The horses whinnied within the stables as the tall, dark stranger trudged along the wet grounds of the manorhouse. He walked with a high-bounding step that assured every step caused the puddles of rainwater to splash all over his riding boots and his long riding coat. The rain had made a premature night of the October evening, falling heavily from a black sky. The stranger seemed composed of black, like a shadow made manifest in flesh, his long riding-coat reminiscent of a bat with folded wings. His tricorne hat drooped, slightly aslant of his head, drenched with the downpour that was currently making a mire of Cornwall.
He halted a few feet from the door of the manorhouse. Gazing up at the windows on the second storey, he saw that there were no candles or fireplaces lit in the bedrooms. Only a faint candle glimmered within the dark recesses of one of the first storey windows. Wet gloom otherwise held dominion over the looming stone facade. As large as the manorhouse was, it seemed as an old Scottish castle in the foggy highlands. Even so, it seemed more like a seaside bluff in the rainy murk. It reminded him of his usual haunts, what with its carven stone, its half-drowned grounds, and its fleeting light. Yes, this was the place whereby progress might be made.
A sudden knock at the door down the hall made the lady gasp. She had been sitting in a chair, nodding off after a large meal, and listening to the distant drone of the rain. Now there was the sharp staccato that had cut through the relative silence of the airy house. It seemed implausible that she would have any visitors out here, in the countryside, and at this late of an hour. Feeling rather apprehensive, she rose to her feet and slowly, cautiously, walked down the hall from the library, illuminating her path with a single candle, careful to navigate the clutter with her bare feet. She grabbed an overcoat from a rack and worked one arm through its sleeve, switched the candle, and worked the other arm through. It was a little overlarge for her, but modesty dictated the pretense of it. She went to the door.
A light grew in the window nearest to the door. It was like a luminous ghost approaching from within an abandoned house, or a will o’ the wisp in a deep, dark bog. The door opened with the slightest creak. Leaning out from the door appeared a lovely young lady whose face was as pale as the lacy linen shift she wore. She had golden hair tied tightly in braids beneath a white bonnet. Her expression was one of misapprehension.
“Forgive me, my lady,” he said. “I am lost and it is an inhospitable night. Could you afford me lodgings for a night? I would not trouble for the comfort of your beautiful home. Indeed, the stable would serve well enough for my purposes.”
“You are a gentleman?” she asked, eyeing his sodden vestments up and down.
“Yes, my lady,” he said.
“I am not a lady,” she said. “I am a simple servant girl.”
“As you say, my lady,” he said. “Your accent is lovely. It is difficult to discern. It is not Irish, Scottish, or Welsh. Are you from elsewhere?”
She nodded. “As are you, I should think.”
“No, I am local,” he said. “I am only too far from home by foot.”
She eyed him quietly for a long moment, then opened the door wider. “Then you shall know the warmth of the fire. It is the least I may do for a gentleman.”
She ushered him in, then showed him to the parlour. There was a fire burning in the fireplace. He took the liberty of adding a log to the fire from a pile of logs near to the hearth. He then doffed his riding coat and took the liberty of sitting in a high-backed chair, its soft, comfortable upholstery making him sigh in satisfaction.
She watched him warily for a moment. “There is tea in the kettle,” she said. “Would you like a cup to warm your bones?”
“And to warm my blood,” he said. “Thank you.”
She left him in the parlour, going to the kitchen. The kettle was still hot from when the servant girl of the house had heated it not too long ago. She searched a moment in the kitchen for cups, and found them in a sideboard. She poured the remainder of the kettle’s tea into the two cups, then took the two cups down the hall and into the parlour, the steam drifting behind her like a spectral tail through the cold house.
“Here we are,” she said, handing him his cup of tea. She sat down in a chair across from his own, both facing the fireplace at an angle. She held her cup in her pale hands, but did not sip from it.
“My bones and my blood thank you,” he said. He sipped at the dark, hot liquid, then sighed in great satisfaction. “An excellent brew, I must say. Nothing quite like how the Irish make their tea. Quite malty, it seems to me, which makes a man hale and hearty. Of course, I rather enjoy Indian tea as well. Very spicy, you know. I would rather have spicy than sweet if I have my will in the way of things. Often I take my tea with only a splash of milk. Sometimes even a gentleman cannot buy the amenities of a leaf of tea or a spit of water. Circumstances dictate all, you know.”
