I thought you’d like an extract from The Traveler in Black and White, which is due out next month, in honour of Hallowe’en. The narrator is Lord Mariusz of Hattan, who goes by the name of Hugo del Novo, a soft drinks salesman, when he is down the time tunnel. (c) 2012 Jemima Pett
Chapter 7: Tricks and Treats
The clock struck six in the evening and the stallholders around Sowerby Castle’s inner courtyard started to put up shutters against the night. Most of the bars were doing so too, which surprised me and I asked one of the lads why they were closing.
“Oh, no sir, not closing, sir, just boarding up. No chances taken, sir. You’ll be quite safe here sir,” he said in between pushing and fixing the shutters into place with a stout wooden beam across them for good measure. I went inside and continued my market research.
Montgomery and I had climbed up the road to the castle in the morning, and parted company at the gate, as he went into the inner castle ‘on business’. My business was to check out the hostelries and chat to the locals about their preferences, as well as getting the gossip on the local situation. After a pleasant lunch I went into the castle itself and joined a tour, but it seemed more profitable to slip off and do a little exploring on my own when it got to the third level. It was a pretty standard gothic style castle with vaulted corridors, wood panels and plenty of opportunity for gargoyles and secret passages. I found myself in the library and it didn’t look to be particularly private as there were a few other people that looked pretty ordinary to me. I was browsing round a section on the history of the local area, and was into local customs and folklore when I was joined by Montgomery.
“Do you fancy some fresh air?” he asked, and while I could have done with more time in the library to get a hold of the extent of the area and its opportunities in my mind, it was kinda fusty in there, and a walk would be relaxing.
We took some passages and stairs upwards but emerged at the back of the castle and went up a little-used track towards the moorland. The view was spectacular, if you like that kind of thing. I had a feeling Montgomery had something on his mind and wanted to tell me, maybe as insurance. We carried on a bit further up the track and climbed over a ridge so the castle was out of sight, then headed over to a small outcrop of rocks. We settled down and he pulled out some drinks and oatcakes.
The tale he had to tell, out in the open air like that, sounded fanciful, but remembering the night before, I could take it seriously. Basically, it seemed that ‘someone’ used Halloween each year to get rid of the king, or at least to scare him silly. The ‘someone’ was generally considered to be a ghost, ghoul, vampire or werewolf. And since the summer, when the king had married a very pretty young lady (I said I’d seen the pictures) there had been a considerable increase in the amount of ‘sightings’ and ‘strange happenings’, which had indeed scared the king.
I asked what he was planning to do about it.
“Take care,” he replied. “The last thing anyone wants is to get bitten by a vampire or werewolf. Take this seriously, Hugo. Don’t risk it.”
He had obviously seen the doubt and slight smile on my face. I changed expression and listened on. He had to catch ‘someone’ doing ‘something’ so that he could act, so he had to patrol the corridors that night. I offered my help. He stopped and thought about it, looking out over the lakes below. In the end we decided that as he needed someone to escape to tell the authorities what was going on, I should accompany him but run for it at the first sign of trouble. He gave me some details of where to go and what to say to prove my credentials, but said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that. So did I, for both our sakes.
We’d taken separate ways back into the castle, him pointing me towards a back entrance lower down while he’d gone back the way we’d come in. I wandered along corridors I’d seen earlier on the tour and found myself back in the front courtyard. The afternoon was wearing on and some parts of the castle were already in deep shadow. Despite the ominous nature of his warnings I kept seeing signs of parties and feasts being prepared; for all the talk of vampires and werewolves, Hallowe’en seemed to be a holiday. I’d found a little place that advertised rooms for the night, clean and comfortable, ‘with a real Lakeland breakfast included’ and asked about the partying. “Why yes, sir,” I’d been told by a curvy dame who might have been a real glamorpuss when she’d been younger, “Hallowe’en’s always been a night for parties. The littl’uns dress up and go round and visit their friends and we have apple-bobbing and all sorts of fun.” Then she’d spoiled the fun aspect by warning me to be in by ten as she locked the door then. I’d asked about a key, and she’d said no, if I wanted to be out later “and I’d advise against it, sir” she suggested booking in at one of the inns.
So I’d gone back to the square, had a little something at a café and discussed beverages, then mooched around the stalls before finding my way into the inn that was being barricaded against…what?
The clock struck the three-quarters before ten, and I slid into the library, making sure not to let the door creak. It was dark, mostly, although here and there a few lamps spilled pools of light on dusty walls.
“Is that you,” hissed a voice from one side.
“Yes,” I said, hoping that the hiss belonged to Montgomery, and that I was ‘you’.
It was hard to see him in the dark; by contrast, the white in my coat showed up remarkably well. I really should do something about camouflage.
“What are we doing?” I whispered when I reached him.
