I could no longer see my bedroom ceiling. The room had suddenly grown dark, as if a thick blanket had been thrown over my face. I couldn’t even see my breath.
I panicked and tried to sit up, but I was frozen. Then all at once I was able to see again – though I soon wished I couldn’t.
The ceiling gave out a faint, sickly yellow light, and against it I could see a moving pattern of darkness. At first it looked like the flickering shadows cast upon the ground by moonlight passing through the branches of a leafless tree. But soon those shadows took on a distinct form. It was a human figure made of sticks – but it had no face.
By now my palms were sweating and my heart was racing. I was truly afraid. I tried in vain to look away.
Then something spoke to me. It was a deep and terrifying voice that vibrated through my teeth and echoed back from the walls. It was not the voice of a human being. Only a demon could sound like that.
‘You will obey me! You will do everything I command. Do you understand?’
I was a young noviciate monk, training to serve the Church. I should not be doing the will of a demon. I opened my mouth to refuse, but before I could reply the demon spoke again.
‘If you do not do my bidding, you will suffer. You will suffer terrible pain. Pain such as this!’
It seared right through my body from head to toe. My muscles locked and then convulsed. I gasped in agony.
‘Please! Please!’ I cried. ‘Please stop, I beg you!’
The pain went on. The demon was without mercy.
I was in its power.
The Withy Trees
Thunder crashed and devil lightning forked above me as I trudged up the achingly steep hill towards Chipenden village. Grey clouds cloaked the tops of the fells, and I knew that rain would soon follow the warning sounds of the thunderstorm. It would be dark in less than an hour too, and I dreaded to think what that would mean for me, a loan traveller in the County . . .
I shivered, and picked up my pace. When I finally reached the village’s cobbled streets, I swiftly entered the first shop I saw. Two large pigs’ heads were positioned at each end of a long, blood-stained wooden counter like bookends. But this was certainly no library. Rather than leather-bound tomes, between the heads was a long row of pork chops. A big man stood behind the counter, eyeing me suspiciously. It seemed they didn’t welcome strangers here. But never mind that, I told myself – I was on a mission.
‘Excuse me, sir,’ I asked the butcher. ‘Can you tell me where to find the local spook, Mr Ward?’
The man stared at me for a long time while wiping his hands on his apron. ‘And what would someone of your calling be wanting with a spook, boy?’ he asked, looking me up and down.
I knew I must have appeared somewhat strange. I was a noviciate – a monk in my first year of training – and my clothing made that plain for all to see. My habit consisted of a black tunic tied at the waist with a leather belt and fitted with a hood. Additionally I wore an overshirt that indicated my lowly position. Priests don’t usually have dealings with spooks. We don’t hold with their methods – the way in which they confront the dark without the use of prayer and meditation – and think it an unholy business. For that reason, most won’t even allow a dead spook to be buried on holy ground. So I could understand why my question might seem peculiar.
‘I’m here on behalf of someone who needs his help very badly,’ I replied.
‘Help against the dark?’ the butcher asked, resting his elbows on the blood-stained counter.
I nodded, not wishing to go into detail. For two days I’d been hurrying to Chipenden as fast as I could, and I couldn’t waste time on questions like this. I needed to find this spook as soon as possible.
‘You mean to say you couldn’t sort out the problem with prayer? Well, that does surprise me!’ the butcher said, his voice full of sarcasm. ‘What’s causing the trouble – a boggart?’
‘No, sir. It’s a witch,’ I explained, trying to stay calm and contain my impatience.
The butcher laughed out loud at that, though I couldn’t see anything funny about it. Witches were powerful, dangerous – and all too real, as I had discovered recently.
However, the man finally led me outside and pointed up the deserted street.
‘There’s a lane leads north out of the village towards a big house standing amid some trees. That’s where the Spook lives. But don’t go up the path if you value your life – it’s guarded by a savage boggart that will rip you to pieces as soon as you enter the garden. Instead, take the narrow track to the northeast. It’ll bring you to a crossroads beneath a stand of willow trees. You’ll find a bell hanging there. Ring it, and the Spook will come out to you. That’s assuming he’s not away on business. If he is, you might have a very long wait indeed.’
