even her feather-cut, black-and-white hair bounced as her head twitched about in short, quick movements, matched by her small, thin hands as they punctuated her speech. The older man, who held his right arm against the chest of his stained and patched greatcoat, suddenly lifted his left hand for silence, glanced toward Stevens and then hurried away, following the path where it passed beyond the Huldra cottage. He was abruptly lost within the gloom of the surrounding woods.
The girl remained by the brightly-painted gate. Her gaze was direct, though her head continued its small motions. Her fingernails, where her they clutched the top bar of the gate, were as black as the darker parts of her hair. Behind her the only original dwelling left in Stone Howe lay entwined in a bower of ivy and honeysuckle, its thatched roof green with moss.
Pulling his warrant card from an inside pocket, Stevens introduced himself. The girl’s eyes never broke contact. ‘And you are?’ he prompted.
‘Maggie’ her voice was equally as thin as her hands and body. She didn’t look malnourished, just... thin; almost transparent. Her rapid, fluttering hand gestures reminded Steven’s of drug addicts he’d had to deal with, but there was a vitality to this girl that none of them had possessed. And, despite the affected grunge look, she was still too well groomed.
‘Oh. Huldra. Maggie Huldra. I live with Nan. You can’t talk to her. She isn’t here. She’s looking for mushrooms and berries.’ A hand wavered vaguely. ‘Off in the woods. Somewhere.’ She seemed to anticipate Stevens’ next question. ‘But she’ll be back before dark. Usually.’ Her head tilted abruptly as she considered her answer. ‘Probably.’
‘Can you tell me who was the old man you were speaking to when I arrived?’
‘That’s just Shuck. He lives off in the woods.’ Another rapid wave of the hand. ‘He’s harmless.’
‘And he’s harmless because?’
‘Well you’re a policeman and poor Mr Jeffries is dead. And wasn’t no accident. Shuck’s just an old tramp. He walks the lanes around here. Used to be a tinker. But work dried up since townies moved in. Killed all the villages. Now no one needs a bucket mended. Nor a sharp knife no more’.
‘But if I just wanted to talk to Shuck, where would I find him?’
‘Nowhere particular. Around. Lives in the woods.’
Third Canto – May 31st
Not one to ignore an implied challenge, Stevens continued past the Huldra’s cottage and into the deeper woods. The trees wove a dense canopy and the ground beneath lay in shade; few flowers or plants, just a thick layer of leaf-litter and the occasional fallen tree trunk, the latter colonised by all manner of bracket fungi, moss and lichens.
As he progressed Stevens noticed that, ahead of him, sunlight was penetrating the woods. Abruptly he stepped from beneath the saw-toothed leaves of an elder tree into a clearing dominated by a grassy mound, which rose to just above head-height and was surmounted by another grey-blue sarsen stone. The faint path he’d been following faded entirely. At random, Stevens began skirting the mound heading to his left.
A voice, neither young nor old, sounded from the far side of the mound.
‘Widdershins! To be expected.’
Stevens halted and called in return, ‘Mister Shuck?’
‘Just Shuck. What do you want Mister Policeman?’
‘Just a few questions.’ Stevens began circling again. ‘A man was murdered in the village. If you’re a local you can’t want to see anyone else get killed.’
‘But people die all the time; age, disease, violence. Death is a constant; our ancestors understood that.’ To Stevens it seemed the voice was also moving, keeping the speaker out of sight. The ageless voice continued. ‘Back in history man slaughtered the things he feared, or drove them into more remote spaces, away from those places he chose to live. Some of those things are still out there, but they have more to fear from man than he does from them.’
‘I doubt whoever killed Peter Jeffries had that much to fear from an over-weight office worker.’
A chuckle floated about the open space. ‘A physical form is transient; people inhabit their flesh for such a short time. Civilisations likewise rise and fall, and leave their mark. Everything does.’
Tempted to demand Shuck face him, Stevens held his temper. ‘Sorry, but I’m not into metaphysics. I’m a policeman. A man’s been murdered and his killer needs to be caught.’
‘The killer is already caught. It’s testing the boundaries of its cage.’
Stevens halted. ‘Cut the mystical crap! If you have information I want it, not bullshit, however poetic!’
