The road to Crowswick went up a gentle incline. He spotted the style up ahead, went over it and crossed the meadow. The grass beneath his feet glistened with rainwater and an autumnal breeze rolled down the slope from the west, causing him to shiver, while up ahead lay a line of dense woodland, dark and uninviting. Glad as he was for the change of scenery, to get away from the telephone calls, e-mails and deadlines, Arthur was somewhat reluctant to step into the wood, especially after what had happened yesterday. As he reached the edge of the meadow, he turned and looked down at the village to the north-east. He could see only one person outside: an elderly woman was walking slowly down the street. Most of the villagers had decided that a wet Sunday was best spent in front of the television. Who could blame them? Then Arthur thought of Freya, of what she would think if he told her he could not manage a ten-minute walk because of a mere hunch. Such foolishness! Taking a deep breath, he strode into the forest.
After a while, his legs began to ache, but he did not slow his pace. The trees seemed to close in on him, conspiring to block out the daylight with their gnarled old branches, becoming larger and closer together the further he walked. The atmosphere in these woods was oppressive. Arthur noticed that there was very little birdsong here and every rustled leaf, every snapped twig, set him on edge. Even the sound of his breathing was too loud under the gloomy canopy. From time to time, he detected the movement of a large animal or person out of the corner of his eye, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right. When he turned, however, there was nothing there except the trees and the undergrowth. Distracted as he was, he tripped on a fallen branch and fell. Cursing aloud, he got to his feet, brushed off the dirt from his hands and knees, then looked ahead. The ground rose sharply directly in front of him and at the crest of this mound, he could see a clearing on which stood ancient stone foundations covered in moss and vines. Most of what was left of the walls had been submerged by the soil, but this was undoubtedly the site of Merlock Manor. Even with his untrained eye, Arthur could see that it had never been a grand affair; the building would have been dwarfed by Blenheim Palace or Syon House. Nevertheless, it must have presented an imposing site up here on this hill once upon a time, overlooking the village like a stone-and-timber judge. Arthur liked the idea of being the lord of some country pile, with acres of land to play around with and an army of servants to do his bidding. He liked to think he would be a kind enough master, not the sort to mistreat his employees or ignore their needs. In his years working as a humble accounts clerk, he had seen plenty of corruption and dishonour in those who ought to have been leading by example. With power comes responsibility, as they say. Those who abused their authority were unworthy of it and if they lost their privileges and their lives, it was as much as they deserved. Is that what had happened here? The haughty Merlocks laid low by their disgruntled tenants? Or was it an accident, as the official records claimed? Why had no one come here to excavate this place?
Something shiny caught his eye. On the ground a couple of metres away, almost covered by decaying leaves and twigs, was a metal object. Arthur stepped forward and reached down to pick it up. In his hand, he held a silver necklace with a pentagram design and a small ruby at its centre. Though it was grubby, it was by no means an ancient relic; more likely, its owner had bought the thing for a song on eBay.
“Fair is foul and foul is fair,” he muttered to himself, thinking back to what Freya had said about the black magic rituals that had supposedly taken place here 400 years ago. Was this pendant evidence of some sort of New Age revival at the manor ruins? There was no shortage of idiots in this world, Arthur knew, so it was not unreasonable to surmise that some people, local or otherwise, believed in all of that hokum enough to try to host a sabbat of their own. As far as he was concerned, rituals like those were nothing more than hedonistic revelries with a ceremonial veneer, but he admired their creativity. Given the choice between a pagan love-in and a week of excess with binge-drinking scum in Kavos, he would take the broomstick every time, even if it did involve getting soaked in sheep’s blood. The necklace’s owner might be a resident of Edgeharrow, so Arthur resolved to ask about it when he returned. If no one claimed it, he would keep it for himself – finders, keepers, and all that. Reasoning that there could be other artefacts lying around, or something else of interest, he pocketed the necklace and scoured the rest of the site, not caring how long he took or whether he was being watched. He covered the whole clearing, working his way from the outside in, uncovering stones, scraping away dead leaves and pulling up roots, heedless of the fading daylight but all the time wishing he had brought a shovel. His curiosity was finally sated when he finally reached the dead centre of the ruins, for there lay a pile of stones which looked as though they had been deliberately placed, one on top of the other. Though his back ached, his hands were filthy and the persistent light rain was starting to soak through his clothes, he was excited by the prospect of finding something interesting (valuable?) underneath. What he discovered underneath the small cairn gave him a start.