I listened carefully, but wasn’t sure that the butcher had his facts right. I knew that boggarts were dangerous: spooks hunted them down and killed them. So why would one guard a spook’s house and garden? It seemed very unlikely.
‘Thank you for your help,’ I said dubiously, and set off up the street, glad to be away at last. Then, after a few seconds, I heard a shout and turned back.
‘Hey!’ the butcher yelled, and I saw him grinning. ‘Do witches scare you, boy?’
I nodded. It was the truth.
‘Well, be prepared to be scared some more. There’s something you should know about our local spook – he lives with a witch!’
Now I was sure he had to be joking, so I smiled politely, turned my back and hurried on my way. Everyone knew that spooks were the enemies of witches. They certainly wouldn’t share a house with one!
I struggled on as fast as I could. I was tired out, having walked all the way from Salford, which was a long way off in the south of the County, and my legs felt like lead. In view of what had happened, I thought I was probably already too late to bring help – but I’d promised myself that I would at least try. And I always keep my promises.
I didn’t like the look of the crossroads when I reached them. As the butcher had told me, it was cloaked by big willow trees with drooping branches that hung almost to the ground. The whole area was very gloomy, and I realized that it would soon be dark. The storm seemed to have passed by; it was very quiet here – as if something was lurking nearby, silencing all the birds and animals.
I didn’t like that eerie silence. I didn’t like it one bit.
I could see the rope hanging down so, wasting no time, I gave it a tug. The peal of noise from the bell above shattered the silence, and soon I was pulling it rhythmically, just as I did when it was my turn to join the bell ringers at the abbey. After about five minutes of ringing, there was still no response, so I stopped for a short rest. Where was the Spook? I wondered. I really hoped he was at home . . .
Just as I was just about to start ringing again, a hooded figure carrying a staff appeared among the trees, heading towards me. I gulped. Was this the Spook? I assumed so.
He stopped about five paces away and pulled back his hood. I was shocked by his youthful appearance. He couldn’t have been older than nineteen or twenty. Maybe this was just the Spook’s apprentice . . .
‘Greetings. Are you Mr Ward, the Spook?’ I asked tentatively.
‘I am. What’s your business?’ The man was tall and dark-haired, and there was not an ounce of fat on him. Although well-worn, his black cloak was of good quality material, far superior to my habit. He wore neat grey breeches, but I was particularly impressed by his boots, which were made of the very best leather. It seemed that being a spook paid well. However, the man’s pleasant face was set in a stern expression. He didn’t seem unfriendly, merely brusque and business-like. I wondered if it was because he was talking to a noviciate monk – after all, we don’t often find ourselves on the same side . . .
I screwed up my courage, and told him the reason why I had come. ‘I’m here to ask for your help with a very dangerous witch. I was with another spook down south, but when he tried to deal with her, everything went wrong. Now he’s fallen into her hands, and I fear for his life. I feel that it’s my duty to try and help him. As he’d mentioned your name, I came here as quickly as I could.’
The Spook frowned. ‘Where did this happen?’
‘Just south of Salford. It’s taken me over two days to get here,’ I explained.
‘And what’s this spook’s name?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I’ve heard of him. I believe he was once apprenticed to my own master, John Gregory. What were you doing in the company of a spook anyway?’ Mr Ward asked. ‘You look more like a young monk than an apprentice. What do they call you?’
‘You’re right. I’m not his apprentice,’ I admitted. ‘I’m a noviciate nearing the end of my first year of training at Kersal Abbey in Salford. My name is Brother Beowulf and I’ve been working for Spook Johnson as a scribe.’
‘What does he need a scribe for?’ Mr Ward asked, looking puzzled. ‘He must be able to read and write or he wouldn’t be a spook. An apprentice doesn’t get taken on without some basic skills.’
‘He can write – but not half as well as I can.’
Mr Ward smiled at that. Now he looked much more friendly, and I felt sure he would help me.
‘It’s a long story,’ I explained. ‘I’ll tell you all about it on the journey there.’