“We’re going to take a secret passage that leads from here to the king’s apartments, but we’ll wait till ten.”
“I was warned about being out and about after ten.”
“Wisely. It seems that ten is the witching hour round here, never mind the stroke of midnight.”
Well, it gives the ghouls and ghosties two more hours of fun before the cock crows, I thought to myself. It was fully dark, save for the moon that I could see through a high window in one corner of the room, so why not enjoy themselves as long as they can?
We waited a few more minutes, then he beckoned me to follow, and we went to the back of the room. He did something to a panel and I smiled to myself as a dark square appeared in the dark of the wall. A genuine secret passage in a genuine haunted castle! I wondered whether any of my friends would believe me. I knew my enemies wouldn’t. I followed him into the passage behind the panel and we walked softly along and up, twisting through the castle unseen.
We stopped after a while and Montgomery put his face close to mine.
“We should be in the wall behind the king’s apartments,” he breathed. “You did bring your piece with you, didn’t you?” I patted my side where I’d stowed the little gun ready for anything. He walked forward a little and beckoned me forward. There were two small holes in the passage at eye level and a glimmer of light coming through from the other side. Montgomery looked through then waved me forward to look too.
It was a richly furnished room with drapes hanging around and furs on the floor. A four-poster bed took centre stage, and there were two bodies in it, presumably the king and queen, but could have been anyone.
“Watch, observe,” Montgomery whispered. “Do nothing except protect yourself. Make sure you get away and report, whatever happens to me. You agreed!” I nodded, yes. I’m afraid I don’t see the point of being a hero when I don’t even belong in this time. What was I doing here anyway? I was beginning to think I had taken adventure a little too far this time.
Montgomery moved on, waving at me to stay at my post. I was happy to obey. Second thoughts had coming crowding in. I heard a ‘snick’ like a door being opened, then again as one was closed, and I knew I was alone in the secret passage.
Or was I?
As I stood watching, I kept getting a strange sensation of cold across my back. It would come and go and I told myself I was imagining it. Maybe there was a wind that blew through a ventilation shaft. The air in the passage was sweet, not old, so there definitely was air movement in it. There is a rational explanation for everything, I told myself, but the next time my back felt cold I took my gun out and looked up and down the passage all the same.
A clock somewhere struck eleven, and I shifted my position. I was beginning to get stiff, standing there with the draught blowing past from time to time. The people on the bed turned or grunted occasionally. Then one of them moved, sat up. A figure in a long white gown got out of bed and padded over to the corner of the room. I couldn’t see, although I tried to squint sideways through the peephole. The quarter struck, and the figure padded back to the bed. ‘Move over, darling,” came a deep croaky voice, and I guessed the king had needed a little relief. The other body in the bed suddenly rose up and towered above the king, who gave a ghastly croak, the way someone does if their throat is paralyzed with fright.
At least three things happened at the same time. The figure on the bed waved its arms around and grabbed the king by the neck, bending down toward him. A door crashed open and someone yelled, “Hold right there!” and another door crashed open and a black figure swooped across my line of vision to the person that had spoken. That person started to scream in an awful gurgling yelp that was suddenly cut off, and the black figure swept through the room to the other side. All I could make out in the moonlight on that side was a very tall person, a white featureless face, blood dripping down from a gash that presumably was its mouth, and a large cloak swept about it. Meanwhile, the king had sunk to his knees at the side of the bed, and the figure that had reared up was now dancing on the bed, laughing manically. Other things started flying round the room, like bats. I couldn’t make anything of them, but that is what they most brought to mind, fluttering this way and that, never in a straight line. There was some eerie wailing from high up in the castle above me, and I wondered if it was time for me to run. Then the figure on the other side stretched out a hand to the one on the bed. “Come, my angel,” it said in a deep voice and the manic dancer stopped and stepped lightly off the bed, dancing toward the cloaked figure. He whisked his cloak about her and turned – and seemed to go straight through the wall. I had a sudden panicked thought – what if he comes past me in the passage? I turned and ran back the way we’d come, twisting and turning and occasionally bumping into walls. Then I stopped, and pressed myself into a corner of some spiraling stairs. I could hear steps running after me, if I could hear anything over my breathing and the pounding of my heart. I couldn’t remember whether the library was the end of the passage. How far had I run already? I didn’t remember these stairs. The steps were coming nearer, rapidly nearer. I pressed myself further against the wall. It gave way and I fell through into another room. I quickly closed the wall behind me and leant back against it. I could dimly hear the steps as they ran past and pattered down the staircase. I breathed a sigh of relief as I opened my eyes and they adjusted to the light in the room I was now in.