A pair of eyeballs lay before him, buried in a small pit that had been dug and covered by the stones. At least, they looked like eyeballs. Decomposition had already set in and they gave off an unwholesome smell which made him queasy; how long they had been here, he could not tell, but he was sure that in these damp conditions, they would not take long to putrefy. There were other, unidentifiable, pieces of flesh among them, too. Arthur suspected the remains had once belonged to a pig, considering the size, but a sheep was another possibility, or even a dog. Had an animal sacrifice taken place here recently, or was this grisly offering sourced from the local butcher’s shop? Arthur stared in horrified fascination at the foul-smelling remains, wondering what kind of oddball would go to this amount of trouble for a silly, meaningless ritual. He knelt there at the centre of the manor ruins among the stones, the moss and the nettles, trying to decide which animal best fit the description, trying his best to ignore the voice in the back of his mind that was doing its utmost to make itself heard. That insistent voice was an unwelcome guest in his consciousness, the Banquo at the feast, the elephant in the room, and no amount of rationalisation could drive it away. The voice was telling him again and again that these eyeballs had once belonged to a human being.
Arthur had never taken much of an interest in photography, although he respected those professionals who advanced the art with their expensive equipment, careful positioning and shrewd use of light and shadow. It was casual photography he hated, the sort that had been made omnipresent by the rise of the smartphone (“smartphones, dumb owners” was one of his favourite expressions). He felt that the ease with which the average layman could document practically his whole insignificant life with digital photography, whether he was horsing around in a nightclub or grinning inanely outside Macchu Picchu, rendered the whole medium worthless. There was something very appealing about those sepia-toned photographs of old, where one would be hard-pressed to find a smile on the Victorians posing thereon,standing or sitting as they were in a state of quiet dignity. Now, however, he sorely wished he had invested in a mobile phone with a camera, for he needed to share this discovery with someone. He had to tell Reverend Masterson about these remains; perhaps even the police might was to know about them, especially if – and this was only a remote possibility, he reassured himself – what lay before him was the result of a grave robbery or even a murder. The idea of bringing the decaying eyeballs with him to the vicarage was thoroughly unappealing, so he decided to leave them where they were. Resolving to return to the site the next day, he covered the hole with the stones, hoping that it would not be raided by a wild animal overnight, and rose. The sound of his knees clicking as he got up was very loud in the stillness of the forest.
He looked up only too late, as a dark shape flew straight into him. The crow cawed, flapped its ebony wings furiously and pecked at his face. Arthur grunted in shock and pain, swiping at the bird, but it merely dodged his blows and continued its frenzied attack. He felt its sharp talons rake at the sleeves of his anorak, felt its dusky feathers brush against his cheeks. He struggled to keep his footing as he took a step backwards, trying to get some distance between himself and the horrid creature.
“Get off, you little bastard!” he cried, flailing his arms about in an attempt to frighten the crow away, but to no avail. The bird cawed again and again, flapping and pecking, as if possessed. Arthur took another step backwards, but a moss-covered stone wall got in the way and sent him tumbling to the earth. Though his fall was not a painful one, he still had to contend with the crow, which dive-bombed towards him as he lay prone. Mustering all the strength he had in him, he brought his right hand up in an arc and gave the vicious bird an almighty back-hander. His hand came into contact with the crow’s head and he felt the smooth, solid impact of its shiny beak on his skin. The crow, giving one last defiant caw, went flying over to the right and landed a couple of metres away from him. Clumsily, he got up, all the time keeping his eyes on his corvine assailant in case it renewed its attack. However, his retaliation seemed to have got the better of the animal, for it lay on the ground, twitching but unable to fly. Arthur walked slowly away from it, towards the edge of the clearing, his heart pounding in his chest. He looked around him and saw, to his horror, that there were other crows sitting in the trees, looking down at him (a murder of crows, he thought). Concluding that he was no longer welcome here, he sprinted down the slope of the mound and back the way he had come. The crows cawed as he ran and to his startled mind, it sounded like they were laughing at him, mocking the intruder who had tried to keep them from their delicious eyeball supper and failed. For that was why he had been attacked, was it not? Or had he disturbed its nest? Whatever the case, he had seen enough of that place and wanted nothing more than to return to his room, get cleaned up and have dinner. And try not to let the macabre discovery ruin his appetite. Fuelled by adrenaline, he continued running for a good few minutes, stopping only when he was certain that the crows were not following him. At last, he paused to catch his breath and looked at his watch: half past six. It was almost dark. He began to walk back, assuming – hoping – that he was headed in the right direction, towards the meadow. The shadows lengthened in the wood and though he could no longer hear the crows, there were other sounds within the trees accompanying the crunch of his footsteps on the forest floor, sounds which unnerved him. He squinted in the gloom, making for a sliver of light in the distance up ahead. He kept his eyes focused on it, not wanting to look anywhere else, for he was certain he could hear footsteps not far behind him, matching his pace. On and on he went, trying his best to ignore the burning pain in his legs, the warm trickle of blood from his right eyebrow and keeping a firm grip on his fevered imagination. There is no one behind me, he thought, there is no one behind me, there is –
