As George breakfasted with his back against the big oak, as he had every morning that summer; a breath of crisp, autumnal air shook him from his grogginess. Peering past his thick slice of still-warm granary bread; leaves were falling from the sky like burning embers, gently kissed by the dewy lawn as they landed. Wisps of phantom vapour drifted across the glass surface of the pond and clung to the walls of the manor house beyond. George’s antique fishing rod lay nestled in the reeds close to the bank; next to it a half-submerged keep net housed three squirming eels. ‘Time for work’, George thought to himself with his habitual stoicism. Tending to the estate’s gardens was as much a part of George’s identity as the colour of his eyes; he’d inherited the position from his father, he from his father, and so on back into the murky depths of time immemorial. No member of George’s humble lineage however had brought such infamy to the role as he. Despite the attention he had drawn to himself two seasons ago; George maintained his tenure with the air of one wildly unperturbed by the malicious whisperings of the rural community around him. In fact, George was wildly unperturbed by almost every aspect of life; he often considered this to be why he slept so soundly each night.
The gamekeeper watched George stride towards his cottage, a slimy keep net slung over his shoulder. He’d known George for over twelve seasons now, and although the gamekeeper was three decades George’s senior; the two had shared many a long summer’s eve drinking stout and hunting rabbits.
‘Good day for it, boy.’ Intoned the gamekeeper in his slow, agricultural slur.
‘That it be, old’un, getting cold though. Summer’s died o’death.’
To an outsider, the two might be mistaken for father and son. Their dark, brushy hair, spade-like hands and long, easy gait certainly hinted at a mutual bloodline. But George already had a father, a tall, bark-skinned man named Sid. But Sid was old and housebound, in no way conducive to George’s love of open fields, cask ales and women.
‘Reckon ol’ boss man’ll be leavin’ us be for the winter afore long.’ Said the gamekeeper with a nod, fastening an extra button on his blood-stained coat before swatting George affectionately across the back with his wide, calloused palm.
‘Ol’ boss man never speaks a word to me anyways, ain’t done since the blossoms was out.’
The gamekeeper offered George a reassuring blink, but not without a trace of fatherly concern etched across his leathery brow.
‘So I’ll be seeing you for a jar later?’ He said, raising his tone to one of cheery optimism.
‘That you will old’un, have no fear now.’ George thrust the keep net and its now unmoving contents into the gamekeeper’s arms, gave his shoulder a playful jab and set off towards the West Gate.
Travelling along the western wall of the manor house; George appeared very insignificant against the high, arched windows and looming grotesques. Ivy seemed to ooze from every crack in the old stone structure; George often wondered if a thorough clean would help to make the place look more welcoming. But welcoming wasn’t at all how Gokstad Manor wanted itself to be perceived. Imposing, daunting, menacing, all far more suitable ways to describe its effect on those newly in its presence. George, in his unaffectedness, was equally comfortable strolling under the moonlight shadows of the manor as he was hugging its contours at high noon. Though there were many in the village who weren’t so at ease. Some of the older members of the manor’s staff would pointedly refuse to remain beyond dusk, citing ungodly voices and ill omens as the roots of their mal d’esprit. ‘Silly old fools’, George thought. A lifetime of kneeling before The Almighty and all you get in return is empty coffers and a fear of the dark.
George arrived at the West Gate to be met by the Lord of Gokstad Manor, with whom he had not exchanged as much as a wave in many months. He was a thin, flaxen-haired man with a large, aquiline nose and non-existent eyebrows. ‘Not from around here’, George assured himself. George was right, for in spite of his family’s accent having been slowly eroded away by a century’s absence from the homeland; Lord Hålstrom, with his frank, efficient manner and fair appearance, was unmistakably Scandinavian. George’s apparition at the gate had clearly agitated him; he paced and dragged his fingers through his hair like a man who had forgotten his own wife’s birthday.
‘Good day, George.’ He announced sharply, keen not to make eye contact with his groundskeeper.
‘Morning M’Lord, haven’t seen you in a long while. Everything alright?’
‘As good as it could be I guess, given the circumstances. Still no news of Frida, as I’m sure you’re aware.’
‘I’d heard as much.’ Grunted George, his obvious lack of concern forcing an injured squeak to escape from between the thin lips of the increasingly worry-stricken Lord Hålstrom.
‘Well then…’ Began the Lord with an uncomfortable cough, ‘…you’ll inform me if you hear anything from her…about her…won’t you, George?’.
‘That I will, M’Lord.’ Said George with a brutally passive smile, and with that went to fetch his tools from the gatehouse.
