At the top of a hill on the other side of the village lay the Church of St. Morcar, its weathered grey stone mirroring the heavy, leaden sky above. The churchyard was dotted with decaying and neglected gravestones amid a sea of wildflowers. The property was sealed off from the outside world by a low stone wall and the covetous embrace of two large and very ancient yew trees. Passing through the lychgate, Arthur walked up the gravel path towards the buttressed church tower then stopped, overcome as he was by morbid curiosity, to examine some of the graves. What began as a cursory glance turned into a full-scale examination of almost all of the headstones in the yard as Arthur temporarily forgot his initial intention to enter the church. From what he could see, no one had been interred here since the late 1950’s. There were loving husbands, wives, mothers and fathers under the stones who had lived long enough to make their mark on the world. There were also those whom nature had denied such a chance, children and infants – more than a few of them, it turned out. It was a rather high mortality rate, even for those days.
“You must be Arthur Clipp,” came a cultured voice from behind him. Arthur span around, startled. Stood right before him was a thin, balding man of average height in priest’s garb. His nose was sharp, like a beak, and his eyes, a cold grey-green colour, suggested a fierce intelligence. He looked to be perhaps in his late fifties or early sixties.
“Y-yes,” Arthur replied. “How did you –?”
“Word travels fast in a small place like this. I’m Reverend Masterson. How do you do?”
Arthur shook his hand, which felt cold and dry to the touch.
“There isn’t much interest in these graves nowadays,” said the Reverend. “The last person to be buried here died in 1957. Only the very old come here to pay their respects now. Would you care to have a look inside? It’s marginally warmer and not quite as damp.”
Arthur followed him through the arched doorway into a vestibule that was lit only by the wan light filtering through a large stained-glass window above. The image on the window was of an armoured figure battling a black demon. Around his head was a halo.
“Our patron, St. Morcar,” explained Masterson. “According to legend, a demon escaped from Hell and terrorised Edgeharrow long ago. This brave and pious warrior soon arrived on the scene and ran his sword through the horrid thing, much to the joy of the locals. He was canonised for this and assorted other good deeds. Now he looks over the flock as they file in to hear my sermons. It’s a pity you missed this morning’s service,” he added, one eyebrow raised.
“Oh, yes, sorry about that,” Arthur said, not sorry at all. He thought back to those Sundays he spent as an altar boy: the endless ritual, the tedium, the ridiculous outfit, having to look as demure as an old whore at a christening. He had decided, as a rebellious teenager, that religion held no relevance in his life, that only science and reason mattered. Nevertheless, he still felt nervous in holy places, as if he were a thief returning to the scene of a crime. The majesty of church architecture, even in a modest edifice like St. Morcar’s, held some power over him, even now.
“The church was built in 1365,” the priest went on, “although the roof was replaced in the 1640’s after the old one collapsed. They say that the parish vicar was inside at the time and was killed instantly. I sincerely hope such a fate does not befall me. Are you interested in archaeology?”
“Yes,” Arthur replied. “I heard there was a dig here recently.”
“Indeed, there was. Some students unearthed a small crypt underneath the chancel which dates to the early 17th century. Inside, they found the skeleton of a local squire, Sir Henry Merlock. His bones have been carted off for study, but you can have a look down there, if you like. Follow me.”
The Reverend led Arthur through the nave, past rows of varnished pews, ancient stone buttresses, more stained-glass windows and decorated corbels. Some depicted animal heads, others foliate faces (the Green Man of legend), while on two of them were carved into shields with the symbol of a wyvern emblazoned on them.
“We don’t get that many visitors to Edgeharrow outside August, when the ale festival is on, apart from the occasional stray cyclist. Did Sandra tell you about the festival?”
“She did,” Arthur replied. “It sounds like I’ve missed out on all the fun.”
The old cleric chuckled. His laughter was dry, like the rustle of old parchment. “You didn’t miss much. If truth be told, it’s more of a minor get-together than a festival. But it keeps Sandra and her friends out of mischief. That’s the trouble with small villages like ours – there isn’t a lot to do, what with there being only one shop, a public house and a tea-room. The youngsters amuse themselves by dreaming of better things or drinking cider in the South Field.”
“Do they cause you any trouble?” Arthur asked.
“Oh, no,” he replied, “no trouble, really. I say, let the little scallywags have their fun while they can. They know better than to terrorise their pastor.”
Arthur considered that an odd sentiment for a man of the cloth. Was he one of those progressive liberal Anglicans, or was there a hint of menace in his words?
“Have you lived here all of your life?” Arthur guessed that he hadn’t, by the man’s accent, but it was as good a question as any.
“Goodness, no!” exclaimed the Reverend. “I’m from Surrey, originally, but I accepted my post here some thirty-odd years ago. That’s not nearly long enough to be considered a local. Nevertheless, I serve my flock as best I can and the villagers show me respect, at least to my face. Mind your head, now!”
They passed through a small doorway in the north transept and Arthur found himself back outside again, on a narrow strip of land between the church and a stone wall, beyond which lay a dense wood.