A noise that could have been the sighing of the leaves a few metres back, or perhaps a badger or fox, but which sounded all too much like the rasp of a human being (or even something which might once have been human, but was no longer) was all the excuse Arthur needed to break out into a sprint again. Dashing forward, he ran pell-mell through the wood, fighting against the fear inside him which seemed to weigh him down, always looking toward the sliver of dying light up ahead. Twigs snapped underneath his feet and low-lying branches slapped him as he ran, but he ignored the stinging pain they inflicted upon his limbs. Whoever – whatever – was behind him was also running, determined not to let him slip away. After what seemed like an eternity, however, he plunged through a break in the trees and emerged outside Gravethorn Wood. Mercifully, he had gone the right way and ahead of him, down below, he could make out the orange glow of electric lights and the black silhouette of a church spire against the darkening sky. Not ceasing his pace, he dashed across the meadow and only at the last moment avoided hitting the style that divided it from the west road. He scaled the style as quickly as he could and continued down the road towards the safety of the village. Finally, once he had passed four or five cottages, Arthur decided that he was safe enough and leaned against a solitary lamp-post to catch his breath. Pain and fatigue ran through his body like an electric current and his nerves were frayed. His heart felt like it was trying to burst through his rib cage and jettison itself onto the cobblestones below. He was almost grateful for the light rain that fell on his head, cooling his blood as it throbbed at his temples. After a few minutes, he dared himself to turn around and look back, beyond the glare of the street-lamp. Past the stone cottages, the west road and the hedgerows that bordered it were swallowed up by the autumn twilight, so there was no way of telling if there was anyone back there. Whoever had been following him earlier on seemed to have given up the chase once he was free of the wood’s clutches. Arthur walked slowly for the remainder of his journey. He passed the war memorial and plodded towards the safety and shelter of the Wyvern Inn with a profound sense of relief.
* * *
Inside, he could see two local men sitting at the bar and chatting to Wilbur, the landlord, who stood there, listening solemnly. Wilbur did not strike Arthur as the friendly, talkative type. In a sense, he was a sort of antidote to his garrulous wife, but Arthur also got the distinct impression Wilbur did not feel comfortable around him. At breakfast, Arthur had noticed him casting suspicious glances his way when he thought he wasn’t looking. His homely face, with its double chin and five o’clock shadow, had creased into a scowl when he overheard him talking about the excavation to Sandra that morning. Now, as Arthur came in with dirt and blood on his face, looking somewhat the worse for wear, Wilbur barely acknowledged his presence, continuing to wipe a beer glass and listen to the low conversation in front of him. All Arthur cared about right now was getting to his room, showering and changing, so he went past the bar to the doorway at the back of the lounge.
“Arthur?” came a woman’s voice to his right. Freya was sitting at one of the dining tables, a pen in her hand and various papers in front of her. She got to her feet and approached him.
“My God! What happened to you?” she exclaimed, her eyes wide with alarm.
“Funny story,” he replied. “I was attacked by a crow up at the manor house ruins.”
“That doesn’t sound funny at all!” she said, not caring for his deflective humour. “You still have some crow on you!” She brushed a couple of small, black feathers off his anorak.
“You should have seen the other guy,” he said with a grin.
“Yes, I’m sure you gave him what-for. I have a salve and plaster I can put on that cut, if you need them.”
“Yeah, I’d like that – thanks. I’d better get cleaned up first, though.”
“OK. I’ll get my things and wait for you down here.”
Arthur returned to his room, stripped and looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. His face was dirty, his hair was a mess and there was dried blood all the way from the cut above his right eyebrow to his chin. There were various bruises and small cuts on his arms and legs, most of which had probably been inflicted by the trees during his hurried escape. He stepped into the shower and felt the stinging pain of the hot water against his wound. Had someone really been chasing him in the wood, or was his imagination, stimulated by the peculiar events of the last two days, playing tricks on him? If the latter, he would need to see a doctor or even a psychiatrist about these hallucinations. That thought did not cheer him, but even more unsettling was the possibility that there really had been someone out there in the dark. Some of the locals may not have taken kindly to an outsider poking around their territory, meddling in their affairs. How far would such people be willing to go to protect their dirty little secrets? What else was going on in Edgeharrow?
After he had dried himself off, Arthur got changed into the best clothes he had brought with him and went downstairs into the lounge. Passing Wilbur (who did not return his greeting) and the two other men, he found Freya sitting on a leather sofa by the fireplace, reading a book. She was dressed in a grey cardigan, charcoal trousers and blue ballet pumps. It was an ensemble which most would have considered ordinary and unremarkable, but which on her slender frame appeared perfectly elegant. She smiled at his approach.