He nodded. ‘Fine, I’ll come. Sounds like whatever it is you’re dealing with is serious. However, it’s getting dark now, and there’s heavy rain on the way, so we’ll set off in the morning.’
I hadn’t expected this. Given that one of his brother spooks was in danger, I’d expected him to come at once. Perhaps I hadn’t been clear enough.
‘We should go now,’ I urged him. ‘There’s no time to lose!’
‘I’ve told you – there’s no way I’m wandering about in the dark with a novice monk when there’s a storm setting in. It’s not worth the risk. We’ll set off tomorrow at dawn. Now follow me – you can sleep up at the house.’
‘I don’t want to sleep and neither should you!’ I protested, raising my voice a little without meaning to. What didn’t this man understand? ‘Spook Johnson might be dead if we wait until morning.’
The Spook took a step towards me and glowered. ‘You listen to me,’ he said, an edge of anger in his voice. ‘I will go and do my best for Spook Johnson, but I’m the one who’ll decide when and how. I’m the Spook here. Do you understand?’
I nodded, suddenly afraid.
‘He might be dead already, Brother Beowulf,’ he continued, his voice softening. ‘Besides, you look worn out. Get a good night’s sleep – tomorrow I’ll be setting a good pace and taking few rests.’
The Spook turned without waiting for an answer, and strode off through the trees and up the hill. I trotted after him, but it was hard to keep up. If this was the pace he’d talked about, I would certainly need all the sleep I could get!
Up ahead I could see a hawthorn hedge with a gap in it. This seemed to mark the edge of the garden. Beyond it I could see long grass and trees, and then a big house, dark against the fading light. But before we got there I heard a warning growl; it sounded deeper and more threatening than a dog. Some dangerous beast was lurking there in the darkness of the trees. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my knees started to wobble.
The butcher had warned me about a boggart, but I’d dismissed that as casually as his other joke about Mr Ward living with a witch. Spooks hunted boggarts and destroyed them, didn’t they? I thought. They wouldn’t keep them close. But now I felt a chill that told me that the danger ahead was real. I’d encountered a boggart twice before and knew that they could kill.
The Spook came to a halt. ‘Stand still,’ he told me softly.
I obeyed, and he went round behind me, put down his staff and placed both hands on my shoulders.
‘Kratch! Kratch! Kratch! Listen well!’ he called out in a loud voice. ‘This boy in under my protection. Harm not a hair of his head while he is within the boundaries that you control!’
There was another low growl, but this time it sounded further away. Then there was silence. So it really had been a boggart! I realized. Mr Ward had called out Kratch – it even had a name!
‘The butcher told me that a boggart guarded your garden, but I didn’t believe him,’ I cried in astonishment.
‘Yes, it guards the garden and even makes breakfast!’ Mr Ward laughed as we moved on.
Surely that had to be a joke – a domesticated boggart? I couldn’t imagine what strange sights I might see next at this odd house. And I was rather afraid to find out.
We left the trees and walked through the knee-high grass of a big lawn to reach what seemed to be the back door of the house. I glanced upwards and saw that it was three storeys high, with several windows on both upper floors. It was large enough to accommodate half a dozen spooks – and I wondered if Mr Ward was lonely, here all by himself. Well, apart from the boggart, of course . . .
It was very gloomy now, and a single flickering yellow light from a downstairs window illuminated a strip of the garden. The door was unlocked. No doubt with a boggart about there was no need to fear burglars. I followed the Spook into a small room, keeping my eyes peeled for strange things. I still didn’t trust this man – or his house. He took off his cloak and hung it on a hook by the door and leaned his staff in the corner. Underneath the cloak he was wearing a black tunic. Black seemed to be his favourite colour, I noted wryly. It certainly wasn’t mine. I wore that colour too, but not by choice – it was the traditional habit of a monk.
‘No doubt you’re hungry,’ Mr Ward said with a smile, and opened the door to what seemed to be the kitchen, beckoning me to follow. I gave a small gasp, for it was sight to delight the eye. The flagged room was warm and inviting, with a big blazing fire warming the whole space. It was also very bright, with a row of candles lighting the mantelpiece. It all looked very homely – there were even herbs in pots on the window ledge. In fact, it brought back some of my earliest happy memories as I watched my mother prepare meals. The abbey was a terribly cold and cheerless place after my cosy home.