“Here we are,” said Masterson, gesturing with his right hand. Arthur looked down and saw a square hole with stone steps leading down. “The entrance to the crypt. Be careful! It rained all day yesterday and the steps are narrow. After you.”
Gingerly, Arthur walked down the steps, the Reverend close behind him, until he came to a doorway that led directly underneath the church. A dank, underground smell mingled with the scent of earth reached his nostrils as he walked along the short corridor to a tiny, barrel-vaulted crypt. Taking up half the room was a stone tomb, upon which was a relief of a man. He was dressed in plate armour but wore a ruff at his neck. He had shoulder-length hair and a neatly-trimmed beard. In his hands, he held a two-handed sword and at his feet was a small shield with a wyvern insignia upon it. Along the base of the tomb were carved the following words:
HIC JACET HENRICUS MERLOCK 1545 – 1609 REQUIESCAT IN PACE
“The Merlock family had ruled over Edgeharrow since the Norman Conquest,” came the Reverend’s voice from behind him. “You may have noticed their wyvern insignia in the church itself and, of course, the inn.”
Arthur though back to the creaking inn-sign, lit by the orange glow of a solitary electric lamp while the rest of the land was enveloped in darkness. He asked the Reverend why this tomb had been sealed off.
“A very good question. We had always believed Sir Henry had been buried somewhere in the churchyard, so nobody had any inkling about this crypt until a chance encounter last Spring. Maurice, the church warden, discovered a stone step after digging up the remains of a fox.”
“A fox was buried in the ground?” said Arthur, puzzled.
“Yes, that was the first of them. Some practical joker has taken it upon himself to bury dead animals all over the place. The fox had already been mauled quite badly before it was interred. Ghastly business. Who would do such a thing?”
The dead dog nailed to the tree, the old drunkard with his tale about cats buried in a field….was there a connection?
“Someone told me about some dead cats last night,” Arthur said. “He said that their throats had been cut.”
“You must have been talking to our troubled friend, Albert. He developed an over-fondness for the demon drink after his wife passed away, God rest her, not to mention a penchant for hyperbole. There were indeed some dead cats found in the South Field, but I’m fairly certain they were killed by a dog or a fox. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Albert himself who’s been burying them. His mind is not what it once was, you see.
“Now, if it’s all the same to you, I do not wish to linger in this place. The cloying atmosphere is not good for my lungs. I can point you in the direction of the manor house, if you like.”
“The manor house?”
“Merlock Manor, the family seat. It lies outside the village, to the south-west. Legend has it that the place was built on the site of an Anglo-Saxon burial ground, though that was never proven. Unfortunately, there’s not much left of it nowadays.”
“What happened to it?” Arthur inquired.
“The manor burned down in 1649 shortly after the church roof collapsed. Indeed, the two events are said to be linked. The official story is that there was a kitchen fire at the manor, but the locals maintain that the fire was deliberately started. Whatever the case, the building was gutted and most of those inside, including all of Sir Henry’s descendants, died. The land went to some distant relative of the Merlocks who lived far away, while what was left of the manor house was reclaimed by Mother Nature. The soil was said to be unfit for either grain or pasture, while the villagers shunned the place, believing it to be cursed. But I’m sure you’ll be fine,” he added, grinning. “Come!”
Arthur, too, was glad to leave the crypt. Aside from the dungeon smell, he felt a palpable sense of unease about the place, a sense that he should not linger there for too long. It felt much better to be outside in the fresh air, although it had started to rain again. As they walked to the front of the church, he asked the Reverend about the grimoire which had been discovered in the tomb.
“Some nonsense about alchemy, from what I could gather,” the Reverend replied. “Nothing unusual about that, given that even brilliant men like Newton were trying to discover the Philosopher’s Stone back in the 17th century. It would seem that Sir Henry had a similar interest in scholarly pursuits. The book was been taken to Exeter for study along with the bones, so if you want to know more, you’ll have to contact the archaeology department there.”
“I might do that,” Arthur replied. “I have some other questions regarding the-”
He froze. Ahead of him, underneath the lychgate, was a hooded figure. His blood ran cold as he though back to his previous visions. Was someone following him again or was he hallucinating? His imagination ran riot with possibilities.
The figure pulled back the hood to reveal a woman who was perhaps in her early twenties, not the demonic entity he had been half-expecting. Arthur, feeling very foolish all of a sudden, joined them.
“Hi,” said the young woman. “I was wondering if Dr. Blakeford had turned up today.” She gave Arthur a quizzical glance.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen neither hide nor tail of him. This is Arthur. He’s staying at the inn, just as you are, so I’m sure you two will be seeing more of each other over the next few days.”
“How do you do,” said Freya as they shook hands. Getting a better look, Arthur could see that underneath the anorak, jeans and walking shoes was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. Her large eyes were sky-blue in colour, her dimpled smile was dazzling, her hand was soft to the touch and her voice pleasing to the ear. She was quite tall, about five feet eight inches, slim, and her long brown hair seemed to catch what little sunlight filtered through the thick clouds above and magnify it sevenfold. Her cheekbones were prominent and she had a slightly upturned nose. Arthur’s fear had given way to awe.