“What family do you hail from?” she asked.
“My eldest brother is Lord Blackholme,” he said. “Of the Blackholme estate, naturally.”
“And you are?” she asked.
“An explorer.” He smiled uneasily. “Indeed, in my own manner, and among other trades I venture to undertake.”
Her porcelain brow broke with faint quizzicality. “And what do you explore?”
“An exhausting variety of places. Seaside caves. Old pagan barrows. Medieval catacombs. Whatever strikes my fancy.”
She stirred her tea with a spoon, but did not sip from it. “I was always curious as to what a gentleman of means did with his idle time. Commonfolk do not have such a luxury, I assure you.”
“You are not so common, my lady,” he observed. He looked from his hostess over to the hall. He appeared to strain his ear, also, evidently listening for something. After a moment, he shook his head. He smiled again at the young woman. “Rather, you are the fairest woman I have ever beheld. Nor do I say that lightly. I have been to London often enough—and to ever the more exotic cities—and I have seen many a lady of varying recommendation. Yet, you outshine them all, even in your…modest raiments.”
She grew uncomfortable, unconsciously covering her bosom with an arm while her other arm held her cup of tea in the air. She still did not touch her tea. He, on the other hand, sipped at his tea, but now kept his eyes fixed upon her. His gaze cut through the phantasmal steam like the eyes of a wolf aglow while on the hunt. He suddenly turned and looked up at a large portrait hung above the heavy stone shelf of the hearth.
“And who,” he asked, “is that gentleman? He appears a rather resplendent fellow. Your great-great-grandfather, belike?”
Again she was startled. She blinked rapidly, perturbed by his question and his eyes. His eyes were pale blue, almost like ice. “Yes,” she managed to say. “My great-great-grandfather.”
He stared at the ruddy-faced old man with his powdered wig and his white ruff collar. He chuckled lightly.
“My house—excuse me, my brother’s house—brims with portraits of similar fashion and fellows. It is a clutter, to be frank. Had I the choice I would bury all of the portraits and keep only the landscapes and seascapes. I cannot tolerate the eyes of my ancestors following me about in judgment. It is yet another reason I go gallivanting about seashores and graveyards.” He met her eyes again, unblinkingly. “And bordellos, if you do not mind my saying.”
A sudden tremble shook her and she spilled her tea. She leapt to her feet with a start.
“My word!” he exclaimed, rising to his own feet. “You’ve scalded yourself!”
He set his tea down and attempted to inspect her. She flinched from him and wrapped the overcoat more tightly around her body, hugging herself about the waist.
“I am unhurt!” she protested. “See to yourself, sir!”
His frown seemed one more of amusement than rebuff.
“It will be a stain,” he said. “And a shame, too. It will ruin what I presume to be a historied bit of lace. Antiquated lace, I should say. You should have one of your serving girls see to it, lest the tea make a lasting impression. Scarcely do I think you can afford more stains upon it. Indeed, no.”
She stared at him in mute confusion, and increasing perturbation, then stepped farther away from him, toward the door of the parlour.
“No,” she said, her voice nearly a whisper. “It will be quite fine. Truly. Now, if you will excuse me, I am tired and must be off to bed.”
“As must I,” he said.
She quivered. “There are no spare bedrooms.”
“In a house as big as this?” he said, grinning. “Truly?” He chuckled. “I mean it only in jest, of course. I need no bedroom. I can retire to the stables, though I doubt the horses will welcome me. They were strangely affrighted when I first arrived, if their restless screams should be trusted. I can hear them even now, through the rain, albeit distantly. Perhaps they will trust me better if I put a horseshoe around my neck. Demonstrate that I am of similar proclivities.”
“No, you may rest in this house,” she said. “But not in any of the bedrooms.”
“Splendid,” he said. “Then I shall rest here. This chair shall suffice. The fire is burning well, too, and I need no blankets. Do not trouble yourself with fumbling in the dark for my comfort. Nor have I need for these vestments. They shall cling most unwantedly while I attempt sleep. Like a clumsy lover.” He chuckled again. “I have had my fill of clumsy lovers. They will just as soon claw you as caress, whether unwitting or not.”