“It doesn’t look too serious,” she said as he sat down beside her, “although you still need a plaster.”
She brought out a bottle of Bactine from her satchel and sprayed it on the cut. He watched her slender fingers at work as she prepared a sticking-plaster. Arthur felt soothed by her touch as she gently put on the plaster and she was close enough that he could catch her scent, which pleased him. He felt his troubles evaporate in that brief moment, when he was close enough to this beautiful stranger that he could lean over and kiss her. He did not, but he was happy to sit there on the couch by the fire and let her touch him.
“Thanks,” he said after she had finished, but deep down, he wanted to ask her not to stop, but to keep her soothing hands on his forehead a while longer while he watched her.
“Don’t worry,” she said with a smile, “you’ll survive. Attacked by a crow….fancy that!”
“It’s not my first run-in with an avian,” Arthur said. “Last year, I collided with a swan whilst out running along the river. I went crashing into the mud and cut my hands and knees. The swan seemed all right, though. Those things are a lot tougher than they look.”
Freya laughed. Her laughter was like music to his ears. “I’m sorry,” she chuckled, “but that sounds so strange.”
“Strange, but true,” he replied. “But this kamikaze crow was worse. And its relatives looked like they wanted to take a bite out of me, too.”
“I thought crows only attacked people in springtime, when they nest,” she said, frowning. “Did you disturb it?”
“No,” he replied, “I was in the centre of the clearing, not poking around near the trees. I suspect that it was after what I had found there.”
Arthur told her about the cairn and the eyeballs which had been buried underneath it. Her pretty eyes widened in horror as he spoke.
“Good Lord,” she whispered, “that’s horrible! There are some really sick people out there. You don’t suppose….what if….”
He could guess what was going through her mind as she pondered over the news. She was thinking exactly what he had been thinking. “I’m fairly certain they belonged to some sort of farm animal,” he told her, as reassuringly as he could. “Probably leftovers from the butcher’s shop.”
She was unconvinced. “But what if someone was murdered? What if people are committing ritual sacrifices, not just of animals, but of people as well? It’s just like those stories in the witch trials!”
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is much more likely to be local kids with too much time on their hands. And one of them was careless enough to leave behind a necklace. Look!”
He brought out the pentagram necklace from his pocket and showed it to Freya. She examined it for a while, then quickly handed it back to Arthur with a shudder.
“You should keep hold of it, for now,” she said. “If there really is a dead body at the ruins, that could be evidence! Did the Reverend tell you about those dead animals? They’ve been popping up all over the village. A lot of the people here are really upset, as you can imagine.”
“Have you noticed anything yourself? I saw a dead dog nailed to a tree a few miles to the east of here.”
“Oh, my God!” she gasped. “Did it have a collar? It could have been someone’s pet!”
“I didn’t see a collar, but it got me spooked all the same.”
“Arthur, there’s something wrong with this place. It’s not just the animals. I -” She paused a moment, a frown appearing on her forehead. “Ever since I arrived here, I’ve felt like someone is watching me, following me. I keep seeing things out of the corner of my eye, but I look and there’s no one there. I hear things as well. I feel like I’m going mad.”
“No,” Arthur said, relieved he wasn’t the only one, “you’re not losing your sanity. I’ve been hearing things, too. Up in Gravethorn Wood, I could have sworn someone was following me on the way back. I ended up running all the way to the village.”
“I can’t believe you stayed up there for so long! I wouldn’t dare go there alone. We should find out more about what’s going on here, maybe talk to some people. Do you think we should do that?”
“That sounds like a good idea to me, but I recommend we have dinner and a drink or two before anything else.”
Freya wholeheartedly agreed. Over dinner, which was served to them unceremoniously by Wilbur, the conversation moved to more pleasant topics and Arthur relished the opportunity to know his companion some more. He was amused and charmed by how talkative she was, by her tendency to develop tangential trains of thought and run off with them like a bloodhound on the trail of a new scent. He loved the way she expressed herself, her honesty, her guilelessness, her appreciation of his dry humour and erudition. They talked at length about history, pop music, art and cookery. Not since Elena had Arthur found any woman so captivating. After the meal, a few drinks and a thoroughly enjoyable chit-chat, they decided to call it a night.
“Shall we meet down in the lounge tomorrow morning, say, half-past ten?” she said as they reached the top of the stairs.
“I look forward to it,” he replied. “Sleep well!”
They returned to their respective rooms, Arthur’s at the front and hers at the back, facing the car-park. Undressing, he wondered if he should take a peep out of the window to see if anyone was out there, watching him from the shadows, but decided not to ruin the pleasant evening. He sank into bed, weighed down by fatigue and inebriation, and was asleep almost immediately.