When Shuck appeared it was from behind a tree to Steven’s right, not from the far side of the mound. He cradled a withered right hand.
‘Bullshit? It means nonsense doesn’t it. But that would depend on your perspective.’ He made no attempt to approach Stevens, the latter felt unusually indecisive when faced with the older man’s evasions.
Shuck tilted his head to one side. ‘There’s an old nonsense saying in the villages around Stone Howe’. Raising his voice he recited the short verse.
‘Quiet brother, still your sound,
Sister cast your light around.
Sunlight comes, moonlight goes,
Hang a stone on the black dog’s nose.
Lift a branch, lift a bough,
Me and mine, thee and thou.’
Stevens willed himself to remain calm. It seemed obvious that Shuck’s age and ‘vocation’ may have seriously affected his mind. If he did possess any useful information it might require patience to coax it from him. It was quite possible that he’d seen something given the ‘cage’ remark. Stevens just needed to wade through the knee-deep crap the guy kept spouting.
Turning from Stevens, Shuck began circling the mound the opposite way. ‘Time changes things, people, places, memories.’
‘But what do you remember about two nights ago?’
‘New moon; when nights are at their darkest. Well they used to be; before gas lamps, electric lights and neon. Nights were dark. Days were bright.’
Stevens worked hard to maintain his composure.
The tramp stopped walking and glanced back at Stevens. ‘The villagers in the surrounding countryside have forgotten too much, and some of what they remember is wrong.’ He began walking toward the crown of the mound. ‘The Black Dog they speak of is actually the spirit of a brown bear; one of the last to walk these woods. It grew more powerful feeding on the anger of its dying brethren. The aes sidhe bound it before its rage became uncontrollable.’ He stopped and touched the standing stone with his left hand. ‘They placed four stones upon their own tumuli to hold down the rage. The spirits of nature can be fickle, and dangerous when roused.’
Stevens gritted his teeth. ‘There are no wild bears in England. None; not outside of zoos and wildlife parks. Peter Jeffries was not killed by a bear.’ But in his mind’s eye he saw again the claw marks across the walls and the violent passion that had destroyed the furniture. For the briefest moment he remembered child-like wonder at things unknown; the monster under the bed, strange sounds in the dead of night… ’Please! Stop talking utter nonsense and tell me what you know about the murder!’ He scrambled up the mound to confront the other man.
A look of sadness passes across Shuck’s face. ‘Like all your kind you don’t listen. I’d expect more from someone whose profession is seeking the truth. But any truth, I suppose, must fit with the parameters of the society it serves.’ Shuck closed his eyes and faced toward the sun. ‘There are four mounds. One lies east of here. But the stone upon it is gone, torn from the ground by the last set of contractors who rebuilt the last few cottages.’ He stroked his good hand across the smooth sandstone surface. ‘They wanted something special to mark their passing; money in a bank wasn’t enough.’ A sad smile. 'Now their desecration wrings its own kind of havoc.'
Shuck opened his eyes and stared at Stevens, who found the other man’s intense gaze unsettling. ‘As a species man is motivated by greed; to have every need met is never enough. You are barbarous vagabonds, bringers of disorder, lords of misrule. The world must bend to your will. Since it was forged you’ve broken the Covenant with the aes sidhe many times, and then wonder why they resent you’.
His mouth opened to protest, but no words emerged. Stevens felt held in place; bound into silence. The isolation of his surroundings began intruding into his senses. No birdsong, no rustle of leaves though they moved. And then there were the shapes that cavorted in his peripheral vision, resolutely refusing to come into focus when looked at directly. Though Shuck had fallen just as silent, Stevens could hear other, low voices, sounding from nowhere and everywhere. The furtive movement among the surrounding trees became even more pronounced. Earthy smells that he vaguely remembered but couldn’t recognise played in the air about him. Despite their being no breath of wind the ankle-deep grass on the mound moved, as if disturbed by small feet. Pulse thundering in his head, Stevens became unaccountably afraid.
Still smiling sadly, his gaze now gentle, Shuck spoke again. ‘They were ancient when you’re ancestors learned to walk upright. The eldritch nurtured humanity; this world was so fecund, they were happy to share its bounty. But you’re too greedy.’