To her great agitation he loosened his collar, doffed his vest, and began to unbutton his undershirt. She stared at the darkly tanned contour of his neck—just below his ear, where the long black curls of his hair parted away from his skin. There was a white scar near the collarbone, such as would be left by an eagle’s talon.
He smiled meaningfully at her.
“Having the fire’s warmth—unimpeded—upon one’s bare skin is not unlike having the sun’s warmth upon the skin after a long day of swimming. It dries one’s damp, wrinkled skin most pleasantly. Do you not agree?”
Her preoccupation gave way to irritation. “I would not know,” she said sharply.
“Indeed?” he said, having unbuttoned his undershirt to the navel. He suddenly laughed, and she flinched again. Everything he did was sudden and seemingly unprompted, like a wild unreasoning beast. “Ah, but I certainly feel as if I have been swimming for a spell. So much of a downpour today! A shame, too! The day had been so lovely until the clouds came swooping over Cornwall. It was alike a raven come to roost. Or an owl. Have you heard about black owls? They are rare. Rarer than black dogs, I’ll wager, and just as ominous.”
She quivered. His chest seemed to burn in the orange glow from the fireplace. He had the touch of the sun in his skin, and merely looking at his skin seemed to make her eyelashes burn. She licked her lips.
“I must be off to bed,” she said, hurriedly.
Without further ado, she hastened to the library. So much was she in haste that she nearly tripped over the clutter in the hallway.
Denuded of all of his vestments save his breeches, he sat in the chair, waiting. It was not an hour later that she returned, standing at the corner of the hall and the parlour. He knew she was there, even if he could not yet see her. Her dainty feet had not made the old floor creak beneath their cautious tread. They were as quiet as a deer’s hooves in Spring.
He watched the flames billow and sashay in the fireplace.
“Fire is lovely,” he remarked aloud. “It reminds me of the bedangled dancers of Egypt. Egypt may be the land of the dead, but those Egyptian dancers were much more alive in their gyrations than I have ever seen women alive in England. It was enough to make me feel quite alive, too. I long for a return to Egypt.”
“Egypt?” she said, absently.
She stepped closer to his chair. He did not look at her, but kept his eyes on the fire.
“I have seen much of the known world,” he said, pensively, “and more than most people would wish to see of the unknown world. I have even witnessed the demimonde. It is a place that will forever change you…if you manage to escape.”
“That so?” she said, heavy of breath.
“From standing stone to standing stone I have wandered. I have seen burial mounds of dirt and wood, and tombs of stacked limestone so tall that they seemed as stairways to the sun. I have been blinded tenfold by the wonders of this world. By sand, by tide, by flowers, by gold, by faith, by fools, by sages, by kings, by lust, and by love. And, so, I could never be blinded by you. I see you clearly. And you are not a common lady.”
He did not look at her, but kept his eyes upon the fireplace. She stepped further into the parlour, bathed in the glow of the fire. She stood in front of him, looming tall over him as he sat in his chair.
“I am not?” she said.
He stared up at her with an insouciant frown.
“Utterly not,” he said.
She no longer wore the overcoat—only the lacy shift. She reached down and took hold of her shift, lifting it up and over her head. She discarded the lacy skin into the fire, her bare body as pale as snow. Denuded, now, she seemed taller.
“You are a handsome man,” she said, her voice husky. “You are no common man, nor a common gentleman.”
“I am unique,” he agreed. “We both are.”
The gold-strewn valley of her womanhood was level with his face and her long fingers clasped his black mane, pulling him toward the juncture of her smooth, alabaster thighs. She leaned over him, arching her spine impossibly while her ponderous breasts rested atop his head with their firm weight.
“Love me,” she said, her voice throaty. “Feed me.”
“To surfeit,” he answered. His words were muffled as she pressed him against her. She crooned and sighed in rapid succession, then groaned, moaned, and shuddered wildly, cackling with delight.
She then shrieked.