“If you’d care to wait around,” said Masterson, “he may turn up later on today.”
“Oh! No, I don’t want to be any trouble,” said Freya. “Besides, I’ve got paperwork to get on with.”
“Very well. Arthur, to get to the manor, you must take the west road leading out of the village, then cut across the meadow to the south. Look for a style on your left. Beyond the meadow is Gravethorn Wood. Walk through it for about ten minutes and you will see a mound at its centre. That’s where the ruin lies. Be careful, though! A man can easily lose his way in such a place.”
“Thank you, Reverend,” said Arthur. “It was a pleasure meeting you.”
“Likewise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have matters that require my attention. Good day to you both!”
They bade each other farewell and the Reverend walked briskly towards the church. Arthur and Freya began to walk down the lane, towards the village.
“Are you from the university?” asked Freya as she pulled her hood up against the rain.
“No,” said Arthur, doing likewise, “I came here for a short break. Thought I’d take in a bit of country air. You must be a student, right? Did you take part in the excavation?”
“Oh, no,” she replied, “I’m a student at Bristol. I was supposed to meet up with someone from Exeter. Dr. Blakeford led the excavation and had told me he was going to be here to do some more work, but he hasn’t turned up. To be honest, I thought you were him at first.”
“Well, I’d like his salary, perhaps,” quipped Arthur, “but no, I’m not him. What are you studying?”
“History. I’m working on a dissertation on witchcraft.”
“Really? That sounds interesting! I’m something of a history buff myself, though it’s more of a hobby of mine than anything. I studied Economics with Politics. Worked wonders for my debating skills, but didn’t exactly further my career.”
They chatted as they walked, Arthur recounting his life in bullet-point format, while she told him more about her studies, her background, her hopes and her aspirations. She was well-spoken, came from a good family and seemed very intelligent. In brief, she was everything Arthur could want in a woman. Any moment now, he thought grimly, she was going to mention her boyfriend. Girls like her always dropped the ‘B’ bomb because girls like her were too attractive and charming to be left alone. It made perfect sense, but the boyfriend was always someone else, someone with a better car, a better job, better dancing skills, someone more approachable. She continued talking and he continued to listen, enjoying every syllable that passed her lips, but there was no mention of a man in her life and the ring she wore was on the wrong finger. So far, so good.
“I like your name,” he said, trying his best not to sound clichéd. “Are your parents interested in Norse mythology?”
“My mother’s Danish,” Freya replied with a smile, “and she named me after the pagan goddess. Not a lot of people pick up on that, you know.”
“I used to read up on the old legends as a boy,” Arthur replied modestly, trying to contain his delight. He was no Don Juan, but when it came to memorising assorted useless trivia, he was world-class.
“What’s the connection between Edgeharrow and witchcraft?” he asked.
“There were some cases here in the early 17th century, at the height of the witch craze,” she said. “A number of people, mostly women, were hanged for witchcraft on the west side of the village. But there are rumours that black magic had been performed by the Merlock family up at the manor for many, many years. Because of their high social standing, they were never convicted of witchcraft like their accomplices, so they got away scot-free. They say the villagers hated them for this and blamed them for the collapse of the church roof, so they burned down their manor house. I think that was when they sealed up Sir Henry’s crypt, along with his book, so that his spirit couldn’t escape and terrorise the village. The trouble is, all of this is based on folk memory and with so few surviving written records, it’s impossible to get to the truth.
“I had hoped,” she added with a sigh, “that Dr. Blakeford would shed some more light on the mystery, but I’ve seen no sign of him since arriving here, which is weird.”
“He might have been delayed,” reasoned Arthur, “or perhaps there was a clash in his diary. You know what these academics are like.”
“I suppose you could be right, but he seemed so eager on the phone. He wanted to have a look at the manor house ruins and he told me he’d made some ‘startling new discovery’, or something. I have no idea what he meant by that.” A frown creased her forehead.
“Well, maybe he’ll turn up tomorrow,” Arthur reasoned, trying to sound helpful. “I’m sure you’ll have the answers soon enough.”
They had reached the village centre, where a stone war memorial stood. To the east lay the road he had driven down yesterday. The south road was signposted “Penlicote Bay – 8 miles”, while the sign pointing towards the west said, “Crowswick – 7 miles”.
“I’m heading back to the inn now,” said Freya, “but it was nice talking to you.”
“Would you like to join me for dinner tonight?” he asked, expecting some sort of excuse to avoid seeing him again. I’ve got too much on, I’ve made other plans, I’m not feeling well, I’m-
“Sure! I’d like that,” she replied with that gorgeous smile of hers. “How about seven-thirty in the lounge?”
“Uh….y-yeah, that sounds good to me!” he stammered, momentarily taken aback. “I’ll let you know how I get on at the ruins.”
“Rather you than me. Be careful!”
“Ah, what’s the worst that could happen?” he grinned.