George wished he’d brought his coat with him. As always the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees by the gatehouse, largely due to the shade offered by the towering line of beech trees that reared up directly behind the West Wall. Today seemed particularly cold though, and the morning mist around the base of the wall was taking longer and longer to disperse now that September had arrived. That old wax coat meant a lot to George. He’d lost count of all the farmers’ daughters and bakery girls he’d coerced over to the gatehouse after a bawdy tête-à-tête at the village pub. The moment they showed the faintest hint of reluctance at the cold bite of the night air; he’d throw his coat around their shoulders and usher them swiftly across the courtyard and into the quiet seclusion of the tiny structure. George got what he wanted and so did they. It was a straightforward exchange and one that George was very fond of. Today, however, was bitterly cold. George was jolted from the warming artifice of his nostalgia by an awful splintering sound, savagely discordant against the gentle melody of the awakening countryside. A huge bough belonging to one of the beech trees had broken rank and plummeted to earth with a death knell. Walking over to it; George remarked that it was almost entirely covered by blight. Odd, he thought, as the other trees and indeed the tree this particular bough had fallen from, were all uniformly healthy in appearance. Returning his gaze from the fallen beech limb; George was taken aback by the sheer speed with which the swirling mist had swelled to almost waist height. Everything below his belt was numb with cold and a crippling pain had struck his forearms, pulsating veins shining onyx black through the layers of skin and muscle. In the moments before he passed out; George thought he could hear a familiar voice whispering faint nothings in his ear.
George awoke with a start. He was in the gatehouse. Looking down in panic and confusion; he saw that he was entirely naked but for the old wax coat covering his legs and feet. There were deep scratches across his midriff; the jagged remnants of long, manicured fingernails had actually been sealed into the wounds by newly-congealed blood and grit. George felt his stomach drop as the panic began to set in. His balance was off and he crashed into an old gun rack as he tried to make his way over to the door. Wrapping himself in his old wax coat; George kicked open the gatehouse door and galloped wildly across the courtyard.
The chapel garden was filled with the harsh din of a vast parliament of rooks circling overhead. George’s ragged breaths were but subtle ghost notes in the lilting rural refrain. Still naked but for his coat; George lay pressed against an old oak beer barrel now filled with various meadow flowers. The sun was beginning to set and the shadows were growing long across the freshly-cut lawn. The chapel bell peeled out across the blood orange sky. Icy sweat trickled down George’s chest and his jaw muscles twitched nervously as those of a desperate fox finally cornered by the hunt. ‘Somethin’ queer’s ‘appenin” he muttered to himself, wiping his clammy forehead with the back of his hand. Then, a smash as the chapel window above rained shards of kaleidoscopic glass over his cowering frame. For several minutes, George lay frozen in terror. Only when a chunk of glass the size of a fist began to dig into his side did he attempt to limp out across the crepuscular green. The place where the ornate window once stood was now an inky, gaping void. George inched closer toward it, in doing so catching the faint but distinct sound of laughter from within. ‘Bloody vandals, best not still be there when I turn up!’ George yelled, and with that he lumbered over to the small rear door of the chapel and went inside.
He burst into the main hall like a man possessed, all wild eyes and gnashing teeth. ‘Out we come, then! No use cowerin’ now!’ He yelled, remonstrating as a father to errant son. Silence. Dust hovered languidly over the battered pews. That laugh again, this time unmistakably feminine. ‘Ain’t proper for a lady to be making such a commotion, ain’t proper at all!’ He attempted to maintain an authoritative quality to his shouts, but the as-yet-unknown whereabouts of his quarry left him edgy. A tattered old hymn sheet, adorned with crudely-scribbled hearts and cupid’s arrows, clearly the work of some besotted schoolgirl, lay in the aisle to George’s left. As he squatted down to pick it up; a sharp, metallic rod shot up from beneath the pews and gored him in his pelvis. The sound of splintering bone echoed across the high-walled room. A loathsome, unnatural din. George convulsed and gasped for breath as the dreadful agony swept through his body. He prayed to his long-forgotten God, begged for a swift death with frenzied, elliptical psalms. At once a swollen, vascular claw grabbed his flailing forearm and dragged him face down across the stone floor. His journey halted abruptly at the wooden altar at the front of the room. Glancing back, George groaned pitifully at the trail of dark blood and torn skin that marked his forced route across the chapel floor. A thick, clear liquid dripped from somewhere above him, landing in a pool that curdled with the vast tides of blood pumping from the mess where his groin had once been. Amid guttural sobs, George craned his neck slowly upward.
Two sunless pits gaped unending above. One look and what remained of George’s sanity was lost to the abyss. The thing swiped, tearing George’s voice box to ribbons. Hauling him up by his nostrils; the abomination stared him square in the eyes and suddenly, George could see into the bottomless caverns to the dream-like interior of the gatehouse. A pure white dress lay crumpled on the floor but as George reached out to it; a swarm of flies burst from every seam and panel and the dress became a sodden, crimson pile. George’s mind returned to the creature panting but inches from his face; its putrid breath violated his senses. The thin lips began to part, widening into an orifice inhumanely vast in scale. The last words George heard were not of any tongue he knew, but the voice was unmistakably hers, ‘Ikke rør meg – DON’T TOUCH ME!’
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