Stevens could feel his clothes being touched, as if the very air were plucking at the cloth. Those innumerable throats continued their whispers, echoing Shuck’s words. A magpie glided into the glade, to loop and dance above Shuck’s head.
A feeling of well-being overcame Stevens; he could sense the rhythm of his heart and his thoughts melding with the whispers that surrounded him. The air about him felt pleasantly warm; the ephemeral sounds faded leaving him in a quiet, comfortable void. Above him the sunlight flared brighter. He could feel grass beneath his hands and pressure against his back, but Steven’s had no recollection of lying down. As his eyes began to close he could hear Shuck’s voice receding, as if the other man were walking away.Their tolerance for your petty stupidities is almost at its end. Their gifts have been squandered, your memory of them tainted. When all is said and done, this is their world not yours.’ And as if from a great distance, ‘Tread softly.’
Fourth Canto – May 31st
When he awoke the sky was dark; even the stars seem dim. Sitting up, Stevens took out his mobile phone and glanced at the screen; past midnight; no signal. Damn. He scrambled to his feet and looked quickly around. He had no expectation of seeing Shuck, but, perhaps, whatever had been there earlier might still be present. The odd, child-like feeling had almost faded, and he tried hard to keep it within his mental grasp. The faint sound of the wind in the trees was all he could detect. An unaccountable sadness settled upon him and, with a final glance toward the now shadowed stone, he descended the mound. A part of him wasn’t surprised, when almost immediately, he encountered the now very obvious path.
There were no lights on in the Huldra cottage when he walked past the painted gate. Unsure as to why Stevens found himself heading back toward the Jeffries’ cottage. About him Stone Howe lay silent and dark. The only lights that showed were through the leaded windows of the pub; even they were subdued.
Reaching the cottage he stopped abruptly - two motorcycles were parked side-by-side in the lane outside. A quick glance showed the front door remained closed behind the implied seal of the police tape. Now cautious he circled the low building, to discover the back door had been opened. And at chest height an ornate knife was jammed inches-deep into the right jamb. As Stevens leaned in closer to inspect the embellished blade a low chanting caught his attention. The male voice rose and fell in a complicated rhythm, the sounds were words, but not in any language with which he was familiar. The suspicion crossed his mind that Shuck may have been playing some deluded charade within an active crime scene. Stevens entered the cottage, moving as noiselessly as he could.
Very carefully he moved into the doorway of the damaged study.
Standing before him was the most entrancingly beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Dark hair reached to her waist, framing a pale and elfin countenance. The hair seemed to be in constant motion, as if a faint breeze were blowing through the room. Her eyes were large, slightly Asiatic; her lips thin, almost bloodless. But, whatever exotic blood she carried she was undeniably beautiful. Her delicate hands were raised, fingers describing curlicues in the air. Stevens let out a ragged breath. And the vision was gone, replaced by an oriental woman and, beyond her, a one-eyed, bearded man standing upright, though his unfocussed right eye suggested a trance-state, possibly drugged. A hooded, checkered coat hung to his ankles, front open, sleeves fallen back on his raised forearms. His mouth moved and the unfamiliar litany continued its cadence.
Beyond the entranced man, where a desk should have been, Stevens could see out into a moonlit stableyard. Strong moonlight shone down upon an enclosed yard and a half-dozen wooden horse stalls. The warm glow of a forge occupied a corner where, in Steven’s memory, a badly clawed bookshelf had rested in a nook. He could detect the odour of warm metal and woodsmoke.
Intending to exit the building and look for a phone signal - this weird shit definitely required back-up - Stevens spared one last glance at the woman; to find her dark eyes staring back. She smiled at him, motioned him forward. Unable to say why or resist the temptation, he complied, drawn across the threshold to stand within the study, to find his feet encompassed by an elaborate circle chalked in white upon the wooden floor. As his eyes broke contact with those of the woman Stevens attempted to move, but found himself held once again, subject to the same sensations as he experienced on the grassy mound; sound amplified, so that the faintest movement of air roared in his ears. For some moments the bearded man’s voice was a torment, before suddenly dying away as another figure entered the room.