A large, very large creature stood up in the corner and looked at me. It growled. It had red eyes and smelled terrible. There was a clanking sound and I realized that in some way it was chained. I edged my way around the wall away from it, hoping to find some sort of exit, as I could feel no edge or way of getting back into the secret passage. I found myself against a wooden door and fumbled for the handle. The creature growled louder as I tried it. Nothing happened. I could lift a latch, but it wouldn’t open. Suddenly the creature leapt at me and I ducked, holding onto the handle still, and the door swung open as I fell forward. I turned and ran for it, pulling it shut behind me, and I realized that any door to keep something like that in would open inwards and I was being completely stupid. I made myself walk, calmly, along the corridor. It wasn’t easy. Memory of that black creature and the blood on its face swam across my vision. And the white dancer. Was the king ok? What had I actually seen? And who had been running after me? Where was Montgomery? I suddenly realized that the black creature in the cloak wouldn’t have been running like that, he’d been moving silently. The steps were most likely to have been Montgomery himself. I was being stupid.
I stepped into an alcove in the corridor and looked up and down it. I reckoned I was probably on the second floor. Maybe I should return to the library. Then I heard a murmuring noise and realized it was getting louder. I could hear shuffling now, and peering out of the alcove I saw a group of people all huddled together, passing along the corridor coming in my direction. Where the moonlight fell on them it looked like they were grey and sightless, dressed in rags, helping each other along. A moment of indecision whether to run or stay, and I decided to run for it. There was no cry after me, or changes in the murmuring, so maybe they didn’t see me. Maybe. I leapt up a staircase, at least two steps at a time, if not four. I turned a corner at the top of the stairs and saw the entrance to the library. Before I could get there the door opened. An animal bounded out and passed me, galloping on down the stairs. I heard a blood-curdling howl as it reached the bottom, then some screams, then some awful sounds of an animal tearing its prey apart. I cautiously edged towards the library. There was a figure kneeling on the floor, holding its arm. I got my gun out.
“Who are you?” I said, with a tremor in my voice that I hoped wasn’t recognized by the other party.
“I’m Bert,” said the kneeling figure. “Don’t come close, I’ve been bitten, dammit.”
“Have you seen Montgomery?” I asked.
“Yes, he got away, went back through the passage. Who are you?”
“Hugo. Where’s he gone to?”
“The king’s apartment…” and he coughed, wetly. “He won’t… No, don’t come close!” he ordered more strongly as I stepped towards him. This guy was dying, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
“What should I do?” I asked him.
“Save yourself!” and he fell forward, making a heap on the floor. “Go!”
I felt that was a clear instruction, so in spite of my desire to help my fellow man, I saved myself, and turned and walked out of the door. I checked the corridor again, and slipped down the stairs, keeping to the shadows. I got to the ground floor and headed for the entrance I’d come in that evening. I could see it ahead, and hoped it wasn’t locked with a thousand bolts. A clock somewhere up to my right started striking midnight. The front door was open; I could see out into the castle square beyond. I started to jog, and then a large figure stepped out in front of me, a chain clanking from its neck, its red eyes fixed on me. I pulled out my gun and told it to step aside.
It just stood there and I waved my gun at it. “I’ll shoot!” I added for good measure.
It sort of snuffled and shuffled and looked at me some more.
“Mont-gom-ery” it mumbled.
My aunt! Was this the guy that Montgomery had come to find? What had happened to him?
I tried to recall what Montgomery had said, point the gun at him was one thing, and tell him where to find him was the other, I thought.
I pointed the gun at him.
“He’s in the king’s apartments,” or somewhere like that, I added to myself. I stepped to the other side of the corridor from him and waved the gun from him up to the stairs. The thing shuffled along, clanking, and muttering “Montgomery” under its breath.
I waited till he was well past me then turned and sprinted to the door. A satanic flying thing came at me with a screech and was joined by others screeching and batting me with their wings. I ran to the door which, to my terror, was starting to close. I summoned all my speed and dashed for it, squeezing through and ripping holes in various parts of me as I went. I carried on running, through the open castle gates, and on through the mud on the road till I got to Sowerby Row.
I hammered on the door of the King’s Head.
“Who’s there?” came a voice that sounded like the bartender.
“Hugo!” I said, some five octaves higher than my usual voice.
The door opened a slit and some arms reached out, dragged me in and pinioned me down. I lay there. They roughly checked my person, all the while holding a crucifix in front of me while I had time to notice they all sported necklaces of garlic.
“Blood!” said one.
“I got caught in the door – it was shutting,” I stammered.
Someone looked round my neck. “None here,” he said.
Someone else was checking my teeth and someone else my chest, arms and feet. “No, I think we’ve got a lucky one,” one of them said.
They pulled me to my feet, dusted me down, put the crucifix on a table by the door in easy reach, and put a garland of garlic round my neck.
“Having a nice time here, Mr Hugo?” asked the bartender calmly, handing me a brandy.
Read the Traveler in Black and White by Jemima Pett on Kindle from Amazon in November 2012.