I spotted food on the large oak table too. A tureen of steaming pea soup, some cheese, and freshly baked bread. My stomach growled loudly, and reminded me that I hadn’t eaten properly for days.
I sat down eagerly; Mr Ward filled our bowls to the brim and we ate in silence. The soup was delicious. At first I sipped it – it was very hot. Then, as it cooled, I ladled it quickly into my mouth. Finally I soaked up the remainder with the warm bread until not a drop remained. The Spook chuckled as I wolfed it down.
‘Did the boggart make the soup?’ I asked, attempting a joke of my own.
‘No, it only makes breakfast. Alice made this. I’m sorry she’s not here to greet you but she’s not feeling too well and she’s gone to bed early.’
My heart lurched. Was Alice the witch the butcher had warned me about? I couldn’t believe it. How could anyone – let alone a spook – live with a witch?
‘Is Alice your housekeeper?’ I ventured.
The Spook shook his head. ‘No, she’s’ – he eyed me carefully – ‘a very close friend of mine.’
I was a little shocked at that. Witch or not, unless they were related or married, it wasn’t proper for a man and a woman to share the same house. I consoled myself with another slice of bread with some cheese. It was my favourite – crumbly County cheese, something we only rarely ate at the monastery.
‘Well, if you’re quite done eating me out of house and home, I’ll show you up to your room,’ the Spook said wryly, coming to his feet.
Even though he was clearly joking, I blushed, then followed him out of the kitchen and up a narrow winding staircase to the first landing. He approached a door which was painted green and pushed it open, handing the candle to me.
‘We’ll set off soon after dawn, so at first light you’ll hear a bell ring downstairs. That’s the summons to come down for breakfast. No doubt you’ll be used to that, being a monk and all . . . But don’t come down before then!’ he warned seriously. ‘The boggart doesn’t like being disturbed while it’s preparing breakfast.’
Now I saw that there wasn’t even a flicker of humour on his face. He clearly meant every word of what he’d said – though I still couldn’t quite believe that a boggart could make breakfast . . .
After he’d gone, I placed the candle on the bedside table and looked about me. There were fresh sheets on a single bed which stood next to a sash window. Rain was battering the small panes of glass, running down the outside in rivulets. It looked like that storm had finally broken.
It was then that the wall at the foot of the bed caught my attention. The other three walls had clean white plaster but this one was old and cracked and tainted with smoke. I picked up the candle again and moved closer to examine it.
Somebody had been writing on it. No – not just one person. There were lots of names in different handwriting, maybe thirty or more, some written in large bold letters, others small and squeezed into the available spaces. Each was a signature.
Why had they written their names here? I peered closer. Some were really hard to read. One of the names was relatively clear but quite small.
I wondered how long ago he’d scrawled his name on the wall and what he was doing now.
Then another name caught my eye:
Suddenly I understood. Spook Johnson, the man I was sworn to rescue, must have written that when he lived in this house. These were the names of all the apprentices who’d been trained here. They must have slept in this bedroom, one by one, over the course of many years.
All were boys’ name’s except one . . .
I frowned. Was that yet another joke? A spook having a girl apprentice was even more unlikely than having a female priest! Everyone knew that, in order to be a spook, you needed to be the seventh son of a seventh son – even if we in the Church dismissed it as superstitious nonsense.
I was suddenly bone-achingly tired, so I blew out the candle and crawled into bed, listening to the rain. I thought of Spook Johnson, in the clutches of the witch. I felt bad lying here safe and warm while he was probably suffering or dead.
Still, I’d done my best for him, I told myself. I could have simply gone straight back to the abbey, and left him to his fate – the Abbot wouldn’t have blamed me for that. In fact he’d probably have preferred it. He’d ordered me to become Johnson’s scribe, but that was as far as the relationship went. However, I was troubled, and felt a little guilty.
It took me a long time to get to sleep.