She pulled away from him, tripping and falling down upon the carpeted floor, her long pale limbs writhing, knocking over the log pile and a shelf of books in the corner. Her wan breast was encrimsoned with the blood that spilled forth from the iron blade. She tore at her breast with her long talons, yet could not dislodge the iron blade. As a stuck pig she bled, and as she bled she became more and more emaciated until her pale body was all bones with skin stretched taut between their sharp edges and grooves. Her spine was like the ridge of a castle turret, castellated with notches and ridges. He stood and loomed over her, another iron blade in his hand.
“What are you doing here, Baobhan Sith?” he asked. “You are far from Scotland.”
She clambered to try to stand, but he plunged another iron blade into her thigh. She collapsed onto her back, snarling up at him. Her formerly beautiful face was now transformed. She was no vampire or werewolf, and had no need of fangs, but the fair features snapped like a wolf’s even so. Her feet were no longer a woman’s, but hoofed like a deer’s. Her long pale legs were shaggy with sandy brown doe fur.
She lunged at him, rising from the floor to slash at him with her long claws. He leaned back, then caught her wrist. With yet another iron blade he pierced her wrist, then drove the iron blade into the floor, pinning her down. He then withdrew the iron blade from her chest.
“Had I the inclination, Baobhan Sith, you would be dead now,” he said. “My aim is keen and I never miss. But I am offering you a chance…more of a chance than the poor souls you undoubtedly slew in this house. Tell me why you are so far from home. Why are you not in your forest, alighting only where you are invoked by lonely fools?”
Gone was the innocent mellifluousness of her former voice. Her voice was as coarse as a raven’s. “The woods are no longer my home!” she squawked. “Something terrible comes from the North. It devoured my sisters! Devoured them as easily as a trout a worm! Only I escaped. I have fled South ever since, seeking safety. But there is no safety! There is only doom!”
The creature wailed once again, then began to weep. The man frowned, considering her crumpled form as she lay upon the floor. He then donned his undershirt, his vest, and fetched up his riding-coat. He said nothing. After a while the creature’s weeping ceased. She struggled to look at him from over her restrained arm.
“What will you do now, sir?” she asked. “Will you slay me?”
He rummaged through the interior pockets of his riding-coat.
“No,” he said.
“Oh, bless you, sir!” she said, sobbing. “I am so sorry I lied to you. You are a true gentleman.”
His hands alighted on a pouch, which he retrieved from the coat. “I must apologize to you, too,” he said. “For I lied to you as well.”
“Oh?” she said, blinking through her tears.
He righted himself up. There were nails and a hammer in one hand, and horsehoes in the other hand. But they were not horseshoes. They were too small and sharply angled to be used on horses. There were runes etched into the iron bands.
“I am not a gentleman. Nor have I ever been, even if my brother is Lord Blackholme. No, I am—as my half-brother will attest—a right bastard.”
Thomas Blackholme, or Black Tom, explored the house the following morning. He retrieved the bodies of the children from the bedrooms upstairs, and retrieved the parents from the bedroom downstairs. He fetched the servant girl’s body from where it sprawled in a clutter of laundry in the hall leading to the library. The rain stopped and the clouds thinned. Glints of sunlight pierced here and there to the soggy earth, raising up a mist. Black Tom tied two of the horses from the stables to a wagon and piled the dead bodies upon the wagon. He then guided the horses out to a bog. Into the bog he committed the family and their servant. He did not say any prayers or perform any rites. He let the birdsong be the hymns of that Sunday morning.
When finished, Black Tom guided the horses back to the manorhouse. He opened the stables and let the horses roam as they pleased. He then returned inside the house and, moments later, he guided a figure from out of the house, covered with a heavy green cloak. The figure quivered and flinched repeatedly, but followed the black-clad man irresistibly out into the wan sunlight.
Together they walked Northward.
(The preceding is the opening prologue to a horror novel I may or may not continue writing. Currently I am preoccupied with finishing a fantasy novel and am still awaiting judgement on a horror novel I have sent to several publishers in the the hope that someone might take the bait. I have written so much in the past year—while crippled from a car wreck—that I do not know what project to pursue single-mindedly until headwinds simplify my choice for me. Having several concurrent projects can complicate and confuse one’s muse.)