Shuck still stood just as stooped, his right arm pulled in tight to his chest, though now an aura of restrained power emanated from him; his face bore fewer of the deep creases and wrinkles that had marked it earlier. In his left hand he gripped a piece of blue-grey stone that reflecting the soft light of numerous tallow candles scattered around the otherwise dark room. Shuck held out the stone fragment to the man, who received it into both of his hands as if accepting something precious.
Raising the shard the man pressed it to his forehead and spoke once again, but this time Stevens understood every word, though the sentence remained meaningless.
'A Son of Eve begs your forgiveness brother Bear. This Son shares your sorrow at the loss of your kin.’ The emotion in the one-eyed man’s voice tugged at something buried deep within Stevens. ‘This world is no longer the wildwood you knew and hunted in. The wildwood has passed beyond and you must follow.’ A palpable sense of despair lay behind the litany. ‘Your old prey await you beyond. Go and hunt, and take this Son's promise that he will render aid if you call.'
For several heavy heartbeats nothing changed within the room. Ice crawled the length of Stevens’ spine; dread soured his stomach. A sudden drop in ambient temperature limned everybody’s breath in vaporous swirls. Stevens sensed a presence, something limitless struggling to emerge within the confines of the room. The tendrils of exhaled breath began to stream together into the centre of the room, joined by will-o’-the-wisps tugged from the very walls. A form slowly coalesced, an impossible form; an animal shape; a shaggy, hulking monster bearing the vaguest resemblance to the pictures of bears Stevens had seen in nature books. But oh, so much bigger. So big that even down on all four massive paws it brushed the ceiling, but apart from dull yellow eyes, it seemed to remain little more than a silhouette.
Crouched before the man its nose just brushed the stone fragment.
More thunderous heartbeats pounded within Stevens’ chest as the tableau held. As Shuck reached out his good hand to touch the bear Stevens flinched, remembering the blood and claw marks and expecting the same. But the bear turned its head and nuzzled the vagrant’s hand. Nodding to the man and woman, Shuck turned and led the shadow-animal from the room, its wide flanks passing through the wall surrounding the door through which Shuck walked.
The oriental woman turned to her companion, where he stood wrapping the stone fragment in a scrap of linen. Thrusting the bundle into one of his coat pockets the one-eyed man followed Shuck and the bear from the room, sparing a final glance at Stevens. The woman stepped closer. Stevens fought against his invisible bonds as she drew a dagger from behind her back, advancing upon him with the blade held before her.
Straining in vain to move his head he could only watch in abject terror as she lifted the point toward his face. The burnished blade, scroll work and letters etched along its length stopped against his cheek, the very tip dimpling his skin.
When she smiled he saw once again the beautiful creature he’d first glimpsed, then the prick of the dagger drew a pearl of blood from his cheek. Darkness descended and time stopped.
Fifth Canto – June 1st
The light hurt Stevens’ eyes as he emerged from the cottage into bright morning. Dawn was spilling down over the village. He walked slowly to his car, trying desperately to make sense of what he’d seen, but the harder he tried to concentrate, the quicker the details bled from his mind, leaving him with only the vaguest recollection of the previous day’s events.
As he reached his car he checked his watch. The autopsy was in four hours and he needed a shower, a shave and a strong cup of coffee.
Opening the drivers’ door Stevens glanced down the lane toward the last habitation in the village, a thatched cottage wrapped in honeysuckle and ivy. Beyond it, where the path entered the trees he saw a wolf-life, shaggy black dog limping away, its right front paw held up against its chest. Above it, darting, swooping and screeching, a magpie played in the chill morning air.
Stevens knew something important had happened, he could almost see it. But then his mobile phone warbled at him and, as Carver’s voice erupted from the device, the mundane world washed away the last vestiges of recent memories.
Thomas English and Koto Kannon will reappear in Nocturne, the next tale of misrule...
Read more stories by this author
Ironspider - For those who may be interested, until he finds a permanent new home, John Henson Webb (Ironspider) is now publishing his new (and revised old) stories on WattPad.
micheledutcher - tobiash wrote: Well written. Fine description of scenes. Exciting story but questions remain. Why was the victim killed? But all in all a good read.
micheledutcher - mark211 wrote: This is appropriately creepy in all the right ways and I particularly liked the figure of Shuck. You definitely have a good ear (if that's the right word) for producing chilling effects – something I personally think is generally harder to achieve in writing than in film/TV.
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